A Word to the Wise: Choose the Right Translator – Sharon Reier

from the New York Times/International Herald Tribune
By Sharon Reier
Published: Friday, November 24, 2006

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When Alain Thienot, a professor of business administration at a French engineering school, decided to translate a classic French finance text into English for his international students, he bought a top-rated computer translation program to do the job, rather than hire a translator.

Among hundreds of errors, the program produced a document that translated the French word “enterprise” as “undertaking,” rather than company, and “frais” as “fresh air” instead of fees or expenses. A frustrated Thienot had to labor five hours a day during his summer vacation to correct “so many stupidities,” he said.

Translators love collecting stories about these kinds of false economies, in part because it proves that translation still requires the human touch.

With so many companies chasing foreign markets, and more people practicing their professional trades abroad, the demand for translators has been expanding. But selecting the right translator for an assignment may make the difference between mission accomplished and mission impossible.

Lori Thicke, co-founder of Eurotexte, a translation agency in Paris, remembered a client who organized trade shows. A contract he had drawn up with exhibitors of X-ray and MRI equipment was supposed to state that radioactive parts “should never be accessible.” Instead, the poorly translated document stated that “radioactive parts should be exposed at all times.”

“They were giving potentially fatal instructions,” Thicke said.

How one chooses a translator and how much one pays varies with the importance of the text, the audience it addresses and its technical challenges.

A computer translation, for instance, may be helpful in the case of a research document for one’s own use, just to pinpoint important issues. The technique is called “gisting,” Thicke said. “You may have a hundred page document, and with the machine translation you can find the ten pages that you really need,” she said. “Then you get someone to translate those properly.”

A proper translation is almost always done from a foreign language into the translator’s native language: If you are in France and need a document translated into Chinese, you need a native Chinese speaker who has excellent command of French. On the other hand, if you have a Chinese document that must be translated into French, you want the French translator who has studied Chinese.

In Denmark, where there has been little history of foreign immigration, and demand for Danish translations is limited, Danes translate into other languages, as do Norwegians and Finns. “These are called languages of limited diffusion,” said Jorgen Nielsen, of the Danish Union of Communications and Language Graduates.

In many countries, including France, Switzerland and Germany, official documents may have to be translated by court-approved “sworn translators.” This can lead to cumbersome, and expensive, transactions. A Chinese entrepreneur who wanted to expand from France into Italy found that there were no sworn translators in France capable of translating Chinese documents into Italian. Monica Paneff-Lancellotti, a sworn translator who specializes in translating French into Italian, said the entrepreneur first had to employ a sworn translator to turn his Chinese documents into French, and then Paneff-Lancellotti translated the French version into Italian.

Sworn translators may be no more competent than other professional translators, but they have taken an oath that they will not reveal what they have learned. Doris Schmidt Fourmont, studies adviser at École de Traduction et d’Interpretation, a translation school in Geneva, said confidentiality was part of the ethics of the profession: “to be secret about all that they hear and what they know and what they read.”

Prices for translation services are unregulated, but comparison-shopping is easy, especially for official translations: Most governments publish lists of approved translators. But since clients are not generally fluent in the language of the translation, it is far harder to judge quality.

Julia Bohm, a freelance interpreter in Heidelberg, suggested that picking a translator or interpreter should be similar to choosing a lawyer or a public relations agency: by canvassing friends and colleagues for recommendations.

Bohm also recommended finding a translator who has graduated from one of the major translation schools, like Heidelberg University or the École Supérieure d’Interprètes et de Traducteurs at the University of Paris-III. Translators’ organizations like the BDU German Translators and Interpreters Association are also good sources.

For those with a rush job, using a translation agency can be helpful. Translations agencies charge by the word, and prices can vary from 10 cents to 45 cents, depending on factors that include the rarity of the language. Major European languages are more easily available, and cheaper, than Chinese and some East European languages.

A top translation agency has already tested the translators for quality, and should have the translated copy edited for errors before the client sees it. However, sometimes clients can be their own worst enemies by deciding that they know enough to make their own corrections to a foreign-language text.

Thicke said she had seen French executives at blue-chip companies change the English word “equipment” to “equipments,” a direct translation from the French – a trap that no experienced translator would fall into, she said. Read the translation, Thicke advised, but don’t make any changes unless you have consulted the agency.

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