jueves, 5 de noviembre de 2015


If you ask most foreign translators what they least like about working in another country, they will often name the bureaucracy involved.

When I first came to Spain I quickly learned to take a newspaper with me when visiting any government building to while away the hours. Nowadays I take my laptop and set up my office while in the queue. People mistake me for a civil servant myself and hand me their neatly filled-in forms (which I then chuck away to beat them in the queue). Actually, some surprisingly imaginative functionary has encouraged them to set up touch screens where you press the name of the counter you wish to visit and promptly receive a ticket to join the corresponding queue. The problem is, only the civil servants themselves know which queue you're meant to be in. Thus, you end up collecting six or seven tickets to hedge your bets like a lottery whilst the amorphous mass of people known as the queue milling impatiently around you stares balefully on. I once went to enquire about getting an EU tax no., so I got tickets for the VAT counter, for the EU counter, for imports and exports, for self-employed people, and one called “certificates” for good measure. In the end, the last counter’s functionary told me I should have got one for “census” and stared at me as if I were incredibly stupid. Then he went for a coffee.

Governmentspeak is a disease found in all countries, and I suspect more so in those that have suffered a dictatorship, but here it is truly a language in itself – even a spoken one. You can stand by while a civil servant talks to you in this language whilst addressing their colleagues normally, as if interpreting:
“This guy's supposed to fill in his home address before signing and paying” becomes “You are required to complete the details of your habitual place of residence prior to executing your signature and furnishing the payment.”

To compound this, civil servants wanting to pass their exams must learn this language well to fit in, with the result that after years many of them – be they police officers or secondary school teachers – feel they have to use 10 words instead of 2 when speaking to the public in order to sound professional and cultivated (when in fact it makes them sound like they have a peculiar speech impediment).

Another example is a penchant for official-looking paperwork, stamps etc., which even seems to have lasted into the Internet age, with its resulting massacre of trees. You can see web pages intended to speed up bureaucracy that ask you to print out the receipt or form you’ve filled in and take it to the office to be stamped. The word “doh!" springs to mind. (Upon writing this, I have just returned from the tax office where I was required to go in person to confirm that I have paid the grand sum of zero euros to sub-contracted translators over the last quarter. Two hours of my working life lost.)

I remember many moons ago chatting away in Spanish for 15 minutes in a job interview before my interlocutor began looking at my CV and exclaimed: “You don’t speak Spanish!” (I had no official certificate to my name at the time, and this experience was my first lesson in bureaucracy here - that papers are seen to be more convincing than people). I told this tale to my hippy British flatmate, who with the aid of Tippex and a photocopier then rapidly produced several university degrees for himself and soon found a job. This was my second lesson – that they don’t bother checking the papers anyway. Incidentally, getting your qualifications officially recognised in Spain can be a notoriously lengthy (and fairly costly) task, and even then it often isn’t considered to be as good as the Spanish equivalent. (In fact, I myself gave up long ago in frustration.) Hopefully the Bologna Process will change all this, but it may explain the lack of foreign-born citizens in Spain’s civil service (or anyone of foreign descent in positions of public power), an obvious flaw in a country whose economy thrives on tourism and whose inability to speak languages is well known. (Check out some public tourist information and signs; some of them are a scream and have clearly not been written by translators or native speakers.)

But the fact is this is more than just a laughing matter. I calculate I spend at least 2 weeks a year embroiled in bureaucratic work when I could be working for the economy. Multiply this by several millions of working citizens and you get a mind-boggling amount of man-hours lost to the economy. Not to mention the fact that a job in the Spanish civil service is practically a job for life, no matter how badly you do it (I have had my bank account embargoed 3 times for the same mistakes made by functionaries, amid numerous other horror stories). A friend once broke open the champagne on hearing she had passed her oposiciones (civil service entrance exams), saying “I’ll never have to work again!" Another I bumped into in the market nonchalantly doing her shopping during working hours. I know of only one civil servant who decided to leave his job and go back to the private sector – he got bored and pestered his boss to give him something to do other than meeting me for 2-hour coffee breaks, but his boss had nothing more to offer him. I think you get the picture.

This situation has given rise to the figure of the gestor – someone you pay to do the paperwork which in other countries presumably gets done by the civil service. Not that you’ll fare much better; I have got through 3 in as many years. The first handed in my papers late (so I lost my right to dole), the second charged me the earth for doing chores a monkey like myself could do, and the last one continued to charge my bank monthly after I had stopped employing him. Such sloppiness (or dishonesty) leads some to simply ignore the law and work around it, and it is depressing to see that they often do better as a result (if only in terms of their sanity), at least in the short term. I have attended translators’ seminars where gestores have been invited to answer questions, only to find that they simply don’t know the answer as they are not accustomed to dealing with cross-border issues that are the translator’s daily bread and butter. For example: “What exchange rate should I apply when paying VAT across European countries? The one at the time of billing the client or the one at the time of payment to the tax office?” Nobody seems to know, even those who work at the tax office whose job it is to know.

Nevertheless, I must point out that many Spanish people do indeed work hard and put in long, unpaid overtime. But it seems to me that one reason for this is that they are paying for a large part of the population that seems to be doing relatively little. Here in Valencia recently, civil servants in the justice department were caught on film “signing on” for work with a fingerprint scan, then promptly going home and returning at 5 pm to “sign out” again. To date, no action has been taken regarding this.

There has also been a general strike against labour reforms and tinkering with pensions in response to the world economic recession, with the usual media attention on fringe pickets seeking public sympathy by burning tyres, blocking traffic and shouting at people. Months earlier there was already a strike against wage cuts by civil servants – natch – ironically perhaps the only Spanish social group where few fear for their job in these hard times, not to mention the usual summer threats from air-traffic controllers unsure whether to accept € 200,000 a year and an unprecedented strike by judges. In Valencia, the public transport workers usually strike around Fallas time to the delight of Valencians and tourists alike. They have recently taken to do doing so around the Formula 1 weekend to see if they can scupper the local economy that pays their wages in summer too. 

Forecasts say that by 2050 only half of Spain’s population will be of working age, a common phenomenon in industrialized countries. Let’s hope they’re not all in the civil service. Many unemployed people seem to see this as the only way back to employment, which is not surprising when disproportionate social security payments for the newly self-employed deter any budding entrepreneurs such as freelance translators. Spain is also on its way to having the EU's oldest population. Yet the strikes indicate that people in general seem to be unwilling to face the necessary and inevitable changes that demographics have thrust upon us with a public sector creaking under the weight of the population’s age. Many translators are considering private pension schemes, though the current economic climate does not bode well for either public or private institutions.

As a self-employed translator creating wealth for the state (which I have nothing against) but with no dole, pathetic health insurance, no union and the crummiest foreseeable public pension, I feel I have the right at least to feel annoyed when I see some – by no means all - civil servants providing a poor, ill-informed service when we are all paying for it. Surely our tax and social security obligations can be handled more efficiently, or even automatically?

lunes, 24 de marzo de 2014

Translating Karma

Over the last few years, a very curious change has taken place in the many congresses I have attended in the EU and Spain. As the economic crisis deepened, I found that the general attitude of the translators and interpreters attending these gatherings actually improved. Why is this?
                Several years ago, I remember attending congresses where the general topics of conversation focused on the controversial practices of a few large, infamous agencies, and on fees, which were generally considered to be too low. Many attendees assumed that the few “big, bad” agencies out there were representative of the industry in general and they also became embroiled in never-ending, bitter arguments about fees. It disheartened me to see so few attendees talking about the undoubted advantages of our profession, enjoying the congress itself, networking (for work and socially) and discussing practical matters to improve their services (CAT tools, associations, courses, specializations, techniques, news etc.). But as I have said, this seems to have changed. The reason, I believe, may be that those vociferous, negative attendees have not survived the economic crisis.
A few years ago I was asked to give a talk about the business side of translation to a large gathering of translation and interpreting students at a university. As I prepared my presentation, it struck me that ours is a very peculiar profession compared to many others in one respect. Most university students, be they engineers, computer programmers or economists, start sending their résumés to big companies as soon as they graduate, if they do not already have a company post lined up. Most translation and interpreting graduates, however, are condemned to be freelancers or start up their own company. In other words, being an entrepreneur seems to be part of our job description.
Of course, there are a few big translation multinationals out there and a great many small and medium-sized ones where young professionals can seek an internship as a way of learning the ropes in the “real world”. But I find this is a profession where business nous is essential if you are to make a good living. We have no unions, big labor agreements or countless other “privileges” that other professions enjoy. Nonetheless, not wanting to daunt the students who were going to be listening to me, I also emphasized the positive side: vacations more or less when we like, travel opportunities, colleagues all over the world, no glass ceiling, always learning new things...and I soon realized that, for me, the pros far outweigh the cons. It is surprising, then, that so few congress attendees seemed happy — before the recession.
I pondered the negative comments I had constantly heard from the translation trolls, one of which was the exhausting need to chase up bad payers. Over the years, I myself have only had one client who didn’t pay. Actually, he paid most of the invoice, but baulked on an extra, urgent job I had done at the eleventh hour, wrongly claiming to have paid it already. I should stress that this was a direct client, not an agency. An architect, in fact. A world famous architect. In other words, this was a client who could easily have afforded to pay me and save himself legal hassles. Taking into account the fact that this happened in economic boom times, the experience reinforced my belief that bad payers are generally bad payers whatever the economic climate (and the same goes for the good ones). In other words, it seems to have more to do with their character, organization and professionalism than with external economic pressures. A good payer will always ensure they have the liquidity to cover your work before giving you the job, whether or not their end client finally pays up. As an outsourcer myself sometimes, I apply the same work ethic and common sense. My debt is to the translator who works for me; the payment situation with my client is my problem and it should not affect my translator. Again, since the economic crisis began, I have seen fewer of those late-paying agencies using the excuse that “the end client hasn’t paid us yet”. You are free to guess why.
Of course, tough economic times bring out the stoic character in most of us, but a stoic attitude can also be a very positive, cheerful one. I try to follow a piece of advice from one of the most renowned stoicists, Marcus Aurelius: “Begin each day by telling yourself: Today I shall be meeting with interference, ingratitude, insolence, disloyalty, ill-will, and selfishness.” It sounds pretty negative, yet the effect is positive. If we expect a difficult client, a rude phone call or a ghastly source text at some time over the coming day, then it doesn’t take us by surprise or get us down. Just as Marcus Aurelius also says later in that famous quote, I have found that negative people are generally not happy for some reason in their own personal lives and thus receive my sympathy. Maybe a loved one is ill, they’ve just got divorced...whatever the reason, by being negative they are not helping themselves and I certainly don’t feel offended by them, but rather pity them for being unhappy. And it is certainly true that rudeness and insults do far more damage in the long run to those who proffer them than to those who receive them. We all want to work with pleasant people.
A famous piece of sales advice perfectly exemplifies this inspiring, positive vibe that one can learn from the quote by the Roman emperor. Imagine you are a door-to-door salesperson or cold caller. The large number of doors shut in your face and phones slammed down every day by irritated potential clients can obviously be depressing. Let’s say the statistics are one sale for every hundred calls. That in itself may seem discouraging, but once we have accepted this statistic as a cold fact, we then expect to have ninety-nine failed calls before making a sale, and it no longer seems so disappointing or overwhelming. It’s just part of the job. One sale per a hundred is a success. In times of economic crisis, this may be one in two hundred, but the principle remains the same.
I have no intention of belittling the situation of those who are having a hard time to make ends meet in this profession; I simply wish to convey the importance of attitude. Moreover, this is not a patronizing case of preaching good behavior, but a practical tip. To illustrate this, let us look at another practical situation. Suppose you have a direct client or agency that is very late on your payment. Aside from legal action and other practical steps, you have two possible options in the way you react to the situation — negative or positive:
Negative: You vent your frustration by sending a threatening, rude email demanding your money, labeling your client as unprofessional and incommunicative. You may also do this on a public blacklist or in a forum.
Positive: You write them an email listing your grievances while making no character judgment, giving only the specific facts (deadlines, agreed terms that have been broken, delays in communication etc.). Again, you may decide to do this publicly.
What are the possible outcomes of these two options? Firstly, it is very important to put ourselves in our client’s shoes for a moment before jumping the gun and choosing our reaction. Why is the payment late? Perhaps the accountant had a bad day, the project manager was in a car accident that morning, or the secretary’s father passed away. Ask for the reason; it may be justified. If it is, and you have limited yourself to giving just the facts, they can then explain the situation (publicly if necessary) with no hard feelings all round. And don’t immediately answer in a bad mood; save a draft of your reply and see if you feel like removing some of those nasty adjectives tomorrow before sending it. By giving the bad payer the benefit of the doubt, our reaction becomes more positive. Above all, it is important to humanize our clients in the inevitably virtual working environment of the translator. In fact, no relationship is ever truly virtual; there is always a human on the other side of the screen who you may even bump into one day at a congress, or someone who knows them. So let us look at the outcomes that result from each of the above two options:
Negative: The client may not want to work with you ever again (or other clients if your reaction has been public, on seeing your negative attitude).
Positive: The client may want to work with you again (and others on seeing your positive, calm professionalism).
Let me stress that I am not judging whether you are right or wrong in your reaction. Indeed, you may well be justified in both cases, particularly if the client really is a rogue. But the important point to note is that the final outcome depends to an extent on the way you react to the situation, not only on the situation itself. A dishonest bad payer may simply never pay, but how that affects you emotionally and your professional image is your decision. Nobody wants to work with a bad-tempered colleague who may one day denounce them publicly if things go wrong.
In short, then, we should ask ourselves: does the situation affect us or do we affect the situation? I have found that the translators and interpreters who have weathered the economic storm are the ones who have consciously decided on the latter option. Those colleagues and friends I have made at congresses and seminars over the years and who are still in business are the ones who have never dwelled on acrimonious arguments over fees or dealing with the minority of bad payers who they have usually had the good business sense to avoid. They are the ones with whom I can chat about many other matters related to our work or not, and joke about our bad experiences and the good lessons we have learned from them.
With the social networks, forums and associations, we have the opportunity to get into arguments about fees and “bottom-feeding”, disreputable clients that will unfortunately always exist in any profession. Or we have the opportunity to find some understanding ears, advice on a myriad of matters, or simply to joke about our tough times with those who’ve also been there.
That choice is yours alone.

lunes, 2 de septiembre de 2013

Hire Society

            Perhaps one of the greatest fallacies in human history that seems to have affected nearly all cultures is the mistaken belief that money is somehow a sign of success or even intelligence. Money is a universal means of exchange of goods and services. Period. If it is not being exchanged but hoarded, then it serves little purpose for society or the economy in general. It is not like stockpiling foodstuffs in case or famine, since in times of famine there is no food to buy.
                When the agricultural scientist Jack Harlan studied the life of hunter-gatherers such as bushmen, he was astounded at the findings. The average hunter-gatherer spends only twenty hours a week working. Contrary to popular belief, they fully understand agricultural techniques such as planting, pruning, protecting plants and harvest times. The only difference is that they don’t stay in one place but move around according to the seasons. Their diet is also very healthy due to its great variety, and they suffer less chronic illnesses and tooth decay than in the developed world. Obviously I am not suggesting that society should return to its hunter-gatherer origins, but it is a sobering thought that our pre-historic cave-dwelling ancestors probably enjoyed far more leisure time than our modern, industrialised society. Where did we go wrong?
            It has now been widely accepted by most of the developed world that we cannot continue to consume our planet’s resources at the same accelerating rate, coupled with a similar rate of rising human population and global warming from the industrial activity needed to meet this consumption. The US already consumes five times more than the earth can withstand if everybody did so, with Chindia catching up fast in their zeal to match the level of consumption they see in the West. Yet it is also widely accepted that for an economy to do well it must be constantly growing and therefore consuming. The more we consume, the more jobs we create to provide the goods and services we consume. So, how do we solve this vicious spiral towards the destruction of all life on earth?
            Well, some tentative steps towards mitigating the situation have been made, such as recycling, although the fact is that not everything can be recycled, and everything that can be recycled cannot be recycled ad infinitum. Then there are examples such as digital media, gradually replacing cassettes, CDs and paper books, although this also shows how the material things we create and consume soon become obsolete. What do we do with the things that become obsolete but can’t be recycled? We throw them away — but of course, there is no away from our planet, except possibly Mars as a gigantic, expensive dump.
            Clearly, the problem is not so much the fact that we consume too much, provided this consumption is renewable, but that we throw away too much. The only feasible solution possible is to stop consuming or throwing away so much and to halt the rise in human population if we are to avoid the fate of the Easter Islanders. I am not going to go into the need to reduce the world’s population or halt its growth, because the answers to this are obvious: contraception, war or genocide. Take your pick.
            Instead, I am going to look at a way to reduce material consumption and waste without scuppering the economy. Again, there are some obvious possibilities, such as educating society to simply consume less, thereby reducing the need to produce so much and thus working fewer hours to do so. It’s no secret that we already have the capacity to feed, clothe and house the world’s population several times over. That said, we generally don’t want to return to the lives of hunter-gatherers, but want to continually advance technologically for a better material standard of living, healthcare etc., which will always require a certain amount of economic competition and consumption. So, how do we get people to reduce their consumption while maintaining their same material standard of living? Well, the answers are all around us.
            Take a look around your own home. How many things do you own that you use only once or twice a year? Apart from that horrendous shirt you’ve never worn at the back of the wardrobe that you could perhaps recycle, what about the other objects cluttering up your living space? As I’ve said, the old cassettes, CDs and paper books have an obvious solution. But what about the rest? A look around my study, kitchen and living room is very revealing. Compared to most people in the developed world, I live rather frugally. Even so, I live alone but have seven chairs, a sofa and two beds. I have some scuba-diving gear that I use once or twice a year. In the kitchen, in addition to the usual cleaning products I have some specialised ones I use just as infrequently. I have a food blender I hardly ever use and a washing machine I use twice a week, not to mention enough cutlery and crockery to cater to a whole army. But let’s look at the bigger stuff.
            Since I started working from home, I use my car maybe twice a month. My mountain bike has been sitting rusting on my balcony for three years since a public bike hire system began in my city — tens of thousands of bikes parked at regular stations around the city that you take out using a card paid for yearly and which you park at the destination station of your choice, 24 hours a day. (Incidentally, I believe a city of about a million people is about the perfect size to cater to all our needs without creating the traffic congestion and pollution associated with bigger cities, and my city is of a geographical size to be able to entirely cross it easily by bike in under an hour). However, I keep my mountain bike for when I decide to go for a ride in the mountains...which I haven’t done for three years.
            So, I was considering selling this mountain bike and gaining some space in my home, since I must be able to hire one when I really want to go mountain-biking. Then I started applying the idea of rental for all of those goods and services I only use once in a while. Take the car. We all know car hire companies exist, though we only seem to use them when we’re on holiday. How about if people started using them as often as the public bike hire service in my city, to go to work every day? Nothing too unusual there; it’s just one step away from car-sharing schemes, with the difference that you don’t have to pay for repairs. Repairs: another disadvantage of possessing things instead of hiring them is that we have to pay for them to be repaired. But what if we start looking at everything we own not from the perspective of possessing the object but of using the services it provides for us? Need a bike? Hire one; it doesn’t matter how often or for how long. You can hire it for a year and pay a little extra for the manufacturer or owner to repair it. Need a car for work every day? Hire it all year. Again, you can pay a little extra to cover possible repairs for wear and tear. And what happens next year if you’d like an upgrade? Hire the latest model or hire the old one for less. Manufacturers could even cut out the go-betweens and hire directly to customers, producing modular vehicles whose faulty parts can simply be replaced when necessary. But since you, the customer, are paying for the service of using a car instead of paying to possess the car itself, the manufacturer replaces the one you’ve hired if it breaks down (as some companies already do if it’s under guarantee).
            So far, this doesn’t sound too radical. But let’s apply it now to much smaller, day-to-day perishable objects, and much larger, more permanent objects.
            Take the specialised cleaning products in my house. Instead of buying lots of spray cans etc. which have a use-by date, why don’t I just buy the amount of product I need, paying for the small amount of liquid I’ll need, and refilling the manufacturer’s canisters from their containers in the local supermarket? Want a bottle of cola or milk? Fill up the bottles from the containers in the same supermarket (as is already done in some fast food chains), which you’ll then take back to get your deposit back on the bottle to be sent back to the producer for cleaning and re-use (as some of us used to do as kids). Throwing a dinner party once or twice a year? Hire out the latest chairs of your choice from the local furniture store.
            The fact is, the manufacturer does not make less profit from hiring as from selling, since they will be constantly hiring out their products on a daily basis. The only difference is that these objects won’t be cluttering up your home when you’re not using them and you can choose a different model every time. The principle of competition and innovation between manufacturers will continue to be fed. As for recycling, the manufacturer will do this themselves with their own returned products in order to cut down on their own manufacturing costs.
            And what about the biggest, most permanent product of all, which people all over the world buy — housing? At this point, I’d like to remind you of the main reason behind the last, deep, global economic recession: toxic assets held by banks, basically in the form of mortgages that homebuyers could not pay off. Take note: I said homebuyers. Why were so many people convinced that they needed to take out a mortgage to buy a house instead of renting it? The main reason is that people saw it as an investment, not just a functional place to live. They believed that house prices would always go up, so it became a form of saving for some, and for others a desperate rush to get on the speculation bandwagon before the prices got so high that they could never afford one. It’s not the first time such an economic bubble has grown and burst, nor will it be the last if we continue to think in terms of possessing objects as opposed to simply using the services they provide. Admittedly, housing speculation can also exist in a market based entirely on renting, but it will mostly be borne by the owners or builders who rent them out. For the average citizen, it is far easier to get out of a tight economic spot by simply moving to cheaper rented digs. Not to mention the fact that they can change their home several times if they like or if their employment mobility requires it.
Another bonus of shifting to an economy based on renting instead of possession is that the builders themselves, and manufacturers, will be far more interested in producing houses and goods that last much longer, and modular products whose parts are interchangeable and recyclable. Galvanised cars do not rust, yet car manufacturers very rarely galvanise their cars. Ever wondered why?  Programmed obsolescence becomes pointless in a rent-based economy. The longer the product lasts, the more times the manufacturer can rent it out and the less it has to spend on repairing it (which is now the responsibility of the manufacturer, who is also the owner).
But what about the shopaholics, those modern hunter-gatherers who simply love shopping and consuming? Well, they can now give free reign to their addiction by hunting down the latest product every week.
And remember, hunter-gatherers only work twenty hours a week.

 (c) Glokalize

domingo, 13 de mayo de 2012

La Lengua Digital

            Los  traductores que trabajan con textos científicos ya saben que esta es una de las pocas profesiones donde el mundo de las artes y de las letras está condenado a entenderse con el mundo de la ciencia y de la ingeniería. Seamos sinceros: los estudiantes de bellas artes no suelen irse de copas con los de ingeniería química. Y así sigue la vida después de la universidad. Años después, sin embargo, cuando los dos trabajan juntos en revistas científicas, de repente se dan cuenta de que tienen que entenderse. Esto tal vez explique por qué se entiende tan poco sobre las posibilidades del futuro de la traducción automática, y hasta la interpretación automática, como veremos en este artículo.

            Los métodos de Monte-Carlo (para trabajar con cantidades enormes de números) se usan desde hace mucho tiempo como una manera “bruta” de buscar soluciones matemáticas. Un ejemplo clásico se da tal vez con el ordenador Deep Blue y sus “caminos aleatorios” para decidir la próxima jugada en sus famosas partidas de ajedrez contra Gary Kasparov. Sospecho que muchos científicos querían ver el ordenador ganar al humano, sobre todo los que crearon a la bestia, pero la mayoría de los humanos probablemente teníamos un deseo secreto de ver el humano salir de la contienda como vencedor. De hecho, el ruso ganó una partida y empató tres, pero perdió dos. Tan pocos resultados no son estadísticamente significativos, pero queda claro que Kasparov, con la "desventaja" de ser humano, era incapaz de generar miles de millones de posibles jugadas como su rival y, sin embargo, era capaz de ganarle. ¿Cómo es posible? Creo que la respuesta, y la analogía, se pueden aplicar a la traducción automática.

            Tomemos como ejemplo la herramienta de traducción proporcionada por un motor de búsqueda archiconocido. Con la cantidad astronómica de palabras que pasan por sus servidores todos los días, esta empresa sin duda tiene una gran cantidad de palabras con qué trabajar a través de su software de traducción (si es que lo hace). Al elegir la moda, es decir, la "palabra más usada" en el Internet, la máquina elige la traducción que considera la más probable para una palabra específica mediante la comparación / el alineamiento de muchos textos en diferentes idiomas. (Dicho sea de paso, si lees muy bien los reglamentos antes de configurar una cuenta de correo con estas grandes proveedores de servicios de Internet, entenderás por qué nunca deberías enviar tus textos traducidos a través de ellos – puede que estés añadiéndolos a las enormes memorias de traducción de la empresa.) Esto no es tan distinto a lo que hacen los diccionarios más usados ​​en el mundo cuando realizan encuestas para ver cuántas personas usan una palabra antes de que oficialmente sea aceptada en el diccionario. Aun así, hay dos problemas con este método, y es aquí donde los traductores humanos, sin duda, podemos engañar a la máquina al igual que Kasparov. La máquina tropieza con algunas excepciones a las reglas (Kasparov hizo lo inesperado al no siempre elegir la "mejor" jugada) y con la licencia poética. La metáfora, por ejemplo, lo puede descarrilar.

            Es evidente que los traductores deben tener enorme cuidado al usar estas herramientas, y siempre y únicamente como una ayuda. Por ejemplo, después de traducir un texto puede resultar útil meter una sección (no todo el texto) en el traductor automático para ver las palabras que elige el ordenador; te dará algunas ideas nuevas que tal vez no te hubieran ocurrido a ti, actuando como un diccionario de sinónimos. Pero incluso en este caso, no debemos olvidar nunca que la moda matemática no siempre acierta. Sólo hace falta ver los ejemplos en la historia humana de las mayorías absolutas ganadas por dictadores radicales en elecciones para darnos cuenta de que la mayoría a menudo puede elegir mal debido a su ignorancia. El hecho de que una palabra se utiliza con mayor frecuencia no significa que sea correcta; hay que verificar las fuentes oficiales y considerar el contexto específico. También existe la amenaza del plagio: un autor científico con una nueva patente no se va a quedar muy contento al descubrir que su secreto celosamente guardado ahora está en la memoria de traducción de un motor de búsqueda al alcance de todo el mundo.

            Por cierto, los ordenadores también se pueden utilizar de forma inteligente para "generar" su propia literatura. En su ya clásico libro Engañados por el Azar, Nassim Nicholas Taleb habla de cómo usó el “motor de Dada” de Andrew C. Bulhak para producir frases como esta: "Muchas narraciones sobre el papel del escritor como observador podrán ser reveladas. Se podría decir que si la narrativa cultural se mantiene, tenemos que elegir entre el paradigma de la dialéctica de la narrativa y el marxismo neo-conceptual. El análisis de Sartre de la narrativa cultural sostiene que la sociedad, paradójicamente, tiene un valor objetivo." A lo mejor semejantes sandeces pseudo-intelectuales te suenan si has traducido textos de crítica de arte mal escritos. Aun así, suena humano.

            Luego tenemos la tentadora perspectiva de la interpretación automática, una posibilidad que tal vez no sea tan descabellada como muchos todavía creen. Cada vez que hablas por teléfono, tu voz se digitaliza antes de llegar al receptor, y esto ha sido así desde hace muchos años. No es tu madre a quién escuchas al teléfono; es un ordenador que la imita. Un ordenador también puede "aprender" la voz de un ser humano individual y reproducirla con nuevas frases propias. Alguna escena de las películas de Terminator ya no parece tan fantástica, ¿verdad? Esto tal vez ya sea un truco que conoce bien James Bond o la CIA, lo cual nos lleva a pensar que ahora se puede tomar el próximo paso. De hecho, creo que la BBC ya casi lo está haciendo, aunque sin darse cuenta. La corporación usa el subtitulado en directo desde hace años. Para ello, se puede contratar a cualquiera que sepa teclear muy rápido o...usar un ordenador. Básicamente, el ordenador reconoce la voz y pone las palabras que ha entendido en la pantalla. Por lo que he visto, yo diría que acierta con alrededor del 90%, lo cual en mi opinión es bastante impresionante, especialmente cuando se tiene que trabajar con tantos acentos. Imagínate un entrevistado en la calle en Cádiz diciendo: «Ho'tía. ¡El sol me e’tá cegando!» La máquina podría entender que ha dicho «¡O, tía! El sol meta segando», por ejemplo. Sin embargo, este obstáculo también tiene solución. Después de procesar a miles de entrevistas en Cádiz, sólo hay que decirle al ordenador dónde o a quién se está traduciendo para que sepa qué acento está escuchando. Otro paso adelante sería usar un dispositivo de GPS para informar de forma automática al ordenador cuando se encuentra en Glasgow o en Los Ángeles, para que pueda ajustar su reconocimiento de voz y el vocabulario según el lugar.

            Así que ahí lo tenemos: nuestro intérprete de bolsillo para un futuro no tan lejano.

Word Crunching

As many who translate scientific texts know, this is one of the very few professions where the world of arts and letters is condemned to cooperate with and understand the world of science and engineering. Let’s face it, the average fine arts undergraduate doesn’t usually hang out with the chemical engineers on campus at the weekend. Nevertheless, years later when they’re working on articles for scientific journals they suddenly find that they have to get on. This is perhaps the reason why so little seems to be understood about the possibilities for the future of machine translation, and even machine interpreting, as we shall now see.

            Monte-Carlo number-crunching methods have long been used as a “brute” method of finding mathematical answers. A classic example may be Deep Blue’s seemingly infinite “random paths” for deciding the best possible next chess move when pitted against Gary Kasparov. I suspect many scientists were hoping the computer would win, especially those who created the beast, but most humans probably had a secret desire to see the human come out triumphant. In fact, the Russian did win one match and drew three, but lost two. So few results are statistically insignificant, but obviously Kasparov, with the “disadvantage” of being human, was unable to generate billions of potential moves like his opponent and yet was capable of winning. How was this possible? I believe the answer, and the analogy, can be applied to machine translation.

            Take the translator tool provided by a well-known search engine. With the astronomical amount of words passing through their servers every day, they certainly have a lot of words to crunch through their translation software (if indeed they do). By a process of choosing the mode, that is to say the “most used word” on the Internet, the machine is able to choose what it considers the most likely translation for a specific word by comparing/aligning texts in different languages. (Incidentally, take a good read of the policy regulations before setting up a mail account with such large internet service providers and you’ll understand why you should never send your translated texts via these – you may simply be adding to the company's huge TMs). This is not so different from the most widely used dictionaries in the world conducting surveys to see how many people use a word before officially accepting it in their dictionaries. However, there are two problems with this, where we human translators can undoubtedly outwit the machine just like Kasparov. The machine trips up with exceptions (Kasparov did the unexpected by not always choosing the "best" move) and with poetic licence. The metaphor, for example, can derail it.

            Clearly, we human translators must take enormous care in using such tools, and always only as an aid. For example, after translating a text you may find it useful to run a section (never the whole text) through to see what words the computer chooses and give you some new ideas that may not have occurred to you, like a thesaurus. But even in this case, one should never forget that the median may not always be correct. One has only to look at the examples in human history of landslide majorities voting for thuggish dictators to realise that the majority can often be wrong. Just because a word is used more frequently does not mean it is correct; one has to check the official sources and consider the specific context. There is also the threat of plagiarism; a scientific author with a new patent will not be pleased to find their closely guarded secret floating around a famous search engine’s TM.

            Incidentally, computers can also be used to intelligently “generate” their own literature. In his classic book “Fooled by Randomness”, Nassim Nicholas Taleb tells of how he used Andrew C. Bulhak’s Dada Engine to come up with phrases like this: “Many narratives concerning the role of the writer as observer may be revealed. It could be said that if cultural narrative holds, we have to choose between the dialectic paradigm of narrative and neoconceptual Marxism. Sartre’s analysis of cultural narrative holds that society, paradoxically, has objective value.” Such pseudo-intellectual drivel may sound familiar to anyone who has translated for low-brow art critics.

            Then we have the tantalising prospect of machine interpreting, which may not be so far-fetched as many still believe. Whenever you talk on the phone, your voice is digitized before reaching the receiver, and this has been so for many years now. It's not your mother you hear, it's a computer copying her. As seen at the last Proz conference in Barcelona, a computer can “learn” an individual human’s voice and reproduce it with new sentences of its own. The “Terminator” films may start to ring a bell. This may be old hat to James Bond or the CIA, which leads one to think that the next step can now be taken. In fact, I believe the BBC are well on the way to doing it, albeit unwittingly. The corporation has been using live subtitling for years now. To do so, one may either employ an extremely fast typist or…a computer. Basically, the computer recognises the voice and flashes the words it has understood onto the screen. From what I have seen, I’d say it gets about 90 % right, which in my opinion is quite impressive, especially when faced with so many accents. Imagine a Glaswegian interviewee saying “I cannae. D’you see? D’you ken?” The machine may well understand this to mean “A can o’ juicy chicken,” for example. However, this hiccup can also be overcome. After crunching thousands of interviews in Glasgow, the computer has only to be told where or who it is translating to get the gist. Taking another leap forward, a GPS / satnav device could also be employed to automatically inform the computer when it is in Glasgow or Los Angeles, so it can adjust its voice recognition and vocabulary accordingly.

            So there we have it: our hand-held interpreter of the not-so-far future.

jueves, 19 de abril de 2012

El Idioma de Nadie

El cliente siempre tiene la razón. Incluso cuando está completamente equivocado. Todos los hemos tenido. El jefe de empresa que pasó dos semanas en la Provenza hace diez años y por lo tanto se considera un experto en francés. El departamento técnico que no entiende por qué llave inglesa no se traduce literalmente. El jefe de marketing que no capta por qué la gente extranjera se ofende por expresiones como llevar el gato al agua. El capataz de oleoducto que siempre llama bongos a los bidones de petróleo y no quiere oír hablar de otra cosa. He aquí un resumen de unas conversaciones telefónicas habituales y sus posibles soluciones.


El cliente: «Buenos días. Nos gustaría que nos haga una traducción exacta de este texto ininteligible. Gracias. Adiós.»

10 minutos más tarde:

-El traductor: «Buenos días. Su texto de origen apesta. ¿Qué tal si lo vuelvo a escribir primero para que los seres humanos como sus clientes lo entiendan?»

-El cliente: «No tenemos tiempo para eso. Y de todos modos, nuestro jefe estalinista lo escribió él mismo y tenemos demasiado miedo para decirle que es analfabeto. Sólo tienes que traducirlo fielmente y enviárnoslo antes de las 8 h de mañana.»

El traductor: «Bueno, vale. Se lo he advertido.»

El cliente: «Gracias. Genial. Fenomenal. Adiós.»

10 minutos más tarde:

-El traductor: «Buenos días. Según mi software, el último párrafo no es reconocible en ninguna lengua indoeuropea, ni pre-sánscrito. ¿Tal vez sea Arapaho?»

-El cliente: «Bip. Bip. Bip. Gracias por llamar a XXXXX. La oficina está cerrada. Por favor, vuelva a llamar cuando abramos a las 10 horas.»

07:45 h:

El traductor: «Buenos días. Acabo de enviarles su texto chungo fielmente traducido.»

El cliente: «Bip. Bip.»

10:10 h:

-El cliente: «Buenos días. Nuestros clientes dicen que el texto es chungo.»

-El traductor: «¡Ja! ¡Ja! ¡Ya se lo dije! ¿Han recibido mi factura?»

-El cliente: «Bip. Bip. Bip.»

10:30 h:

-El cliente: «Buenos días. Parece que se nos cortó la línea. Decía que su traducción es chunga. ¿Por qué no vuelve a escribir el texto de origen primero?»

-El traductor: «Tendré que cobrar por eso.»

-El cliente: (Después de una larga pausa) «Vamos a tener que hablar de eso con Josef, digo con José. Haga el favor de enviarlo pronto. Ahora es aún más urgente.»

-El traductor: «Tendré que cobrar por eso.»

-El cliente: «Bip. Bip. Bip.»

Resulta que este traductor había enviado al cliente varias quejas falsas de clientes potenciales inventados, suponiendo correctamente que la compañía escucharía a los clientes si no al traductor al señalar errores en el texto. Funcionó. Otro ejemplo de la poca confianza que a veces se tiene en el traductor.


Esta situación surgió al traducir textos para una agencia de turismo cuyo nuevo folleto estaba a punto de ir a la imprenta.

-El cliente: «Tenemos un problema. El folleto de vacaciones de invierno dice: Come to ski.»

-El traductor: «¿Y…?»

-El cliente: «¿Por qué no dice Come to sky ?»

-El traductor: «Porque eso es esa gran cosa azul arriba con nubes.»

-El cliente: «Mmm... bien, pero voy a tener que comprobar eso. A mí no me suena bien. ¿Y qué es esta palabra the?»

Etc. durante un par de horas hasta que finalmente:

-El cliente (a regañadientes): «Bueno, está bien, pero a mí todavía no me gusta su estilo. Tal vez debería darnos un descuento.»

Dependiendo del poder dentro de la compañía de la persona con quién está tratando, la opinión del cliente final debería ayudar al traductor con este tipo de problema. Si insisten en el cambio de ski (esquiar) para sky (cielo), sólo tienes que recordarles que quedan avisados. Y siempre pide ver el producto final, ya que nueve de cada diez veces habrán cambiado cosas con consecuencias desastrosas.


El cliente: «Buenos días. García y Hermanos, Servicios de Limpieza Nuclear S.A. ¿En qué le puedo ayudar?»

El traductor: «Hola. Soy su traductor. En su texto no encuentro ninguna mención de las boquillas limpiadoras con disco rotativo.»

El cliente: «Nosotros las llamamos escupidores.»

El traductor: «¿Cómo…?»

El cliente: << «Escupidores. Eso desde que el padre de Paco, él del almacén, contó un chiste de que se parecen a los morros de su mujer, Vicenta. ¡Ja! ¡Ja! ¡Ja!» (Empieza a toser.)

El traductor:  «Vaaale... Pero tal vez la comunidad científica internacional puede ser que prefiera- »

 El Cliente: «Pon escupidores. Está muy bien. Hemos usado escupidores desde hace años. Sólo hay que poner escupidores en inglés.»

El traductor:  «Spitters?»

El Cliente: «¿Cómorrr?»

Esto es lo que yo llamo el idioma de nadie, una situación sin salida cuando los clientes se quedan en sus trece. Es curioso que durante el siglo XX el nuevo vocabulario americano del español, francés e inglés ha evolucionado siguiendo líneas paralelas, mientras que sus homólogos europeos fueron por otras, y esto es obviamente más notable en el lenguaje de los nuevos inventos en la era industrial, donde tal vocabulario  no existía antes (cell phone, cellulaire, celular / mobile, móvil), aunque en la edad del Internet tal vez no siga así. En un texto técnico/científico, obviamente, se debe dar por lo menos un nombre oficial o descriptivo en la lengua meta, pero qué carajo, si estás traduciendo el lenguaje publicitario para un nuevo producto o servicio, podrías ser el primero en inventar una nueva palabra. La última vez que fui a un gimnasio (hace…¡bufff!), descubrí que spinning, body-pump y footing se entienden perfectamente en español, aunque sus orígenes pueden ser desconocidas para muchos hablantes de español, y se ve que ningún traductor se atrevió (o no se le permitió) sugerir un invento español. ¿Y qué idioma es esto de todos modos? El Idioma de Nadie. Alguien tenía que decidir que la Rana Kermit sería Gustavo o René en español, que Bert y Ernie sería Epi y Blas. Que cuando Bart le dice en inglés que «comas mis pantalones cortos» en español te dice que «te multipliques por cero», y en cuanto a los cereales para el desayuno con la famosa onomatopeya de snap, crackle, and pop, no tengo ni idea de cómo es la traducción oficial, pero alguien era el primero en traducirlo. En una sociedad en constante cambio, las lenguas no son estáticas, se inventa un nuevo vocabulario todos los días por necesidad (y a veces por la ignorancia del léxico ya existente). Sé valiente, pisa donde otros temen pisar, y si estás 100% seguro de que la palabra aún no existe, entonces te toca a ti inventarla, teniendo en cuenta las cuestiones culturales/etimológicas cuando sea necesario.
El Idioma de Nadie es el lenguaje que la traducción automática todavía no puede entender: la metáfora, la ironía, la broma cultural, la idea que sale de la nada, la pesadilla de Deep Blue.
Y es ahí donde todavía estamos ganando la batalla.

Otros ejemplos de cómo contestar a los clientes al teléfono: http://torsimany.blogspot.com/2008/08/chistes-de-y-para-traductores.html