Notes for some of our best clients: translation companies
What makes a translation “difficult”?
This may seem trivial, but translation difficulty is a relative concept. Many argue for example that specialized technical/scientific or specialized translations are the most difficult, and these would certainly prove challenging for translators who have limited knowledge of their subject matter. Yet those same technical texts could be child's play for a translator who is an expert in the field; that individual might instead struggle to adequately express other source texts which seem easier at first glance but actually require greater linguistic prowess.
Even a personal or sensitive business letter or email intended to convincingly convey a particular situation or mood may require considerable effort to interpret it correctly and render its true meaning into the target language with all of the accompanying nuance. In addition to deft power of expression, such translations often demand more experience (by the way, for our translation experience please see our Japanese and Italian general translation page) and time than technical translations.
In a broad sense, the most difficult translations are simply those that require the most time to complete, regardless of what classification clients might assign them based on nebulous criteria.
For instance, we notice that many Japanese translation companies establish rate tiers for different categories of documents, where general communication such as private and business letters and emails falls on the lowest end of the spectrum regardless of their actual content and as if they could never be a vehicle for transmitting difficult-to-translate matters. Such practices are not unique to that country, however.
The editor's role for translation companies
Although the requirement to have a translation proofread or edited by another linguist is often justifiable or even recommended (it is harder for translators to find their own errors), it sometimes creates a new problem instead of fixing one. This is usually due to the editor not being up to the task, a by-product of a rather crowded field within which many translation companies fail to maneuver correctly.
Translations are not like mathematical equations. In fact, they can have more than one exact solution.
Linguistic competence and professional ethics aside, it's surprising that the fact that languages are not an exact science has to be repeatedly stressed. To arrive at the desired result of a correct transposition of the original message, different translators will inevitably follow different paths known as writing styles. Unfortunately, these writing styles are often easy prey for bad or unethical editors.
Translation companies without the in-house multilingual resources to properly understand certain target languages (Italian and Japanese in our case) are typically prone to this error, while others may find themselves at the mercy of external and therefore less verifiable editors. Also, many translation companies do not involve the original translator in the revision process, thus depriving that individual of the right to defend his or her linguistic choices.
Certifications and translation experience
There are basically two ways one can become a professional translator: by receiving a university education in translation or foreign languages, or by gaining work experience in industries where languages are an important practical tool that support one or more specializations.
But how can one become a good translator? If, as we believe, the key prerequisites are mastery of the languages involved, strong writing skills in the target language, some degree of talent in languages along with a fundamental passion for them, and hands-on experience acquired over time, what then makes these two approaches different in terms of actual results? Besides, is it really true that a degree in translation or foreign languages guarantees the best results? Opinions vary, and we have our own too.
There are unfortunately still many translation companies that select only those freelance translators with specific university educations, thus wasting opportunities to test other professionals who not only have mastered their working languages as well as or better than translators with degrees but who also have broader knowledge of various fields of application. This last advantage is something that prospective translators simply cannot be taught within the walls of a university and must therefore expend significant time and effort to "catch up on."
Word by word translation?
In all honesty, this has probably cost us several clients who failed to evaluate our Japanese or Italian translations themselves or relied on unskilled, unprofessional or dishonest editors.
It is definitely one of the most frustrating aspects of the profession and the least understood by those unfamiliar with the needs and peculiarities of the languages involved, especially in the case of Italian as it requires a special attention to writing style that is enormously difficult for a Japanese native to learn well.
While it's true that literal translations are more easily accepted—often demanded, even—in technical translation where a word-by-word rendering might be preferable to avoid any subjective interpretation of the resulting text, they often suffer from poor readability which highlights one or more deficiencies on the part of the translator, whether it be inexperience, a limited knowledge of the source text (and thus its meaning, hence the desire to translate word for word), an unsuccessful attempt to meld old and new translations, the usage of sloppy translation memories, or a blind reliance on machine translation.
This tendency toward literal translation is especially strong when working with source texts written in Japanese or those which have been translated literally from Japanese into some other language. For these texts, it takes much more conscious effort to avoid the pitfall of literal translation than when working with languages that are more structurally similar to Italian. Our translation quality control page explains how we translate from Japanese the most difficult texts.
Literal translations often mask the inability of the translator to comprehend the source text or to use correct and articulate expressions. In some cases, the technique may be nothing more than an attempt to finish the translation quickly because the agreed-upon translation rate is believed to be too low.
Contrary to popular opinion, we feel that even technical manuals should adhere to certain writing standards and should not only be perfectly comprehensible in terms of content but also easy to read and appealing from an aesthetic point of view, rather than being a chore for the reader.
The excessive usage of foreign words
Italians and particularly the Japanese are fascinated by foreign words, to the extent that they currently use them without any real need to do so.
Examples of such cultural superficiality abound in many corners of our daily life. Social and historical reasons are often cited in attempts to explain this bizarre phenomenon, although its main catalysts are without a doubt the Internet and mass media. It is undeniable that languages evolve continuously and that any attempt to resist such evolution would be futile. However, natural evolution resulting from long-term interaction between different cultures is one thing; one-way linguistic globalization driven solely by xenophilia is quite another entirely.
In our world, translators themselves are often to blame for encouraging this phenomenon. Failing to search for valid alternatives in one's own language, selecting words for conformity's sake, blindly accepting the suggestions of mass media, and even being fearful of going against the mainstream are all behaviors which lead to the much dreaded (by us, at least) linguistic flattening. For example, when they leave in English certain words that can be perfectly translated into Italian ("nowadays they can be left untranslated in Italian too" is their typical justification), or when they simply transliterate with the Japanese katakana alphabet words that they fail to understand properly.
Paradoxically, in this way they help encouraging an undesired level of linguistic flattening, the worst enemy of the good translator.
We believe that translation companies should discourage their translators from the excessive use of foreign words and establish themselves as authoritative figures willing to confront those who make a habit of doing so without much justification.
Translation companies and translators abroad
The common belief in the pre-Internet era was that expatriates gradually lose the ability to speak and write properly in their native languages.
This is probably founded on the assumption that, by ceasing to live in their homelands, they systematically stopped using those languages due to a lack of opportunity, environmental issues, or even personal choice. In this day and age, however, such beliefs are groundless. And considering that languages are the raison d'etre of excellent translators abroad, does it makes sense to include them in this category? Some translation companies still think so and select translators primarily based on where they live.
We are not claiming that there is no risk of losing some degree of practical ability when living abroad for long time. But, are we really sure that living in one's own native country is all it takes to speak and write correctly in that language? The Internet provides ample evidence that this is not the case. There are countless examples demonstrating how poor the linguistic abilities of people residing in their native countries have become. We see it often in the texts arriving from Italy (and those originating in Japan too), which in our opinion should be proofread first.
CAT software and its (mis)use
CAT (Computer Assisted Translation) software is an indispensable tool nowadays, and many translators (ourselves included) own more than one such program. The usefulness of CAT software when it comes to terminology consistency and pre-DTP support tools is unquestionable, which is why its use is practically mandatory for technical translations.
But many translation companies now require that their translators use CAT tools even with texts that aren't repetitive, a questionable move that makes life difficult for translators who need the flexibility afforded by a more creative work flow. The reasoning behind this requirement has more to do with economics than improving quality; the idea is to save as much money as possible on translation costs by reusing old translations. But this strategy hinges on the assumption that translators do not improve over time, when quite the opposite is true—like most professionals, translators will produce better results as they gain more and more experience.
In fact, the entire existence of CAT tools is predicated on their ability to create such translation memories (TMs). TMs can be a real nightmare for the conscientious translator who abhors using severely dated translations, shoddy translations (such as those churned out by machine translation), flat-out wrong translations, or translations containing a smorgasbord of different writing styles.
This page is only intended to provide translation companies with an idea of how we work and what we expect from them.
Some might consider our general notions about translation to be somewhat romantic, particularly in the sense of it being used to enrich one's culture by shielding it from a rapidly expanding globalization that threatens to mix the entire world into a giant homogeneous soup. This is why we believe that translation companies should be an authoritative professional reference for translators and end clients alike.