Saturday, March 25, 2006

Overdoing IT - Language, Layout, and Typography

Recently I had the opportunity to do a small translation job for an agency. I guess I've been living an isolated life, doing only some specialized translation jobs here or there, mostly of the literary variety, though a few were in the legal and commercial space. But this professional translation world is something else yet again. I had my suspicions, for some time ago I translated the 2nd volume of a series of books, the first one of which unfortunately also had been translated by such a "licensed" professional, whose last job apparently was to translate the text on a box of Corn Flakes...

Well, my recent experience was rather bizarre. A rush job. What else? The project was a translation of a quote for a residential electrical installation in Holland for an American principal. The Dutch original had been revised, and now it was upon me to translate and integrate the revisions. Unfortunately the document had been printed as a text file and on a large chain fed computer printer with 12*14" paper, so in printing it out, the format was all screwed up, with headers and footers and page breaks falling in the middle of the page.

The agency insisted that I come in to their office, since I did not possess the latest version of that wonder of technology, Microsoft Word. Side by side comparison was where it's at, I was told. I might have preferred to work from home because of a larger screen, among other benefits. After I reformatted the document to format the pages conform the original, at least the text became clear. However the agency person disagreed, and fought me on my efforts to reformat the page to match the original output. It only took an hour or two to convince the person of using common sense about this part.

Then came the matter of taking out the headers and footers, so one could separate the body of the text from the printed output. Another fight. I was told this was how the client wanted it (i.e. formatted for A4 and printed on large sheets, so all the pages were off), and I was not to change the document. The concept that headers and footers are not part of the document in the first place was apparently foreign to this person, so I gave up on that issue. I became the object of several other attempts to show me how to do the job faster, by someone who clearly had barely ever worked with Word or any other word processor. Altogether that wasted 6-8 hours of the job, including a helpful interim reformatting job, designed to save even more time, undoing the unintended side-effects of which took at least an hour.

In between all the struggles about how to use a word processor, I also received an explanation on how to become a translator, and learn to use appropriate translation software, etc. My predecessor on the job apparently knew all these things, and it was soon to be revealed how effective they were, as I was ready to proceed to the content once the formatting was more or less under control. The instructions were to reuse as much as possible the translations of the earlier translator, and to try not to duplicate the effort.

After my first day of work on the project I came to the conclusion that the prior translator was probably of Turkish origin, and had perhaps completed correspondence courses in Dutch and English. In my view this party could not possibly be a native speaker of either language, and had probably looked up words in a dictionary. Here were some of the pitiful problems I ran into:
- nouns were translated as verbs and vice-versa;
- technical terms were uniformly wrong;
- idiomatic expressions were mangled beyond recognition.

Some examples were the Dutch word "aarde," literally "earth," however in the context of an electrical installation should clearly be translated as "ground," even more so because there was no evidence of installing any garden lighting, or even roof gardens on the house. A "ground fault interrupt circuit breaker" thus had been translated as an "earth leakage interrupt circuit breaker." And a temporary electrical panel (for use during construction), "zwerfkast" in Dutch idiom, became a "drift box," just as much as a "patch panel" had been rendered as a "patch box." On and on and on, one hilarious mistake after another. Electrical conduit had been rendered as "tubing," as though it were for gas or water, and even there pipes may be more common usage than tubes. A very formal expression for an electrical receptacle (Dutch: "wal contact doos," which is truly formal contractorese, just as english "receptacle") was rendered as "outlet," and in some cases these were "rim-grounded" (why not "rim-earthed" - be consistent at least?), which no American would understand, for it's simply a grounded outlet, though in the European code the ground is not a 3rd prong, but is in a spring contact in the rim of the receptacle.

In short, between the reformatting problems and the word processor fights, the entire previous translation needed to be overhauled for it could have caused enough problems for the architects or builders to have serious difficulty with the material, and misunderstandings with the electrical contractors. And the entire job, which should have been eight hours work, ended up taking nearly twenty. After I finished it, I simply commented to the agency person that since I had thirty years of experience with word processors, and had learned to use probably that many different ones, that perhaps it was not necessary to explain Word to me, since she quite apparently was not sure how to use it herself. That brought some let up in the instructions.

The second document thankfully was two-thirds the same as the first, and with the formatting job already done, was easy to work on, and took five hours including corrections, even though the second document was one fifth longer than the first one. But then there were no more helpful hints about how to use wordprocessors, or time saving reformatting jobs. I have no idea though how much the client appreciated having headers and footers in the middle of the page...

The icing on the cake, after all of this, was the discovery that the prior translator was reportedly a college professor, and originally a Dutch speaker, teaching an arcane topic called "translation," and apparently an expert at all the software tools that can assist translators in their trade, a skill yours truly sorely lacked, making me not a professional translator, but a mere weekend-warrior.

Once again these experiences are routine daily examples of the misuse of technology, where the absence of skill is compensated with technology, and so the problems are compounded even while the appearance of competent work is created. Doing a layout job with a sophisticated word processor or desk top publishing program will result in disaster if one does not understand the elements of page layout to begin with. In this case the idiotic treatment of headers and footers as part of the text serves as an example. I should say that I speak from experience in particular in the area of typography, where in previous book projects I have been only just barely saved by professional typographers restraining my efforts at ridiculous extravagances in this area.

The latter brings me to my frequent discussions with Franklin Cooper, who with his twin brother Francis will surely be doing the typograhpy for my books in the future. Both were trained as typographers, and learned in "the old days" how to typeset. Frankling found himself displaced by technology and the presumption that software could REPLACE expertise. Francis stayed in the trade, learning to control the technology and create good results in spite of the best software technology on offer. Their stories could fill a book, and perhaps some day they will. For now the world seems full of opportunities to design books the old fashioned way, but using modern software as an extension of profound design skills, not in lieu of design skills. More about that another day.

To top it off, when coming home I found my twelve year old stepdaughter working on her Spanish homework, using an online translation service. Yet another example of the sad failures of providing basic training in the educational system, and replacing it with misused technology to raise a generation of cripples who can't understand their own language, let alone anybody else's. Computer "literate" illiteracy. For idiomatic English go to India, perhaps.

Copyright © 2006 Rogier F. van Vlissingen. All rights reserved.


Razib Ahmed said...

Yes, I agree with ou fully about the misuse of technology. You have mentioned misuse of technlogy in the field of translation (your step daughter's effort to get help for her homework). I think that the most terrible misuse of technology is giving calculator to little children and destrying their math skills.

Hamilton Richards said...

Digital technology is hailed for its power to amplify human intelligence. This story illustrates very well how technology also amplifies stupidity and incompetence.