Writing for translation

“I once translated an instruction manual where the French actually ended up being shorter than the English, exactly because there was a lot of redundancy and unnecessary material. I didn’t, for example, translate the first step, which said, ‘Take the product out of the box.’ My client asked, ‘Where’s number one?’ and I said, ‘French people know to take it out of the box!’ ” —Anthony Michael, when asked whether he stylistically edits poorly written English before translating into French.

Last night I attended the Society for Technical Communication Canada West Coast Chapter’s November meeting, where Anthony Michael of Le Mot Juste Translations gave a talk about writing for translation. Here are some highlights:

  • The translation process is often considered an afterthought, but if you know a document will have to be translated, it’s best to take it into consideration from the outset, both so that enough time can be allowed in the schedule and so that the text in the source language can be written to facilitate translation, especially in the case of technical documentation.
  • Be aware that plays on words such as puns are virtually impossible to translate, and metaphors can be culturally specific (he gave an example of having to eliminate or rethink the baseball metaphors—step up to the plate, cover all bases, out in left field—in a business report destined for France). Keeping the sentences in the source language short and unambiguous (not to mention grammatically correct) will facilitate translation and may even make machine translation possible.
  • Despite the prevalence of poor machine translators, good ones do exist. For example, Xerox in the 1980s had a machine translator that did a decent job on its technical documentation. The final product must still be edited by translators, of course.
  • Source and target texts will often differ in length (e.g., French is usually 10 to 15 per cent longer than English); this is a consideration when planning document design. How will the text be presented? How will it flow around visual elements? Other considerations include the effects of target languages that use a different character set or a different direction of text. Michael gave an example of an ad for a brand of laundry detergent that showed, from left to right, dirty clothes, the detergent, a washing machine, and clean clothes. Because the ad consisted only of images and no text, the company thought it had escaped translation issues but didn’t take into account that in Semitic languages, text is read right to left, and in the Middle East, the ad had exactly the opposite meaning to what was intended.
  • In addition to unilingual and bilingual dictionaries, many of which are now online, translators also use specialized dictionaries for particular subjects and grammar references. Other tools of the trade include terminological databases, such as the one on Termium Plus, as well as translation memories, which are essentially concordance databases. An example is Linguee. Translation memories allow you to search existing translations to see how a particular term or phrase was translated in the past. The search results include snippets of text around the term to give the proper context. Software programs often used to create translation memories are MultiTrans and Trados.
  • Don’t forget about confidentiality issues or other legal matters, including copyright ownership and potential for libel, when sending text out for translation. It’s best to have these spelled out in your contract with your translator.
  • Context is everything. Provide as much context as possible to your translator, either in your source text or in an accompanying document. Spell out or explain all acronyms, provide reference material, if possible (e.g., if you have a set of previously translate documents on similar subject matter). Indicate the gender of people where necessary, because that person’s professional title, for example, will have to take on the masculine or feminine in some other languages like French.

Awards news

Thanks to Grace Yaginuma for reminding me that this past week Flavours of Prince Edward Island by Jeff McCourt, Allan Williams, and Austin Clement (Whitecap Books) won Gold at the Canadian Culinary Book Awards in the Canadian Culinary Culture Category, English-Language and Vij’s at Home: Relax, Honey by Meeru Dhalwala and Vikram Vij (Douglas & McIntyre) won Silver in the Cookbook Category, English-Language. Congrats to all authors! The awards were announced November 7; see a list of all of the winners here.

Fact and nonfiction

At a recent editorial retreat, a very experienced editor was telling us about how clients sometimes question why the research for a single piece of information can take what seems like an unreasonable amount of time. “The author had provided a photo of a bridge he wanted to use and a caption for it. I searched the name in the caption, found a photo, and it was the wrong bridge. So I looked at maps of where this bridge was supposed to be and tried to find pictures of landmarks close to it…” She ran into one dead end after another, until finally, after hours of searching, she found another photo of the bridge from a different angle, and a name to go with it. “That’s the bridge. So I changed the caption, but finding the right name took the whole day.”

“What would you have done before the Internet?” another editor asked.

“Nothing. There would have been an error in the printed book.”

That conversation made me think quite a bit about the accuracy of sources we consider reliable and this whole business of fact checking in the editorial process. Editors—copy editors in particular—are expected to check facts within the realm of general knowledge; with Google, though, more and more can be considered to be part of that realm. Does this mean that more of the onus of fact checking falls on the editor rather than the author? Much has been said about the unreliability of online information, but are print sources really any better? Didn’t the past lack of Internet search engines just mean that copy editors of yore simply couldn’t spend the time to track down primary sources of information? I can think of two projects I worked on over the past year that were new editions of print-only books, where authors used the old edition as a basis for the new book and my Internet searches revealed errors in their earlier text. I can only imagine that this now happens all the time, meaning that books, if they are properly fact checked, are probably more reliable than they have ever been.

The flip side, of course, is that there such a deluge of new titles being produced now, especially since anyone can self-publish, that the majority of books can’t possibly be thoroughly vetted. And, of course, the Internet is not without its pitfalls. When I come across a term that’s not in my dictionary or a name that doesn’t appear in the Library of Congress Authorities, I do lean on Google to tell me that one spelling gives me 200,000 hits, whereas an alternative spelling gives me 1,200. And those 1,200 may very well be right, but often in those cases, “truthiness” prevails.

I sometimes feel that fact checking is more for the editors’ benefit than the authors’. Oh sure, we’re saving authors from potential embarrassment, discredit, and maybe, in the case of a misquote, a libel suit. But when we go to great lengths to hunt down the exact punctuation and capitalization of a sixteenth-century title that some ship’s second officer put together from his journal, and we end up finding a scanned copy of the original text in an online archive, it’s all about the satisfaction of sleuthing and getting it right. Maybe the reason fact checking can be particularly satisfying is that it’s so much less subjective than other facets of editing; in most cases, the goal is finding the one right answer, not, say, imposing a style decision. The hunt does take time, though, so I suppose we’ll have to subtly tease out of our authors what standard they expect us to uphold for each project. Does this author want me to spend the afternoon tracking down and watching a YouTube video of a lengthy speech to see if he’s accurately quoted a public figure? Or should I trust his research and simply alert him to the risk of misquoting?

Ultimately, even if we editors flag factual errors, authors are free to reject our suggested changes, and in the end our efforts may not matter. Most people still believe, for instance, that Marie Antoinette said, “Let them eat cake” (she didn’t) and that Philip Sheridan said, “The only good Indian is a dead Indian” (a misquote, if he uttered anything like it at all), showing that even for the most persuasive of editors, the reader’s interpretation is beyond her control.

A celebration of Fred Herzog

“Today’s cameras are not designed by photographers. Today’s cameras are designed by geeks. And geeks do not take good pictures.” —Fred Herzog

Tonight’s event was, hands down, the best book launch I’ve ever attended—probably because it was more than just a book launch. It was also the advance screening of a documentary on Fred Herzog (part of the Snapshot) series, which will air on the Knowledge Network on Monday, November 14, at 10 pm.

The screening was hosted by Knowledge CEO Rudy Buttignol and featured speakers Douglas Coupland, Gary Stephen Ross, Sam Sullivan, Andy Sylvester, and Shelagh Rogers, who each chose one of Herzog’s photos and interpreted the image from his or her own perspective. Rogers had a family emergency and couldn’t attend personally, but, being the pro that she is, recorded her essay in studio for all of us to hear as an MP3. These special presentations were capped off with Herzog himself, an incisively witty and charming man, who gave his take on the photos that the others had commented on.

At the beginning of the evening Scott McIntyre got an opportunity to briefly recount the growth of D&M’s relationship with Herzog, and even gave me and Peter Cocking shoutouts for working on the new book. That was the evening’s first surprise. The second was that I’m shown in a scene of the documentary shaking Herzog’s hand at the opening of his Reading Pictures exhibit at the Equinox Gallery this past February.

Herzog said very explicitly in the documentary that he doesn’t sign books, and so although I’d brought along my copy in the hopes that I could get his autograph, I was a bit too intimidated to ask him at the reception. Zoe Grams and John Burns gently egged me on (the latter even providing the pen), and Herzog was gracious enough to make an exception, even as he was just on his way out.

All in all, it was a spectacular evening and a complete privilege. I’ve thought about contributing to the Knowledge Network for several months now, and tonight has strengthened my resolve.

Free range indexers

A book’s index is an afterthought for most publishers—allocated the pages that are left over from the last signature after the main body has been set. What ends up happening (entirely too frequently) is that indexers are handcuffed by a severe lack of space. I once had to compile a six-page index to a 336-page book—that’s less than 1.8 per cent of the page count—and I was forced to trim so many entries that the index was, for all intents and purposes, useless.

For a reference books or technical manual, the index can be one of the most important components of the publication, and most of the indexers that I know charge by the indexable page rather than the entry, so they’d be charging the same total fee regardless of index length. To severely limit the index space would hurt the book more than it would the indexer (although I’d like to think that most indexers would be disappointed to put forth an inferior product).

What we need, then, is—dare I say it?—a paradigm shift. Publishers and editors and whoever has input into the total extent of a book needs to consider the index integral from the outset. Do a rough cast-off based on the manuscript, and if what’s left over of the last signature is less than, say, 2.5 per cent, consider adding another half or full signature, depending on the total length of the book, and use this new page count in your project budget and P&L.

The American Society for Indexing has some guidelines for index lengths. For trade books, indexes should be about 3 percent of the book, whereas for technical reference books, they could be up to 15 or 20 percent. These figures can be squeezed a little bit, especially if you’re reducing type size in the index, but they shouldn’t be significantly less than what the ASI has recommended, if you want the index to be functional and readable.

On the other end of the spectrum are self-publishing authors or publishers who don’t give any index specs at all and say, “I’ll just do what I need to do to make your index fit.” This scenario is cropping up more frequently as more people are turning to print-on-demand options where they can add pages two at a time rather than worry about a full sig. It sounds like an indexer’s dream, but, in reality, we appreciate constraints. Without a size limit on the index, the temptation to hand over a bloated, unedited draft is entirely too high. Having index specs helps indexers trim the fat—to put careful thought into clear and concise subentries and eliminate redundancies that can lead to clutter.

Basically what I’m saying is that indexers are a lot like chickens (an analogy I’m sure you’ll hear no other indexer repeat). We’re happiest—and we produce the best product—when we’ve got space to roam around and breathe fresh air. But we also understand the need to be penned in, for our own protection. And, of course, getting a generous amount of feed for our troubles doesn’t hurt, either.

Kobo gets into publishing

I’m a bit slow on the draw here, but Kobo announced yesterday that it’s going into the publishing business. (I find it a bit curious that, a day later, none of this information seems to be on the main Kobo site—at least not in any of the obvious places, such as its blog or press centre.)

Apparently Kobo will be actively acquiring new titles and editing as well as designing them. I wonder what rates the company will be willing to pay its editors and whether they will be competitive with those of traditional publishers. Will Kobo bother to hire top-notch editors? Or will it take advantage of the low-cost outsourcing opportunities available on such sites as Elance and oDesk? It’ll also be interesting to see what the workflow will look like and whether this further addition to the burgeoning ebook medium will lead to formal, systematized professional development opportunities to train editors on ebook best practices.

Generally I’d say that the recent growth of ebooks is good news for editors; as many of my colleagues have discovered, helping self-publishing authors with their manuscripts can be huge business. However, with the glut of uncurated content, it can also be hard to impress upon the authors the importance of professional standards (I take heart in the fact that people on social networks still bother to correct others’ spellings—though Muphry’s Law does apply), and being an editor for a self-publisher can also mean becoming de facto project manager—a role you may or may not have wanted.

Purgative roundup

I’d been vacillating about adding a blog component to this site, primarily concerned that my personal musings had no place in my business. But September’s Editors’ Association of Canada BC Branch meeting, which began as a showcase of portfolios and quickly morphed into a discussion about online marketing opportunities, convinced me that maybe blogging wasn’t such a bad idea after all.

Since this post is my first, and I’ve got a backlog of news, let me dive in. In no particular order:

1) After a long wait, Cow (Greystone Books), written by Florian Werner and translated from German by Doris Ecker, has finally been released. A million thanks to the amazing Temple Grandin for providing the foreword to this cultural history of the cow.

A massive part of my work on that book involved picture research—seeking out public-domain images whenever possible, tracking down image copyright holders, negotiating permission fees, and the like. At the September EAC meeting, I was lucky enough to win a free EAC seminar and am looking forward to the April 12 Picture Research seminar by Mary Rose MacLachlan and Derek Capitaine (MRM Associates).

2) D&M Publishers celebrated its fortieth anniversary with a party at the Vancouver International Writers Festival. In addition to seeing my old D&M colleagues, I got caught up with Jesse Marchand and Michelle Furbacher from Whitecap Books (friends from my old Ubyssey days!); Megan Brand of UBC Press; Ann-Marie Metten of Talonbooks; and fabulous freelancers Grace Yaginuma, Lara Kordic, and Stephanie MacDonald.

3) I’m excited to attend an advance screening on November 2 of a Fred Herzog documentary for the Knowledge Network, which will also be the launch of Fred Herzog: Photographs, an incredible privilege to work on. I’ll post the air dates of the documentary when I find out what they are.

4) This snort-inducing article about Mary Walsh as Marg Delahunty intimidating Toronto Mayor Rob Ford into calling 911 reminded me of the actress’s contribution to Shari Graydon’s terrific collection, I Feel Great about My Hands—a celebration of the unexpected benefits of aging. To keep up with Shari, read her blog here.