Barbara Jungwirth of reliable translations llc writes about language and the business of translation.

English ≠ English

Which one is a coffee can?

US coffee can 1-16

Q: Which of these pictures shows a “coffee can”?
A: Both do. The one on the left is a coffee can & saucer friends brought from England, the one on the right is the coffee can in my New York kitchen.

When I receive a request to translate a document “from German to English”, one of my first questions is: US or UK? These are the two variants of English with which I am most familiar and into which I translate. But there are many other countries around the world where English is the (or one of the) official or majority language(s). And each of these countries has its own variation on English, often with quite a few loan words and/or grammatical constructs borrowed from non-European languages.

Nigeria, for example, is home to a variety of peoples with their own, often mutually unintelligible, languages—Ibo, Yoruba, Hausa, Fulani, among others. As Jeanette Gilsdorf of California State University writes: “When Nigeria declared independence in 1960, English had become basic to its unity. … Nigeria made English its own, giving rise to Standard Nigerian English.”

Similarly, there is Standard Australian English, Jamaican Standard English, etc. To be sure, all these Englishes are distinguished by their accents—which are irrelevant to written translations. However, vocabulary also differs significantly, and sometimes grammatical structures vary, as well. A few months ago I was training employees in the US using a manual originally written in the UK. I introduced each session with a mini vocabulary lesson: till means cash register, etc.

Plus expressions for date and time change between countries. When our Irish house guest says she will be back at “half five”, I always have to mentally convert—ah, we will see her at 5:30 pm (17:30). Then I call my father in Austria, where the German equivalent of “half five” (halb fünf) means 4:30 pm (16:30). Life can be a bit confusing sometimes…

So if you need a text translated into English, consider where it will be distributed and request the appropriate variant of the language. Or, if the text will be read by customers all over the English-speaking world, ask that it be “internationalized”. You will still have to pick US or UK spelling, but the translator will write out dates (rather than using, say, 1/11/14—which could be January 11 or November 1) and adjust wording and formatting to a more global audience.

Even if your document is already in English, consider having it “localized”—adapted to another variant of English. If a US reader is told that “the spanner is located in the boot of the lorry”, he or she is unlikely to find the wrench in the trunk of the truck. That could be a problem when stranded on the side of the motorway (highway) in a snow storm—such as the blizzard we just had in New York.

Finding Clients Across the Ocean

Berlin August 2014
Berllin in August 2014 for FIT Congress
To get clients, you need to go where the clients are – either virtually or face-to-face(s). When you are physically an ocean away, a virtual connection is obviously preferable. There are a few ways to do this:

  1. Join LinkedIn groups for the industries in which you specialize. Simply receiving notifications of the group’s activities may keep you informed of events within the industry, but to become known to anyone within the group, you will need to participate in discussions.
  2. Join industry organizations in your target countr(ies) and/or at home. I am on the board of my local STC chapter, but since the parent organization also has foreign chapters, I have met STC members working in Europe. One such connection indirectly led to my speaking at the IEEE conference in Ireland this July.
  3. Follow individual people within the industry/compan(ies) you are targeting on Twitter. Again, you will need to actively participate in order to catch someone’s attention.
  4. Consider joining the translator’s organization in your target country. While you cannot attend their meeting, it gets you listed in their directory.

Meeting in real life makes a more lasting impression than just a virtual connection. This does not always have to involve travelling:

  1. Some local conferences draw international attendees. Prepare recommendations for unusual restaurants or points of interest not covered in tourist guides. Such information will help establish you as an expert – even if you don’t translate tourism texts.
  2. If you live in/near a big city, local groups may host events with visiting executives from foreign companies. New York has a Meetup group that features representatives of technology start-ups from a different country every month or two. Local knowledge can again establish you as a source of information.

Then, of course, there is travelling to your target countr(ies). It may be expensive, but it is also a great way to keep up with changes in the language and culture:

  1. Speak at industry conferences. Your listing in the program broadcasts your expertise beyond the attendees at your presentation. Also use the speaking engagement in your promotional materials and on social media. I tweet a few days before I present at a conference and often write a blog post about it afterwards.
  2. While you are there, meet with other translators. Attend an event by the local translators organization or contact individual translators and organize an informal exchange at a local coffeeshop.

If you want to learn more about attracting clients , listen to some of Corinne McKay and Eve Bordeaux’s podcasts or attend my ProZ seminar on the topic later this year.

Why a Translator Must Write Well

My short story, Pregnant!, is on p. 29-42 of this book.
My short story, Pregnant!, is on p. 29-42 of this book.
My documentation specialists must be able to write well, but the freelancers translating that documentation don’t need writing skills – after all, the text is already there, they are only transferring it into another language. Right? Wrong.

If translation consisted simply of substituting each word in your documentation (the “source”) with the equivalent in, for example, German (the “target”), you wouldn’t need a translator. A computer program with a built-in bilingual dictionary could do this rather well. But if you want the translated text to actually make sense to a German-speaker – or, better yet, be easily understood or appealing – you’ll need someone who can transfer the meaning, not just the words.

Try this: Take a medium-length sentence from your documentation, copy it into Google Translate, have the program translate it into, say, German. Then have it translate that German text into Spanish, and the resulting Spanish back into English. Compare the two English sentences. Which is better – or even adequate?

Convinced? To avoid such garbled text, you want a translator who not only knows both languages well, but can also craft concise, well-understood text in the target language. That’s where a translator’s writing skills and experience come in. Ideally, the translator should have writing experience in the language into which he or she is translating, preferably for an audience similar to yours. Such experience will help produce a target-language document that is just right for your audience – idiomatic, easily understood and appealing.

Many translators enter this profession after having worked in other fields. That usually involves at least some writing specific to that field. Even a mathematician writes papers explaining his or her findings. I started to translate after I was laid off from the software company for which I had been writing user documentation. I had joined the Society for Technical Communication as a technical writer, but have continued that membership as a technical translator. I currently serve as membership chair on the board of the society’s New York Metro chapter.

Translating is communicating. And communicating means writing – even videos start with a script. So when you need to reach a foreign audience, don’t just hire a bilingual person, hire a bilingual writer.

PS: You can read some of my writing at, where I summarize medical studies, in the STC’s journal Technical Communication, where I review books, and in the young adult fiction I write in my spare time (published in To the Moon: My Best Friend’s Secrets).

Are Non-Native English Speakers Reading Your Documents?

date, time & measurement for global audiences
A slide from my presentation on Writing for Global Audiences

How many of your U.S. customers are not native English speakers? How many of your international customers are in countries where English is not commonly spoken? How many of your business customers’ employees speak a language other than English at home? How many of your business customers’ contractors are located in non-English-speaking countries?

If you replied none to all four questions, this column will not help you to communicate more effectively with your customers, or their employees or contractors. But if any of your customers or their employees/contractors (your audience) are not fully fluent in English, you need to consider how well they understand your materials. This means not only your marketing texts, but also the manuals and other documentation that may accompany your products.

Depending on the number of people in your audience who speak the same language (for example, Spanish), you may want to have your documents translated into that language. If you choose that route, there are ways in which you can not only make your translator’s life easier, but also ensure a better and more consistent foreign-language text. See my blog post, What Can I Do to Help My Translators Do a Better Job? for tips on this topic.

But if people who read your documentation or marketing texts speak a variety of different languages, but also know English, translating everything into multiple languages may not be cost-effective. Even though your text will only be distributed in English (or in English plus one or two other languages), your writer(s) should consider how it will be read by non-native English speakers. The rules for writing good documentation in English still apply: be clear, yet concise, use consistent terminology.

However, there are other issues that should be considered when writing for non-native English speakers, such as:

  • how measurements convert to the metric system
  • how dates are written (2/9 could be Feb. 9 or Sept. 2)
  • in which direction people read sequences (in left-to-right or top-to-bottom languages)
  • which grammatical features of English may pose difficulties (the gerund, complex tenses)

In short, your documents should be written in Global English. According to John R. Kohl, this is “English that an author has optimized for a global audience by following guidelines that go beyond what is found in conventional style guides.” Kohl’s book, the Global English Style Guide, is an excellent resource on this topic. Several companies and consultants (including yours truly) also offer training on Global English and/or editing of documents to conform to the principles of Global English. I will also speak on this topic at Spectrum 2015 in Rochester, NY March 29-31 and will lead a workshop about writing for non-native English speakers at ProComm 2015 in Limerick, Ireland, July 12-15.

New Year, New Files – Why My Shredder Runs Hot

Snowy Brooklyn
View from my office window

When New York City shut down for the blizzard that wasn’t last week, I finally had time to sort out old paper files. Since my clients’ information – including which projects I have translated or edited – is confidential, my paper shredder was getting a good workout. Given the threat of identity theft, I also shred any banking or financial information pertaining to my clients or to my own company. I keep paper files for 7 years (unless a client requests a shorter retention time), so I just cleaned out my box of 2008 files. Here is what I turned into confetti:

  • Clients’ purchase orders
  • Additional project information, such as terminology lists for projects where I didn’t use a CAT (computer-assisted translation) tool
  • Check stubs for payments received
  • Login information for clients’ online systems
  • Contracts with clients that either no longer exist or with whom I no longer work
  • Bank and credit card statements
  • Any other financial information

Much fraud and theft, of course, occurs online. Some of my clients guard against this threat by running their own secure servers to host the original documents and the corresponding completed translations. When I receive files via regular e-mail and am expected to return my work by the same route, there is little I can do to ensure that documents are not intercepted on the way to/from the client.

I can, however, secure the client’s files while I am working on them. To this end, I back up my work in progress to secure online storage provided by Norton, a highly respected anti-virus company. This allows me quick access to pending projects should my primary computer fail – which, in turn, ensures that I can deliver projects on time even in case of technological malfunction.

Norton also protects my computer with daily antivirus scans and automatic updates to their software. Such constant anti-virus vigilance prevents the malware often used in online theft or cyber-spying from infecting my computer in the first place.

What precautions do you take with documents that are sent to outside contractors, such as translators? What other measures would you like/do you require your contractors to take to safeguard the confidentiality of your information?

Working Away From Home – Lessons Learned

My grandsonSpending three weeks in Philadelphia recently to help my daughter with her new baby taught me a few things about working away from the office for an extended period.

Forwarding your business phone may cost more: Before leaving New York, I forwarded my business landline to my cell phone, so existing and potential clients could still reach me directly. With unlimited voice minutes in my current cell phone plan, the unsolicited sales calls and wrong numbers that were also forwarded didn’t cost anything extra – but they might have under a more limited plan.

Using your phone to handle e-mail may cost more: While voice minutes may be unlimited, data often is not. In New York, my phone connects to the WiFi network at home, so checking and responding to e-mail doesn’t use up cell phone data. In Philadelphia, I was often checking my e-mail and negotiating projects from my phone while at my daughter’s, without connecting to WiFi. As a result, I exceeded my data limit and had to buy a block of additional data services. The lesson for the next time: make sure to connect to WiFi whenever possible.

Tracking your projects may be harder: In New York, I print out the purchase order or confirmation e-mail for each project, and use the printout to keep track of the time Spent on the project, note special terminology, etc. While my apartment in Philadelphia came with WiFi, there was no printer access. I improvised with a small notepad, one page per project, accidentally assigning the same number to two different projects, which complicated my tracking efforts. Everyone did get their projects on time, but life could have been easier. The lesson for the future (maybe not yet next time): ditch the printouts (better for the environment, too) and establish a digital-only workflow system (with backups!).

Juggling grandmother duties and projects may impair your productivity: Since my daughter doesn’t have extra space, I stayed in a furnished apartment a few trolley stops from her. This setup did provide a nice separation between being a grandmother and being a translator. However, while I could handle e-mails when I was at my daughter’s place, I couldn’t actually work on projects, even if mother and baby were both asleep. The lesson for next time: babysit my grandson where I am staying to take advantage of his nap times.

Later this month, I will be back in Philadelphia for a week while my daughter returns to work before her summer break. Time to implement these lessons!

Beyond the Basics of Freelancing

I recently completed Corinne McKay’s very helpful course “Beyond the Basics of Freelancing”. The four-week class included lectures in the form of e-mailed MS Word documents, weekly conference calls where each participant could ask a question/pose a problem to the group each week, weekly assignments related to that week’s lecture (to which I received extensive feedback), and a final one-hour one-on-one telephone consultation with Corinne. Since most of the interaction was asynchronous, translators from around could participate. In fact, the inaugural course included translators in time zones spanning at least 9 hours. Here is what I learned:

Current business/expanding to direct clients: Lesson 1 made me take stock of the state of my business last year, provided feedback on my website, LinkedIn profile and other marketing materials, and caused me to re-evaluate my current specialization.

Contacting potential clients: Lesson 2 asked me to create new marketing materials, made me research a list of potential clients and start formulating a plan on how to reach these prospects, as well as identifying potentially more lucrative niches.

Pricing: Lesson 3 helped me to realize that I need to adjust my prices for direct clients and/or a new niche, made me create a rate sheet and a rough annual budget and had me identify ways to achieve these budgetary goals. In the process, I defined “red” (minimum price below which I will not take projects), “yellow” (average) and “green” (target) price ranges, which I am still refining.

Quality improvement and business goals: Lesson 4 finally had me investigate online (and offline) classes and other resources I could use to improve my knowledge in my new specialization, as well as translation in general, and plan for the future of my business.

If this has aroused your interest, Corinne’s next edition of “Beyond the Basics of Freelancing” starts May 14.

New Clients in 2013 and New Services in 2014

Attending conferences can sometimes pay off when you least expect it. One of my new clients this year comes from a contact I made at the tekom Jahrestagung in Germany two years ago. After an initial follow-up e-mail, I had kept this particular contact on my annual holiday card list, but hadn’t otherwise contacted her again. Two years later she e-mailed me about a project, which then led to additional projects from the same client. This goes to show that: a. it may take rather a long time for your networking efforts to pay off, but eventually they will and b. I should have followed up on this (and other) networking contacts more frequently — I might have worked for that agency sooner had I done so.

Other new clients this year learned about me from the American Translators Association website and other online sources. This lead to some long-term large projects, as well as several smaller jobs for the same end clients. After translating a few documents for the same end client I become familiar with that particular client’s writing style, vocabulary and subject matter. This makes subsequent translations go faster, allowing for a shorter turn-around time (and making my job easier).

Originals in PDF format, on the other hand, make a translator’s job harder, particularly if they are scanned from poor-quality originals. But since such translations cannot be automated at all (not even to the extent of using CAT tools), they provide an antidote to the industry trend of low pay, which is often justified by referring to automated tools. I found such originals particularly common among technical documents submitted in lawsuits.

Having dual screens really paid off for these projects – PDF original on one screen, Word document on the other.
While translations still make up the bulk of my workload, I am trying to expand my services. To that end I attended the Content Connections conference organized by the American Society of Journalists and Authors. The goal here is to return to some of my journalistic and technical writing roots. (I have a degree in media studies and used to write software documentation.) I have written book reviews and articles for industry publications all along. In 2014 I will try to turn that “sideline” into writing for which I actually get paid.

Over the years I have spoken at several conferences, but always because I submitted a proposal. Last year, I was invited to speak at WritersUA West this Spring, so I will be in Palm Springs in early March 2014. There is also a short video interview about my presentation “Writing for Global Audiences“. To prepare better for public speaking, I am attending an improv workshop organized by “Entreprov – Improv for Entrepreneurs” tonight. This should be interesting (albeit somewhat anxiety-inducing for an introvert like me).

One of my resolutions for 2014 is to publish blog posts more regularly – the goal is a new post every three weeks. So stay tuned (and nudge me, if you don’t see another post by the end of the month!) …

What Can I Do to Help My Translators Do a Better Job?

In this series I addressed pricing and timing questions, technical issues, such as file formats and questions about quality assurance. Now that you have some background on how we translators work, here are some ideas to help us do a better job.

  1. Internationalize source text
  2. Proof source text to ensure consistency
  3. Provide comprehensive glossary verified by in-country reviewers
  4. Provide background material
  5. Set realistic deadlines

1. Internationalize source text

If the source document has been edited for an international audience, the translator will not have to research regionalisms or convert measurements. The less time a translator has to spend on such details, the faster he or she can work and the fewer opportunities for misunderstanding (and resulting mistranslation) there are. Internationalization means removing cultural references, expressing dates and measurements in an international format, replacing country-specific information, etc. Such editing tends to shorten the text and often also clarifies ambiguities. A shorter text costs less to translate (see Tighten source text in my post “What Can I Do to Reduce That Cost?“), and unambiguous text saves you time, which you would otherwise have to spend to answer the translator’s questions.

2. Proof source text to ensure consistency

If it is called a heater in the introduction, a boiler in the body text and a furnace in the appendix, there is no way for the translator to know whether these terms all refer to the same heating system or to three different systems. The resulting translation could well confuse the reader, if, in fact, the same system was meant in all three instances. Similarly, make sure headline and subhead treatment (all capitals, title case, sentence case, font size) is consistent throughout the source text. If it is not, the translator won’t know which sections are subordinate and which are introductory, etc., which could affect how crossreferences to other sections of the text are translated, for example. The same is true for writing style, voice, etc. If the source text is not consistent with regard to any of these aspects, the translation will not be consistent, either.

3. Provide comprehensive glossary verified by in-country reviewers

If you can provide a comprehensive, verified bi- (or multi-)lingual glossary, translators do not have to research that terminology. This means they can work faster and thus deliver the translation within a shorter timeframe. Other benefits of such a glossary are that the terminology used for the current project will be consistent with previous translations and that your preferred terms, rather than possible alternatives, will be used.

4. Provide background material

The more the translator knows about the context in which this particular document will be used and the terminology used in related documents, the better a job he or she can do. The same is true for information about the expected audience, such as how familiar readers of the document are likely to be with the product or industry in question. Provide previous translations of similar or related documents, any relevant translation memories or glossaries, internal lists of acronyms, and any other information you think might be helpful. More is better here. If the translator does not need the particular information, he or she can easily disregard it.

5. Set realistic deadlines

Freelance translators often work on several projects with varying deadlines at the same time. If you need your translation very quickly, the translator has to either get the deadline on another project extended or work very late into the night to accommodate your project. Needless to say, productivity and accuracy drop off even for the best translator, if he or she is working 12-hour days to turn your translation around in a very short time. Short deadlines also leave the translator with less time for research or editing, so the translation may not be as good as it could be. I have found – and other writers and translators corroborate this – that letting 12-24 hours elapse between the first draft and subsequent editing of the translation significantly improves the quality of the text. That, however, is not possible, if I am expected to provide the translation the same day or early the next morning.

In previous posts, I looked at a number of other questions that arise before and during the translation process. A Documentation Manager’s Questions About Translation lists the topics covered in all of the posts in this series. If the series was helpful in preparing for your next translation project, let me know in the comments below. If you still have questions about the process, ask in the comments below.

How Do I Know That the Translation Is Correct?

In addition to price, timing and technical issues, such as file formats, quality assurance questions are often important concerns for documentation managers. Here are some ideas on how to ensure that your translated material will be as good as your original text.

  1. Pay for editing and proofreading
  2. Hire in-country reviewer(s)
  3. Conduct in-country testing
  4. Use experienced translators
  5. Start with small projects

1. Pay for editing and proofreading

As the saying goes: Nobody is perfect. Even the best translator will make the occasional mistake. Professional organizations recommend the “four-eye principle”: have a second pair of eyes proofread and/or edit the translation. That second person will obviously not work for free, so you will need to factor that extra cost into your budget. This is another reason not to assign translation (or most other) work solely based on the lowest price.

2. Hire in-country reviewer(s)

Someone in the country where the documentation will be used may be able to provide better feedback than a translator or editor who may not have lived in that country for a number of years. That said, the receptionist at your Berlin branch may not be the best person to review the German translation of the specifications for your computer-controlled motor pump. No offense to receptionists, but you want technical translations reviewed by someone familiar with the technology, preferably someone who also speaks the source language. Contemporary technical German, in particular, uses a number of English words and phrases in ways in which they are not used in the US or UK. A good reviewer needs to be aware of such potential pitfalls and must also be able to step outside the jargon and acronyms used daily in your industry, especially if the documentation is intended for end users.

3. Conduct in-country testing

Depending on the equipment or software being documented, you may want to have the documentation tested in the country where it will be used. In addition to checking that the text is easily understood, such testing will also uncover potential problems nobody might have thought of, such as the prevalence of older computers and modems that cannot download your image-rich documentation as a single file.

4. Use experienced translators

Translators, like any other freelancers, who consistently produce poor-quality work are unlikely to last in this business – unless they work extremely cheaply for clients who do not care about well-written documentation. Here again, beware of basing your decisions solely on price. Ask potential translators how long they have been in business and what experience they have in your particular field. The more specialized and experienced someone is the higher a price he or she can – and probably will – command. This does not mean translators new to the field necessarily provide poor quality, but just with anyone else new to your business you may need to provide more supervision than you do with someone more experienced.

5. Start with small projects

When contracting with a new translator, start with a relatively small project and have the translation reviewed, preferably by another translator, before moving on to larger projects. This way you can ensure that the translator meets your standards of quality and the translator, in turn, can ensure that you provide the resources and payment you promised.

These tips, as well as the items I identified in my earlier posts, will help ensure a good-quality translation. In the end, however, it all comes down to trusting the translator and editor to do it right – especially if you are not fluent in both (or all the) languages concerned.

My next – and final – post in this series will offer ideas for how you can help your translators do the best possible job.

A Documentation Manager’s Questions About Translation lists the questions I answer in this series of posts.