My most important tip for translators and editors

How to fight the dreaded Murphy’s Law of translation

“Most important?” Really? When it comes to translation and editing, I have lots of opinions and advice, accumulated over decades of work. So how do I choose?  “Who cares,” I can hear you saying, “just give us what you’ve got.”

So here’s one of my pet pointers, which appears also in the presentation I gave at the ITA conference of Feb 2010,  "First Aid for Translators and Editors". (Sorry, no link yet. One of these days I’ll upload it and provide a link.) It comes under the heading "About accepting work".

Say you’re among the lucky ones whose In-box runneth over with work. Or say you’re forever frantically floundering and fishing for work. Or say you’re just your ordinary (no-such-thing), everyday translator who’s been offered a job, wants to accept it and wants to not-screw-it-up.

Remember: Most of Murphy's Laws apply to all translation and editing jobs and projects. Chief among them:
Every job is more complex and more difficult than it seemed at first glance, and will take longer than you thought.

With that law in mind, follow these simple (ha!) rules:
  1. Allow enough time for each assignment. Which is difficult, because the client usually applies pressure.
  2. Always ask to see the text/document first.
  3. Ask questions: E.g.: Who's the target audience? American or British English? Castellano or Espanol? Internal company use or for publication? Will a glossary of relevant terms be provided?
  4. Try to find out how urgent the job in question really is. Rush jobs should carry an added urgency fee. Some agencies offer it, others don't – ask or request, don't be shy.
  5. If you can't handle a rush job, don't take it. (Or you'll ruin your reputation before you've had a chance to build it.)
  6. When calculating how long a job might take, remember to take into account the administrative work related to it.
  7. Find out how much graphics/formatting the work involves. Can you deal with it? Remember that ppts, graphs, tables, illustrations etc can be tricky and very time-consuming.
  8. Paperwork: always send official price quote/work order. Get approval in writing. See more (both in Hebrew and in English) on Yael Sela Shapiro's website.
  9. Find out if your work will be edited and if you'll get feedback on your work. Some agencies are better than others at QAing translators' work and providing them with feedback. Don't sulk and take it personally -- take it professionally. Learn and improve.
  10. Pricing – don't sell yourself cheap.
Before you carry on to my colleagues' blogs and read their most-important tips, I'd like to introduce you to my friend Marion Claire, who's an expert on public speaking. Sooner or later, you may be asked to give your own advice in public... Yes, to actually leave your comfort zone and stand on a podium, shudder shudder, and talk to an audience! Before I did this for the first time, I called Marion (who lives in Los Angeles) and asked her for advice, which turned out to be very helpful. Here's one of her important tips: To Read or Not to Read, that's the question

Books I started reading but never finished

My old high-school friend S. recently posted this cartoon on Facebook that touched a nerve: Hey, this is just what I've been meaning to write about! 
See, there’s this very-good-book that I've been wanting to read for ages and have finally picked up. Since my copy is a paperback and the print is rather small, I downloaded it onto Kindaleh. My eldest also has a paperback copy on her bookshelves, so when I’m on Savta Duty (i.e. babysitting – silly term, since not much sitting gets done) and Baby Yos is asleep, bless him, I can continue where I left off even if I've neglected to slip Kindaleh into my already-too-heavy shoulder-bag.
It is superbly written, but scary and depressing as all hell: The Plot Against America, by Philip Roth. And I don’t want scary and depressing. I want either light, witty and entertaining; or illuminating and awe-inspiring, or brain-teasing. So on the one hand I keep going back to The Plot and reading another page or two; on the other hand I’m constantly on the lookout for something light and entertaining to serve as a counter measure. At this rate, it’ll either take me forever to finish The Plot, or else it’ll join the list of books I started reading but never finished.

Some compulsive readers can’t bear to do that. They’ll grin and bear it, wade through the book for better and for worse, the less-compulsive skipping a bit here & there or peeking at the last page/s to see how it all turns out. I know a young woman who will not read a book if she finds out her fave character gets offed by the author. A man I know has no compunctions about skipping whole chapters to find out whether it’s worth pursuing to the bitter(?) end. And I? I give up, put the troublesome book back on the shelf, and add it to my list.

The list, I’m afraid, is too long to include here. Might scare you off or bore you to tears. It includes both classics and books that were bestsellers in their heyday, not always justifiably. Below is a partial list, with a short note of my first impressions at the time, often including the reason for dropping the book:

Virginia Woolf: To the Lighthouse
Requires quiet and concentration... like “good literature” I studied at university.
Having started reading Virginia Woolf's biography by Hermione Lee I thought I might find Lighthouse more interesting in terms of identifying elements taken from her own life. Not that it makes any difference to the novel itself or my enjoyment of it; but as a would-be writer, it's helpful to see the extent to which good writers draw on their own lives.
BTW – never finished reading the biography either. All those trivial details drove me crazy. Reached p.81/755 (ignoring the Index & Notes). I adore Virginia Woolf. Wouldn’t I be better off just reading her writings instead of the writings about her?...

Daniel Goleman: Emotional Intelligence
Extremely annoying. Too much repetition, too much stating of the obvious. Remember: Always count to 10 (or 20, or more) before doing or saying anything stupid. Got it? You're good to go.

Wally Lamb: She’s Come Undone
Yes, I know a protagonist doesn’t have to be charming in order for a novel to be good. But the protagonist is so off-putting that I can’t force myself to continue reading. I heard it has a happy end. Jolly good.

Carolyn Heilbrun: The Last Gift of Time
Heilbrun’s (a.k.a. Amanda Cross) novels all have an agenda, they’re very “academic”. Unlike the mysteries, this one’s non-fiction. I lost patience with it because I couldn’t identify with its premises. The writer doesn’t succeed in making her insights about women relevant to a wide range of women. Virginia Woolf talked about “a room” of one’s own, which, in practical terms, is difficult enough; Heilbrun talks about a house of her own… (Poor woman committed suicide in Oct 2003).

Peter Hoeg: The Borderliners. I liked Smilla’s Sense of Snow despite its flaws, so I thought I might like this one, too. But there was something creepy about it. Reminds me of Kazuo Ishiguro's Never Let Me Go.

Couldn't finish. The characters were not "rounded" enough, it was difficult to distinguish between them and remember who's who. Also, the writer tries too hard and ends up tripping over excessive verbs and superfluous, pointless descriptions of actions.

Graham Greene: The End of the Affair
Despite my adoration of Graham Greene, I didn't finish this one; it was beautiful and touching and engaging, until I learnt that the woman gives up her love because of a promise made to God. Lost interest. After seeing the movie, I tried getting back to the book. However, I was still annoyed that God punishes her by death(!) for her transgression. What's her main transgression, going back on her word to Him, or committing adultery? Will reading the book provide an answer?

Other GGs I didn’t finish: Stamboul Train (early novel, not very good); Monsignor Quixote (too much politics and religion); A Burnt Out Case  Reached page 189 out of 208, and couldn't continue. I saw where the plot was headed, and it breaks my heart. Of course, I could be mistaken – Graham Greene has been known to fool and surprise me with a twist of the plot… But I can see Querry falling into the trap, being ensnared by malicious gossip…; TheComedians  Started in English, got confused with the time line, so switched to the Hebrew  old translation by Amatzia Porat  which annoys me no end. Even allowing for conventions in translation during the 1960s (not to mention earlier), it is still bad, contains inexcusable inaccuracies and high register which make the clear GG text nearly unintelligible.

Margaret Atwood: The Blind Assassin
Complex. Too early to tell. But already a few shrewd observations. Never went back to it. What do you say, folks, is it worth it?

Lynne Truss: Talk to the Hand

Truss makes some very important points, only she’s so in love with words that her words sometimes cloud the very issue she’s trying to make. But that is probably considered her unique style; take that away from her, and her observations seem a bit bare. I’d hoped to continue, but never did; she made her point: people are rude. So?

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Enough for one day, eh?