The pen is mightier than the coronavirus

What strange days we find ourselves living in. What unprecedented days. Days of concern and apprehension, of great threats and radical countermeasures. How are you managing? Staying healthy, I trust? Getting used to life indoors? It’s not so new for those of us who work from home, but plenty of folk are feeling the strain, as we all #staythefhome amid the general siege mentality.

But we can take courage from the knowledge that we have several weapons to wield against our common foe. Soap and water, for one, will stop it in its tracks. Social distancing helps us protect the vulnerable and do our bit to support our heroic doctors and nurses.

And another thing we have is words. Communicating. Keeping in touch, keeping informed, keeping our collective spirits up. Filling the streets with song, like the proud people of Siena in this spinetingling impromptu of the classic Canto della Verbena. Or having a Skype chat with grandma, joining a Zoom meeting with a bunch of colleagues, seizing the chance to read that book, do that online course or write that story you’d never got around to. Now’s a good time.

In business, too, now’s the time to reach out (there, I said it) to our customers and suppliers, our colleagues and staff, who might all be feeling a bit vulnerable and concerned about how things are going to pan out. There have been speeches of real leadership, from Italian President Giuseppe Conte, Marriott CEO Arne Sorenson and many more. My clients have been sending messages to encourage their employees, to reassure their customers and to paint a vision of a more hopeful future.

Of course, it would be tone deaf to promote a tourist destination or major event as if nothing were amiss. But we can help people to daydream, to imagine their world when things have returned to normal. And we can help businesses large and small to keep going through the tough times and emerge to make the most of the pent-up demand that will eventually be released, hopefully in not-too-distant days.

Well, I can’t help you with the soap and water, and I can only urge you to stay indoors. But when it comes to words, my colleagues and I in the translation, writing and editing professions are right here, standing shoulder to shoulder with you and your business. We’re hunkered down at home with our computers, ready to assist with your textual needs. With, I dare say, advantageous terms (even pro bono) on offer for special cases and humanitarian jobs.

In the meantime, stay safe and do join me in donating to help my adopted country, Italy, fight the good fight against Covid-19. Below are some appeals you can trust.

We’re all in this together, so if we do our bit then we’ll get through it – andrà tutto bene!

Conference report – SATT19, Milan

If a speaker programme’s success can be measured by how many notes you make, then SATT19 was something of a triumph. Nine pages of scrawl was a hefty haul for your correspondent, who had been reduced to a crabbed, jaded figure by sitting through years of talks on valuing yourself, work-life balance, and pricing for dummies at general translation conferences.

But this one had a theme. No, a real theme.

The School of Advanced Technologies for Translators, on 13 and 14 September in Milan, had talks on how neural machine translation (NMT) works under the bonnet, how universities should be training translators in an industry where MT is now part of the norm, and how companies use MT, human translation and transcreation in their globalisation strategies. Not to mention workshops on post-editing (PEMT), SEO for translators, and various CAT tools. It was an interesting offering with contributions from academics and brands as well as language professionals.

It called itself a “School” – fair enough, it was held in a university, and many attendees were inexperienced translators or students. This put me in the unusual position of feeling duty-bound to correct certain misperceptions that the mainly academic/big-brand/big-LSP speakers were perhaps unwittingly creating in their as yet unsavvy audience. Like the idea that translation students should be taught that doing PEMT work is inevitable. Or that “human parity” actually means anything. Or that freelance translators are isolated (when we have local networks, Facebook groups and peer review partnerships …). Or that most translators work for large LSPs. When challenged, Airbnb’s localisation chief wryly acknowledged that using an agency denied him the chance to collaborate with the top translation talent, who tend to work directly with clients, but he had to because dealing with dozens of freelancers individually would not be feasible.

It was interesting to see how Unbabel, a Lisbon-based enterprise, is using AI (artificial intelligence), MT and crowdsourcing to provide fast, cheap translations of customer service emails, FAQ pages and other simple texts. Speed here is of the essence, and there would be little added value for them to seek out seasoned wordsmiths from the elite professional ranks. Their workflow seems highly complex: MT, an automated estimate of the MT output quality, two levels of post-editing by glorified amateurs who know both languages, various feedback loops, assessing the editors and trying to stop them gaming the system (e.g. by waiving through raw MT output to save time). Myriad checks and balances, then, to avoid using a professional.

Another session about a major brand’s approach to translation and transcreation for international markets proved insightful. Nike’s core team seem to have all bases covered, with a globalisation manager, an ad woman, and a translator with copywriting and storytelling training. They spoke about their internal-review processes for ensuring a consistent voice when working with multiple translation teams. And about how transcreation is the optimum way to create the desired communication effect in a foreign market when significant creativity is required, while keeping control of the message and avoiding reinventing the wheel in each market (which is what hiring local copywriters would have meant). They brought fresh examples of real localisation missteps, like “” (a chortle-worthy URL for the Italian branch of Powergen, fortunately altered in time) and “Time to take on Europe” (an abortive slogan for the women’s Champions League football tournament that was deemed unwise in these times of fractious anti-EU rhetoric).

A quick assortment of take-aways from the speakers:

  1. When deciding on your website content, start by considering which search terms your prospects might use to find the services you offer; then base your content around that.
  2. Before starting to translate a webpage, ask for a keyword list from your client’s target-language SEO specialist. (And if they want you to do that, price the service accordingly.)
  3. Some end clients are asking LSPs for technical solutions to better integrate the media translation process – e.g. for videos with dubbing/subtitles – into their marketing workflow. (And at least one LSP has already developed one.)
  4. MT has no place in localisation workflows for games or entertainment products, as the texts cannot be as engaging or compelling as they need to be.
  5. Universities should be training translators in content creation, writing skills, specialisation and transcreation. (Otherwise, they’ll spend years fixing MT bugs before finding themselves out of work when the machines become “good enough” to operate unattended.)
  6. The title character in a recent Disney film was renamed in the Italian version to avoid using the name of a famous pornstar.

To conclude, I enjoyed SATT19, not least its location near Milan’s buzzing Navigli district. Specialised, tightly themed events like this offer a good way for experienced translators to obtain stimulating, useful CPD. And excellent human translators should continue to thrive even as the machines march on.

Honing your craft with a literary maestro

‘If I began to think about these things, I was stopped, because so much came back to me, so many desires, so many old affronts’ – OK, let’s look at that first sentence. ‘If I began to think’? The original says ‘Se mi mettevo a pensare’: that’s not exactly began to think, is it? It’s more like ‘If I got to thinking’, or something along those lines. Look, the register is clearly informal in the original, so desires and affronts aren’t right. And I was stopped is supposed to be a translation of ‘non la finivo più’, which means the opposite, so God knows what the translator was doing there. Right! Who wants to tell me how can we improve this – Oliver? …”

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A matter of taste

I had a rude awakening the other week. (No, not the neighbour’s daughter’s Sunday morning trombone practice again, or at least I hope that’s what that noise is.)

After my first half-dozen marketing translations for a new client won a warm reception, the seventh came back with an irate-sounding note. “Wrong tone of voice”. My attempt at elegant and sophisticated – we’re talking luxury yachts, by the way – should have been more edgy and “aggressive”. One of the brands in the portfolio had a different tone, but that hadn’t come across to me when the job was placed. Armed with full ToV guidelines, I was then able to amend the text to their satisfaction and my relief. Continue reading

A tale of two slams

What’s in a name?

Would a translation “slam” by any other name sound as puerile and pseudo-confrontational? A tad harsh, perhaps, but I’m not a great fan of the “duel” rhetoric. Or maybe I was just hoping for a gentle ride, as I girded my verbal loins for my debut slam. My opposite number and I were trying to cultivate a collaborative approach to probe the text, to find the best renderings we could, to explore the various ways to skin a linguistic cat – rather than seeking a rumbustious, rambunctious tussle from which the vanquished slinks away, tail between shanks, their wounds to lick. “Superness”, not “supremacy”, was our aim. Continue reading

Nailing it

When is it done?

I’ve wondered out loud more than once in recent months about when we consider our work fit to ship. My broad conclusion, on reflection, is that a translation is done when it meets an acceptable standard. But what does that mean, exactly? The whole notion of “acceptable quality” is highly subjective. Continue reading

When is a translation done? (ITI Day 2018)

[This is the text of a 5-minute talk with a difference that I presented at the ITI One Day in … event on 16 June 2018 at Gray’s Inn in London. The presentation took the form of a “recital” of a pre-recorded text using my smartphone, but the experiment wasn’t a complete success, partly because the quality of the sound system at the venue, despite my sound check beforehand, wasn’t up to it, and apparently most of the audience struggled to hear any of it, annoyingly. The presentation was preceded by a warm and generous introduction by star organiser Anne de Freyman.]

It’s wonderful to be with you all this afternoon – isn’t it Oliver …?

… Indeed it is.

Hello folks.

Don’t be alarmed, but in a packed programme this afternoon, I shall be breaking from protocol in not one but two ways. I think you’ve grasped what the first one is going to be: in a tribute to the fabulous Lost Voice Guy – you know him? The comedian who was once in a disabled Steps tribute band called … Ramps – I shall be experimenting with some technology in what is something of a walk on the wild side for me. And second, I shan’t be speaking about what Anne thinks I’ll be speaking about, as I had a better idea a couple of days ago while waiting in Ciampino departure lounge.

So. I shall be asking the question:

When is it done?

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Writing – when it simply has to be right

What’s the most important thing you’ve ever written?

A couple of weeks ago, I had to craft what for me is probably the most momentous collection of words since I started, at my mother’s knee, to put crayon, pencil or pen to paper. Or loops and whorls to keyboard, now.

In recent months, I’ve been banging on about incisive, zestful writing and how to choose your words to better effect – as ITI Bulletin readers, BP17 conference-goers, and the lovely attendees of my own wee clear-writing course may recall.

It was time to put my freshly flexed penman’s muscles to the test. Continue reading

The serial comma – all you need to know

Ah, the serial comma. If there’s one topic that can be relied upon to polarise opinion among language lovers, that’s it. Yet for most people, its niceties are something of a mystery. Also known as the Oxford or Harvard comma, it’s that little flick of the pen or keyboard that some use between the last two items in a list:

Tom, Dick, and Harry

as opposed to

Tom, Dick and Harry.

Some insist that you should always use it; others, that you should never. But, if you look closely (and dispassionately), you can see that the truth lies somewhere in the middle. Here’s why. Continue reading