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The state of the language within the state of the industry

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Bernie Bierman photo To commemorate and celebrate its 50th birthday this year, the American Translators Association (ATA) has commissioned a history of the organization, and by extension – if you will – a contemporary history of translation in the United States.

Now then, without having seen a single word of the draft of that history, and indeed not having been privy to any of the behind-the-scenes workings, I can say with all of the definitiveness that I can muster, that not a single word will be written about or a single reference made to the language, linguistic, communications and writing abilities of those who labored in the translation industry some 30 or 40 or 50 or even 75 years ago. And clearly, there will not be a single word written about or a single reference made to the language, linguistic, communications and writing abilities of the early or even middle-period leaders of the ATA and the American translation industry.

If the name Alexander Gode (the co-founder of the ATA) is mentioned, it will not be in conjunction with the man’s awesome knowledge of language and linguistics, his unparalleled eloquence, his remarkable ability to paint landscapes with words.

If the name Lewis Bertrand (one of the leading translator-merchants of his day, if not the leading one) is mentioned, there will be no references to his writing abilities or to his credo that translation is communication and translation is all about communication, language and writing.

If the name Henry Fischbach (the other co-founder of the ATA) is mentioned, not a single word will appear about this man’s writing skills and talent, about his painstaking and meticulous attention to every single word, every single sentence, every single phrase in a translated text that passed before his eyes.

Indeed, there will be no mention of the volumes of carefully-constructed, word-sensitive and eloquent letters, memoranda, reports, essays and other assorted writings of all of those translators who passed before us, all those who made the term “wordsmith” synonymous with translator.

To paraphrase the words of the American writer, Ben Hecht, “Look for these men and women only in the history books, for they are a civilization gone with the wind”. And clearly they are gone with the wind, or better yet, “They are translators of another time”, as was said by one Jost Zoetsche, one of the industry’s new breed of technological translators and the writer of a monthly column on the various technologies (sexy and otherwise) that today’s translator must master. Indeed, when Mr. Zoetsche said those words to me, there was not a hint, not a note, not an overtone of nostalgia. He said the words as if he was talking about … dinosaurs.

* * * * *

The American translation industry, not unlike other industries has seen and undergone some very discernible, if not radical changes in the past 50 years. It almost goes without saying that technological advances have wrought some of those discernible and radical changes.

But this piece is not about technology or the technological advances that have changed the American translation industry.  Rather, it is about the changes that have come to its very core elements: language and communication. It is about the subordination – perhaps the word “belittlement” would be more appropriate – of those core elements to the exigencies of commerce and marketing and all that is commonly associated with those endeavors.

The piece of writing that is transcribed in full below is in my most considered opinion a highly representative piece of evidence that clearly demonstrates how language and communication have been shamelessly subordinated – even trivialized - in an industry whose raison d’être is language and communication.

100 years ago, 75 years ago, 50 years ago and even to a limited extent 25 years ago, when Mr. Zoetsche’s “dinosaurs” ruled the American translation countryside, the business side of translation (namely the translation bureaus or translation service companies) was in the hands of so-called “merchant-translators”, namely men and women who combined language skills with a modicum of business acumen. Most of these merchant-translators had academic backgrounds in language or the humanities or the natural sciences; a few combined language skills with backgrounds in diverse fields of engineering.

Not a single one of these merchant-translators, these “dinosaurs”, could claim an academic background in business. Yet, despite being bereft of a business model, a business plan or some other piece of commercial architecture of like purport and tenor, many of these merchant-translators went on to have highly successful business careers and were able to garner many of the attendant pecuniary benefits for themselves and their families. 

And if during their careers these translator-merchants sharpened their business wits, never ever did they permit their language wits to become dulled. These merchant-translators, the dinosauric relatives and ancestors of today’s high priests and priestesses of business and technology, never lost sight of the core elements of their business: language and communication.

* * * * *

The early 1990’s saw the beginnings of change in the U.S. translation industry, at least so far as concerned the business side of translation. Naturally, at first these changes were barely discernible. The dinosaurs, i.e., the merchant-translators still appeared to be the dominant species in the commercial countryside. But these dinosaurs failed to lay eggs, and if they did lay eggs, those eggs were sterile.

Rather, the eggs were being laid and hatched at the graduate business schools of American universities. And that quaint, bucolic, somewhat backward translation industry, with its vast international potential, was viewed as virgin territory by America’s new darlings of commerce: the holder of the MBA.

It was obvious, particularly in short retrospect, that the new businessman or businesswoman of the translation industry didn’t care a whit about the industry’s core elements of language and communication. Those were aspects to be left to others…others whose tastes leaned towards the esoteric and ethereal. The tenets, the dogma, the doctrine learned in graduate business school would be applied to an industry whose dinosaurs were too dumb and/or shortsighted to exploit its vast richness. The translation industry would become the testing ground for the lessons learned in business school: business models, business plans, marketing, advertising with heavy doses of buzz words, trendy terms and technological gobbledygook.

And it worked. And it worked beautifully. The dinosaurs soon died off and became extinct, as they had in Walt Disney’s animated depiction of Stravinsky’s “Le Sacre du Printemps”.

* * * * *

“Now you never have to translate the same phrase again”, pitches one of the numerous purveyors of the latest technological darling (and/or god or goddess) of the translation industry: the CAT tool. And the technological gurus and gurettes of the industry never cease to remind us that never having to translate the same phrase again is not only the key to survival, but also the key to entering the great castle of prosperity. After all, as Noam Chomsky, the greatest of language technology gurus said way back in 1962, all language can be automated and mechanized. 

Indeed, why bother to write when chips can write for you? And that doctrine has certainly not been lost on the 21st century’s translation merchant. In fact, it is not just doctrine, but equally dogma and catechism.

Let us now for the sake of the exercise look at a communication recently published in various translation media by TransPerfect Translations. I make one caveat and one caveat only: Do not focus on the content. The content is not at issue and it is not the issue. Rather focus solely on the language, the thought process (or absence thereof), the logic of the language (or the absence thereof). Look carefully at the grammar, the syntax, the communicative fiber. When you finish reading the communication, you might want to ask yourself the question, “What does this writing say of the product that the company – the industry - purports to offer?”.

In-house position French
Quality Manager - Canadian French
TransPerfect Translations was founded in 1992 with the following mission: to provide the highest quality language services to leading businesses worldwide. With no external financing, the TransPerfect family of companies grew from its humble beginnings as a two-person company operating in an NYU business school dorm room into the world's third largest translation and software localization firm and one of the fastest growing, privately-held companies in the United States. With a network of over 5,000 language specialists and over 800 full-time employees in over 52 locations throughout North America, Europe, Asia, and Australia, we're continuously ready to meet our clients' needs, around the clock and around the world. We attribute our growth to the skill, aptitude, and commitment of our high caliber employees. Put simply, we hire the most talented candidates and give them the guidance, resources, and opportunities they need to grow their career in an expanding environment. 
Department:  Production 
§     Ensure translated documents mirror the original source document
§     Efficiently maintains formal disciplined operations procedures across a variety of client projects
§     Track project-specific non-conformances and resolutions
§     Personally perform project QA steps
§     Assist with making new department processes while improving on existing ones (improve productivity, profitability)
§     Build and maintain strong relationships with contract translators, editors, and proofreaders
§     Juggle overlapping projects and priorities in a fast-paced environment
Required Skills:   
§     Minimum Bachelor's degree or its equivalent
§     Must have excellent communication (written and verbal) skills in Canadian French (native level) and English
§     Ability to support multiple projects by keeping accurate and up-to-date project specs
§     Excellent problem solving skills
§     Ensure customer sign-off of end product
§     Experience coordinating assignment of resources
§     Ability to maintain professionalism in all situations, especially under tight deadlines
§     Prior translation and proofreading experience preferred in Life Sciences, Marketing, and Finance.
§     Experience with Trados or SDLX preferred
TransPerfect is an equal opportunity employer. 
TransPerfect offers a comprehensive benefits package for our Canadian employees.  
If you think you have what it takes to succeed in a dynamic, fast-paced environment, apply at 
Your World. Your Future. Go Global! 

For the benefit of those who are fairly new to our august industry and who share the belief that language and communication are not core elements of translation, but mere sundry, I will endeavor to address some of the more delectable morsels of the TransPerfect employment piece.

" We attribute our growth to the skill, aptitude, and commitment of our high caliber employees.  Put simply, we hire the most talented candidates and give them the guidance, resources, and opportunities they need to grow their career in an expanding environment.."

I suppose that the issues of prepositional use and that little annoying thing called person, number and gender are in the paraphrased words of the late Captain Butler of Charleston, SC, "minor points, my dears".

Shortly after we are provided with the first example of the language skills and acumen [sic] of a translation services entity, we come upon a listing of the duties that will be performed by the manager in whose hands shall be placed the responsibility of upholding the great tradition of quality in writing, language and communication that has been the hallmark of what is clearly this correspondent’s most favorite translation agency since those halcyon days when its principal owner and grand gurette (Lizzie) was scurrying around the dormitories of NYU's august business school.  And here are some of them there duties of the TransPerfect Quality Manager::
"§     Ensure translated documents mirror the original source document". 

OK, good way to start off, even if a little, minor "that" is missing.  After all, "that" is such an insignificant word.  Really, it is just a botheration, an annoyance, a linguistic mosquito.  Swat it away.

"§     Efficiently maintains formal disciplined operations procedures across a variety of client projects"

Ooooooo, a slight change in voice to the indicative,  "Minor points, my dears, minor points".  "Indicative", "Schmindicative".  That's nothing but intellectual drivel.  Has absolutely nothing to do with quality in writing, language and communication.  Nothing.

"§     Track project-specific non-conformances and resolutions"

At this point I shall ask a real stoopid question:  How does one track a resolution?  I know how one could track incidences of non-conformance.  But how does one track a resolution?  Maybe we should ask dear Lizzie.  After all, wasn't Tracking Resolutions 101 a prerequisite course at NYU Graduate Business School (along with attendant dormitory seminars)?

"§     Efficiently maintains formal disciplined operations procedures across a variety of client projects"

Ah, a return to the indicative. And of course the phrase “formal disciplined operations procedures” should be crystal-clear to everyone and anyone, except stoopid dinosaurs.

“§     Assist with making new department processes while improving on existing ones (improve productivity, profitability)

I suppose “making” processes is sound English idiom.  Of course, what would I, a stoopid dinosaur know. Using the word “formulating” would apply only to “translators of another time”.

And now we come to what is arguably the best part of this employment advertisement: the list of  
required skills. Here we have and see a living example of skills learned in graduate business school on how to organize one’s thoughts in a coherent, cohesive and communicative manner. Here are a few of my favorites as enunciated by TransPerfect, the provider of quality language services:

“§     Minimum Bachelor's degree or its equivalent “

Now I have heard of a Bachelor of Arts degree, a Bachelor of Sciences degree and a Bachelor in Business Administration degree, but I ain’t never heard of a Minimum Bachelor’s degree. Is that like a college equivalency diploma? Well, I guess that too is a “minor point”. But since I am fixated on minor points, maybe someone out there could clarify to me how a Bacehlor’s degree is a skill

‘§     Ensure customer sign-off of end product”

Pray tell, is “ensuring customer sign-off of end product” a skill or is it one of the duties that would be performed by the person hired by TransPerfect? Ah, poor Lizzie must have fallen asleep in Thought Organizing 101.

“§     Ability to support multiple projects by keeping accurate and up-to-date project specs”

I have singled out this one solely because the word “specs”, which is really trendy, sexy and technologically alluring, is far better than that musty, dusty, old-maid-like, dinosauric word “records”. You see, it really doesn’t make a difference what word one uses – specs, records, papers, parchments, scrolls, etc., because in translation it really doesn’t make a difference. If the source language clearly stated, “…by keeping accurate and up-to-date project records”, and the translator wrote, “…by keeping accurate and up-to-date project specs”, who would know the difference? Who would really care? Truly, is there any difference between records and specifications? The most important thing is that you make it clear to the client that he, she or it is receiving a quality product or service and that he, she or it really and actually believes it.

* * * * *

I can tell you this: If in 1992, when Lizzie of TransPerfect was absorbing the fundamentals of marketing in graduate business school, I had read the above-transcribed piece aloud to an audience gathered at an ATA conference (née convention), there would have been roars of laughter and/or gasps of horror. After all, in 1992, translators and translation managers were still relatively cognizant of the core elements of their profession.

If I read the same piece today to an audience gathered at any translator function, I would probably be looking out at a sea of faces with the clear expression of “What are you talking about?”

And that is the way the cookie crumbles.

Published - April 2009

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