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Teaching Proposal Writing to Translators


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In an earlier paper published in Translation Journal (Koltay 1998) I argued for a genre-based writing education of translators. My argument was, that translators may be called upon to produce different text genres in a given foreign language that go beyond the scope of translation. This was the main reason for introducing writing instruction into the education of translators at the Budapest University of Technology and Economics (formerly the Technical University of Budapest) in 1992.

The course where written genres of linguistic (interlingual) mediation are addressed is called Professional Documentation (PD). It contains elements of both technical and academic writing.

The reasons for teaching PD are manifold. Besides providing insight into a number of important and interesting genres, PD is a good general exercise that widens students' professional horizons. Moreover, translators are specialized writers. Thus, getting acquainted with written texts and producing them helps the students to become better translators.

I agree with Eileen Brockbank (2001), who explains in Translation Journal that a translator's most important skill is writing—in the target language.

One of the genres such writing education can make use of is the proposal. Proposals represent a genre that is highly useful for any writer, including translators. Well-written proposals multiply the chances of being accepted. In many cases proposals have to be prepared in two or more languages. Translators familiar with the genre and the cultural differences between the source and the target language can render a highly useful service. This is true even if we know that proposals differ by their type and conditions of their submission.

As we will see, proposal writing is strongly related to extralingual information. The importance of extralingual factors is a fact that not only influences practical activities, but has also been acknowledged by theoreticians. Semiotic Textology, e.g., as laid out by Bekesi, Petofi and Vass (1999) uses not only strictly formal, linguistic analysis, but supplements it with methodologies that are capable of operating with encyclopedic (world) knowledge. It investigates competencies of the sender and the receiver, their relationship, their dominant intentions in the communicative situations.

Coming back to proposals, in the most general terms, a written proposal is a document in which the writer offers something beneficial to the reader in exchange for something in return.

The writer (or writers and the organization they represent) may offer to conduct research, develop systems, design and build equipment, improve services, repair damage, increase profits, etc. In return, the reader (or readers and the organization they represent) will provide funding, payment, equipment, and other support.

The proposal may reflect a need recognized and stated by the reader, by the writer, or both. This gives us the foundations for a typology of proposals.

Not all proposals, but most of them fall into the following six categories:

  1. applications for government grants,
  2. bids for government contracts,
  3. applications for foundation grants,
  4. applications for corporate grants,
  5. bids for commercial contracts,
  6. internal proposals (where writer and reader are members of the same organization). (Haselkorn 1985)

Proposals are often written according to requirements set in Requests for Proposals (RFPs).

Proposals are delivered to a specific audience to achieve a specific purpose. The audience of a proposal may include both technical and non-technical readers. Both groups have to be addressed. One part of the audience may be interested in the results, other part in the costs; again others in trying out new things. Some may resist new ideas. The following questions have to be answered concerning the audience of a proposal:

  1. Who is the real audience?
  2. What does the reader already know?
  3. What does the reader want to know?
  4. What does the reader not want to know?
  5. What does the reader perceive?

The person (or persons) who can make a decision or take action as a result of the proposal constitutes the real audience. In many cases there are many readers of a proposal. The first reader may have the authority to reject the idea but not the authority to approve it. A proposal may be evaluated by a team selected for that purpose. A good proposal should include information necessary to have each person who receives it take the appropriate action, as well as information required to ensure that the right person sees it. From this perspective, the audience can be divided into three distinct categories:

  1. Primary audience: The person or persons who can make decisions or act on the proposal.
  2. Secondary audience: Those who will be affected by the decision or action taken.
  3. Intermediate audience: Those who review and route the proposal.

Individual readers often tend to focus on their own areas of interest and specialization. Some of them focus on technical details; others on budgetary and financial matters; and those who work in personnel may focus primarily on the way people will be influenced. (Bowman - Branchaw 1992).

A linguistic analysis of research grant proposals submitted to the European Union (Connor and Mauranen 1999) showed, that following the model for article introductions proposed by Swales (1990) ten rhetorical moves can be identified. Of these moves the following nine occur in the majority of proposals:

  1. Establishing Territory
  2. Gap
  3. Goal
  4. Means
  5. Reporting Previous Research
  6. Achievements
  7. Benefits
  8. Competence Claim
  9. Importance Claim

The first move in most proposals examined was one which established the territory in which the research placed itself. They found that it is possible to distinguish two types of territory, of which at least one, but sometimes both were used:

  1. a 'real-world' territory, i.e. how the proposed project is situated in the world outside the research field;
  2. a research territory, that is, the field of research within the discipline or disciplines of the project.

The Gap move indicates that there is a gap in knowledge or a problem in the territory. The gap move is again very similar to the second swalesian introduction move known as "establishing a niche." Like the territorial move, the gap can also be placed either in the 'real world' (for instance environmental, commercial, or financial problems), or in the research world (for example pointing out that something is not known or not known with certainty, or needs to be known).

An important aspect of this move is placing one's work in relation to the consensus in the field. The researcher needs to be innovative, yet the proposed research has to remain within the constraints of the field. Citation of sources helps a great deal in solving this dilemma.

The Goal move is a statement of the aim, or general objective of the study. Depending on its formulation, the real-world element may be present or the research territory element may dominate.

The Means move specifies how the goal will be achieved. This move describes the methods, procedures, plans of action, and tasks that are to lead to the goal.

The Reporting Previous Research move consists of reporting or referring to earlier research in the field, either by the proposers themselves or by others.

Using the Achievements move, the proposals present their anticipated results, findings, or outcomes of the study.

The Benefits move comprises intended or projected outcomes of the study, presented in terms of their usefulness and value to the world outside, the study itself, or the domain of research in itself.

The Competence Claim move introduces the research group, or its responsible members. It makes a statement to the effect that the research group is well qualified, experienced, and generally capable of carrying out the tasks it proposes to undertake.

The Importance Claim move which makes out the proposal, its objectives, anticipated outcomes, or the territory as particularly important or topical, much needed or urgent with respect to either the 'real world' or to the research field.

No matter how persuasive the tone of the proposal, it may be rejected. In general terms, proposals are rejected because of:

  1. No trust: For one reason or another, the reader does not trust the writers, their organization, or members of the given profession in general.
  2. No need: The reader doesn't perceive a problem.
  3. No desire: The reader perceived a problem but doesn't believe that it is sufficiently important to worry about.
  4. No urgency: The reader perceives a problem and would like it solved but has higher priorities at the moment.
  5. No value: The reader perceived a problem and would like it to be solved, but doesn't believe that the proposed solution will provide an adequate return on investment (Bowman-Branchaw 1992).

This list shows well the differences between solicited and unsolicited proposals. If we prepare a solicited proposal, it is unlikely that they would be rejected on (b) and (c). Obviously the reader's perception is depends on how detailed and unambiguous the RFP was. This is also true in the case of (d). "No trust" may be the case regardless of whether the proposal is solicited or unsolicited.

Beside of this, it is useful to see the following, more detailed list of possible causes for rejection.

1. The proposer did not demonstrate a clear understanding of the problem.

2. The proposal did not arrive by the submission deadline.

3. The information requested in the RFP was not provided.

4. The objectives were not well-defined.

5. The wrong audience was addressed.

6. The procedures and methodology were not specific.

7. The overall design was questionable.

8. The proposal lacked evidence of intent to meet all terms and conditions specified in the RFP.

9. Cost estimates were not realistic: either too high or too low.

10. Resumes of key personnel were inadequate.

11. Personnel lacked experience or the required qualifications.

12. The proposal was poorly written and not well-organized.

13. The proposal did not follow the organizational pattern specified in the RFP.

14. The completed proposal was not attractive.

15. The proposal did not provide adequate assurance that completion deadlines would be met.

16. Essential data were not included in the proposal.

17. The proposed facilities were inadequate.

18. The proposal failed to show that essential equipment and facilities were available.

19. The proposed time schedule was unrealistic.

20. The proposal failed to include the qualifications of the submitting organization (Bowman-Branchaw 1992).

The above arguments have hopefully proven how important is the role that extralingual factors play. Nonetheless, the above list of possible causes for rejection sheds even more light on this. Just to mention one obvious issue: If the proposal does not arrive by the submission deadline, is this fact related in any way to linguistics? Nonetheless, the deadline is a basic requirement to be fulfilled, which (under given circumstances) becomes an issue of professional ethics.

On the other hand, linguistic elements also have an important function to fulfill. If we just speak about translations of proposals, they can help to address the right audience, to define objectives well, to make the proposal well written, well organized and attractive.

How to teach proposal writing? Teaching is similar to most genres in Professional Documentation and to methods proposed by Paltridge (2002). Students need to be exposed to sample proposals as possible models for their writing. Students are asked to identify the typical macro-structure of the given proposal. Together with the instructor, they examine the way the sample text is divided up into sections, as well as consider the function each of these sections performs in achieving its overall goal.

Bibliography

Békési, I. Petofi S. J., Vass, L.: Gondolatok a szövegtani kutatás soron következo feladataihoz. A szaknyelvi szövegek szövegtani elemzése felé. In: Petofi S. János, Békési Imre, Vass László (szerk. ) Szemiotikai Szövegtan. 12. Szövegtani kutatás: témák, eredmények, feladatok. Szeged: JGYTF. (pp.11-16), 1999.

Bowman, J.P., Branchaw, B.P.: How to Write Proposals that Produce. Phoenix, Arizona: Oryx Press, 1992.

Brockbank, E: The Translator Is a Writer. Translation Journal, 5:2, 2001. http://accurapid.com/journal/16prof.htm

Connor, U., Mauranen, A.: Linguistic Analysis of Grant Proposals: European Union Research Grants. English for Specific Purposes, 18:1, pp.47-62, 1999,

Haselkorn, M.P. Proposals. In: M.G. Moran and D. Journet, (Eds.), Research in technical communication, Westport, CT: Greenwood Press, (pp. 255-283), 1985.

Koltay T.: Including technical and academic writing in translation curricula. Translation Journal, 2:2, 1998. http://accurapid.com/journal/04educ.htm.

Paltridge, B.: Thesis and dissertation writing: an examination of published advice and actual practice. English for Specific Purposes, 21:2, pp.125-143, 2002.









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