RE: Computer-assisted translation

Subject: RE: Computer-assisted translation
From: "Barbara Thomas" <btboletines -at- wanadoo -dot- es>
To: <techwr-l -at- lists -dot- techwr-l -dot- com>
Date: Tue, 23 Jan 2007 17:54:45 +0100

Dear Ashok,

I am a translator and I have worked with computer-assisted translation (Systrans, Trados, Logos, Transit, and a number of other products) on a daily basis for over 15 years, mainly in the fields of medical instrumentation and pharmaceutical dossiers (Spanish<>English).

The first thing that I would say is that just as your client undoubtedly has invested many thousands of hours in producing a quality product and has had to meet legal requirements to be able to market their product, they probably have spent at least a few hundred hours in producing the original documentation. Still, if they propose to sell their product credibly in foreign markets, their work is just beginning. If they are concerned about the company image, liability, etc., they should expect to spend almost as many hours translating their documentation into each language and validating the translation as they spent in writing the original documentation.

Personally, I don't believe that any device, instrument or system is properly usable without good documentation, no matter how good the training program is. In the medical field, every time I read about an inexplicable and bizarre accident involving an instrument, my first thought is poor translation, followed by poor documentation and human error. I know for a fact that physicians in Spanish hospitals rarely use the Spanish manuals of their instruments, they read the English manuals, no matter how poor their language skills are. With a few noteworthy exceptions, they find the Spanish translations to be laughable at best, criminally negligent at worst.

The short explanation of why computer-assisted translation often falls short is "garbage in, garbage out." I repeat, I have used CAT systems for over 15 years and I am a CAT proponent, but I am under no illusion that they are a huge time or money saver. My systems save me about 20% of my time (over pure human translation) on a virgin translation, a document that no one else has worked on and for which there is no historical material, glossaries, etc. However, the typical manual that has been "pretranslated" by feeding all of a company's documents into the database and then using the translation memory to generate new "translations", generally takes me 100% to 150% as long to process as human translation. Moreover, if the translation agency has given me this product of many hours of language engineering and has found that 80% of the manual is "translated" because they found a match for each segment, I won't be paid more than 10% of my usual rate for the work that I put into these "translated" segments. Most translators look at what they're earning, look at the poor criterion of the company that gives them this material without taking any steps to validate the translation or develop glossaries, style manuals or standard operating procedures for new terms or modifications, and translate only what is marked as "not translated." Their own translations may be exquisite, but the document as a whole is garbage that gets recycled over and over.

If you want to get an idea of what is involved in a good computer-assisted translation system, I suggest that you read about Caterpillar Equipment, the European Community, or the Pan American Health Organization. All of these organizations produce millions of words a year in many languages. Do not read the promotional literature of software developers, they are the worst sort of snake-oil salespeople.

This is a reality check, not a scary story meant to frighten you away from CAT. If, as a translator, you want to use any program, go ahead. You may find that it saves you time or you may decide that you hate it. Try an online translator before you spend any money. The Systran online translator is as good as the full-scale product, so that should give you an idea of the quality of the output. CAT may save you time and, if you use all the features that the programs offer, it may help you to produce a good, fully consistent translation.

However, if you are advising a company on how to proceed, you first must know what their translation needs are (how many words a year, how many languages, how much common material, who the documentation is being submitted to [EU, US or other guidelines, distributors, local partners]). If they need more than one manual and more than one language (and less than several thousand pages and 20 languages a year), the most honest advice you can give your client is to look for a good translation agency. What are the signs of a good agency? Some of them are realism (if they tell you it's easy and cheap, run), ISO 9001 certification, clients from your own field, client references, your own personal project manager, glossary development and validation, translation memories as part of your deliverables, etc. A client with ongoing documentation needs will find that its a good investment to find a company with which it can confidently develop a long-term relationship.

However, if the documentation needs are large, say 2000 pages a year or more in a number of languages, a company would do well to hire their own language specialists to manage translation projects, even if they use translation companies. It's a documentation management specialty with the very important added twist of languages. I say this because the _only_ good CAT documentation that passes through my hands comes from companies that handle their translation needs this way. I have no doubt that the best technical manuals come from companies that do at least part of the work inhouse.

I repeat this because it is important for anyone sensitive to documentation as an essential part of any product ... the _only_ good documentation that has passed through my hands in 25 years of work, 2000-4000 pages a year, comes from companies that handle part or almost all of their translation needs inhouse or from truly excellent translation companies. The rest has been of poor-to-mediocre quality.

Finally, I'll mention translation validation. If I had to "check" translations, I would spend some time to recruit a panel of intelligent, conscientious users in each country. I then would think about pass-fail validation criteria ... for instance, if 5 users fail a chapter or procedure, it goes back to the agency. If 3/5 users fail it, I set up another test, maybe even another panel and, when I'm sure it's not up to scratch, it goes back to the agency. Naturally, I'm aiming at 5/5 for a variety of materials. One panel per language and they all have to be paid, although it's certainly not necessary for each member of the validation panel to read an entire document.

Another, less expensive, method of validation is back translation, or translation back into the original language. I do a lot of back translations and I don't think that it's a very good method. The back translator has to know both languages perfectly, he or she has to be able to explain why something is clumsy or inaccurate in the translation. It's not easy to find a translator with those skills. Either that or there has to be yet another reviewer equally versed in both languages and capable of interpreting the back translation.

Finally, should your client stay away from CAT? If the client is an industrial concern with serious interest in exporting, definitely not. Documentation and translation are an integral part of the product and one of the less-appreciated competitive advantages. Selling an infusion pump with poorly translated manuals is like including a pack of gum in the box to patch the hosing.

I hope that this has helped a little.

Oh yes, price. I don't believe in lowering price for using CAT tools, so the price should be your local going rate.

Barbara Thomas, MD

Tel: 34 918 848 057, 609 249 110
Fax: 34 918 849 072, 1 501 632 0218
E-mail: bthomas -at- wanadoo -dot- es
barbarathomas -at- inbox -dot- com
bthomas -at- myattachments -dot- com

Barbara Thomas, MD

Tel: 34 918 848 057, 609 249 110
Fax: 34 918 849 072, 1 501 632 0218
E-mail: bthomas -at- wanadoo -dot- es
BarbaraThomas -at- inbox -dot- com
bthomas -at- myattachments -dot- com


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