Tuesday, 27 March 2012


Many German companies with an internet presence who are selling immaterial goods or services have never seen themselves as capable of moving beyond their own borders. But it begs the question in this internet age...why on earth not? Perhaps they are just afraid to dip their feet into an unknown environment, and of incurring the losses which would certainly accompany any venture into unknown territories.

But the advantages of doing just that are clear, particularly if their product can be distributed via the internet. More customers from a wider market means more sales in the end. The fixed costs of any business are low when immaterial goods or services are distributed. the most significant investment is in advertising.    

Almost all companies with a German focus provide no payment options for services apart from money transfer (Überweisung), which though normal in Germany is costly especially in anglo-saxon economies where each transfer can cost the payer upwards of 9 pounds (yes, even in the days of the SEPA which was supposed to eliminate these kinds of charges). This is more or less the hallmark of a company that wants to retain a German clientelle and not go international...namely, under no account take credit cards!

The Germans have always had a problem with credit cards, and it is a cultural phenomenon. Even in tourist traps many bars and restaurants still refuse to take them. They are blind to the common effect that many anglo-saxons on holiday would rather spend invisible money than real, paper money. To them the idea of paying trader commissions outweighs the benefits of having customers stay and spend longer, or perhaps they are just not aware of that kind of spending behaviour in their own culture.

But the real point is that if you don't provide an option to pay this way, you lose custom on the internet. I am fortunate enough to understand German very well, and as I was plowing my way through the internet in  search of a broker for german toll-free numbers, I was struck by the fact that if I bought in Germany I could get a much better deal than I could from international suppliers. But then when it came to paying...bang...only Kontoüberweisung was accepted as a paying method. In the end, after checking 7 or 8 German providers, I gave up and went for a more expensive international solution.    

This scenario provides a unique opportunity for localisers and translators with good IT skills. The mother tongue translator knows his own country's sensitivities, and can provide valuable advice about reaching the desired customer. Germans love to be talked to in officialese and overbloated sentences. It gives them the sense they are talking to someone professional who knows what he is doing, and he can be trusted to get the job done.  But take that line with an Englishman or an American and the back button will be used more often than not. Entertainment and familiarity (even when it patently is not there) seem to be the order of the day. It obviously depends on the goods or services you are offering, and there are plenty of sectors where familiarity and entertainment would be inappropriate in the anglo-saxon setting, but that is definitely a trend and it is good to know that. Conversely, the Germans are not as humourless as their stereotypes seem to dictate, and there are plenty of occasions whery they enjoy a familiar and entertaining approach. In the end, its all about finding the right balance and exercising some Fingerspitzgefühl

So perhaps a model for the future is for transators and localizers to offer that they translate and localise websites for foreign companies that might otherwise be reluctant to expand.  In return for doing it for free or at low cost, they could earn commissions on sales from an exclusive affiliate program.

I shall keep you posted       


Sunday, 25 March 2012

Machine translation and the translation industry

Machine translation and the translation industry

Since the advent of machine translation a persistent issue has been whether it shall be the death knell for the translation industry as a whole. This most certainly has not been the case, but it has dramatically altered the playing field through its effects on the supply and demand scenario. If the translator has not already done so, he or she will have no choice but to embrace it at some point and use it to his or her advantage.

Take a look at the following trends:

  1. With globalization and the growth of the internet, the number of suppliers in the translation industry has grown remarkably over the years. The fact that it is an industry that lends itself perfectly to distribution via the internet means that competition from low cost environments has also increased. All this has entailed downward pressure on the fees which can be charged for translation services, and unit prices that can be charged have dropped over the last 15 years.
  2. Machine translation in its early days produced many humorous anomalies, but with time the technology has improved to the extent that it can now be used as an important productivity aid. It can not replace a professional translation service, but it can be used to assist it, especially where style and literary quality are not of paramount importance.
  3. Many translation agencies now ask their suppliers to use CAT software to prepare translation memories and deliver these with the translations. They even ask their suppliers to append terminology lists, although compliance with this requirement is understandably poor when there is no remuneration attached to this. The net effect, however, is that supplier translations can now be used more widely, even by other suppliers when preparing their translations. Strictly speaking this would represent a copyright breach, but many agencies now incorporate waivers in their supplier agreements, and the suppliers working for such agencies are normally just too glad to get the work.       

The net effect of all of this, even though most translators would be loath to admit it, is that many have had to resort to machine translation to offset fall in line prices and increase their own productivity.  Indeed many suppliers of CAT software (including SDL Trados), which is specifically targeted towards translation professionals, are now incorporating machine translation (typically Google translate) into their translation workflow. This is patent recognition of the fact that machine translation is now well and truly part of the human translator’s toolkit.
Proz.com, perhaps the largest network of translators on the web, has published a number of polls revealing the attitudes of its members towards MT.  
Below is a summary of several of these.  

What is clear from these polls is that most translators still scorn MT. However, a sizable proportion have embraced it and do use it. As we know from other historical innovations, with everything from the  car to the mobile phone, the proportion of those embracing this new technology is likely to increase.
Translators are clearly proud of their profession, and don't like the idea that machines will someday replace them. I am certainly with them on that, and am proud of my work too, but to stay competitive one has to know when to use this technology as a productivity aid, and when not to do so.  

Friday, 9 March 2012


How often was I preached during my schooldays about the importance of being concise when writing text? This is certainly an honourable goal when the intention is to communicate ideas and thoughts efficiently, so that communal goals can be reached more rapidly and effectively. But to say that this should always be the case is grossly distorting the truth.

My early days as a scientist were probably like those of many others. After having finished my Ph.D. thesis, a casual observer might have been forgiven for thinking that the primary goal was merely to write a document of sufficient width to impress the pour soul who would eventually have to assess it. For most people it will more often than not be the first attempt at writing anything that looks remotely  like a book, and books of course have to be filled. As well as looking at every possible variable correlation that wouldn't find its way  into any self respecting  journal article, an inexperienced writer also has a tendency to repeat adjectives and corroborating statements to the point of dire tedium, all for the fear of inadequately stressing one point or another to support the ultimate theorem. It was only years after completing it that I realised I could have written my Ph.D. thesis using a quarter of the ink without compromising the message I was trying to convey in any way whatsoever.

Verbosity and non clarity is not merely the domain of the inexperienced, or indeed the incompetent. How many times have we heard of the business meetings where the speaker tries to bamboozle the audience with technical jargon and the latest marketing catchphrases, all in the hope of convincing the audience that something significant has been achieved? And lets face it, if authors didn't have some license for expanding their use of words, many a novel could probably be written in just 50 or 60 pages. Who would want to buy a book which was that short ?

I suppose my point is this. Many authors might want to hide a little behind the language, or indeed use its floridity to achieve an atmospheric effect, a bamboozling effect, but most certainly not to bring something over effectively and efficiently.

As a translator one must always be aware of this, and what the needs of the client are. It may be noble to strive for conciseness, brevity, and to produce perfect copy, but it may not always be appreciated or indeed even wanted by the client.     

Dr. Julian P. Keogh
Lead Translator
Pharmacad Services
Translations for Medicine and the Pharmaceutical Industry
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