Tell your translator the purpose of your translation

This text was written by Levent Yildizgoren and originally published on his company’s blog. I decided to republish it on TCZ because it addresses in a lot more detail one of the items tacked in my article Defining project specifications, namely, the importance of informing translators of the purpose of a text. Thanks a lot for sharing it with us, Levent!

. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .

When choosing to translate any form of communication, informing the translator of the purpose of the text is paramount. Specifying the purpose of the translation will not only ensure that it is fit for purpose, but will also save you time and money. Is the translation required for a short business email, to be published on a website or just to understand the gist of the information?

Literal translations express text word for word and are devoid of any undertone or nuances. They are usually intended to understand the content of the source text, for instance back translations. With literal translation any internal inconsistency or error in the source text will be transferred into the final translation. A publication standard translation, stylistic and professional, is far from the literal example.

For the majority of translations, successfully conveying the meaning of the text is more important than remaining faithful to the original lexis. There are varying degrees of freedom in translation. The translator has to make difficult decisions with regards to grammatical and sentential issues, cultural transposition, tone, and social register. To classify a text can be tricky, but the key is to provide as much relevant information as possible. Generally it is clear whether a text is fictional or non-fictional. However, the purpose or context is often a point for clarification. Most non-fictional texts can be categorized as below:

  • Informative (commercial) – magazine article, advertisement
  • Informative (persuasive) – political tract, business pitch, marketing communication
  • Informative (empirical) – technical manuals

Is the article to convince, inform, inspire, console? The list is endless.

In order to ensure that the translator can classify the material correctly, it is important not only to supply the purpose of the text, but also the context in which it will be used. The sentence structure and vocabulary used in the translation will vary according to the information that you provide. For example, the level of language used for a user manual would not be suitable for a magazine article. The purpose of a text will also affect the manner in which cultural references and idiomatic phrases are conveyed.

With regards to context, if the translation is an addition to previous work (in a brochure, perhaps), providing any reference material or supplying a glossary of terminology will ensure that the translation is consistent and functional.

Who is the translation aimed at? The target audience plays a vital role in deciding the style and register of the translation. Tone has a great impact on the way the text is received and in turn how successful the translation is.

The amount of information that the translator has will determine the extent to which s/he can compensate for translation loss in the finished article. Professional translators are trained to recognize the requirements of a text, to make decisions that will effectively communicate the style and meaning of a text with minimal distortion of the original copy.

A translator’s choice of vocabulary throughout the translation process will directly affect the success of the translation. Providing the purpose and context of the translation will ensure that these decisions are informed decisions.

Subtitling – Part I

Many clients who ask us for subtitling quotes don’t know exactly what they want, or what to expect. The explanation? They haven’t heard much about the process, let alone its steps or possible products. It’s understandable that those who have never needed to have a video subtitled might assume it’s as simple as typing the text onto the screen through some specialized software. Well, it’s far from that.

With the Q&A sheet below, we intend to give you an overview of the subtitling process. Our goal is in line with the general goal of this blog: to help you get the product that most suits you, and with the best possible quality, by better communicating your needs to the specialized professionals.

(1)    What information should I provide to get a subtitling quote?

Basically, you should discuss with the professional(s) all the pertinent specifications of your project. Give special attention to the format of the video you have and what end product you want. Do you have a “hard copy” of a video (VHS, DVD, Blu-ray, etc.) or a digital file (AVI, MKV, MPEG, WMV, MP4, etc.)? As usual, sending the original video up front is the most reasonable way of dealing with this, but we understand it’s not always possible. If that’s the case, don’t forget to inform the length of the material and its subject matter (how technical is it?). If you have the transcription (i.e. the text of the video in a written format), go ahead and send it. It can also be useful if you explain the purpose of the translated video: will it be shown at a film festival? On a TV channel? Sent as internal communication to your company’s employees? Serve as marketing material for your clients? Put on your website or YouTube? Last but not least, all steps of the project should also be crystal clear: who does what and when.

(2)    What are the most common products and their (dis)advantages?

First things first: do you only need the translated text so you can prepare a written training manual, for instance? If so, subtitling is not necessary, and most translators can work from the audio to produce a written translation (and charge accordingly). However, if you need a DVD or a video to broadcast, keep on reading.

Digital video files are becoming more and more popular. They can, however, have only one subtitle file attached to them, so if you need the video translated into two languages, you’ll need two video files. But the mobility of these files makes them incredibly practical. They can be easily uploaded to your website or USB drive, sent by email or through FTP servers, and so on. Also, they can be conveniently saved onto a CD-ROM whenever you need something “concrete” to hand to your clients, for example.

Another option is a DVD (category that also includes Blu-ray and VHS). This technology stores images and texts independently and allows for the existence of various subtitling channels, which viewers can switch on and off. This means you can have a video subtitled in multiple languages, and the audience can choose whether to read the French subtitles, the Spanish subtitles, or none at all. A possible downside of DVDs has to do with their “physical” existence: you have to carry them around and burn the number of copies you need, instead of being able to send the video by FTP or email, or uploading it to a USB drive or website. While a digital video file can be quickly burned onto a CD-ROM, a DVD is not easily converted into a subtitled video file; it’s totally feasible, but requires the right software and expertise.

(3)    What are the common steps throughout the subtitling process?

Without getting into the nitty-gritty of subtitling, I’d say most professionals begin with the translation proper. While they type the translated text into the subtitling software (or word processor), they need to decide where exactly each subtitle and each line begin and end, i.e. how to segment the text so that readable chunks are shown on the screen. As subtitles are constrained by space and duration, our job is to facilitate the reading process by making the text flow as much as possible.

The next phase is the synchronization of the written text with its oral counterpart. It’s crucial for the subtitles to be shown on the screen as their respective sentences are heard. For this to happen, the professional has to mark the exact time when each subtitle appears and disappears.

When translators use specialized subtitling software, the result at this point is a text file (TXT, SUB, SRT, etc.) containing the translation and relevant technical information such as timing, formatting, line breaks, and so on.

Strictly speaking, this is where the job of the audiovisual translator ends. The final step consists of editing the translated video with “attached” subtitles or authoring a new DVD in the translated language(s). This job is usually carried out by professional film producers, and many translators don’t perform this task. So, if you need someone to edit the final video, ask the translator if s/he offers this service or can recommend a video producer. Bear in mind that film editing is a separate task and, as such, will be charged separately according to the technical requirements.

Translation agreements

“Spoken words fly away;
written words remain.”

– Latin saying

Once you have spoken or exchanged emails with the translator and all the relevant project specifications are well defined, the best next step is to put everything together in clear writing.

This can be done rather formally, by adapting a model contract to your needs and having both parties sign it. A translation agreement should be designed and customized to establish the specificity of the relationship between a translation buyer and a language service provider in any particular project.

Alternatively, a more informal way of specifying all pertinent details in writing is by email. I myself started using this email method at first: I’d write an email with all the specifications, send it to clients, and ask them to reply stating they agreed with the terms and conditions. Only then would I begin working on the project.

Lately I’ve been using a model contract and asking for signatures—it projects a more professional image and gives both parties a better sense of security.

In any case, I’d advise you not to rely only on spoken words or agreements.

Having a client–provider agreement is one of the requirements of the European quality standard for translation service providers (EN 15038:2006) and the Canadian Translation Services Standard (CAN/CGSB-131.10-2008), both developed to ensure the quality of translation services offered by translation agencies and translation companies.

A translation contract protects both parties: you and the service provider. Even if the translator doesn’t take the initiative to send you an agreement, you’re right to request one. Not surprisingly, some translators develop mistrust toward clients who refuse to sign this type of document. Come to think of it, if the service request is genuine, why wouldn’t a buyer want to formalize it in a contract? Conversely, you should be careful when dealing with a language professional who is not willing to sign an agreement.

Below is one of the most comprehensive model contracts I’ve seen, provided by the American Translators Association (ATA). There may be other specific issues either party might want to specify in writing.

. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .

Post update – Jan 27th, 2012

Seeking to help translators draft their own contracts and agreements, the ATA Business Practices Education Committee has put together the Guide to a Translation Services Agreement.

This publication provides not only a customizable model contract in one column, but also enlightening explanations in the second column. While undoubtedly handy for language professionals, it’s certainly useful to translation customers as well.

To help with ease of access, this resource has been added to TCZ’s “Useful links” section (left column).