Masked Translator

Masked Translator is a professional freelance translator. I am the Zorro of the translation blog world! Masked Translator is not trying to sell you anything or self-promote. Masked Translator just wants to tell it like it is about the real life of a professional translator...

Sunday, August 2, 2009

Letters of Recommendation: Sometimes the Best Translation is Not to Translate

When you’re translating materials into English for a client who wants to apply for a job in the United States, here’s an issue you might want to mention: letters of recommendation sometimes don’t translate well. If you translate non-American ones literally, you might see glowing recommendations like:

Ms. X performed her work adequately.

Sarah was satisfactory.

There were no obvious faults in Mr. Y’s work.

These are real and all-too-typical examples that I and colleagues have come across. The Americans reading I’m sure are cringing; many non-Americans might be wondering what’s so bad about those comments…

In many other countries, letters of recommendation are often issued on a standard basis when someone leaves a company: they are generic (“to whom it may concern”), and they specify the dates of employment, the positions held, and perhaps a comment or two about the quality of the person’s work (though not necessarily). It's also not uncommon for letters of recommendation to be signed by someone who is not personally familiar with the employee or who doesn’t have first-hand knowledge of the employee’s work, and sometimes the social status/prestige of the letter writer matters more than his or her actually familiarity with the employee.

This is not at all what a letter of recommendation is in the United States. If you merely want confirmation of employment, a potential employer will simply call up companies listed on the resume and ask for verification that the person worked there.

American letters of recommendation are thus much more important as candid commentaries on the personal qualities and professional qualifications of the employee; they are written almost always by someone who worked with or who directly managed the employee. They are also personal letters in the sense that they are written to one specific recipient, and they are not supposed to be generic; thus, an American employee needs to ask for a new letter of reference for each job he or she is applying for. This is normal in the United States and does not impose a burden on reference writers, although it is courteous to spread requests for references among different people so that one person doesn’t have to write more than one or two references a year.

When asked to write a letter of recommendation, an American manager might actually refuse if he or she cannot write a positive one, saying “I really think you should ask someone else.” American letters of recommendation are typically positive, as a result, and so potential employers glean information not only from the content of these letters but also from the people the candidate got letters from--and who not. For instance, if you worked for 2 years at ABC, Inc., and 15 years at XYZ, Inc., a potential employer will wonder why you have a letter only from ABC and not from XYZ--that question will come up in your interview for sure.

There are also some important cultural differences in terminology and wording. The example comments I listed above, which are real examples taken from translations from three different languages, were intended as positive comments, but in translation they illustrate some of the key problems:

Ms. X performed her work adequately.
The term “adequate” in English really means “barely sufficient.” It means that the bare minimum expectation may have been met, but absolutely no more. It connotes borderline inadequacy, and is not positive.

Sarah was satisfactory.
The term “satisfactory” suffers from the same problem: it is slightly negative in connotation in English (although perhaps slightly more positive than “adequate.”)

There were no obvious faults in Mr. Y’s work.
In some cultures, one focuses on faults and mistakes. In American culture, you focus on positives. In formulating this comment in this way ("no obvious faults"), an American might understand it to mean that there was nothing more positive to say and then perceive it has an exceedingly negative comment. The wording also implies that the writer fully expects Mr. York’s works to have had faults, but they simply haven’t been found (yet).

When you have clients who have non-American letters of recommendation, it’s often very helpful to school the client in what the purpose and expectations of letters of recommendation are in the United States. In many cases, the client would be better off asking for new, American-style references rather than using translations of their existing ones. There are tons of help guides online for writing letters of reference; find some you like and refer clients that way.

Wednesday, July 22, 2009

Many translators unfit in any language?

First, read this:

Many translators unfit in any language

That headline sure is problematic:

1. The article is about interpreters, not about translators. It's a technical distinction in our field, I know, but you'd think Jason Straziuso might be bothered to learn the difference since he's an actual reporter...

2. The term "linguist" is often used as a synonym for "translator" and/or "interpreter." This is unfortunate. The everyday definition of "linguist" means someone who speaks *several* languages (fluently), check your dictionary, so even a translator who speaks only a mother tongue and one translation language probably isn't really a "linguist." But the technical definition is someone who specializes in the field linguistics (i.e. probably has a degree in it). Linguistics is something quite, quite different from translation. So, just as we in the field draw a technical distinction between "translator" and "interpreter," so too should we be careful not to use the term "linguist" as an imprecise synonym for either. I guess I can't fault Jason for that, since we misuse that term ourselves.

2. The headline implies something about "translators" generally, but the article is talking about bilingual people who are *amateur* and not professional interpreters helping military units in Afghanistan.

3. The headline is a pun and means that the interpreters are not in good enough physical shape; it's unfortunate because you would have to read the article to know that. Standing on its own in a list of news stories, most people would assume it means that "translators suck." And that's a bummer because lots of people mistrust translators the way they mistrust lawyers.

Ah well.

I really could stand to loose some weight, though, so if you'll excuse me I need to dust my bike off now...

Tuesday, July 21, 2009

On American CVs and Resumes

Corinne McKay recently put up a post about resumes that's worth a read, particularly if you're looking for a job these days, and I posted a comment about how culturally sensitive resumes are, and I thought I’d expand on that a bit.

Although the terms CV (curriculum vitae, literally “the course of your life”) and resume are synonyms, they aren't strictly the same thing--in the United States, at least. The term CV, sometimes also called a “vita,” tends to be used more in academic, medical, and scientific contexts and usually refers to exhaustive listings of someone’s professional, academic, scientific, teaching, and publishing background. You might also find highly experienced corporate executives using a CV as well. A American CV of this type can be many pages long for people who have had long careers or published a great deal or achieved quite a lot. The term CV is also used in the field of education or pedagogy, where a similar amount of detail is needed--American instructors (at the primary, secondary, and postsecondary levels) nowadays often also have a teaching portfolio, which includes samples of lesson plans, original material, often video of classroom instruction, and even teacher evaluations.

Outside of these fields--including language services such as translation--Americans do not use detailed CVs like this. Instead, they use resumes. In U.S. English, “resume” means “brief summary,” as it does in French. (And for God’s sake if you use the accent marks, which is old-fashioned in U.S. English, then please use them on both e’s: résumé.) An American resume includes only relevant educational and professional information, organized either chronologically (most recent first!) or by skills, and it shouldn't exceed one page--except for job seekers who have had considerable experience.

As a result, there are several things you often find on the resumes of non-Americans that generally should not appear on an American resume:

  • Age or birth date
  • Marital status or children
  • Religion
  • Race or ethnicity
  • Political affiliations
  • Photograph
  • Signature
  • Primary or secondary education (“What, this applicant doesn’t have enough experience that they have to pad their resume with elementary school??”)
  • Minor jobs or employment that does not relate directly to your present career (e.g. summer jobs, short-lived jobs, etc.)
  • Hobbies, pastimes, or leisure activities--included only if there is room
  • Volunteer work or activism that might be perceived as controversial

    Employers don’t like applicants to include many of these things because it can expose them to liability for discrimination. Although imperfectly implemented, Americans like to think of a job application process as being merit based and not based on things like age, sex, appearance, etc. One’s experience and skills should speak for themselves.

    There are no set rules, however, which can be frustrating to non-Americans, and so there are exceptions. It’s a bit of an art and requires a lot of cultural awareness. For instance, if you are applying to be a TV news anchor, including a your headshot would be OK because your appearance matters. If you are applying to work for a Republican political campaign, you would want to include volunteer work and activism for Republican causes (and you would probably want to omit other such things for Democratic causes). A bit of common sense is required.

    There are two common formats for American resumes: chronological and achievement/skills-based, also called a functional resume. (Note on those links how very short the example resumes are--that’s perfectly OK.) An achievement/skills-based resume is good for people who have had gaps in employment because they were a stay-at-home caregiver to a child or parent, or for people who have been unemployed for long periods of time. A chronological resume--which should always list the most recent item first (the opposite of many non-American resumes) is more traditional, but each item you list should also include the skills you earned and achievements you had.

    American resumes generally also include an “Objective” near the top, and we generally also rewrite our resumes custom for each specific job being applied for.

    In terms of style, a good tip for nonnative speakers of English is to remember that English is a “verby” language, and your resume will read better if you use verbs and avoid “nouniness,” cf.:

    Too nouny:
    Maintenance and restocking of inventory

    Verbier and better:
    Maintained and restocked inventory

    In a later post, I’ll talk about intercultural problems with letters of recommendation and cover letters.
  • Sunday, July 5, 2009


    The LinkedIn controversy this month got me to thinking about some of the generational differences there are in the translation world, related not just to Internet use and technology but also to attitudes and approaches to the profession. There are things I have heard of and now participate in, such as blogging; there are things I have heard of and do not participate in, like tweeting; and there are things that I have never heard of--and for those things I must rely on my kids and other young people to educate me.

    I can remember my own grandmother once asking what the point of a microwave is; “it’s just an expensive hotdog bun warmer.” I find myself now asking similar questions of younger colleagues, reminding me more and more of my grandparents. With the HDTV transition happening this year, for instance, I found myself wondering why I bother having a television at all. Looking into cable and satellite TV packages, I have literally stopped, jaw agape, brain shorting--failing to comprehend all the possibilities, and prices. (Note to cable and satellite companies: you have no idea how to communicate clearly to your potential customers about your products, do you? Just admit it.)

    One thing I have been enjoying on TV, actually, is the AMC series Mad Men, which is a deliciously anachronistic look at 1960s America through a Madison Avenue lens. Every episode is good for a shocked chuckle at vignettes of rampant smoking and drinking, including a pregnant woman giving no thought to smoking, drinking, and eating steak tartar; of supposedly professional men sexually harassing a female coworker openly in an elevator with an African American operator by the panel; of a child running around the house inside a dry cleaner’s bag to be scolded merely for leaving her mother’s clean clothes on the floor; and of a husband consulting with his wife’s Jungian psychotherapist like a parent checking in with a child’s teacher. Ah, we’ve come a long way, Baby.

    Now imagine yourself working as a translator circa 1960. Way more translators worked in house in those days than as freelancers, actually, so being a freelancer would be somewhat novel--perhaps a part-time gig between other jobs, or a summer pastime for a teacher or professor. You might even freelance only from time to time as a favor to friends working in international business. You would likely actually be doing more work translating into your second language rather than from it into your native language (which is taboo nowadays, professionally). If you were a full-fledged freelancer, you would probably have a manual typewriter, maybe even a new-fangled electric model; however, you might just as well be doing most of your translating longhand as a draft before typing your material out on a typewriter rented by the hour at the library. You would have hundreds of pounds of physical reference and reading materials around, plus a hundred extra pounds of checked-out library materials, and an overfull Rolodex with phone numbers and addresses of contacts who specialize in your translation areas. Your long-distance bill would be immense, since you’d be spending long hours on the phone to people in country in Asia or Europe. An in-house situation allows people to confer on problems and issues as well, so that's another reason why being a freelancer would be relatively uncommon. Depending on where you lived, you might risk scandalizing your bourgeois neighbors by having immigrant and Mormon friends (shocking, I know)--who with their missionary and language work would be invaluable people to know in the areas of language and culture. You would be able to specialize in only one, maximum two, subject areas; without the Internet, there would just be too many physical-world obstacles to having the background or reference material in more than that. You would fill three or four ash trays before having to clean them out every other day.

    Even now, in 2009, there is a bit of a disconnect between older translators who don’t even have Web pages of their own, egad, and younger translators who have standard and smartphone-compatible versions of their Web pages. Older translators are less likely to be interested in professional Web sites, blogs, and RSS feeds (and may not even know or care what these are); younger translators are less likely to keep notes in notebooks or do any legwork at all, or make phone calls, to find the right answer to a problem. Younger translators are more socially isolated in many ways because they hardly see any need to step away from the computer at all.

    What other changes have you noticed in the past thirty years? Or, for the younger set, what kinds of things do you find mystifying your older colleagues?

    Friday, July 3, 2009

    Toward a Universal Freelancer Application (UFA)

    Every year just before the Fourth of July I get a strong uptick in inquiries from agencies for new translators. This is because so many translators go on vacation around this time but agencies have sustained demand for translations, particularly for clients outside the United States. The same thing happens in August when the whole world, except the United States, goes on vacation. This is why I vacation in October, typically, and not in August.

    Anyway, when you get an inquiry like this, especially from a heavily bureaucratized or ISO-certified agency, you end up spending 15-20 minutes filling out their elaborate vendor/freelancer forms. (For one ISO-certified client this year I spent around two hours completing paperwork, but in that case it paid off since they have used me reliably since.) I have calculated that over the course of my translation career I have in fact spent upward of 600 hours filling out all these forms. It’s not a good use of my time, either, because I think I end up getting an actual job from a minority of those inquiring agencies, and an even smaller percentage give me sustained work.

    A lot of inquiries like these have to do with “potential” jobs as well, or for an agency to make a bid (“tender”) on a large project they actually don’t have, so the time spent by any freelancer filling out forms related to projects like these is of rare and scant benefit.

    What’s the solution?

    There needs to be a “universal freelancer application” (UFA). One standard application (in lieu of or in conjunction with a resume where you can still highlight what makes you special) with all the relevant information any agency in the world might want or need. No fancy formatting, just a simple Word document or Excel spreadsheet. (With an Excel spreadsheet, technologically inclined agencies can then automate the databasing of the information in the spreadsheet, saving even more time and money.) Then, every time someone makes an inquiry you simply forward your most recently updated version of the UFA already saved somewhere on your hard drive, and you’re all set.

    This would be a great project for the ATA to take up: get their agency members to develop a single, simple, standard UFA for everyone to use. Freelancers should be involved, too, but since agencies are best able to say what such applications should or should not include, it should primarily be an agency-driven industry service. The UFA could be set up in only one standard language everywhere, or it could be set up using features in Microsoft Office or in Adobe Acrobat to switch automatically to any number of localized versions.

    Many fields and institutions are using standardized applications already, including the Pennsylvania Department of Education (single application for all teaching positions) and FAFSA (standardized federal student aid application, which many scholarship charities and schools now use as well instead of requiring separate applications).

    I actually do something similar already: to most inquiries I simply send my resume, my fee schedule, and my terms of business, and I leave it up to them to get the information out of it that they need. I find that Europe-based inquirers are less happy with this solution, but North America-based inquirers think that’s just fine.

    Thursday, July 2, 2009

    The ATA Gets It Right

    Regular readers who are familiar with Masked Translator's crankiness will know that I am a frequent critic of the ATA's ineffectual approach to PR. However, on Tuesday the ATA got things right for once and released a scathing attack on LinkedIn and its attempt this past week to get free translations done:

    Here is the ATA's press release.

    Go, Jiri!

    Tuesday, June 30, 2009

    Let's all work for free, why don't we?

    This great article in the Monday New York Times is making the rounds, well worth a read, and you should do so now:

    Translators Wanted at LinkedIn. The Pay? $0 an Hour.

    I have three comments.

    First, the best part is actually the very last couple of paragraphs, some comments from Nataly Kelly at Common Sense Advisory:

    “It would have been far cheaper for Facebook to pay translators 10 cents a word to translate material than to build a community and pay engineers to set up all this infrastructure,” said Ms. Kelly, who volunteered on the Facebook project herself, casting a vote on such head-scratchers as what to call the Facebook profile “wall,” since in Spanish there are different words for interior and exterior walls.

    Web sites may expand using volunteer translators, but they often also pay for work, not only in editing and proofreading the volunteers’ efforts, but also in translating content that requires less local flavor and more legal precision, like privacy policies, Ms. Kelly said.

    But Ms. Kelly is sympathetic to translators, who “are often taken advantage of and paid late if at all,” and said LinkedIn had acted undiplomatically.

    “It might have been more appropriate for LinkedIn to make it very clear what kind of process this was, and the fact that they employ full-time translators, to appease the fears of translators,” Ms. Kelly said. “That would have prevented a lot of the backlash.”

    I have no doubt that anyone reading this blog finds something to relate to in this article and is offended at LinkedIn, both for their presumptuousness and for their cluelessness.

    Second, the most annoying part is actually this:

    “I didn’t feel cheapened or exploited at all when they asked,” said Erika Baker, of North Somerset, England. “I just thought, ‘Wow what an opportunity.’ ” A translator for more than 15 years, Ms. Baker said that she had rarely been credited as she would be on the LinkedIn project and that she was certain it would bring in paying work.

    I have some something to say about this comment: the only thing that doing translations for free for LinkedIn is teaching this translator’s potential clients is that she does work for free, or for too cheap. It’s a huge mistake. One of the worst things you can do as a professional translator is to give away your services below market value. Pro bono work for deserving people is one thing; free professional services for a multimillion-dollar Web site operation is quite another. I am fairly certain that the publicity from this article will result in tons of inquiries or Web hits for Ms. Baker, but that has more to do with the New York Times than with her lovely free translation of the navigation bar on LinkedIn.

    Third, here is a sort-of-related story of something that happened to me:

    Many years ago during the Internet bubble, an Internet company had been getting a lot of negative feedback from non-English-speaking users of its service. On further investigation, the culprit was apparently very badly written language in its various localized versions. So, they hired me (through a friend who worked there at the time) to consult on the problem and help them fix things.

    To make a long story short, after about $2,000 worth of consulting, I finally figured out what the original, core problem was. The company had used Babelfish ( and/or Google to localize all of its Web site's segments for its localized versions. You can imagine how awful it was: every single phrase published online by that company was complete gobbledygook, ranging from merely odd to completely incomprehensible.

    So along with my invoice for $2,000, I informed the company that if they had sought professional translators in the first place, they could have localized all the affected content into three languages using qualified, human, professional translators for only about $1200. Instead, they owed me $2,000 for consulting alone, made themselves look like complete idiots to most of the world outside the United States, and still had to pay $1200 for new translations done right.

    I did get paid, but needless to say that company is no longer in business.

    In translation, you get what you pay for, and if you don’t pay for it, you’ll end up paying double in the end. :-)