The cycle of books & bibliophiles

Tonight, people throughout the UK will celebrate Shakespeare’s life (23 April: a memorable date because of the 46 Cryptogram – far more interesting than the so-called ‘23 Enigma’). It’s termed World Book Night, which confusingly is not on the same date as World Book Day, and many people and companies mark it by giving & receiving books, e.g. at Forts Book Share in Margate.


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What was I thinking?

Summary: some thoughts on standing for the ITI Board.

The Germans have a strange but useful word, Ohrwurm - literally ‘ear worm’, meaning a tune you cannot get out of your head. It’s a phenomenon I experience often when playing in the pit orchestra for Ramsgate Operatic Society, as after a week of daily rehearsals and performances it often takes 2-3 weeks for the songs to leave me alone.

Today, however, I have had a strange Ohrwurm. It’s not a tune, but a spoken phrase, and in fact it’s stranger still as I’m not 100% sure who the speaker is, nor even what language they are speaking. It’s even quite possibly an auditory example of false memory syndrome.


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Interpreting Incorporation

At a weekend CPD course by the Institute of Translation and Interpreting's Japanese Network (JNet), we touched upon the potential advantages of incorporation for a freelance translator/interpreter. Here is a summary of some of the main points.

Dilbert on incorporation

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How much do you charge to translate? I need help with an old Japanese article that I need translated for an essay.

For most jobs it depends on the length (how many characters), so if you have an electronic document (e.g. Word) and can do a word-count, that makes life easy. But as you say an old Japanese article, I’ll guess you’ve only got a paper or perhaps scanned PDF copy, in which case the simplest thing to do is email it to me (see http://www.japanesetranslations.co.uk/en/estimate.html) and I’ll count it, check the content is OK, and then get back to you with a price & turnaround. Please let me know if it’s particularly urgent.

Seasonal present

My company’s Christmas/New Year gift to me was three Japanese shipping dictionaries. Sounds like fun, eh? In case you’re thinking ‘sad git’, I did also combine “wholesome celebration of the Christmas season [with] common lower-class public insobriety" - we raised over £1400 for a local hospice by performing our raucous Hoodening play.

In the age of ubiquitous Google, some say such paper dictionaries are obsolete. Indeed, since moving house several weeks back, none of my dictionaries, whether paper, CD or EB, has yet to emerge from the boxes, and this has not seriously inconvenienced my translation work. I have noticed colleagues selling paper dictionaries online, and there has been some discussion about how useful these resources really are nowadays.

So why take a step backwards into the ‘dead tree’ format? The obvious reason is that the particular material I’m interested in is not (yet) available electronically. Each time I have to translate a shipping document, or read such documents as background material for a marine arbitration or similar interpreting assignment, I come across unfamiliar terminology. I then look it up online, and as there are several quite extensive online bilingual glossaries covering the maritime domain, I often find what I need. When I do, I merge the content of the glossary with others found in the past, and by this means I have built up my own vocabulary list with several hundred entries.

Yet it is still not enough. When I can’t find a term, I’ll often spend 15 minutes browsing Japanese web pages containing the term in question, to get a feel for what it means and how it is used, and then spend a similar length of time reading English pages to try and discover the closest equivalent. Although this time can be counted as CPD, it is evidently desirable to find a quicker, more efficient way of doing it. Using a dictionary compiled by an expert who has already done this work is a natural short-cut.

Some claim it is best practice to translate only fields where you have specialist knowledge. But leaving aside the fact that I’ve always preferred to be a generalist as the work is more varied, counterbalanced by the fact that specialists earn more as they spend less time on research, I think it’s undeniable that there are too few specialists to cope with the demand for high quality Japanese-English technical translation, be it shipping, finance, legal or medicine. And some of these fields are so technical, even specialists can be out of their depth anyway (I remember a colleague with decades of top-level experience in finance turning up to an interpreting assignment where he felt totally lost by the new concepts being bandied about). If you are able to understand the material in both languages, and are skilful at converting one into the other, the world is still your oyster. This totally belies the oft-quoted collapse in translation rates around the world due to globalization and advances in machine translation - I conversely think you can command an increasing premium for quality, as clients become more familiar with the shortcomings of cheap or mechanical translations.

Back to the dictionaries. Why did I buy three? In fact, I was tempted to buy more, as I had found five on Amazon that all looked relevant, with no clear indication of the differences between them (no ‘look inside’ excerpts, sadly). A note to the world’s best-known specialist Japanese/English shipping translator asking advice had also gone unanswered. But all five at once would have been too extravagant, so I settled for three which looked promising and not too expensive.


A sample from dictionary 1: the archetypal word list with single-term translations and (rarely) explanations. The book contains separate 和英 and 英和 sections with about 16,000 entries in each, and about 70 pages of appendices covering e.g. IMO Standard Marine Communication Phrases, lists of ranks, organizations, treaties and the like. No significant illustrations. With this format, it could be useful when interpreting, as speed & simplicity are top priorities.


A sample from the 和英 part of dictionary 2; the 英和 part has single-word translations and page numbers so the intention is naturally to cross-reference to the 和英 section. Note the alphabetical order but old-fashioned romanization (it was published in 1962 although this edition is dated 2004), and occasional illustrations. 14 short pages of appendices cover unit conversions, electrical symbols and abbreviations. The explanations are very clear. The dictionary includes around 9000 terms, many of which were extracted from 文部省編集学術用語集「船舶工学編」 - which could I suppose be useful if anyone really requires more detail.


A sample from dictionary 3. Note that this is not in alphabetical order, being instead arranged by topic and category. There are copious illustrations throughout, going into incredible detail about the smallest aspects e.g. of crate corner structures. It only contains around 1800 keywords, but the long explanations, drawings and grouping of similar terms together will certainly make it easier to differentiate words that might otherwise be confused. No appendices, but Japanese and English indices as shown below.


The English index from dictionary 3, giving an indication of the scope of terms compared with the other two dictionaries above.

As will be seen from the excerpts above, there is some overlap but none of the three contains every single shipping term that might ever crop up in translation or interpreting work. Each has its merits, and time will tell which I come to use most. It’s actually quite likely that I will end up reading the dictionaries, so that the terminology comes rather more to the forefront of my brain (instead of requiring me to flick through the pages each time to search for a word that might not even be there). If all three were available electronically, it would be a boon… but I suspect they would use a paywall structure, as e.g. Kenkyusha’s Green Goddess does, and paying annual fees to all such reference sites would end up prohibitively expensive.

Overall, I think the demise of the paper dictionary has been exaggerated, at least as far as specialist tomes are concerned. For those interested in the three dictionaries above (and the two I haven’t acquired, yet), here are links:

Dictionary 1: 和英・英和 総合海事用語辞典

Dictionary 2: 和英・英和船舶用語辞典

Dictionary 3: 図解 船舶・荷役の基礎用語

Dictionary 4: 英和海事用語辞典

Dictionary 5: 英和 海事大辞典

Gripe 4.0

Continuing on the same theme as Gripe 1.0, 2.0 and 3.0 (please read Gripe 1.0 in particular for the background). This time it was a Japanese/English interpreting assignment. Once again, the report below is quite long and detailed.


The Hospital Job

Dilbert does medicine

Summary: it was medical and the client had said “urgent”, so I had someone heading over within the hour. Unfortunately this very ‘helpful’ interpreter was unable to retain professional detachment, acted in what they thought were the best interests of the patient, and ended up causing problems for both sides.

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Gripe 3.0

Another subcontracted translation job which didn’t go smoothly. This is a continuation of the themes presented in Gripe 1.0, so if you’ve not already done so, please start by reading the first section of that post in order to understand the motives behind this whole series. As with Gripe 1.0 and 2.0, the whole article is long and detailed.


The Quality Job

Dilbert does ISO

Summary: an apparently experienced translator inspired confidence, yet missed several deadlines and produced a translation that made no sense, due to his failure to interpret correctly the vagueness inherent in Japanese, especially when in note form (and his failure to realize that this would be a problem before accepting the work).

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Gripe 1.0

Translators have a reputation for being precious (even anal) about their words. Sounding off like a grammar Nazi does not make us welcome in polite company, unless it is at one of those rare off-line gatherings where we swap stories of tricky terminology and awful ambiguities. Yet sometimes I still feel like venting spleen, and the blogosphere is ideal for this. If these gripes are read, perhaps an experienced translator will gasp in sympathy; perhaps a newbie will gain a little learning; and perhaps a translation user will come to understand why professional translation costs what it does.

There’s a further problem, though. Griping inside a group about those outside - e.g. translators about agencies or vice versa - is generally seen as acceptable, whereas criticizing someone inside your own group is treachery. Traduttore = traditore, indeed. Teachers are allowed to criticize, clients are occasionally tolerated, but not a colleague. Nevertheless, the whole reason for writing this is to make people aware of issues they might otherwise overlook, and if some individual’s failings have to be highlighted to achieve this, so be it. I won’t however name any of the individuals concerned, and I hope they themselves will appreciate that the comments are meant as useful feedback, not with malice. Maybe I’ll get some interesting feedback too, so we all can learn.

One additional problem is that dissecting a translation (which in a typical case covers 2-3000 words) inevitably results in a long article, full of detail and of course foreign words too. I am prone to verbosity in any case: friends once complained when my New Year’s ‘round robin’ weighed in at over 5000 words. So given that most people surfing the net spend less than 30 seconds on each page, the readership for these gripes will be truly limited. Perhaps they would be better suited to an academic journal than a blog? Yet at the same time, I would dearly like those outside the industry to read them too, to gain a clearer understanding of how translators operate.

Hence, I will do my best to give a summary at the top of each Gripe, and hope that those interested make the effort to read on. OK, here goes…


The Print Job

Dilbert does printers

Summary: I entrusted work to a translator who appeared competent, but whose work was not fit for purpose. They got terminology wrong, misunderstood the source text, left bits out, were overly literal, and translated a key phrase with the opposite meaning.

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Gripe 2.0

Another subcontracted translation job which didn’t go as planned. This is a continuation of the themes presented in Gripe 1.0, so if you’ve not already done so, please start by reading the first section of that post in order to understand the motives behind this whole series. As with Gripe 1.0, the whole article is long and detailed.


The Stars Job

Dilbert does astrology

Summary: an eager translator claimed to know the subject, but over-estimated her abilities. She misunderstood simple words, mistranslated basic terminology, failed to grasp the author’s intent, added material which was not in the original, and missed multiple deadlines. Finally, she squandered the opportunity to learn from her mistakes.

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Advice for a troubled translator: http://t.co/OAmgNCsz