Charlie Bavington

French to English Freelance Translator - I.T. specialist

Bringing a pragmatic eye to meeting your needs

In the Summertime

September 19th, 2012 | Categories: business

Wonder if any of you literally tens of readers had thought “Ah, another blog that has petered out…”?

Truth is, I only have one pair of hands, and apart from the very occasional flurry on Twitter, my spare typing (and thinking) time since June has been taken up with an epic thread on proz (should native_language claims be verified).
I should probably have stuck to my original stance that a discussion was futile as nothing would change, and walked away. But in the event, the discussion actually proved intellectually stimulating in parts (discounting the wummery, trolling, tangents and nonsensical assertions – so, about two thirds of the thread if not more, for which reasons I cannot recommend anyone to plunge into the thread unless they have oodles of spare time and genetically modified tolerance, since I’m sure no ordinary mortal could read the whole thing from scratch without wanting to wrench their eyeballs from their very sockets in frustration at the Olympic-standard asshattery on display in some quarters).

To summarise: proz has a field labelled “native language” (NL from now on). This field is displayed in the profiles of individuals, some of who evidently are not proficient at writing in the language they claim to be native in. Furthermore, this field can be used as a filter by those seeking translation services.

The issues this raises are:
a) it casts doubt on the accuracy of the everyone’s “native language” field, it diminishes the value of the site as a shop-window and thus chisels away at the reputation of anyone on the site (until & unless individuals are given the chance to prove otherwise), and
b) it means people are being considered for jobs for which they do not, in fact, possess one of the required skills, i.e. the ability to write proficiently in the target language.
I don’t use the site to get work; I have used it once or twice to outsource work. My main concern is a), but I accept the undesirability of b).

The assumed reasons or causes for this inaccurate reporting of NL are:
i) mistake about what NL means,
ii) knowing what NL means, but mistakenly considering oneself to be NL standard,
iii) old fashioned lying, to get considered for work.

What I found interesting about the discussion was the element that fixated on “native language” as an objective attribute, as if it were merely hair colour or address. Except of course, it’s not quite that simple; there are many definitions of NL, most posted in the thread (at least, I hope that’s most of them, I don’t think the world needs many more), and proz’s guidance on the matter is very Alice Through the Looking-Glass (“a word… means just what I choose it to mean”). Definitions for the site to use, involving the age a language was acquired, schooling, countries and length of residence, whether the language is actively used now, etc. have been proposed in the thread, with the aim of adding objectivity.

This is laudable; ideally information should be accurate, even if it’s just accuracy for accuracy’s sake. As an aside, even supporters of the idea seem to accept it will be hard to get user acceptance for proz actually verifying this stuff as per the thread title – they just want to ask the questions and leave people to answer as they see fit; it basically just reduces cause i) and does nothing about ii) or iii).

My own stance at this point was straightforward, unsophisticated and arguably something of a circular conclusion. It is dodgy or inadequate writing skills that (almost always) provide the initial evidence that someone who claims an NL is not, in fact, an N of that L. So, taking the thread title at face value, if you want to verify NL, verify the written output. QED. I said as much several dozen times.

This conclusion then led me to ponder that this NL data item is not purely informative, it also serves a purpose, as it also does when we are asked to provide it on, for example, agency registration forms. NL is used to include and exclude translators from consideration for jobs/projects. As is address (less often, for sure). But never hair colour (AFAIK). So NL is not just information for information’s sake. I would contend that NL is used as a target language filter/selection criterion, for instance, because it increases the chances (without guaranteeing it) that the person will be able to write to an acceptable standard in the target language.

In short, it has a function, and within the proz context, quite an important one (given the impact on livelihoods). No matter what label it is given, it is the function that causes people to lie about it (as they do, apparently (I have no direct experience), about hair colour on dating websites) and so it is the ability to meet or perform that function that is important.

So, if you want to “verify” anything, while simultaneously removing causes i), ii) and iii) and resolving issues a) and b), verifying compliance with the function of the field – that of proficiency marker – is surely the way to go? Y’know, like agencies sometimes do when they ask us to do tests? (Since evidently proficient use of claimed NL is one testing criterion, along with the actual translation.)

In the context of the actual discussion in question, I suspect reaching such a conclusion, while intellectually satisfying, is fruitless, as the only changes the site is likely to make are those improving the width of Humpty Dumpty’s Henry’s wallet. In that respect, any improvement along such lines is essentially an intangible feel-good factor from resolving issue a), and if it is tangible, it may even be negative, since the number of people who care enough to actually leave the site if nothing changes is surely fewer than those who pay for membership safe in the knowledge they can claim a competitive advantage they don’t have and Henry will do SFA all about it and who would leave if anything did change. To say nothing of the cost of any verification scheme.

All of which led me to realise (or reaffirmed):

1. It would appear that I probably do not, in theory, have any objection to ‘non-native translation’ (if you see what I mean). Meeting the client’s needs and possession of the right skills to do so are the only factors that count. Where you were born should, in itself, be inconsequential.

2. Function trumps labels.  I think particularly of one of my own working ‘rules’ – always translate section/chapter headings last. Their function is often more important than the actual words themselves when it comes to translating them effectively. As with the NL label in proz, it doesn’t matter what it says, it matters what it does. Extrapolated to (or from, depending where you start) translation, it is broadly equivalent to the underlying idea behind “translate the meaning, not the words”.

3. It is in all our interests to get comprehensive independent credentials as evidence of our abilities rather than rely on commercial websites focused only on quantity not quality and therefore pandering to the lowest common denominator.

4. Threads about proz itself are always, always, going to generate the most traffic, no matter what forum they appear on. (To tell the truth, I knew that before.)

5. I should get out more.

Cripes, if I’d known this was how the post would pan out, I could have given it one of those proper bloody irritating blog post titles like a social media guru would, like “5 Things I Learned This Summer”.

So, anyway, that was my summer – how was yours?

  1. September 19th, 2012 at 13:38
    Quote | #1

    Hello Charlie
    It seems we both went to the same place this summer. :-)
    I don’t know about you but for me it’s been like a package holiday on the Costa Brava – not an entire waste of time but ever so slightly disappointing, tinged with regret and not something you’d wish to experience again.

    As for the main issues – I do broadly agree with you but at the point it’s at now, I feel that locking the thread may be the humane thing to do – put us all out of our misery.

    I’m just hoping I’m not one of the perpetrators of asshattery! :-)

    • Charlie
      September 19th, 2012 at 15:17
      Quote | #2

      Well, I think that place does quite enough thread locking and deleting without being encouraged to!

      I can’t help thinking that persistent participation in that thread makes us both guilty of low-level asshattery, but rest assured we have some way to go before attaining the Olympic standard set by some. :-)

  2. Rob Grayson
    September 19th, 2012 at 17:02
    Quote | #3

    I only managed to follow that thread for about the first 50 pages before I felt the will to live beginning to fade. Clearly I have less stamina than yourself or Ty.

    • Charlie
      September 19th, 2012 at 18:20
      Quote | #4

      Kids today, eh? Attention span of a butterfly….
      *tuts, rolls eyes skywards, etc.*

      You know I posted on that thread nearly 170 times? What on earth was I thinking?
      And there’s me always saying I have no time to learn Estonian/write a novel/build a ladder to the moon/sort out my holiday photos.

  3. September 20th, 2012 at 10:24
    Quote | #5

    Well, this post ties up a loose thread very neatly. No, I know that didn’t have in you stitches, I’m just trying to prove I’m a native… You’ve proved you can spin a yarn, so I look forward to reading your first short story next September. Surely it would be better for your blood pressure than trying to change the big Zite?

    • Charlie
      September 23rd, 2012 at 19:11
      Quote | #6

      Well, I have actually sorted out some of my holiday snaps, so maybe, just maybe….. :-)

      I’m not really trying to change the big Zite. I suspect it may well be beyond redemption, especially since the owner has neither the will nor, it would appear, the technical staff to implement radical change.
      It’s almost now just a question of enjoying arguing the toss on the internet!

  4. JaneD
    September 21st, 2012 at 19:37
    Quote | #7

    I’m glad you posted this, Charlie, because I read the first page or two of said thread and then thought “Life’s too short”. But I see it there every day with the new posts symbol merrily flashing away and think “How can they still be going on about native languages?” Now I know, and I can happily get on with ignoring it in the sure knowledge that nowt much of use has been said, at least with any kind of unanimity.

    I kind of agree with you in that a test would be a good way to assess native language proficiency – but how would you be sure that the person purporting to have written it actually had? Unenforceable, I think.

    My own quibble is that it’s possible to post a job on the site asking for native (say) English speakers and then insisting on a credential in the language. What exactly is that supposed to be? An English language degree? No, because that merely qualifies you to witter on endlessly about feminism in Thomas Hardy’s poems or whatever. Surely it’s not the fact that you’ve studied English literature that qualifies you to write in the language; it’s the fact that you’ve studied to degree level using English as the medium? Perhaps this aspect was discussed at some point in the marathon thread, but although I find the issue infuriating I don’t care quite enough to read through it and find out!

    • Charlie
      September 23rd, 2012 at 11:51
      Quote | #8

      Thanks – it does now seem, happily, as though the thread is finally heading towards proficiency testing as the first-choice solution, although there is still some ludicrousness on display. And who knows where the thread may head next week :-)

      I think some others have pointed out what you say about monolingual credentials – there is a bit of a loophole or flaw there. The point about studying to degree level using English as the medium was indeed the sort of idea being bounced around as the kind of thing that might indicate nativeness in English (for example) – but even then, people can and do just invent stuff safe in the knowledge that no-one is going to check. And if no-one checks, it doesn’t really matter how many questions you ask – it’s not “verification”.

      I agree that the point about identifying the people doing the test is important. Determined liars might find a way around any system. I suspect some kind of 80-20 rule would probably apply in terms of the effort required. I can think of several ways to reduce the risk, but nothing infallible that is not also wholly over the top in terms of effort and expense. Although I suppose terms like “over the top” are all relative to how serious an issue I ultimately think it is.

  5. September 22nd, 2012 at 21:10
    Quote | #9

    I *love* point #2 in your last list (function beating labels): how you pulled together (or perhaps metaphorized) a vital, fundamental principle in translation with a fundamental principle in translatology.

    • Charlie
      September 23rd, 2012 at 12:07

      Thanks – although I should emphasise it did take me pretty much 3 months to make the connection!

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