Translation and Interpreting in 150+ Languages
Translation by the minute: The Three T’s
February 23, 2010 - By: - In: Translation - Comments Off on Translation by the minute: The Three T’s

They have great margaritas at the Bit and Spur, right outside of Zion Canyon. I was drinking there once with the most successful writer I’ve ever palled around with, Mori Yoko, the noted Japanese romance novelist.  As we sat together there on the patio, she looked at me over the salty rim of her glass and said, “Ken, it’s not enough to write well. You must write fast too.” It was an important lesson ― one that I’ve managed to ignore pretty successfully for the last 20 years.

And this also goes for translation too. You’ve got to do it right, but you’ve got to do it fast too. How fast? It all depends.

Most translators in most languages can do somewhere between 2500 and 3000 words per day. That works out to about 300 words per hour. That’s unique words, now, so if the materials to be translated have a lot of repetition (say 50%), then the translator is effectively translating 5000 words instead of 2500.

And that’s just the tip of the translation automation iceberg. Terminology management, machine pre-translation, and lots of other stuff can push those numbers much higher. There’s been much talk in the industry about a report on a prodigious amount of translation done by a former president of the American Translators Association, but I’ve got brain freeze and Vince, my social media guy, is sending me friendly notes to remind me I’m past deadline. Besides, this post is about writing fast, so more on that later…

Luckily, we have all these combined technologies to speed the translator’s plow, but then comes QA. Edit and proof take more time, say around 1000 words per hour, each, depending on the quality of the original and the talents and diligence of the editors. Traffic becomes a concern, too, in that the document has to be scheduled and assigned to the appropriate linguist by the appropriate project manager or language manager. So all the expectations we have for words per hour get tossed out the window if the one-and-only language manager is backed up or simply having a bad day.

I’ve heard that some language service providers ask for two weeks from the get-go just for the convenience of managing their workflow. We’ve never had that luxury, since you clients mostly want your translation ASAP.  I suppose this is partly due to our brand; it’s  probably safe to assume that any company with “1-800” in front of its brand is serious about being lickity split. Plus, expectations about “time to market” are not going to get longer in this day and age. The time required for human translation is shockingly long to many people purchasing for the first time, and a tremendous headache to the regulars, for whom translation is often at the end of a long production that has already slipped and slid across one timeline or another.

So to keep translation on track, language service providers have only one ‘T’ left up their sleeves (note: first T is for technology, second T is for traffic management, and finally there’s T for “throw more translators at it”) ― a blessing for those sainted with tight deadlines, but a curse for managers trying to manage a consistence process. We can give the translators the shared memories, and force the same terminology, but translators are like cats, or cat skinners (just an expression), in that there is more than one way to do it. Of course, it can be devilishly hard to control for that because we all have our own styles, and getting the work of multiple translators onto a single page is a very hard process to manage.

And speaking of cats, we’ve just scratched the surface here, but I’m on deadline. Translation speed becomes ever more critical for on-demand, interpretation and other real-time scenarios, which we will explore in future posts.

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