Monday, February 28, 2011

Being highly sensitive

At the weekend, I read a newspaper article about a book that has recently been translated into Hebrew, The Highly Sensitive Person, by Elaine N. Aron. The article featured a self test, and I was not surprised to find that I scored highly on it. This was not a "wow" moment, suddenly explaining aspects of my life. I have always known that I was sensitive in the ways described, and giving it a rather self-explanatory name doesn't make any difference to my experience or self-perception.

I have not read this book, only the article about it and a bit of background about this topic. The author claims that 15-20% of the population are highly sensitive people. Sensitivity, like most things, is a spectrum, so naturally some people score highly in it, and this may be a qualitative difference, not just a quantitative one. The sort of sensitivity described here encompasses sensory sensitivity and social sensitivity. It is not necessarily a disadvantage, and people at this end of the spectrum can become aware of their tendencies and learn how to minimize their discomfort.

I remember as a young child feeling overwhelmed by certain social situations. I often ended up crying under the stress, sometimes without really knowing why. I realized that this was going to cause me problems, and decided that I had a force field around me so nothing could touch me (you can tell that I have loved science fiction from an early age!).

Growing up, I never liked noisy parties, and clubbing has always seemed to me like a nightmare, in both sensory and social terms. That is not the way I want to experience music, or meet people. My ideal social event involves spending time with 1-5 other people, in a quiet setting where we can talk and laugh.

I sometimes experience sensory/social overload in crowded and noisy places, and experience physical symptoms that are not quite a panic attack, but serious enough that I just have to get out into the fresh air and quiet. I also get social overload when I spend all day in the company of large groups of people, and feel the need to spend time alone.

Over time, I have learned to balance these reactions. Just as I have overcome a lot of my shyness, learned to feel comfortable meeting new people, learned some public speaking skills, and gained confidence in myself, I have also learned to avoid the situations that are most likely to cause negative reactions, or at least reduce my exposure. I know that it can help if I close my eyes and concentrate on my breathing for a few seconds. Sometimes, even today, I remind myself of my childhood image of having a force field!

I was interested to see that highly sensitive people are also often sensitive to caffeine, and indeed, I gave up coffee many years ago because it had such a strong effect on me. Now I drink only green tea, which has a much lower caffeine content.

In my work life, I have always preferred to work alone, focusing my attention on one thing at a time. I don't like multitasking, interruptions, noise, or being watched while I work. My choice of career as a freelance translator working from home is ideal in this respect, most of the time.

On the positive side, being highly sensitive makes me extremely empathic. I always try to understand what other people are thinking and feeling, and to see any situation from other people's point of view. This helps me be considerate and helpful to others, though it can be frustrating when less sensitive people are unable to reciprocate and understand my feelings and needs.

I also think that my sensitivity helps my creative imagination, as I can easily imagine what different people would feel in a given situation. One of my aims as a writer is to portray people's inner lives, emotions, and motivations in a realistic, convincing manner.

Sensitivity is a feature, not a bug (as they say in programming), and it can bring great advantages once you learn to accept it and adapt your life accordingly.

Saturday, February 19, 2011

Improving translator-customer communication

The basis of communication is making sure both parties are talking about the same thing. I assume that both parties are equally responsible for ensuring that the communication is as clear as possible. In this post I want to discuss a few points that translators and their customers would do well to clarify early on, to avoid any misunderstandings.

Apart from the issue of price, there are several important aspects of a translation job: quantity, time, and area of expertise.

1. Quantity of work:

Customers don't always understand the way translators estimate the quantity of work. Translators usually describe the quantity of work in terms of word count, or in terms of hours. Most translators I know usually have a price per unit of 250 words. This is a more specific quantity than "per page", as the number of words on a page can vary dramatically. The translator is responsible for explaining to the customer how to count the words in the source text, divide by 250, and multiply by the price. Note: when translating some language pairs, the word count of the target language can change significantly, and this is something else that the translator must explain to the customer, if the job is charged by the word count of the target text. The customer is responsible for making sure what the quantity of work is, in the terms the translator specifies. Either send the translator the text asking for an estimate, or make sure the translator's explanation is clear, and give a reliable answer regarding the quantity.

2. Time:

Time is a sensitive matter, since so many of the translation jobs are urgent, and since most translators are freelancers rather than employees with fixed working hours. It is important for both parties to discuss the time available and the time required for the job. This stage can only take place after the quantity of the work has been established. The translator must be realistic about the time required for the job, and how many hours can be spent on the job. If there is a deadline, the translator should be absolutely certain that it can be met, preferably without having to work longer hours than usual. When translators have several jobs lined up, they have to establish the order of priority, and make sure all jobs can be completed in time for the customers' deadline. The customer should be responsible for leaving sufficient time for the text to be translated. Translators are never thrilled when the customer needs the translation "yesterday"! Customers should also take into account that their freelance translators have other customers as well. To ensure the translator they want will be available, customers could contact the translator in advance, saying that a particular job will be coming soon. That way, the translator can consider turning away other jobs to keep some time free for the promised job. This is easier to do once the translator and customer have formed a relationship of trust. This trust should not be broken, so a promise of future work and a promise of future availability must be kept.

3. Area of expertise:

Finally, it is essential to match the right translator with the right job. Translators are responsible for defining clearly their area of expertise. People who say they translate "everything" probably don't realize how unprofessional that sounds. Few people can read and write all types of material equally fluently. Some are literary translators, some use their previous experience in legal, technical, medical, or academic areas to translate in these fields, and so on. Translators should never accept work they are not fully confident that they can translate at a sufficient level. This is another excellent reason for asking to see the material before committing to do the work. Customers should be aware that for different types of text they will have to find different translators. They should also learn how to assess and explain the nature of the material, and not assume that every speaker of the source and target languages can translate everything.

To conclude, both parties should be aware of each other's needs and expectations. Being open, honest, and specific throughout the communication is essential to building a good working relationship. Translators should know when to say "no", for reasons of insufficient time, inadequate pay, or translation jobs beyond their area of expertise. Customers should learn how to describe the work required accurately, and to anticipate the time the translator might need to do a good job.

Thursday, February 10, 2011

2011 ITA Conference

This week I attended the 2011 ITA Conference, held at the Crowne Plaza hotel in Jerusalem.

The first day, which I did not attend, was devoted to workshops on specific topics. I arrived in the evening in time for the gala dinner. The after-dinner speaker was Israel's former UN Ambassador, Prof. Gabriela Shalev, who described her two years in office, noting the role of language in rhetoric and diplomacy.

Day 2 opened with a plenary session. Award-winning Israeli author, Rabbi Haim Sabato, raised questions of translating the grace of a language, giving examples of Biblical passages, sentences from his own books, and quotations from Maimonides. He noted that literary translators must possess a creative spirit of their own in order to capture and express the tone of the original text.

The plenary session continued with a lecture on ergonomics for sedentary people who spend hours at the computer. Dalit Ben-Tovim explained the principles of ergonomics and got the audience performing exercises to improve posture and avoid strain. I was reassured to have confirmation that my current work station and sitting position are ergonomic.

Following the coffee break, the conference split into four tracks, focusing on Judaica, business aspects, literature, and a workshop for translation companies. I attended two lectures in the business track. First, Osnat Rubin, whom I recently heard lecture at another conference, spoke about achieving success by defining goals and establishing targets.

Then we had a lively debate between Aviva Doron, owner of a translation agency, and one of the freelancers she employs, Eliezer Nowodworski. They discussed the advantages of working together, with the agency handling issues of marketing and collecting payment, thus freeing the translator to do the actual translation work. I was pleased to hear that Eliezer charges rates considered high by many agencies, which shows that some agencies, presumably including Aviva's, do agree to pay more for professional and experienced freelancers.

After lunch, I attended lectures in the literary track. First was an interesting discussion of political correctness by Donna Bossin. There is now an expectation for people to use language that provides the minimum of offensiveness to specific groups. We discussed the problematic usage of male-gendered terms to describe people in general, an issue I routinely encounter in my own work. As Donna recommended, I often change "man" when meant in a general sense to "human being", and frequently use the plural, which is ungendered in English. Donna also noted the usage of "people-first language", such as "children with ADHD", and touched on the sensitive subjects of how to refer to older people and how to term the Arab population of Israel (any terminology necessarily reflects some political bias).

Then, Dana G. Peleg gave a talk about the terminology used to describe individuals and groups of differing sexuality. She gave a handout containing a glossary of Hebrew and English terms, noting which of them are respectful, which may be used with the permission of the people involved, and which are offensive and should be avoided. This is the sort of information more useful to translators of literature, television, and scholarship on this subject, and so far I have not encountered this sort of terminology in my own work. But one of the things I most enjoy about these conferences is learning new things about new subjects beyond my usual areas of interest.

One of the conference's foreign visitors, Clara Chan from Hong Kong, gave an interesting talk about the changes in the translation and transliteration of foreign place names and people's names into Chinese in Hong Kong following the handover from British rule to China in 1997. I know very little about the Chinese languages and dialects, but from what I understood, Hong Kong uses Cantonese, which is more complicated than the simplified form of Mandarin used in Beijing. In some cases, the Hong Kong usage contained a closer transliteration of the phonetic values of the foreign name, while the Mandarin version translated elements such as "new". It also appears that the tradition of granting foreign people official Chinese names is falling out of favour, and foreign leaders' names are now transliterated phonetically.

I then attended a panel of translators from several countries. The discussion attempted to find common issues and some of the different approaches taken in the various countries. The chair was Micaela Ziv, and the participants were Igor Vesler from the USA, who has lectured at previous ITA conferences, Clara Chan from Hong Kong, Natascha Dalugge-Momme from Germany, Anna Zielinska from Poland, and Gabriela Gonzalez from Argentina. The panel compared the status of translators and translators' associations in the different countries, and there was a lively discussion on payment practices, and the difference between working with direct customers and with agencies. This panel reinforced my impression of the great diversity in working conditions for translators in different countries, areas of specialization, and language pairs.

Day 3 opened with another plenary session. First, award-winning literary translator and poet Rami Saari spoke about translating into Hebrew from distant languages. He gave examples from his own translations from an impressive number of languages, showing cases where the translator has to be aware of differences between the languages and cultures, sometimes adapting the text, or in other cases adding footnotes to explain thing the reader would find unfamiliar.

Then we received an update on the ITA's recognition and certification program from Micaela Ziv. I was one of the first ITA members to receive recognition, and now about 60 members (from a membership of over 500, I believe) have received their recognition. The next stage will be a certification exam, held, at first, in combinations of Hebrew, English, and Arabic, the most common languages of translation in Israel (probably followed closely by Russian). The Israeli certification exam will be on computers, but without Internet access (where people could receive help from others...), and people will be allowed to bring in printed dictionaries. Micaela stressed that while some translators' associations around the world have a minimum membership requirement similar to our recognition standard, the ITA welcomes new translators and helps them learn and develop through the mentoring program and various lectures and conferences. The exam is not intended to be as difficult as some in other countries, which only have a 20% pass rate.

Then we heard from Doug Lawrence, a guest from the UK, who gave a review of language service providers around the world. There are about 24,000 LSPs, of which 48.5% are in North America and 43.18% are in Europe. In Israel, there are 439 LSPs, and they were found to be surprisingly resistant to using technology (translation memory software, and even customer management systems), considering that many specialize in software localization.

The conference then split into three tracks, one on marketing and business relations issues, another on computer-aided translation, and the third on literary translating. I chose the marketing track, and first attended Leah Aharoni's review of translator websites, which has encouraged me to set up my profile on these sites, though I don't expect to find many relevant jobs in my area of specialization, academic translation, there.

Then, Tuvi Pollack spoke about using content for marketing. Perhaps I have heard too many lectures on similar topics, and perhaps I feel I want to do more with my blog than just market my business, but this talk was less impressive or interesting than the other lectures.

Finally, Sagi Adiv spoke about Simplified Technical English, a controlled language aimed at ensuring that technical documentation is written as clearly as possible, particularly for readers of English as a second language. This was quite remote from my area of expertise, as I doubt academic publications will ever be written in simplified language - in fact, many scholars think it is impressive to use obscure terminology and complex sentence structures!

As always, the conference was well-organized and enjoyable. There were more participants than ever, and the hotel provided excellent service. I would like to thank the ITA's conference organizers, Sarah Yarkoni and Alan Clayman, along with the ITA's chair, Pascale Amozig-Bukszpan, for their efforts. As in previous years, the technical side of the conference was organized, very professionally, by Ortra.

I look forward to next year's conference!

Monday, February 7, 2011

Pricing considerations

Yesterday I received an email from the representative of the Junior Staff Union at one of the universities. She told me they were putting together a list of translators and editors willing to offer their services to junior staff members at reduced rates, and asked whether I would like to be included in this list.

I replied that while I understand the need of the junior staff to find inexpensive services, I believe it would be better for their union to fight for improved conditions, including budgets to use for paying translators. I explained that many translators earn low wages for their work, and so any union should show some consideration for other professionals aiming to improve their status and conditions.

I gave the union representative my usual prices, saying that if these are considered reasonable, I will be happy to be included on the list.

Another point the union representative raised, which I did not address in my reply, is worth explaining here for the benefit of other freelancers. She said there would be a large volume of work from the junior staff members, making it worthwhile for both parties. This is the common misconception known as the "quantity discount".

When someone is selling physical products, if a customer buys a large quantity of products, it can be worthwhile to give a discount. The seller needs to clear stock to make room for new stock, and can, in theory, sell one item or hundreds of items with the same investment of time.

For professionals providing services, such as translators, there is usually no benefit in providing a quantity discount for large quantities of work. There is only a certain amount of work that can be done in an hour, and working at a lower rate means it takes longer to earn what the translator expected to earn. The only case when it is worth taking on work at a reduced rate is when the translator does not expect to get enough work at the normal rate.

Another thing to consider is that lowering rates creates a precedent. When customers get used to a reduced rate, this makes it difficult for all translators to charge their normal rates. In order to improve the status of the translation profession and the rates customers expect to pay, translators should consistently charge their normal rates, and use discounts only on rare, special occasions, making it clear that this is a reduced rate. I think providing reduced rates for a whole sector of customers, even a sector whose financial situation might justify this, sends the message that translators are willing and happy to work for less than they deserve.