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Merry Christmas and Farewell!

December 23rd, 2017

As we approach the end of 2017, I am sad to announce that Which Word Translations will also be wrapping up. I am taking on a new full-time position at Rubric (Edinburgh) from January 2018 and will no longer be offering freelance translation for the foreseeable future.

For over a decade you have entrusted me with your words and it has been a great joy and privilege to work with so many inspiring people in the translation and localisation industry. I am hoping that there may be an opportunity to continue working with some of you in my new role in project management.

Happy Christmas and farewell!

Art in Translation

March 5th, 2013

Last year I had a wonderful opportunity to work for an award-winning online journal Art in Translation, founded at the Visual Arts Research Institute (VARIE) of the University of Edinburgh. The journal is a highly applaudable initiative which serves the art historical community through making foreign research more readily accessible, but also elevates the role of translators in the process. Their own mission statement reads:

“Art in Translation (AIT) is the first journal that takes as its mission the publication of quality English language translation of the most interesting articles on visual culture presently available only in their source language. (…) It will introduce the English-speaking readership to new areas of scholarship that share as their main qualities their excellence and originality.”

One such article is Stanisław Czekalski’s “The Internationale of Automobile Salons and the Hagiography of Revolution. Mieczysław Szczuka at the Crossroads of New Art” (June 2012 issue of the journal). The author looks at the Constructivist movement in Poland in the 1920s and the dilemma of artists such as Szczuka, who were caught between political ideology and the need for artistic freedom, between communist propaganda and Western commercialism.

It was a great pleasure to work on the English translation of the above text. It is always very gratifying to work on a project, which allows one to learn, and not just linguistically. It also allowed me to work in tandem with my husband, who happens to be an art historian and a native speaker of English, and therefore a perfect proofreader of my translation.

As a side-mention, an important source of existing English translations, which I used in my work, was this anthology: Charles Harrison and Paul Wood (eds), Art in Theory 1900-2000. An Anthology of Changing Ideas (Oxford: Blackwell Publishing, 2003).

Translating Tumblr

April 23rd, 2012

In the past 6 months I have disappeared off the surface of this Earth and started to live virtually in the Blogosphere. All of this, because of my last large translation project – Polish localisation of Tumblr! I have to say that no other translation job has had such an impact on my life as this one and I can confirm with all certainty that Tumblr is very addictive!

What is it like translating a popular site like Tumblr?

Well, it’s been an exciting but also a humbling experience. Nothing puts you more under pressure than a few very vocal and devoted users of the platform who all have very clear ideas (often very different ones too!) of how things should be translated – if translated be they must!

I think what surprised me the most was the possessiveness (I can’t think of another way of describing this) of those Polish users, who felt that their best-kept secret was just about to be revealed to the wider masses of the unworthy. They have been using Tumblr happily in English and didn’t want to share the platform with a broader Polish audience. They liked the idea of being privy to something very special and exclusive (only in terms of language accessibility – Tumblr is anything but ‘exclusive’).

Having been on Tumblr for a few months, I think I can understand this now, but don’t appreciate the selfish viewpoint of those few. What I have learnt about Tumblr is that it is full of very creative and talented people from different walks of life and I get inspired every day looking at what they produce, discover and do. Some of them pride themselves for being an anti-mainstream crowd. They put themselves in opposition to Facebook, which is for “everyone else”. In this respect, there was some discussion in the translation process about how NOT to sound like Facebook!

I have also found some very generous users and have made friends. In particular, a wonderful person from Poznań, who was one of the beta testers, but turned out to be more than that. She kept my spirits high in the moments of “doubt and despair” and provided ample input and advice. Ave – I do hope we meet in person one day, as I still owe you a few drinks for keeping me sane back then!

Translating Tumblr is not a one-off thing. Tumblr is dynamically growing, changing, expanding and there is always plenty to do for the team of localisers (currently 8 languages and more coming up). So I have been sucked in, but sucked into something that I wouldn’t want to go away from…

You can find my Polish Tumblr blog here: Polka Dot. I also work on the Polish version of the Tumblr staff blog – Tumblr: Blog ekipy.

Simple Online Diff Tool

November 30th, 2011

I have just discovered a simple and good Diff tool, which I thought I could share. Diff Checker is an online tool, meaning you don’t have to install anything on your computer. Less clutter – less hassle – it’s all good news. I pasted two large blocks of text (old and new), which I copied across from an Excel file. The formatting was not affected and the text rendered correctly. You also have an option of uploading two files. Then just clicked Find Difference! and the tool displayed underneath texts showing the highlighted areas where both documents differ. Really simple, really effective. I will definitely use it again in the future.

Sample of Diff Checker

This year, Proz.com’s celebration of the International Translation Day stretches over a whole week. It seems that the ambition and vision of the Proz.com staff has no boundaries and they keep raising the game.

While there is nothing better than a face to face interaction – these virtual conferences are an exciting addition (in the last 3 years) to the already broad range of networking/learning opportunities offered by Proz. We have seen by now two days of events focused around the site itself and issues of online promotion/collaboration of translators, while today is a big recruitment day.

It is not too late to join yet – we are currently starting day 3 with some more big events on the horizon. I am particularly looking forward to several sessions presented on the last day – 30th September – at the 2011 ProZ.com freelance translator virtual conference:

Data backup for translators – by Marek Buchtel
Creating a Marketing Plan for Freelance Translators – by Tess Whitty
Be Special II in a Nutshell – by Suzanne Deliscar
Negotiation – a little effort goes a long way – by Konstantin Kisin

I will be also interested to see other translators’ advice on SEO (Ioana Mihailas and Stanslaw Czech) and online promotion (Marcela Jenney, Tess Whitty, Stanislaw Czech).

See you there!

Non-Literary No-Brainer?

November 30th, 2010

A year ago, while living in Germany, I applied to become a member of the Kuenstlersozialkasse (KSK) – an association of freelance artists, journalists and writers, which supports them financially by subsidising their state health care contributions (a significant expense in Germany) proportionally to their income. From what I heard, translators would normally be included in the ‘Artiste’ category as people who work creatively with language.

Does technical translation belong to the domain of the left brain hemisphere?

Does technical translation belong to the domain of the left brain hemisphere?

As a part-time freelancer, it seemed like a perfect solution for me and so I produced tons of documentation to prove my translator qualifications, professional memberships, samples of work, project history, etc., etc. – as stipulated by the KSK application guidelines. After some 2 months I received a request for some further details, which I duly sent back, and then received another request for even more details one of them being the following question:

What is the % breakdown of the types of translations that you normally carry out:
a) literary texts
b) journalistic/editorial texts
c) specialised texts, manuals, company reports
d) contracts, legal texts, private correspondence as well as interpreting.

Being primarily a technical translator, I marked c) 90% and d) 10% assuming that translation of specialised websites and software would most likely fit in the ‘specialised’ (fachbezogene) category. I do not translate literature nor do I translate for the press.

The reply to this last letter came very quickly. ‘We are very sorry, but we must turn down your application due to the lack of artistic/journalistic quality of your work (fehlender Kunstler-/ Publizisteneigenschaft).


First of all, why didn’t you spare me the several hours it took to put documents together by asking this question sooner rather than later in the application process? Secondly, by asking a tricky question which I could have easily interpreted differently (websites=published (publizistisch) material after all) you disqualified me outright. Not only that, just because I do not translate Joyce or Yeats, you made me feel like my work was mechanical, brainless and had no creative qualities whatsoever.

It still makes me angry when I think about this, and I regret now not contesting this decision. I was so fed up by then that I had no appetite for further correspondence with KSK. It took about 7 months to get to this stage and by then we knew we were leaving Germany back for the UK in autumn, so I just put the letter to the bottom of the drawer and counted it as a lost battle with German bureaucracy.

Certified Translation: the UK Way

November 24th, 2010

One of my most bizarre experiences as a translator took place some time ago not so long after my move to the UK. An agency asked me to translate a marriage certificate, which then needed to be certified by an affidavit. I had to check in my dictionary what an ‘affidavit’ is and found out that it is a formal statement sworn in front of a notary public. It seemed so far departed from Poland, where to become a sworn translator you not only need the right qualifications (a relevant degree), but also have to take a rigorous competence exam organised by the Ministry of Justice. After that you receive an official stamp and can certify your own translations, which is required in case of most official documentation (marriage, birth certificates, etc).

Photo courtesy of Kriss Szkurlatowski

Photo courtesy of Kriss Szkurlatowski

I arranged a meeting with a notary public who was also the ‘taker of oaths’ and brought my translation with me not sure what to expect of the whole process. The notary’s office was based in a house which could have been taken out of a Dickens’ novel. I was ushered into a room where I waited for the notary, who soon turned up wearing his black robe and looking rather distracted. He looked at my translation and the original text, marked them as page A and page B and then offered me the Bible (sic!) to put my hand on. Amazing! I felt like in an American court movie, while at the same time thinking that I might as well be swearing on Tolkien’s ‘Lord of the Rings’.

He pronounced:
‘Do you swear that the text A is an accurate translation of text B?’
‘I do’ (pharyngeal swallowing sound). He scribbled some sort of signature underneath my translation.
‘OK, please pay £16 at the reception.’
‘But wait a minute! How about some sort of official stamp?’
‘Oh, she wants a stamp. There you go’, he sounded amused, like he was pampering his little niece by letting her play with his stationary.
‘And receipt??’ I really panicked here. I was wondering what evidence there was of me obtaining the ‘certification’ that I could present to the agency who hired me.
‘Oh, the receptionist will give you a receipt. Good bye!’ and he disappeared into the back rooms of the house.

I paid and collected my receipt (which I still have as a keepsake) and left with total confusion and disbelief. The agency was very happy with the translation and they did not question the affidavit. I guess it must have still had the aura of credibility bestowed on it by the notary public’s magical powers to turn a translation into an accurate translation. Cross my heart and hope to die!

The way in which book and film titles are often translated into German has bothered me for some time now, but spotting another such example recently has finally triggered this blog post and an attempt to explain this phenomenon.

I have recently enjoyed reading the Twilight series by Stephenie Meyer and while I was trying to purchase the last part (in English) on the Amazon.de I couldn’t help but notice the German translation of the title: Bis(s) zum Morgengrauen. It made me grind my teeth. Bis(s)?? It’s a play on words which turns an innocent preposition into the noun ‘bite’ (der Biss) – as if the book wasn’t already the most hyped vampire story on the market and required hints regarding its content? The English title contains no such puns, so why employ it here? It somehow makes it sound more trivial, gimmicky and lacking elegance. OK, I admit this is no high literature, but still… why would you do that?

biss twilight

So I started thinking of other examples where the translator (or publisher?) decided that the original title wasn’t clear enough and required the inclusion of a ‘plot summary’ to avoid any surprises. The premise seems to be that a reader/viewer must be informed and forewarned, in case they didn’t know what they were getting themselves into. Ambiguity is clearly unwelcome in Germany.

Below are some classic examples of what I am talking about:

  • EN: Bridget Jones Diary – DE: Schokolade zum Frühstück: Das Tagebuch der Bridget Jones (Chocolate for Breakfast)
  • EN: The Life of Pi – DE: Schiffbruch mit Tigger (Ship-wrecked with a Tiger)
  • FR: La Reine Margot/EN: Queen Margot – DE: Die Bartholomäusnacht (Bartholomew’s Night)
  • EN: The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time – DE: Supergute Tage oder Die sonderbare Welt des Christopher Boone (Supergood Days or the Strange World of Christopher Boone)

  • In the case of film titles, it seems that the standard thing is to either keep the original or translated title with the addition of a subtitle, which should come with a spoiler warning! Below I provide the German titles only as it is obvious which films they refer to. The subtitle in each of these cases does not exist in English, but has been added in the German version:

  • DE: Avatar: Aufbruch nach Pandora (Departure for Pandora, this subtitle does not seem very accurate to describe a brutal conquest attempt of a planet)
  • DE: Snatch: Schweine und Diamanten (Pigs and Diamonds)
  • DE: Jerry Maguire: Spiel des Lebens (The Game of a Lifetime)
  • DE: Operation Walküre: Das Stauffenberg Attentat (Stauffenberg’s Assassination Attempt)
  • DE: The Motorcycle Diaries: Die Reise des jungen Che (The Journey of the Young Che)

  • So why does the German audience require this extra information? The answer may be: because of the high Uncertainty Avoidance Index.

    This takes us to Geert Hofstede, a Dutch sociologist, who between the years 1967 and 1973, conducted a large scale study of IBM employees in 70 countries to establish the values and beliefs shared on the national level. On the basis of this study, he created four dimensions of culture (later extended to five, each scored as a rating on the scale 0-100), which constituted his model of culture. Despite many criticisms of his approach and conclusions, Hofstede remains to be one of the most frequently quoted cultural anthropologist and his survey was adapted and applied in many other fields, including cross-cultural business relations and marketing.

    Based on Hofstede’s study, the Uncertainty Avoidance Index (UAI), also referred to as ambiguity tolerance, reflects the ‘extent to which the members of a culture feel threatened by uncertain or unknown situations’ (Hofstede, p.113). Countries with high uncertainty avoidance index tend to have more laws and rules to eliminate what is unpredictable and people tend to avoid risk-taking. Low uncertainty avoidance cultures tend to be more tolerant and open to adventures, and life in such countries tends to be less rule-governed.

    Germany, while not at the highest end of the scale – has a UAI score of 65, which is considerably higher than the UK’s score of 35 or the USA’s 46. In terms of language, this would explain the German’s need for disambiguation, clarity and information as all of these eliminate risk. According to a study by Singh & Pereira, the use of local metaphors, puns and idioms is also a result of the rootedness in traditions and ritual, which typifies high uncertainty avoidance cultures (p. 103).

    So, are we getting somewhere here? Perhaps yes, perhaps no. This hypothesis still does not explain why in Poland, which has an even higher UAI score (78), title translations do not show a similar tendency as in German and are usually very faithful to the original. Is faithfulness in translation also some expression of risk-avoidance (as opposed to a more creative approach), but in another cultural context? Perhaps this calls for a more in-depth comparative study before we jump to any conclusions. We can however speculate.

    Bis(s) später!

    Works cited:

    Hofstede, G. (2001). Culture’s Consequences: Comparing Values, Behaviors, Institutions, and Organizations Across Nations. Sage Publications.

    Singh, N., & Pereira, A. (2005). The Culturally Customized Web Site. Customizing Web Sites for the Global Marketplace. Butterworth Heinemann.

    Eggs Not For Translators

    December 8th, 2009

    A recent translation enquiry and the following email exchange with one of my customers have inspired me to do this wacky mathematical experiment…

    The most precious object - Fabergé Imperial Egg - the Coronation Egg

    The most precious object - Fabergé Imperial Egg - the Coronation Egg

    I have been reading up a bit on the Fabergé Eggs and the tradition of the Russian Tsars to commission a jewelled egg as an Easter gift for their spouses and have been completely beguiled by this idea as well as by the magnificence of the surviving Imperial Easter Eggs. One of the masterpieces, the Coronation Egg, presented by Tsar Nicholas II to his wife at Easter 1897, was estimated to have sold at the 2004 Sotheby’s auction for about 18-24 million dollars making it one of the most expensive decorative objet d’art in history.

    My customer and I with an almost audible deep sigh commented in our emails on how many words one would have to translate to be able to afford such a precious thing. This thought has been haunting me ever since – exactly how many words? Or rather – how many years would I have to work to be able to purchase such an egg???

    Are you ready to find out?

    299 years !!!!!!!!!!!!!!!

    I have assumed the following:

    To earn 24,000,000 dollars: 1 translator working at a rate of 2,000 words a day charging $0.11 per word (an average rate according to my sources) would have to work for 109,090 days, which equals 298.87 years. Forget holidays, weekends, paying rent or taxes – all of this to buy this one special egg. In terms of total word count – 218,180,000 words to translate!

    Luckily, a Russian jeweller Alfa Jewel has started to produce a limited edition of exact replicas of the Faberge Eggs. The first design, Spring Flowers Egg, which they have now made available costs a mere £166,000. Now, here’s a thought…

    International Translation Day was a big day for Proz.com staff. They have succeeded in pulling off one of the biggest events for translators in history. The 1st Virtual Conference for Translators attracted more than 8000 translators from around the world! On September 30th 2009, they all tuned in and visited the virtual exhibition hall and attended virtual sessions in order to receive some real life advice and support, and to make real connections with other translation professionals.

    I happened to be among this ‘geek’ crowd (no offence) – curious about the technology just as much as the content of the conference itself. Unisfer provided the platform for this online event which turned out (at least in my experience) to work very well without any major glitches. Yes, it was confusing getting used to all that was happening on the screen – messages, reminders, chats, forums – but most real life conferences are a bit chaotic – dipping in and out of conversations and session rooms, interrupted by queuing for coffee and snack.

    The presentations were an interesting mix but I am particularly grateful to Doug Lawrence for the most enlightening talk on conducting negotiations and answering tough questions. I am really happy that Proz have made the lectures available as podcasts – I will be definitely returning to this one time and time again. All lectures ran very punctually with a well-moderated Q&A section at the end – great job everyone involved!

    The scale of the conference in my opinion created a bit of a difficulty in getting to speak to other attendees. Despite a variety of tools (attendee searching facility, networking time slots and language forums) it is just hard to even imagine sifting through the hundreds of little headshots to find familiar faces or to meet new people. In this respect, a traditional conference has a big advantage which I don’t think can be matched in an online environment. After a long, intensive day, there is nothing better than being able to strengthen newly made aquiantances over a pint of the local brew while bemoaning the outrages translation rates for Central European languages!

    But as long as we translators can continue to get together now and then, one cannot argue with the fact that the virtual conference was a unique and very useful experience – a chance to feel a part of a large, buzzing translation community without leaving your desk or incurring a hotel bill (or a conference fee for that matter!).

    I congratulate and thank Proz.com for being the most visionary, innovative and daring organisation for translators with the magical powers of turning virtuality to reality. Life would be boring without you. Here’s to you!