This forum is for those interested in problems of modern linguistics and translation.
Dec 2009, 11:25, Mark Kit
A Sketch From Nature
You just have been assigned an international project manager. You have plenty of issues to worry about. On top of that there is a tiny irritating problem: the project documentation should be provided in two languages.
You hire someone, low-skilled, you call her Translation Manager; it makes the person feel important. After all, the job is just find translators and get the documents converted from one language into another. Now you can get back to important stuff.
Two months later you get a phone call. Your Russian counterpart complains about missing Design Documentation that you had to submit a while ago for approval. You start digging up the issue and learn that the documentation has been sent on time. You keep digging and eventually learn that the Russian translation has nothing to do with the original documents. The very name of the package misleads the reader.
The Translation Manager is suggested to come and see you. She hired translators through a placement agency. She does not know what criteria the agency people applied to the candidates. She is going to ask them questions.
Three days later she shows up with good news – there were criteria in place, two of those. One was to make sure the candidate speaks Russian. The other – the candidate would agree with the proposed compensation.
Having spent years in engineering you know that technical knowledge is what makes engineers understand each other, otherwise it would not be possible even if they speak the same language. How can one translate technical document without this knowledge? You present this question to your Translation Manager. She does not know. She does not have technical knowledge either. She does not think that volts and watts are much different. It is about electricity, right? Quantum mechanics are the guys who repair quantums, aren’t they? It is a common knowledge, what is there special about those documents? You just look in the dictionary and replace English words with Russians of vise versa.
You show her a translation into English you got. You can probably live with “The Great Chiefs of the space agencies”, but not with “power of 300 megavolt”.
You make her open a dictionary. There are 5 pages dedicated to the meanings of word “fire”. “Get fired” is one of them. “What meaning would you select for translation if you do not understand the subject?” – you demand. She does not know. Perhaps any. Are they much different?
You hire a new Translation Manager and explain her what happened with the previous one. This time the girl seems to understand the challenge. Jane looks sincere, diligent, smart. She starts with learning whom she has to deal with. It turns out that her department is comprised of two former musicians, one elementary school teacher, a car mechanic and a lady used to have occasional baby-sitting positions after moving in the West. Jane starts looking for replacements.
She calls placement agencies to learn that they are not qualified to hire translators. The agencies do not have bilingual personnel to evaluate capacity of people they send to the field. In fact, they cannot even make sure that the selected person does speak the target language. Their evaluation capacity is limited to determination that the candidate is not deaf or mute.
Jane starts calling translation agencies. She seems to be out of luck. Most agencies “translate all languages”. It means that they do not have profound knowledge in a certain specific language. Dealing with dozens of languages they just cannot afford to keep that many specialists in house. Nevertheless, now Jane has at least something. The agencies will be happy to send her as many English-Russian translators as she wants. They can also translate any (!) materials on any (!) topic if Jane sends it for translation.
The boss certainly has other things to do. Jane has to be creative. Here is the way out: she will make the boss to execute a contract with a translation agency and then there will be someone other than Jane to blame if things go wrong. Besides, she is planning to hire a quality check person who will keep the agency alert about the quality.
The quality guy seems to fit the position. He is a professional translator. He used to work in a translation department of a Russian ministry. Unfortunately, he smokes. He takes smoke breaks a few times an hour. Smoking is bad for his well-being. He knows that and offsets the harm with coffee breaks. Altogether he can translate 2 pages a day or check quality of about 10.
Verbal rubbish keeps coming. “All equipment shall be suitable for the area classification as specified in the data sheets” is translated as “All equipment shall be suitable to serve for classification of the area shown in the data sheets”.
Relationships with the Russians are going south. The Russians think that the American engineers are a) stupid, b) trying to confuse the partners on purpose. It is always this way with them Americans, you know.
Fortunately, they know you personally and respect you, so you can convince them that all miscommunications took place inadvertently and because of translation quality. The Russian manager reminds you politely that the contract stipulates that the US party is responsible for dual-language documentation. That clause was put in the contract with no much thinking behind it. Who cares about minor things when negotiating real stuff like piping, control systems or compliance with regulations?
In the meantime the fall is there. In the woods, they say, dry leaves are rustling under your footsteps. It would be nice to get away to some quite place where only birds’ talk is understood.