Thursday, March 1, 2012

Responsibilities of a Translator, Part 1

As a translator, your basic job is to take a chunk of text written in one language and convert it into another language. The required fundamental skill set for this line of work consists of a working knowledge and understanding of the source language, a generally above-average capacity for writing in the target language – which, in my opinion, should also be your native tongue, excluding special circumstances – and of course a capacity for interlingual conversion (I just invented this term. Use it!) Until relatively recently, that was pretty much all you would have needed to become a professional translator.

Nowadays, however, the constant evolution and rapid upgrading of technology also means the constant evolution and rapid upgrading of the translation industry as a whole. Usually, a translator now also needs Internet access and at least a basic working knowledge of computers (Word, Excel, email, etc.) to properly function as a professional. This brings me to the question: How varied and deep of a skill set should a professional translator be expected to have?

  Allow me elaborate. If you are working as a professional game translator, you can rightfully be expected to have a general working knowledge of the PlayStation or Wii, including terminology, game content, and system capabilities. If you work as a medical translator, you’re probably going to have to be relatively proficient in names and details of different diseases, medicines, and medical procedures. This goes without saying. But sometimes – and I’m sure this isn’t just a personal pet peeve or annoyance – I feel that clients have a tendency to expect a lot more from me than I believe I am responsible for.

For example, I once received a translation job in Power Point format. My instructions were something along the lines of “Translate the Japanese text into English on a separate Word file.” OK, no problem. Later that day, I received additional instructions. This time I was told “Actually, translate the Japanese into English, and then insert the English directly onto the Power Point file.” OK, I can handle this, too. I translated the text into English and used it to replace the original Japanese. This is where the problem began.

 Seeing as how Japanese and English are two completely unrelated languages, with two completely unrelated writing systems, a phrase that can be written in less than seven or eight characters in Japanese may need as many as thirty characters in English. On top of this, due to the fact that Japanese and English are also grammatically unrelated, exactly similar “strategic placement” of certain words and phrases is virtually impossible. So when I translated and replaced the text, the finished product – while not being completely shot to Hell – was definitely not as streamlined and orderly as the original. I did what I could to make it look as close to the Japanese version as possible and turned the project in.

Soon after handing in the project, I received a rather “aggressive” mail from the client, informing me that they were thoroughly dissatisfied with my work. This being a relatively simple project translation-wise, I was pretty confident that my work was immaculate, and asked for specific examples of what was wrong. I received a list of about 13 items that “required (my) IMMEDIATE attention,” along with a friendly little threat to dock my pay unless I fixed everything up perfectly. Of the dozen-plus items listed, not a single one had anything to do with the quality of translation.

 “There are too many characters in this box.”
 “The font size is too small for this section.”
 “Only two characters in this sentence are supposed to be green.”
 “The text is spilling out from this box and needs to fit in.”

While I do have a basic working knowledge of computers, I admit that up to that point I had never used Power Point in my entire life. I even alerted the client of this, to which they replied “That’s OK, you’re a translator: ALL YOU NEED TO DO IS TRANSLATE THE TEXT.” Yet once my instructions changed, I was suddenly expected to be not only a translator, but a web editor and a graphic designer as well. The next few hours were taken up by completely pointless arguments and accusations, and in the end I had to threaten to take the client to court in order to receive full payment.

 This article ended up being hijacked by my anecdote, so let’s get back to the main point. As a professional translator, how far should we reasonably be expected to go in satisfying the client’s needs, especially when the client’s needs include technology or processes with which we are not familiar, and even more especially when these technologies and processes are completely unrelated to translation work? As a project manager or a client, having a translator tell you “Sorry, I have no idea how to use email so I’m gonna have to pass on this job after all,” or “I’m going to give up on this project halfway through because I have no experience or knowledge whatsoever regarding this particular field” is certainly cause for a bit of a talking-to. But when the client’s needs and requests include totally unrelated fix-up jobs and the like, I personally believe that the translator should not be held responsible for this part of the project. After all, you wouldn’t expect a pizza delivery guy to wash your dishes or test your kids for wheat allergies, would you?

What do you think about this? Any comments or related anecdotes are welcome!