For They Know Not What They Do

Warsaw Nowy Swiat

For starters, let me state that the title above has nothing much to do with the young people in the pictures below. I took the pictures on the two evenings after conference sessions of TM-Europe Warsaw 2012 on the Nowy Świat and Foksal (named after London’s Vauxhall) streets where nightlife and the elbow to elbow human flow never end until the very small hours of the morning. As much as the conference was about the future of translation and, as highlighted in the passionate appeal of Kevin Lossner, about a future generation of translators (if there is one to come), it is more on these streets that the future is shaped than on any conference venue. Considering “the widespread sense of doom about the future of translation” at the conference, as Kevin put it, and the vibrant hustle and bustle outside, I couldn’t help thinking of “The Feast in Time of Plague”, an adage well known to all Russians since it became the title of one of the four Small Tragedies by Russia’s great poet Alexander Pushkin.

Soon after the conference, thanks to a tweet by the Russian translator Sergey Rybkin, I came across the new blog of Katya Filatova, another young and talented Russian language professional. (By the way, the young Russians know how to take the bull by the horns and not mince words when titling their blogs – Sergey’s blog is called “Russian Translation”, Katya’s (in Russian) “From English into Russian”. Search robots, make no mistake and don’t miss the message!)

It takes very little time to realize that Katya is obviously a really good, probably exceptionally good, talented, serious, professional translator. In her blog, she shares her thoughts about working as a freelance translator, negotiating with clients, first-time conference interpreting, the Russian translation market, e.g. prices for Sochi (where staging Olympic games obviously produced a huge demand for translating and interpreting services, but also a high supply of extremely low-paid, semiprofessional jobs). I immediately liked both what and how she writes (she has brilliant writing skills in Russian and a charming, good-humored attitude which shines through her posts). My gut feeling tells me that Katya belongs to this rare species of translators who are not only really good at this business but also well aware of what it is all about. In another words, those who do know what they do.

Warsaw - Mindnight - NEW

Katya’s specialty are “outward publications” or “for-publication translations” in the terminology of Chris Durban (by the way, Russian readers can get Chris Durban’s Getting It Right now available also in Russian here). These are corporate reports, press-releases, company brochures, marketing and advertising materials. Content which needs to be conveyed at its persuasive best. Unassumingly, Katya defines her specialty as “завлекаловка” (Russian for “enticing come-ons”). For this genre, Google Translate would be devastating. Just the same as myriads of run-of-the-mill translators (especially in Russia, where they tend to blindly follow the original, perhaps simply due to the lack of time – at the current local rates, they simply have to run the hamster wheel and be “highly productive”). To cater for the market of “for-publication translations”, you have to be a talented individual, with great writing – a translator’s and a copywriter’s – skills. You also need to understand human psychology, both of your customer and your customer’s audience. It is the translation market that I have been working (and enjoying working) for since many years. It may be wishful thinking, but I believe that this market is far less likely to succumb to the doom and gloom of bulk providers relying heavily on machine translation tools, on one hand, and easily replaceable, underpaid, semiprofessional suppliers who, similar to machine tools, tend to adhere to the source text as much as possible, on the other hand.

Judging from her blog, Katya understands very well what it means to be creative and how to adapt the content to better achieve the audience. I think she realizes that the client, who orders a translation, actually doesn’t look for a translation, but rather for communication materials in another language, localised to the needs and cultural background of the respective target audience. (I wonder if Katya has coined a better term than “transcreation” which I dislike: those who know not what they do, still worse, prospective clients, might think I specialize in translating some obscure esoteric nonsense, if I’d say my area of competence is transcreation.)

There were some comments in Katya’s blog which provided the motivation for this post. Particularly those regarding the matter of quality caught my attention. Recollecting her experience when working with project managers of translation agencies from abroad, Katya mentioned specifically the quality of response. For a project manager from abroad, a translator who provides poor translation quality but is always available (i.e. has a quick response), is more preferable in comparison to a better, quality-wise, but slower – in terms of reaction – alternative “vendor” (another word I dislike). But, to paraphrase the author of several blog comments on Katya’s website, if we speak about quality of translation in the narrow sense, irrespective of other project components (time, cost, customer relationship management), how can a project manager tell a good translation from a crappy one? Imagine a project manager cannot read the language, has no time, in the worst case, simply doesn’t care. Imagine a talented translator-transcreator spending days or hours of research, creativity and effort on the work to be submitted to the attention of an inattentive and ignorant PM (project manager)? Imagine an artist presenting his/her masterpiece to a blind commissioner?

For one thing, I believe that a really good, congenial project manager can tell a good translation from a bad one. I have little experience in outsourcing translation jobs for, say, Hungarian, but even in this case, without understanding a word of the Hungarian translation, I could judge to a certain extent whether the job was done properly. I remember a Hungarian translation (my own part was the Russian one, but I was also to handle several other East European languages) where I was fretting about the blank space between the numeral, the Celsius degree symbol and the letter “C”. In contrast to the original German document, the blank space in the Hungarian translation constantly shifted place: 37°C, 37° C, 37 °C. It may be pedantic, hairsplitting or paranoid, but I got my doubts about the consistency and accuracy of the whole Hungarian manual.

Warsaw - Nowy Swiat 27 - Backyard

There are other details which are indicative even if you don’t know the language. I won’t go into all of them, but segmentation may serve as a nice example. I am a human translator. At least, I don’t need to fill in a Captcha code on my own blog to prove that. And, as a human translator, in contrast to some Quality Assurance Modules of some Computer-Aided Translation Tools, I don’t like it when the target text is segmented exactly like the source text. I know that different languages have different syntax rules and preferences. I know that sometimes you can express a subtle nuance of the original text only in the next sentence or even paragraph of your translation. I may even add a sentence or two or make some minor shifts in the sentence structure if it would help stop my translation from reading like a translation. If it would help me to produce – semantically and functionally – a full-fledged equivalent of the original content I am working on. So, when I see a translation which syntactically never deviates from the source text, I grow suspicious.

Theoretically, there are ways and means to tell a good translation from a bad one, even if your project manager doesn’t know the language. But the truth is – like really good translators, really good project managers are very few. And, for some reason, the good ones are prone to change their employers pretty often and eventually drop off the radar. Again, there are others, who know not what they do. (For that matter, comments on Katya’s blog may be true. A project manager, similar to a translator, might be an endangered occupation, but a careless, easily replaceable project manager also endangers the existence of good translators and debases the idea of translation quality.)

But what is this post about? Is it about the gloom and doom of the future of translation, see above? Is it about ignorant and negligent project managers from bulk translation companies who know not what they do? No, it’s rather the opposite. At TM-Europe 2012 in Warsaw, Peter Reynolds projected on the screen a compilation of quotes from Miguel Llorens (mostly on the subject of machine translation), the late translator who was expected to speak at the conference, but, sadly, passed away only a few weeks earlier. A slide stuck in my head:

Miguels Llorens - Hamster Wheel

I don’t want this hamster wheel to stand for the future of our industry. I prefer to see human faces you can put a name to. I think it is worthwhile to write about and give credit to talented individuals like Katya Filatova or Sergey Rybkin. “Anonymity kills” (Chris Durban). I’d rather we discover names and faces when we “pull the curtains” of the translation industry. Somehow, it shows more what this “industry” is about, that is humans, not products or machines (and certainly not the anonymous product managers from translation agencies who know not what they do, for that matter…). I think it also helps to lift the gloom off this industry. The night streets in Warsaw might look bleak if you only see the faceless crowd. They are different as soon as you spot a few nice, friendly faces. It is these faces that make the streets less doomed and gloomy. In Warsaw, Germany, Russia, and everywhere else.

Warsaw - Coca-Cola


  1. Katya’s avatar

    Thank you for the good words Valerij! Tons of interesting ideas throughout the article, will take some time to digest them. 🙂 For now: 1) not too fond of the ‘transcreation’ term myself, thought I have never looked at it from an esoteric viewpoint 🙂 Creative adaptation sound better but it’s longer too. 2) I agree that there are many formal ways to detect a bad translation, however in the case of creative adaptation a formally good translation can turn out to be totally useless because of the style and tone issues. It is true too however that formal and ‘actual’ quality often come together. 3) I would like to agree with you wholeheartedly that creative translation or whatever you call it survives in this industry race we observe today, that’s my hope and plan anyway. 🙂 4) Totally agree with you too that it’s always good to see faces behind names, I was even making plans to write about some names in my blog after my vacation, good to see proof that the idea is worth considering. 🙂 Thanks again for the article, interesting and beautifully written too!



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