Charlie Bavington

French to English Freelance Translator - I.T. specialist

Bringing a pragmatic eye to meeting your needs

October 4th, 2016 | Categories: business

Threlford Lecture 17 September 2016

I live in the northern-most reaches of London so I figure I really ought to make the effort when translation-related events are being held somewhere I can reach with my Oyster card. Even so, I nearly didn’t get to this lecture on account of being slow to register and having to join a waiting list, so my thanks to those who were decent enough to make their tickets available rather than simply not show up.

After a wander around the back streets around Ludgate Hill (deliberately, I mean, having a gawp at relics from the Olden Days; I wasn’t lost or anything), I ambled down the steps into the Stationers’ Hall, which is a splendid building, all dark wood panels and leaded windows and heraldry and lists of people who have held various obscurely-named positions dating back to the 16th century and discreet, sprucely turned-out staff. Upon arrival, a table with several neat rows of wine glasses raised your correspondent’s hopes, the sun being well over the yard arm by this time, but investigation revealed the contents to be water. I knocked a couple back anyway and had a chat about the new incarnation of Chartered Linguist status.

We all drifted into the main hall for the afternoon’s action. After a review of the Institute’s year, it was time for the headline act, Professor Dorothy Kenny from Dublin for a “critique of contemporary translation technology”. I can but recommend you go and listen to her talk if you get the opportunity.

While CATs and speech recognition got a mention, the talk was mainly about MT and its consequences, including the need for post editing.

It made a pleasant change to a) hear someone talking about MT and PEMT, as against reading about it or watching a video, and b) hear about MT and PEMT from someone who appears relatively disinterested, being neither trying to sell us something or railing against its evils. Yet it was not a solely academic approach taking MT in pure isolation; for instance, the issue of confidentiality was raised given the cloud-based nature of most systems, as was crowdsourcing to fix MT output.

I’ve no intention of summarising the whole thing, but quite early on she drew an interesting parallel between the ideas of reusing versus recycling (e.g. paper), and the ideas behind CAT/TM systems and SMT (i.e. statistical MT). If you reuse a bit of paper, it stays a bit of paper, identifiably so, as you do so. Whereas if you recycle paper, it will go through a stage where it is pulp before becoming paper again. CAT tools are thus like reuse – the inputs and outputs are what they always were. Whereas SMT is more like recycling, and the reason the output looks the way it does is because of the “pulping” stage the texts go through. This idea was new to me, and does seem to explain why MT output can be unexpectedly odd.

Prof. Kenny also raised a couple of interesting questions.

Firstly, does the acceptance of (or attempts to get translators to accept) post-editing of statistical MT output take resources away from more productive or useful areas that are excluded as a result of an assumption that PEMT is the way forward? One obvious area would be to improve MT output in the first place (apparently neural networks are on the horizon as far this goes). Another area would be improved handling of terminology. A third might be speech recognition to replace any need for MT at all.

Secondly, and again relating to PEMT, is there a psychological effect from consistently working to a lower quality standard, given the current market that uses PEMT appears universally satisfied with “just good enough”? Assuming that for ethical and job-satisfaction reasons, we strive for excellence at all times, can this be reconciled? To paraphrase the good professor who posited the idea without descending to the vernacular, is it possible to be “excellent at being just good enough” without your brain exploding?

I’ve thought about this last question a good deal since. Translators are a funny bunch. On the one hand, they swear blind they could never, ever possibly countenance even considering the idea that they could “compromise on quality” and that every piece of work they ever deliver is beyond reproach, with due account taken of the maxim “errare humanum est” and the fact spell-checkers don’t catch everything. On the other hand, they also love that quality-time-price triangle and the famous “pick any 2 from 3” tagline, which implies heavily that quality will suffer under the wrong time/price combo. Given we’ve surely all done the occasional job that was either for less money or delivered sooner than we would have liked, or even both (whether out of desperation or expediency), then was the quality of that work as good as it would have been if you had chosen the rate and deadline yourself?

I’m going to assume not. But was the quality good enough for the client’s purposes…? To go back to the original question, then:
a) in theory, surely, it must be possible to be excellent at anything, if you define the parameters;
b) two weeks later, my brain continues to wrestle with the abstract idea of being excellent at “just good enough” which can obviously apply to many fields – football, golf, driving a car, maths homework, cooking, and so on. In each case, it seems there is an unsaid aspect, namely “good enough” for what?
c) a quality of “just good enough” is therefore rarely a standalone requirement, and for translation it usually comes with constraints on price and time. If you include those aspects with the need of “just good enough”, then I would think it is possible to become excellent at meeting the needs of such clients. I’d see a potential parallel with the likes of Lidl or EasyJet, who are excellent at providing a fairly basic level of quality;
d) in terms of PEMT, which is where this question started, then in future, it seems likely that MT will be available on standalone desktop computers, without being mainly controlled by cloud-based LSP giants or wannabes, with the concomitant pressure on time and cost. Under those circumstances, there will be no need for PEMT to frequently imply “just good enough” quality; MT could be used by a freelancer as and when he or she sees fit (and indeed with no need for clients to know MT was used to produce the first draft) and thoroughly post-edited at the translator’s leisure (if you see what I mean). Question dodged rather than answered, perhaps.

Anyway, back to the event. There wasn’t much time for Q&A after the talk, and we quickly moved onwards and upwards into yet another panelled room, with a chandelier and everything. These old-time stationers certainly seemed to like having plenty of space and didn’t skimp on fixtures and fittings. ‘Course, maybe Rymans’ head office is just like this even now. This time the table with rows of wine glasses was not an anticlimax, both red and white being on offer (I’ve mostly been a rosé man since the mid-90s but I was prepared not to quibble on this occasion). The mingling and networking session seemed to be a success (my experience was entirely agreeable, at least) and ran over the allotted time, until we eventually dribbed and drabbed out into the tea-time tourists taking in St Pauls.

All in all, highly recommended. Do go next time.

Comments Off on Event: CIoL Threlford Lecture Sept 2016
January 29th, 2016 | Categories: social media

This post was originally left unfinished some months ago, but is resurrected following a brief Twitter exchange last week.

There were, back in 2015, three triggers. First, months ago, I did some housekeeping on my list of usernames and passwords, and tried to unsubscribe or delete myself or whatever was required from a number of sites, either because the site itself was moribund or my interest in it was. This included 8 translation-related sites. Nine if you include which I’m sure I joined but have no idea under what username…

Second, in the autumn of 2015, I was invited to join a new translation discussion forum, unconnected to any existing site or platform.

Third, a handful of blog posts in recent months that have generated a certain level of lively debate, verging on actual argument, the ripples from which then spread from the original source. Sometimes, that spread was to Facebook. I’m not a member of Facebook, and it was to my mind regrettable that some of the views on Facebook were not expressed on the blogs themselves. (That said, the principle stands wherever the ripples might reach.)

Other times, the author/blogger freely scattered their own content to the winds. Assuming the perfectly reasonable desire to reach the largest possible audience, it’s hard to be too churlish about that approach. It is, however, easy to be frustrated at the fragmentation of relevant comments that results, even when one is able to read them. I don’t want to bounce around like a cyber mountain goat to gain the full picture.

All of which, chums, is indicative of what I’ve been wondering about for a couple of years, probably longer.

Because the legacy of 12+ years translating, and despite the aforementioned cull, is that I’m a member of the following online venues that offer the opportunity to post, discuss and generally interact:
– Proz: despite its faults, which I’ve learned to live with.
– Translator’s Café: I rarely visit these days.
– LinkedIn: one login, but any number of groups available. I’m in 10 translation-related groups, and LinkedIn suggests more are available. Ten would be too many to monitor properly even if LinkedIn were the only website in the world. At least 2 of those LinkedIn groups, the CIoL and IAPTI, have separate forums of their own on their own websites. (Ditto I think the ITI, of which I am not a member).
– Viadeo: a francophone LinkedIn, which I don’t visit often.
– CIoL: since I mentioned it, has a brand spanking new forum that no-one uses. It also has a bunch of groups on Yahoo
– Yahoo: a rotten user interface, and I’m somehow still a member of 8 different translation-related groups (some admittedly mainly for terminology questions), despite leaving a couple in recent years.
– Twitter, obvs.
– UK Business forum: if it came in a tin, it would do what it said on it. Serves to illustrate the wider point that this issue reaches beyond there being too many translation forums. There are forums for other subjects too. Including subjects of interest to our target clients.

Despite my farcical and unmanageable number of memberships, I know I’m still not privy to the full gamut of online translator talk. I am also starting to realise that the only place I get to hear from a vast array of people I “know” (in the online sense) and whose opinions and comments I appreciate is on their own blogs and the comments they leave on other people’s. Which is a fairly unmethodical and time-consuming way of gleaning useful information or having a meaningful discussion.

When this issue first started to keep me awake at night, I hankered for the days when Flefo on Compuserve was pretty much the be all and end all (and also kept me awake at night, for in those days I was a programming monkey with an office job…). However, in truth monopolies are rarely ideal, including in online discussion. I’ve seen enough idiosyncratic moderating, clashes with site founders, or simple incompatibility with the prevailing view held by a dominant clique to know that just one forum, even if hypothetically possible, would be a Bad Idea.

And yet, just as having only one brand of baked beans to buy makes for poor grocery shopping while having two dozen brands to pick from leaves consumers bewildered and wandering off to buy custard instead, the plethora of translation talking shops leaves me thinking I’m probably better off ignoring them and watching the telly.

September 29th, 2015 | Categories: translation issues

I have long thought that the idea of MT isn’t all that terrible, but it is a shame it’s a) largely promoted and sold by people I wouldn’t trust to honestly tell me the day of the week, and b) translations and data are always stored other than locally, which leads to potential confidentiality issues, especially given a).
(I could also acknowledge the point that if an idea is largely p. and s. by people meeting the above description, perhaps it isn’t that great an idea after all…)

As a spotty undergraduate, I once tried to write a program to translate/conjugate English & French verbs. Nothing mind-blowing. You’d stick in “je donnerai” and it would spew out “I will give”. But it was rules based, which if nothing else makes one realise how much work is involved in even simple tasks such as the example just given.

Thus when, decades (yes, decades) later, I first heard about MT, I was quite impressed someone else had stuck with it and made it work. Then I realised the commercial reality was just large scale processing of words based on a statistical probability of them meaning roughly the same thing. Or something.

Anyway, given that if one of the MT shysters moved into my street, I would be off down the estate agent before you could Google “TAUS”, my conclusion had been that I could only ever use MT if a standalone desktop application came out. I know there are desktop versions of MT engines, but they seem to run on Linux (or Unix-based machines) and require a level of interest and expertise in DIY configuration and building that I do not have and cannot be arsed to muster.

My interest was, therefore, definitely aroused when I heard about Slate, which is a Windows desktop MT application scheduled for release into the wild next year. I stress here I’m just interested, I’m endorsing nothing and no-one. But it does meet my criteria, and I doubt I’m alone in having those criteria, so I’m just mentioning it.

There was a webinar last week, hosted by the Alexandria Project (an organisation I know does not meet with universal approval) advertised on proz (likewise) which now has an active thread on the subject of Slate.

In essence, the idea is that it sits behind your CAT tool and suggests MT translations based on your own work, via an MT engine populated from your own TMs, when your CAT tool itself draws a blank. Akin to enabling the MT option in a CAT tool now, with none of the confidentiality issues (it will work with no internet connection at all). You do need a reasonably powerful laptop to set up the database, and you do need at least 130,000 TM segments (say, 3 years’ full-time work) to start getting useable results.

One could, nay should, wonder how much improvement on the results obtained from sub-segment matching is likely, especially as this latter feature develops in future. (And given that Slate Desktop is not cheap.)

One could, nay should, wonder about the claims it copies your “style”. I’m prepared to accept that it obviously won’t propose terms I don’t use because they won’t be in the TMs used to populate it. I’m doubtful it can replicate style in any meaningful sense just by grinding its way through source and target texts. And once people start making claims that are dubious in one regard….

One could, nay should, keep an eye on which CAT tools it will work with, because it won’t be all of them. Judging from the webinar, if yours isn’t one of them, you could use Slate to feed a source text in and get back a TMX file, which you could then use in your preferred CAT tool. Is that extra step worth it? (It does not, sadly, take much imagination to see how this feature could lead to more PEMT being offered by agencies who have whacked a text through Slate Desktop to provide a TMX, which then provides alleged “matches” for the source.)

But one could, and definitely should, be grateful that at least one person, somewhere, has recognised that the “cloud” (in its imprecise recent meaning of “not on your computer”) is not the be-all and end-all of computing in the 21st century and some of us need, or even just want, to keep our work local.

Anyway, some links:
Proz discussion here
Yahoo discussion here
Strange combo of early bird discount (like, really early!) and financially persuade the developers to build interface with your preferred CAT tool (although they don’t need the money, apparently) here. Don’t watch the video, it’s excruciating.

Comments Off on Welcome to the machine….?
August 24th, 2015 | Categories: business

‘Tis often said, including by me, that one factor in making a success of this translation lark (and many other larks, come to that) is to offer that bit extra and add value for the client, and so on. This seems intuitively likely to be true, all other things being equal.

But does this work when the client is not actually a client yet? Is it at all possible to offer a bit extra and add some kind of value before you’ve got the gig, in order to persuade a lead that you’re just the chap they’re looking for? It might be, but here’s a couple of tales of how it didn’t work out for me last month.

Enquirer no.1 was (probably still is) building a new social network. Despite my reservations as to whether the world really needs another social network, the enquiry was polite and professional so I followed it up positively. Or so I thought. The proposed home page was dominated by a “join” section for new members. Not unreasonable under the circs. And what was very first piece of information requested? To select whether, in the original, you are “Monsieur” or “Madame”.

These would have been practically the first words in the text to be translated, so I thought I’d make myself useful, and (along with the price and deadline as requested) point out that, at least in the English-speaking world, those two options alone, if translated as simply “Mr.” and “Mrs”, would not suffice. Being a helpful chap, I then suggested two options:
a) if the idea was simply to determine whether the person was male or female, then change the options in English to “male” and “female”;
b) if the idea was to be able to contact members using their preferred title, then at the very least they would need to add “Ms.” for English, and probably more options besides (Dr., Prof., etc.). Under either scenario, it would be worth considering moving the question to the main profile page.

And that, dear reader, was where the conversation ended.

Couple of weeks later, Enquirer no. 2 popped up, with some general interest texts on cars and motoring. The sample mentioned that car washes were sometimes to be found at motorway exits. True enough in France. Not so here in jolly England. I felt I needed information on the target readers and so (again, along with price and deadline guidelines) I asked where they would be – was the text for English-speaking motorists in France, in which case no issue, or was it a non-country-specific text for any motorists who can read English anywhere in which case we might need to adapt it or leave it out?

Answer, dear reader, came there none.

One obvious response is that, if they were unwilling to answer, perhaps they were from the “just translate what it says” school of problem resolution. I was therefore spared an experience that would have proved sub-optimal if not downright bloody annoying, and should light a candle of thanks for St Jerome, or something.

Equally, there is no hard evidence that it was the questions that brought about subsequent radio silence; it could have been the price or deadline. I just have a feeling my water that in both cases it was asking questions too early, in an attempt to show I had considered their request properly, that stymied the deal.

I’m not sure if any useful conclusions are to be drawn at this point, although re-reading the emails a month later, it is true that the additional comments do make them a bit lengthy, which is perhaps a dissuasive factor. But if nothing else, it might make a change for people to read a blog post that is not about what a splendid success the author is making of things, or how an awful blunder was happily averted at the last minute. Nope, I ballsed these approaches up.

Ah well, onwards and upwards, eh?

(And never come to me for marketing advice!)

Comments Off on Thinking it right, doing it wrong
June 26th, 2015 | Categories: agencies, business, translation issues

This year thus far appears to be the year, in some quarters, of getting mighty indignant about the evils of post-editing machine translation (PEMT).

Might as well stick my oar in. It’s been a while.

There seem to be two basic angles of attack employed by those getting their knickers in a twist about PEMT.

First, the financial aspect. PEMT is evil because it’s poorly paid, both absolutely and relatively. Absolutely, because the per-word (or hourly, as the case may be) rate offered is rarely generous. Relatively, because as we know, review/editing is always a fraction (say a quarter or thereabouts) of the overall cost of a translation, and with the first draft of that translation now done free of charge by a computer, you’ll find yourself being offered a fraction of the money (say a quarter or thereabouts) to produce any given translation job.

But that doesn’t make PEMT evil per se. It just means the adopters of the PEMT model are the kind of operators who compete more or less solely on price and endeavour to exploit their suppliers to screw them for all they can get out of them. There does seem to be a correlation between those offering PEMT work and those offering somewhat less than generous rates for conventional translation, but if you’re looking for a fair day’s pay for a fair day’s work, these outfits are surely best avoided, full stop.

Consider this. If you were offered €1 per word for PEMT, would you do it? If you would (and I would), then the argument merely becomes one of rate negotiation or market segmentation, or possibly both, and not one of PEMT being evil in itself because the remuneration offered is rotten.

Second, at least a couple of anti-PEMT pieces I’ve seen have attempted to compare the usual human translation process against PEMT in order to reach the conclusion that the use of MT followed by PEMT is a more time-consuming way to reach an acceptable target text. There may be some truth in that, but it is not a phenomenon restricted to PEMT alone. If we take such procedures or workflows and insert “assign translation to incompetent arse” in the place of “run text through MT”, we get exactly the same long-winded process. Any process where the first translation is barely comprehensible crud will have the same result. This is not an exclusively PEMT problem.

I have seen a third angle, usually presented more calmly for some reason although it is arguably the most bonkers, namely the idea that PEMT somehow harms the translator’s faculties and adversely affects their subsequent translation output. I’m not sure what to make of such claims, other than to suggest that if you find this happening to you, then it’s probably a good reason not to forge a career in PEMT. On no scientific grounds whatsoever, I find it hard to believe such an effect would be produced in everyone (see, I can talk bollocks as well as the next man), therefore I would not seek to deny everyone the chance to forge a career in PEMT, not for this reason.
(If you do find your own output seriously affected by your environment, then I hope you are careful about the company you keep, where you live, the books you read, and so on.)

So it pays poorly, takes ages and turns your brain to rice pudding. Nonetheless, it is almost certainly here to stay. MT is a permanent feature on the landscape now. Unless its output improves markedly, it will always need editing, when used for purposes other than gisting.

I would therefore suggest that the job of MT post-editor is likely to grow, more PEMT work is likely to be on offer, eventually perhaps by some otherwise respectable operators; it would therefore be more sensible to accept it and strive to ensure it is properly remunerated for the time and skill it takes. Rather, than, say, post metaphorically spit-speckled rants twice a quarter about how evil it is. Wouldn’t it?

November 5th, 2014 | Categories: agencies, business

A couple of weeks ago, I tweeted that “Last year, agency began introducing very tight deadlines. Last week, agency sent mass email about increase in missed deadlines. Coincidence?”.  That is only half the story.

I gather this agency has quite ambitious plans for expansion.  One tactic it seems to have adopted in the last year is to offer projects with fairly tight deadlines, of a kind requiring maybe 3,000 words per day to be churned out, rather than the 2,000 or so previously. Me, I just turn those projects down.  Other people obviously don’t, and some of them are, according to a recent email,  missing their deadlines. Tsk tsk.

The agency, not unreasonably, sees the need to address this issue. Somewhat less reasonably, it has opted to do so by sending out a take-it-or-leave-it (for “leave it”, read “never work for us again”) change to its terms and conditions, introducing a scheme of payment reductions for late delivery.

I mused awhile. Not about the unilateral introduction of new terms per se; I am of the view that any entity in a business-to-business relationship (including me, and indeed you), is entitled to suggest whatever it likes, as long as it’s legal, and to brook no negotiation if that’s the mood it is in. I nonetheless remain very much in favour of ongoing review and subsequent regulation of what is actually legal, however, so don’t go running away with the idea I’m some kind of cheerleader for unfettered capitalism and exploitation of the powerless, for I am not.

No, it is in fact the legality of such terms in general, and these new terms in particular although the hard figures have yet to be announced, that is causing the pensive expression and furrowed brow on yours truly. I vaguely recalled (or thought I did) that the English legal system takes a pretty dim view of penalty clauses, and with the agency referred to in the introduction being in France, I decided to bone up a bit on both legal systems.

The law of England and Wales makes a distinction between penalty clauses and liquidated damages (LD) clauses. If a contract clause is viewed as being mainly designed to deter poor performance (e.g. delivering late), it will be deemed a penalty clause, and penalty clauses are unenforceable (hurrah!).

However, if the clause is based on a reasonable pre-estimate of the losses that will actually be incurred if a breach occurs (I summarise various online resources in describing it thus), it is an LD clause and is enforceable.

How a translation agency could possibly judge such losses is anyone’s guess. For some work, the LD would be nil. For another document, it could potentially be thousands (e.g. if the agency were to lose the future revenue of a major end-client because of a late delivery by you). The LD figure for each translation project assigned would have to calculated and set separately for each project. (Let us skip merrily over the issue of the LD potentially being vastly more than the value of the translation commissioned.)

Otherwise, any sum stipulated in the general T&C to be paid as compensation to the agency for late delivery, be it a fixed figure or a percentage, would surely be viewed as a penalty clause, and therefore unenforceable.

However, I draw attention to four factors before you scamper insouciantly off to blithely disregard all deadlines from now on.

Firstly, if an agency (or any client) does actually incur a loss as a result of your late delivery, the remedy exists to seek adequate financial compensation because of your breach under general contract law. (And this regardless of the presence or absence of any “time is of the essence” stipulation.)

Secondly, there is the enforceability of the unenforceability, if you see what I mean. If you, after delivering late, casually send an invoice for the full amount, how likely are you to be battering down the doors of your local solicitor if an agency invokes a penalty clause and slices 20% (say) from it? The sums involved, much to our regret, are probably too paltry – we could doubtless earn more in the time taken to seek redress than the amount at stake. (Case law in the area of penalty clauses invariably involves multi-million pound yachts and astronomical football management contracts, for instance, not 200 quid corporate newsletter translations.)

Thirdly, natch, is the fact I’m not a lawyer. And fourthly, that is only the situation in England and Wales, and indeed the United States as far as I can tell without having analysed in great depth.

Hopping merrily across the channel, we find the position is much clearer and very different. In essence, the French Civil Code allows for penalty clauses. Article 1226 basically defines a penalty clause as English law does, as “designed to ensure performance”, with the key difference they are enforceable, unlike in England (and indeed the USA). Note that Article 1229 specifically mentions penalties for lateness.

This link explains the situation quite well for France (although the emphasis is on whether the court can alter the amounts involved) and also talks a little about Germany, Italy, the Netherlands, Poland and Spain.

Indeed, it appears that civil law countries are generally quite accepting of the idea, such as Russia here

A fairly comprehensive review is here:, which is an ugly link but I wanted to keep them all transparent in this post – it is to Reed Smith, “The Critical Path”, Spring 2008; article on Liquidated Damages and Penalty Clauses – A Civil Law verses Common Law comparison. Includes interesting translation of dommages-intérêts in the context of Article 1152 as “liquidated damages”, and is well worth reading generally.)

From all of which I conclude that the agency email I mentioned at the beginning is entirely legit. You live and learn.

September 5th, 2014 | Categories: advance payment, business

In one of those jolly coincidences life throws up from time to time, I’ve seen a number of discussions about payment in advance in the last few weeks.

My response in one such discussion was to quote a maxim to which I try (but fail) to adhere in life in general – do as you would be done by. Yup, I had “The Water Babies” read to me as a kid; as I recall, as a kid who felt slightly too old to have books read to him, but I suppose it did me no real harm.

I would, though, take a pretty dim view if, during one of my infrequent ventures into the world of outsourcing work, I were asked to stump up payment in advance. It just sends the wrong message about trust, in my view. To say nothing of a lack of understanding of business transactions, where credit is standard practice (all other things being equal).

That said, I certainly concede there are situations where payment in advance could have a place. One such is perhaps work for private individuals (as against work for another translator in a B-to-B capacity) about whom it could be difficult to find out anything beforehand regarding their likelihood of paying post-delivery, and against whom recourse might be limited to relying solely on a local small claims procedure of unknown effectiveness. (Added to which, payment in advance is less unusual in B-to-C situations.) In contrast, one advantage of our socially networked translator world is that, were I, for example, to fail to pay a supplier, I would expect my name to become mud fairly swiftly on Twitter, LinkedIn, Proz or Transnet (being the main places I tend to “meet” those with whom I work), and indeed elsewhere.

However, one does occasionally see advice given to request payment in advance in cases where the client is known to have a sub-optimum reputation regarding payment. Such advice causes minor levels of seethe in my usually placid countenance.

While I have a fairly low tolerance threshold when it comes to calls for “solidarity” in the profession in general, I do find the out-and-out I’m-alright-Jack-ism of this attitude beyond the pale. If this hypothetical scummy client has the cash available to pay you, while others are clamouring for what they are owed, something ain’t quite right.

At the very least, you’re jumping the queue and depriving someone, somewhere, of money to which they are entitled. They’ve done the work already and are waiting for payment; you’ve done diddly squat so far and yet want that same cash? On an individual level, it doesn’t show much class, concern for others, or moral rectitude. On an industry-wide level, it would surely be better for all concerned if sub-standard clients were not facilitated to continue in business by our continuing to provide them with the fruits of our efforts.

And if, while you had been waiting and wondering about your payment from some client who has proved to be scummy, and you’ve posted on the blacklists, blue boards or payment practices lists of all hues and raised the red flag in general online, how precisely would you feel if you knew I’d seen all that and demanded, and got, payment in advance? My guess is you’d be quite irked. Possibly seething at a level considerably higher than minor. To return to where we came in, if you wouldn’t like it done to you, don’t do it to other people.

May 20th, 2014 | Categories: agencies, business, mass emails

Like many (most?) of us, I tend to, at the very least, treat email not addressed to me personally as a low priority, shall we say.

Fortunately, my email client enables me to see a) the first few words of the message, so I can read the “Dear xxxxx” bit, and b) whether the email has been sent solely to me or to several people. Hence I can, and do, delete some email unopened.

In the last few months, an agency I’ve worked with for years started to send out these uninspiring missives. (So I’m not talking here about the unsolicited tripe sent by folks you’ve never heard of or from previously.) Some I deleted unopened, some I opened then deleted, some I opened, read and declined, and some I even opened, read and replied positively. On occasion, I was assigned the project. The “deleted unread” pile was the pile added to most frequently as the weeks passed, but not the only pile.

And so it came to pass, by virtue of wasting time reading a lengthy document before responding, only to find my reply was the second acceptance to arrive, that a dialogue was entered into with the PM concerned.

Now, I do fully understand and appreciate the occasional need for group emails. In a nutshell, unless and until each and every one of us pledges here and now to respond to all individually-addressed email within about 5 minutes, I don’t see them ever disappearing. I do think that the description “urgent” is most definitely abused and over-used (I even used the old “lack of planning on your part does not constitute an emergency on my part” line), but again, here too, we do ourselves no favours. Jobs that weren’t urgent become urgent when we fail to respond reasonably sharpish. I say “respond”, I mean “decline, so the PM can look elsewhere”, of course.

I naturally put forward the reasons why us tetchy old grumps do not spring enthusiastically to respond to group email – the ones I could think of at least. These were understood and accepted as valid. And while we all like to think of ourselves as uniquely skilled, I know fine well that agencies get plenty of mundane corporate crud that could be assigned to me or probably a dozen other people with equally dazzling results. Some stuff is, indeed, actually urgent.

But I objected, and still do object, to reading a source document in good faith and then finding the project has been assigned to someone else. That was and remains my major issue with this kind of group email. And I have a solution. Surprisingly, not a solution that had occurred to anyone at this agency. I proposed this solution. The PMs (another had joined the fray by this point) agreed it would help improve the perception of group emails, and would take almost no effort, and they would implement it forthwith, if not sooner.

What’s interesting is that I don’t know whether they have or not. Before the discussion, I would get group emails from this agency daily. Since this discussion, a month ago, I have received one.

Yes, yes, Charlie, I hear you snap impatiently, but what is this stroke of genius that has obliterated the problem of group emails at a stroke? The solution, chums, is this. Ask the agency/PMs whether they would be so kind as to send a follow-up group email once a project, previously announced by group email, has been assigned. If my experience is any guide, the strain involved most be so monumentally draining that they would rather not bother you in the first place after all. Hey ho. Onwards and upwards.

December 10th, 2013 | Categories: business

Avid readers will recall that last month, by virtue of following @UKTIFrance on Twitter, I attended a webinar on “The French Economy”. This month, the same organisation presented one on “Legal Aspects of Doing Business in France”, given by an English lawyer who has been practising in France for 20 years.

As with the previous webinar, some of the content would already be known to anyone who has been translating French business documents for more than about a month, but it was nonetheless interesting to see what an expert considered the salient points to be (and the English terms he used to refer to them). Unlike the previous webinar, the importance of translation was underlined several times, so hurrah for that!

Naturally, the speaker started by stating that the legal systems are very different (France versus GB, that is), highly codified and all that jazz. With the target audience being folks interested in doing business in France, the asides or details tended to be with that aspect in mind. So while we didn’t get (and didn’t need) info on the structures of all the types of court France has, we were informed that commercial courts (relevant as often mentioned in contract jurisdiction clauses) are local courts, the judges are volunteers, usually not legally trained, everyone involved knows each other, and the evidence is very much based on documentation. Draw your own conclusions.

Another interesting snippet arose during a section on points of contact in France (e.g. chambers of commerce & industry, which are funded by local business taxes). The
Greffe du Tribunal de Commerce (clerks’ office of the not at all crony-ist commercial court) is where companies are actually registered and accounts filed (information is available online and you can pay for it by credit card) and apparently some companies deliberately do not file accounts and opt to pay the relevant fines instead to avoid disclosing information to competitors (especially some supermarkets, it seems). Despite my brief yet glorious career in credit insurance, this nugget had passed me by.

My third and final “I-never-twigged-that” point is the old chestnut about France as the world champions of bureaucracy. Every business has to fit into an administrative box, its APE (trade sector) code, which is not (as I had previously assumed) just for the benefit of statisticians. It brings with it sector regulations, collective bargaining agreements (which I knew were sector-specific, I just never made the connection before), specific tax arrangements, etc. The presenter gave an example of a tarpaulin manufacturer, where the proportion of canvas to plastic (or vice versa) in the tarpaulin had quite significant implications in terms of tax and regulation.

I’ve omitted a great deal in terms of an overview of the content in favour of a couple of asides and anecdotes, but I hope they give a flavour of both the style and value of the webinar. There was, for example, information on insolvency and a brief mention of debt collection. The differences between the various types of sales rep came up (handy for me since I had a commercial agent agreement in my in-box at that very moment). In brief, while not unmissable, it is certainly worth an hour of anyone’s time (well, any Fr-Eng translator, at least). And due to be repeated in the New Year. So, follow @UKTIFrance and await details.

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November 14th, 2013 | Categories: translation issues

I am not sure I have ever been more irritated by an article in The Linguist. I speak of the Oct-Nov 2013 edition of the said organ, entitled “Power of the crowd”, subtitled “Community translation: friend, foe or no big deal”.
Aha, you might think, a balanced article discussing the pros and cons. I shall read on…

(Now the CIoL puts its mag online, you can read the article here , see pp14-15, but I’ll quote the relevant bits here anyway.)

The article opens by mentioning the reaction of translators when Facebook, as a commercial company, started using crowdsourcing in 2007. This reaction was not positive. The article sets out its stall at this point, saying “such reactions were not necessarily warranted back then and they are even less so today.” It seems to me that of the “friend, foe or no big deal” triumvirate, foe has been kicked into touch before the end of the first column in a 2-page spread.

Getting down to brass tacks, the fact that crowdsourcing is sometimes the result of a user community volunteering its services is wheeled out. Sorry, but just because someone volunteers to do something unpaid, it doesn’t make it right to avail yourself of what’s on offer. I take issue on principle with unpaid work being done on behalf of for-profit organisations, whether at the instigation of the organisation itself (as in advertised unpaid internships) or of the “volunteers” and such offers should be politely declined by any for-profit organisation that is not morally reprehensible.
(There seems an unspoken assumption, unless I have misread it, that “community translation” = unpaid. Sometimes crowdsourcing work is paid, albeit typically a pittance. While an improvement on taking people’s work for nothing, the difference in my overall stance is minor.)

There follows a description of the situation with The Economist in China. A bunch of translators is producing a Chinese version of every issue, which apparently the magazine is aware of but did not instigate. While I accept the premise that this is “free publicity” and gives the magazine a head start if it decides to officially launch in China, surely this whole initiative is of borderline legality in terms of copyright if nothing else, and is hardly an upright example of the merits of crowdsourcing? Is this really the best example that could be found for an article of this type? If so, it speaks volumes of an attitude that finds availing oneself of the fruits of others’ labour for little or no payment acceptable.

Next, under the sub-heading of “No such thing as free translation”, the article attempts to justify use of crowd-sourcing by pointing out that there are “financial repercussions”. In summary, firms (e.g. Facebook) have to pay for content management of some kind. As if this somehow means they are absolved from having to pay for the content itself. If you want a thing, as far as I know, the idea is you pay for all of it, not just the bits you can afford. The fact these reprobates have to pay for software and content management does not, in my humble opinion, mean they don’t have to pay (or can pay next to sod all) for the translations.

The next subheading is “Are professionals losing out?” This section proposes that organisations indulging in crowdsourcing often find they need subsequent paid translation work as a result, it “acts as a catalyst that generates demand for professional translation” and that instead of “stealing opportunities for paid translation, in many cases, it creates them”. First, given the author’s undoubted contacts in the industry, it would have been nice to see some names where this has happened, unless it is just a hypothesis. Second, whether hypothetical or rooted in fact, surely the subsequent demand for paid translation would have still been created if the original, crowdsourced, work had been paid for too? Does the fact it was free make any difference to the cause and effect? I don’t see why it would.

The last point made in this section, that it gives new translators an opportunity to learn while gaining experience, is valid to an extent. However, this is an issue that affects every job and profession in the known universe, and while regrettably the solution of getting beginners to work unpaid on behalf of for-profit organisations has gained ground in many areas (unpaid internships, for example), that doesn’t make it right or justified. If a for-profit organisation uses labour from which it gets some value, it should pay for it, full stop.

The article turns next to the issue of quality, claiming that in fact the sheer numbers involved in vetting or ratifying translations ensure crowdsourced content is up to snuff, and furthermore, where the numbers fall short, companies often don’t release crowdsourced translations into the wild in case they’re a bit pants (I paraphrase). We’ve probably all seen amusing screenshots which would tend to suggest this is not always the case, but then the author doesn’t claim it is, and such failings are not the sole preserve of the crowd. I’m happy to accept that the quality difference doesn’t amount to a major factor in our “friend or foe” consideration.

As we hit the last column of the article, the subheading is another question – “Will more companies follow suit?” to which the answer starts “the good news is that yes […] many more companies have followed [Facebook]”. Good news? OK, so we knew the article’s stance, despite the subtitle, from the outset and as we near the end, we might expect conclusions to start being drawn, but thus far, we’ve read precious little “good news”, in my view. The conclusion seems to be that the result has been “more demand for translation in general including for paid translation services”, which could well be true, but we went through that argument two columns ago. Has the well of positive things to say about crowdsourcing run dry?

However, we do actually finally get to some genuine good news, in that “most companies” will not “widely adopt” crowdsourcing, because “The vast majority of the world’s translation projects will not be crowdsourced because that simply isn’t a viable solution.” This happens to chime with what I hope – it also seems to apply to the sort of work I personally do, but this is not an I’m-alright-Jack piece and neither should the resourcefulness of those who see a chance to get something for nothing be underestimated. It also still doesn’t excuse the portion that is crowdsourced, and is no comfort to those working in areas affected by this abomination.

And incidentally, see here for a brilliant post by someone who potentially is affected by crowd-sourcing: While my objections are merely ethical and philosophical posturing about crowdsourcing in its current form, his are practical.

Is there any silver lining? Not all crowdsourcing work is necessarily free. Some of it is paid, after a fashion, such as this derisory offer that coincidentally arrived in my inbox as I starting writing this a while ago.
(In case that link later proves to be dead, in essence the rate offered is $0.01-0.10 per HIT, which is a “Human Intelligence Task (…) used in many kinds of applications, such as data annotation, multimedia, and search engine result evaluation” – you can get paid via PayPal once you have accumulated $50. And yes, I really should unsubscribe from translationdirectory.)

See also this detailed and reasoned description of another crowdsourcing provider:

These particular offers are insulting, yes, but it shows that where there is a will, there could be a way to properly remunerate crowdsourced translation, thereby gaining all the advantages listed above, but without the crucial drawback of being obtained from the unpaid or underpaid efforts of a “community”. As with so much in life, the actual theory of crowdsourcing may not be bad one (the way it meets the apparent need for quick translations of rapidly changing online content, for instance, is undeniable), but the implementation, left in the hands of the morally disadvantaged at the top of so many corporate dungheaps, leaves much to be desired.

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