Tuesday, May 12, 2009

Cultural Stereotypes Will Out

Yes, this is supposed to be my translation blog, but, as one can see in a far below post [just past the recipes], it has been meandering a bit.

Rather than whinging incessantly about the New Depression, the lack of work and the general sorry state of the industry, I am instead offering rather personal recipes meant to reference my own past and, most importantly, to be exceedingly cheap. Feeding soul, body and purse strings.

Colcannon, in its infinite variations, is the most basic of Irish foodstuffs that has allowed generations of Irishpersons to survive in all their endlessly cyclical dire straits. There are decades of my own life which have been similarly survived by way of this dish. Literally.
It could be side [but not of late], entrée, breakfast, salad. And, often, all of those through the course of one single day.

Paul Rankin’s Colcannon

750g Rooster Potatoes, peeled and cut into 5cm dice
75g Butter
150 ml water,
1/3 Savoy Cabbage, finely chopped [or the traditional green cabbage or kale]
3-4 Spring onions, finely chopped
salt and freshly ground white pepper,

Cook the potatoes in boiling salted water for 6-7 minutes, or until tender, then drain and set aside.
Melt 50g of the butter with the water in a medium sized pan, and add the cabbage. Cook over a high heat until the cabbage is just cooked, and the water has almost evaporated.
Add the spring onions and cook until the mixture is just starting to fry.
Tip the cabbage into a bowl with the potatoes. Mash together with the remaining butter and season with salt and white pepper.

Rankin is a brilliant cook, and his substitution of Savoy cabbage is cunning alchemy, transforming the cabbage/kale dilemma in one deft swoop. His use of spring onions references Champ, another hardy standby [mashed potatoes, spring onions, milk…], which can be served hot or cold.

Fry up a couple of rashers of bacon with the cabbage and onions, chop and add at the end.
Using chilled leftovers, form patties and sauté in butter till browned.
Flatten a portion and top with fried egg.

Monday, May 11, 2009

Mid-Century Mother's Day

A serious homage to my mid-century mother and one of her favorite party dishes.

She made this with tinned crab back in that day, and she made it relentlessly, as if it were the only party dish she could ever know. I never understood this, because, day in and out, she was an excellent cook. Nonetheless, there is nothing that resonates more than her Salmon Newburg being carefully carried out in its Pyrex casserole dish, enjoying pride of place on her hand-embroidered table cloth.

I will be making the obvious New Depression alterations. But the truth is, without the crab, this is already a rather frugal dish, and I do believe that it had to do with her own early childhood years living through the Classic Depression. It was always difficult for her to spend money, even when she was more than comfortable, especially on expensive foodstuffs. But she did, always, keep a large pantry, filled to excess with every inexpensive food staple imaginable.

How well I now understand, and envy, her way and her wherewithal.

Salmon Newburg


3 tablespoons butter
3 tablespoons flour
1/4 teaspoon salt
1/4 teaspoon dry mustard
dash of pepper
1 cup milk
1/2 cup half-and-half
1 can (16 ounces) salmon, undrained [yes, one can, and has, used tuna]
2 egg yolks
1 tablespoon dry sherry [she always kept this at hand, as did I, when I was solvent and fancy-free]
1 tablespoon grated Parmesan cheese [I am quite certain she did not use fresh]
rice, toast, split biscuits, or patty shells


In medium saucepan, melt butter over medium low heat; stir in flour to make a smooth paste. Stir in seasonings and gradually add milk and cream. Continue cooking and stirring until thickened; stir in salmon liquid. Stir about 1/2 cup of the hot mixture into the lightly beaten egg yolks, stirring quickly. Return liquid with egg yolks to the sauce mixture in the saucepan. Cook for about 2 minutes, stirring. Stir in sherry, Parmesan cheese, and flaked salmon. Heat and serve over rice, toast, biscuits, or in patty shells.

The obligatory variations: Add diced pimientos at the end [she did]. A small bit of tomato paste can also be included. If you wish to give it a bit of a faux Creole panache, add minced celery, green pepper and/or appropriate seasonings [yes, Old Bay, of course, but not too much as it quickly overwhelms].

Thursday, May 7, 2009

The Prince of Paupers

As much as I’ve been enjoying this detour into the world of Comfort Foods in the Time of Chaos, I thought I should at least make a nod to the “mission” of this site.

Yes, that’s what still having an Annual Report in one’s head can wreak.

While IT, legal and financial translation jobs are still to be had in abundance, the absence of most other fields continues. What surprises me the most is the dearth of Marketing work. It seems to me that in this economy, companies would be doing all they could to attract a wider customer base. Going global, as it were. At the very least, having their websites translated. I’m forever amazed at how many European websites, in whatever field, are only in their native language.

Enough seriousness?

Perhaps it’s time for my Consummate Comfort Sweet:

Very Old School Bread Pudding

2 cups whole milk (or 2 cups half & half)
1/4 cup butter
2/3 cup sugar (white or brown, depending on taste preference)
3 eggs
2 teaspoons cinnamon
1/4 teaspoon ground nutmeg
1 teaspoon vanilla extract
3 cups bread, torn into small pieces [french bread and challah are great for this]
1/2 cup raisins (optional)

In medium saucepan, over medium heat, heat milk (or half & half) just until film forms over top. Combine butter and milk, stirring until butter is melted. Cool to lukewarm.
Combine sugar, eggs, cinnamon, nutmeg, and vanilla. Beat with an electric mixer at medium speed for 1 minute. Slowly add milk mixture.
Place bread in a lightly greased 1 1/2 quart casserole.
Sprinkle with raisins if desired. Pour batter on top of bread.
Bake at 350 degrees F for 45 to 50 minutes or until set. Serve warm.

Now, this is perfect, goes well with a broken heart, tornado watch, foreclosure notice and such, but there are an infinite number of diverting additions and variations to complement other moods and slings and arrows:

Substitute diced apples or peaches, blueberries or almost any fruit for the raisins.
Especially helpful is the addition of a splash or two of Bourbon, Jameson or something similar [yes, some day, even Cognac].
Top with whipped cream or custard sauce [yes, the packet version, if in euroland, is just fine].

Tuesday, May 5, 2009

Hard Choices

I suppose it was bound to happen.
As times grow increasingly bleak, there is a tendency to revert to stereotype, and to the most profound, bone-deep, sources of consolation.

And so it was that this note caught my eye:

“Irish consumers are more likely to do without hair conditioner, washing-up liquid and disposable nappies during a recession than their morning fry. Sausages, butter, bread, milk and tea are highly recession proof, according to Nielsen, but hair conditioner and washing-up liquid are particularly vulnerable.”

Which makes all the sense in the world, both the foresworn and the never-to-be-forsaken. And, if one might wonder as to how endless fry-ups can be made compatible with a lack of washing-up liquid, perhaps a thoroughly non-PC reference might be made to the essential difference between shanty and lace curtain irishpersons. Feel free to back-channel me if you aren’t familiar with the slur.

Shanty Fry-up

Streaky bacon
Black and/or white pudding
Tinned beans
White toast

Fry. In this order: sausages, bacon, eggs, puddings, tomatoes, preferably all in one large pan. Heat beans.

Lace Curtain Fry-up

All the above.
Substitute fried soda bread for lowbrow toast
Potatoes: mashed, hashed browns, chips or boxty

As we say about Guinness, fry-ups are not just for breakfast. Or for hangovers. Any meal, any time of day or state of mind is immeasurably enhanced by this platonic ideal of consolation.
Whether you take the low road or the high.

Friday, May 1, 2009

Cassoulet of a Sort

For anyone who has been wandering in here of late and perhaps thought they had missed the signposts…

Given current economic, market and emotional conditions, we are indeed taking a detour and comforting ourselves with New Depression-appropriate recipes. Feeding the soul if not the bank account.

Today, being especially trying, I’ve decided to dream of cassoulet. My always favorite dish, my obvious choice for Last Meal before being marched off to the guillotine. Wishing it could, in fact, transport me back to Biarritz and that stall at the end of Les Halles.

Now, in France this could easily be considered Depression food, but not so much elsewhere. In order to make it approachable in straitened circumstances, liberties will have to be taken. In this as in so much else.

Also think of it as a sort of apologia for the last post, as well as a homage to the current Porcine Pandemic.


2 duck legs [hah!! chicken legs, or even thighs, will suffice]
4 sausages, preferably Toulouse [preferably the cheapest on offer, add garlic if necessary]
1 3 1/2-pound boneless pork shoulder, trimmed of excess fat, cut into 1- to 1 1/2-inch pieces
6 rashers smoked streaky bacon, cut into half-inch long pieces
1 large onion, finely chopped
2 sticks celery, finely chopped
2 carrots, finely chopped
4 large cloves garlic, finely chopped or crushed
1 generous tbsp tomato purée
1/2 bottle dry white wine
2 330ml cans canellini beans
1 330ml can flageolet beans
2 330ml cans haricot beans [seriously, any sort of white beans in sufficient quantity is just fine, and, by all means, feel free to soak dried beans overnight if so inspired]
500ml good vegetable or chicken stock
about 6 springs fresh thyme
parsley, finely chopped (optional)
olive oil, for frying

Add some olive oil to a large hob-proof casserole or other large pot. Put on a high heat until very hot.
Brown the duck legs, sausages and lamb shanks in the hot pan. Once brown on all sides, remove all the meat and reserve.
Turn down the heat slightly and add the bacon, onions, celery and carrots.
Cook for about 5 minutes, stirring frequently, until the bacon is cooked and the vegetables softened.
Add the tomato purée, mix well and cook for 2 minutes, stirring constantly.
Turn up the heat, add the wine and deglaze the pot well, scraping any brownings from the bottom with a wooden spoon - reduce the liquid by about two thirds.
Reduce the heat to low, add the beans, stock and thyme. Return the browned meats to the pan and then cover.
Cook for an hour and a half, stirring occasionally.
Remove the lid and cook for a further hour or until only a little liquid remains.
Before serving, remove the duck legs and take the meat off the bone in little chunks. It should be very tender. Return to the pan to warm through. Check the seasoning, add the parsley if desired and serve.

Many recipes call for a breadcrumb topping, swaddled with butter and browned in the oven: precious, but optional.

Tuesday, April 28, 2009

No, there is no way in hell I’m kidding.

Between our ever deepening New Great Depression and minute-by-minute updates about the Emerging Pandemic, there has never been a better time to revisit this childhood classic.

It has to be the cheapest supper out there [except, of course, for fried bologna, and I have no doubt it shall, at some point, come to that]. It can be endlessly retrofitted. It will fill anyone up, and it will transport one back to those mythical days of innocence and ease.

Let’s start with the Sturdy Original, direct from Campbells’ own website:

Mid-Century Tuna Noodle Casserole

1 can (10 3/4 oz.) Campbell's® Condensed Cream of Mushroom Soup
1/2 cup milk
1 cup cooked peas
2 tbsp. chopped pimentos
2 cans (about 6 oz. each) tuna, drained and flaked
2 cups hot cooked medium egg noodles 2 tbsp. dry bread crumbs 1 tablespoon butter OR margarine, melted

PREHEAT oven to 400°F.
MIX soup, milk, peas, pimiento, tuna and noodles in 1 1/2-qt. baking dish.
BAKE for 20 min.
STIR . Mix bread crumbs with butter. Sprinkle on top. Bake 5 min. or until hot.

Have some fun if you will:

Save some of the pimientos for mixing up your own sandwich spread [grated processed cheese food, mayo and chopped pimientos].
Add some diced onion.
And Real Men and Women eschew the bread crumbs and add a topping of crushed potato chips or…tinned French fried onion rings.

Before you know it, you really will believe you’re sitting at a turquoise formica kitchen table, crickets are merrily chirping outside and dad’s in the den with his Pabst.

Saturday, April 25, 2009

Spare a Dime, Spoil a Child

Continuing merrily along with our New Depression routine of not working [though I was today, and yes!, at Third World rates], not checking bank balances, pretending there is NOT a lizard in my flat and contemplating mid-century ethnic and not so much cuisines…

Lentil soup. Old school. But I will provide the obvious tips for retrofitting it to almost any regional culture. And sorry about the pic, but the only thing lentil soup is not…is pretty.

Nothing soothes, fortifies, charms, fills one up as much as this. And, as we require, it is seriously dirt cheap. Not to mention, simple as hell to prepare.

Lentil Soup – Platonic Ideal Version
1 meaty ham bone or 1 large ham hock
6 cups water
1 1/2 cups dried lentils
2 cups sliced carrots, about 3 to 4 medium carrots
1 cup chopped celery
1 cup chopped onion
2 teaspoons salt
1 teaspoon sugar
1/4 teaspoon pepper
1 bay leaf
In a stock pot or large kettle, combine ham bone, water, lentils, carrots, celery, onion, salt, sugar, pepper and bay leaf. Cover and bring to a boil; reduce heat and simmer for about 1 hour, or until lentils are tender.
Take out ham bone or hock and remove meat. Chop meat and return to lentil soup. Remove bay leaf. Lentil soup serves 6.

Caveats: Yes, you can sauté the veggies in butter for a bit, and that does deepen the flavor. One might puree a third of it and add it back [or just cook it another half hour if you happen to be appliance-free]. You can add fresh or canned tomatoes, sliced kielbasa, even kale. Thyme or tarragon for the French version; cumin for Middle Eastern Vague; diced potatoes, marjoram and paprika for Central Europa.

Thursday, April 23, 2009

More Peasant Food for the New Depression

So, now that I’ve slashed my rates to Third World levels, I wait, breath not baited, to see what comes to pass.

But back to Comfort Food, the least we should be doing here. Or the best.

One of my favourites from my impoverished university days was Stuffed Cabbage Rolls. Not the fancy ones, though they do lend themselves to infinite variations of ingredient and flavor. They also involve real cooking, several steps and much time spent in the kitchen. Just the thing for avoiding the pointless sending out of 200 more letters to translation agencies or the equally pointless obsessive checking of one’s bank balance.

Stuffed Cabbage Rolls

1 medium cabbage
1 ½ cups cooked rice
1 large onion, finely chopped
1 tbsp. butter [or oil]
1 lb. ground beef [the cheaper and fattier the better]
1 Egg
Salt and Pepper to taste
Herbs and spices as desired [some suggestions: thyme, marjoram, savory, allspice]
1 Garlic clove; minced
1 can (15-oz) tomato sauce
Sour cream

Remove core from cabbage.
Place in a large pot of boiling water to cover and blanch for 5 to 10 minutes until outer leaves are slightly wilted.
Drain, cool and separate leaves, cutting a V-shaped notch in each, removing the thick stems.
Sauté minced onion in 1 tablespoon butter.
Combine the meat, rice, onion, egg, salt, pepper, garlic and spices.
Mix thoroughly.
Preheat oven to 375 degrees.
Place about 3 heaping tablespoons of meat and rice filling on each leaf.
Roll the leaf, tucking sides either inside or under.
Repeat with remaining leaves.
Place the cabbage rolls close together, seam side down, in a baking dish or Dutch oven.
Pour the tomato sauce, diluted with ½ cup water [or chicken broth], over the rolls.
Cover and bake in the oven for 1 1/2 hours. You can uncover for the last 10 or 15 minutes or so in order to help the sauce thicken up, but keep an eye on it so it doesn’t burn.

When serving, top each roll with a large dollop of sour cream.

Best served with large quantities of mashed potatoes of the smooth and creamy [NOT “smashed” or lumpy] sort.

Variations: a mixture of pork and beef can be used; a bit of brown sugar, Worcestershire sauce and/or lemon can be added to sauce for a sweet-sour tang

Saturday, April 18, 2009

As much as one might be tempted to ask where all the work has gone, we know the question would be merely rhetorical.

As someone who has mostly worked in the “soft” fields – general business, marketing, tourism, academia and such – mine have gone the way of the global economy in general. I suppose those who smugly sneer that their business has been just fine are those who are smugly working in legal, IT and financial. The ever durable Unholy Trinity that would prosper even in the worst of times.

In my case, I am rather certain that some of the jobs I had been doing are now being done by members of a small agency that used to keep me busy. Translating into English, not their native language. Bad form, of course, and clearly bad results, but everyone has to put food on the table.

Beyond that, there has been a marked uptick in agencies from China, Russia and such swooping in with obviously European end clients offering jobs at, oh, one or two cents a word. And I’m quite sure they are happily awarding said jobs to non-native English speakers or non-translators.

Whatever. Having come up with no other alternative, I’ve decided to simply join them. To embrace the New Depression and behave like a simple outlier, slashing prices and bending over until all those other low-balling “translators” start screaming at me for “demeaning the profession.”

In the meantime, I think I might entertain myself by posting some of my favorite Depression recipes. Changing my POV, fully embracing my inner peasant. Irish stew would be an appropriate start.

Here is a most traditional variation, made with mutton [CHEAP!] instead of lamb. Feel free to play with the ingredients, tarting it up with marjoram or thyme, parsnips and parsley.

Irish Stew

2 ½ lbs. boned mutton
4 large potatoes
2 large onions
3 or 4 medium carrots
2 cups watersalt and pepper

Cut the meat into fair size chunks. Peel the vegetables and slice thickly. Use a pot with a well-fitting lid and put in the ingredients in layers, starting and finishing with potatoes. Pour in the water and season to taste. Cover and put on a very low heat for about 2 ½ hours until the meat is tender and the potatoes have thickened the liquid. If you’re feeling flush and can afford lamb, cut the cooking time back to 1 ½ hours.

Thursday, May 8, 2008

After my last post, I thought something less pensive might be in order.
I wonder how many translators might ever enjoy a tipple whilst working.

Of course I’m referring to those ”freelancers” amongst us who work from the comfort of their homes, not from some enclosed coffin-like “workplace” under the stern guidance of the latest project manager.

Some believe we toil away in our pajamas, imbibing pots full of caffeine, juggling work with endless whining complaints or feckless cat fights on the various Portals. Not I. Full makeup, fetching dress, Manolos if I could ever afford them.

Let me be the first to publicly admit that, yes, I have, on occasion, enjoyed some liquid pleasure while hard at work. I’m not speaking of the tossing back of a few shots of Jameson [which I reserve for bedtime], but rather leisurely sipping a moderately priced yet respectable Cabernet Sauvignon.

It was a number of years ago when I would occasionally, but regularly, be confronted with 3000 words of intellectually demanding literary work. The deadline, self-imposed but necessary, was “5 minutes ago.”

It was not a timeframe with which I would ever be comfortable, given the nature and import of the work involved. I had been translating the gentleman in question, almost every day, for years. And, as anyone who has done such work will understand, I had come to know him. How he thought, what his referents were, his history and his words.

It was, in fact, a kind of osmosis, a necessary merging of two minds.
And, for me, the slow sipping of a bit of Everyday Red seemed to help that process, a small homage to the right side of my brain, a recognition that translation, like most that is good in the world, is not all Logos.

Friday, April 11, 2008

Cocktail Hour

“…We seem to live mainly in order to see how we live, and this habit brings on what might be called the externalizing of knowledge; with every new manual there is less need for its internal, visceral presence…To say this is also to say that the age of ready reference is one in which knowledge inevitably declines into information. The master of so much packaged stuff has less need to grasp context or meaning than his forebears: he can always look it up…”

I ran across the above passage [Jacques Barzun, The Culture We Deserve] the other day while reading one of my most favorite authors and it reminded me why he never fails to satisfy. These words manage to summarize, explain, explore deeply and broadly and make me understand an issue which is a constant source of irritation and despair.

At the Great Big Translation Portal one of the most popular features is an area for translators to seek guidance from their cohorts on prickly terms and phrases. Often the questions come from non-native translators of the language in question or from neophytes simply out of their depth. But what always manages to shock me is that the preferred method for arriving at a suggestion is the endless googling of the phrase/term and presenting such “citations” as proper response. As if the mere fact that the translation has actually appeared somewhere on the interwebs confers its respectability and suitability without even a whit of thought given to “context or meaning.”

My irritation at this process generally manifests itself in rants about how people don’t read any more, the educational system clearly sucks, the humanities are no longer being taught, civilization is in decline and, of course, people are bloody idiots.

All true enough, of course, and, as regards my particular peeve, merely being exacerbated by what Barzun describes as the Alexandrianism of our times, one of whose characteristics is a proliferation of reference books and the consequences thereof.

Yes, perspective helps, at least for a few moments.

Tuesday, April 1, 2008


“…And so here we are lookingatandreadingeachother (which comes from the verb "mirolear," the action of jointly looking, in reciprocity, mutually)…”

A line from one of my favorite translations. One of the subjects of the piece was the vagaries and finer points of electronic communication, and his metaphor was little paper boats cast, with much trepidation and love, down the river. Yes, exactly how we feel about our translations. And posts and mail and most any other attempt to…mirolear.

The work in question was written by a gentleman who has often been described as “the best living writer in Latin America.” A bit of a hyperbole, I believe, although, given the extraordinarily prolific nature of his work [I have translated literally hundreds, perhaps even a thousand, of them], once upon a time he certainly enjoyed moments of brilliance, wit and even whimsy.

Thursday, February 28, 2008

Random rants

A note to certain translation agencies, and we know you know who you are:

Play nice.


You never know when you might, truly, need the services of a particular translator again. Or when a particular translator might post all sorts of thinly veiled references to you and/or your agency all over the interwebs, even, and often, copies of your uncivil, illiterate emails.

While most of my interactions with agencies have been most pleasant, I have seen enough of the other to know how prevalent such bad behavior can be.


Promptly, as agreed and…fairly.

And, speaking of fair:

There’s another one of those terribly insular, self-congratulatory threads going on over at the Lesser Portal wherein the Big Boys and Girls are asserting that it’s only the “unprofessional”, incompetent translators who whinge about plummeting rates and shady agencies. These are the translators who assert that they always demand, and receive, at least 15 cents/word, and they have more work than they could handle in a lifetime. Whilst apparently spending more than half their waking hours hanging out at said Portal.

Whatevs, as we say over at my favourite virtual bar [CAVEAT: not for the faint of heart or those without the sensibilities of a difficult 13-year old]. Let’s just assume that the Big Boys and Girls have simply reached the point where they now actually believe they really are those grandiose avatars they so merrily confabulated.

Oddly enough, those Boys and Girls also tend to engage in vicious, humiliating and irrelevant catfights that more than reveal the extent of their various pathologies.

In the real world, real jobs are being posted for 3 cents/word, and agencies are contacting me offering 4 cents [a princely sum, they suggest, and owing to my 12+ years experience, sterling references and the fact that they’re hoping I might really be a thoroughly certifiable idiot].

In the real world, rates are plummeting, and we all know why.

Friday, November 30, 2007

Conflict and Confluence of Interest

There is an almost interesting discussion almost transpiring over at the Big Translator’s Portal, centering, or attempting to center, on the latest example of conflict of interest in our field. In this instance it has to do with a large UK translators’ association which is “preeminent” in the field [and which also is apparently touting the absolute necessity for certain certifications and also, none too coincidentally, providing the tests for same] and their fledgling subsidiary, a translation agency.

What? A great big nonprofit rolling out for-profit spinoffs which are uniquely positioned to take advantage of the non-profit’s members and their dues? And we’re shocked?

I’m certainly not.

For heaven’s sake, those very translators over at the Powerful Portal are having to tiptoe around the topic, due to the very nature of the for-profit Portal itself. They might be spanked, mocked [and were], deleted, censored [and often are], blackballed even, if they dare to offend the mercantile sensibilities of their kind overlords. And there can certainly be no topic more offensive to those finely tuned sensibilities than Conflict of Interest.

In the States they call it the Revolving Door, where highly placed politicians or government employees move in and out of large lobbying firms and corporations, trading influence, cash and position. And, like at the Powerful Portal [just have a peek at their management’s CVs], they have no shame, even flaunting the intimacy of their profitable relationships.

The buzz word for all of this is “synergy.” The confluence of various streams of market, client and product. An “association” might gather up thousands of needy translators, lead them down the path of certification, then market them like new-age slaves to their own agency clients. A portal might gather up tens of thousands of translators, “partner” with companies that produce “must-have” software and then structure the portal in such a way that all those translators are convinced they cannot survive if they don’t help pay for the software, training and, oh, yes, even the Portal’s staff through their dues.

I have no issue with the making of money, after all, we must put food on the table. I do take issue, however, with how easily and openly these conglomerates are taking control of the entire depth and breadth of the field. From translators to agencies, software to training and certification – forging one big plantation, making more and more money from the synergy of their multi-faceted operations.

Nor am I surprised that the translators so rarely complain about being played as witless pawns. The game is as old as time: intimidation, perceived dependence on the their masters [be it agency, portal or association], the insistence on very strict rules, and, of course, a structure that creates a façade of democratic camaraderie. But absolutely NO control, power or profit for the unwashed worker bees.

I rather picture them smiling tolerantly whilst we translators are content to bicker and whine about those horrid translation agencies, knowing we will never have the acumen or nerve to pierce their own armour, power and profits.

Wednesday, November 28, 2007

Paying the Price: the paradox of outsourcing

Clients are only human.

They want quality, speed and cost-effectiveness, not necessarily in that order.

And so they outsource, the very same way that toy manufacturers outsource to China, clothing firms to Singapore, call centres to India. They do so for the very same reasons that everyone else is now doing so. In order to cut corners and to improve their ever more subterranean bottom line.

The fact that the toys are riddled with lead and contain chemicals that alchemize into the date rape drug the minute a toddler swallows a bead – the fact that the hot little shrug purchased on the high street was produced by exhausted children in an obscene sweat shop – the fact that the excruciatingly polite, incomprehensible “service” operator has nary a clue about the matter at hand – well, oops, outed.

It might appear to the world weary and cynical that the above referenced firms didn’t give a tinker’s dam about those facts until they came to general light and nipped them in the proverbial derriere. Not until the legal teams were sequestered, the media cleanup campaign began, the bottom line bottomed out.

But what about firms who outsource their translation work to translation agencies who further outsource to mini-agencies who then outsource to similarly far-flung, untested and often incompetent translators? Will those chickens come home to roost as well? Are there liability issues lurking in the shadows for those whose third world wage slaves happen to toil with words?

Of course there are, and the smarter and meaner are already inserting suitably impenetrable liability clauses – mostly of the disclaimer sort – in their contracts. In some fields, such as those of a medical, legal and political nature, the stance comes naturally and is more of a shell game. If no one is at fault, then there is no fault.

Most other entities, both for profit and not for profit, will find the chickens’ homeward journey a bit slower, but roost they will. The ludicrous website, the painful marketing brochure, the incomprehensible grant proposal, the unreadable novel will all have their consequences, and they will inevitably be monetary in nature. There is nothing more disastrous in today’s business environment than botched, bad communication. And, yes, the irony is delicious.

The usual point of having something translated is to broaden one’s base, expand markets, sell products, reach more customers, secure funding. A bad translation will not only not do that, it will, in fact, accomplish the opposite.

And if anyone has any doubts as to the ubiquity and widespread nature of this phenomena, I only have to point you once again to the major translator portals. There you will find translators asking for help with difficult words and phrases, where they are quickly met with a rush of responses [more on the “game” and its goals later]. The asker is often obviously not translating into his mother tongue, and the responses can be horrifying. They are frequently produced by idiots googling the precise phrase, with no accounting for, you know, actual meaning, usage, context or nuance. One is left with the firm conviction that none of these “translators” have ever actually read anything, studied anything or, god forbid, had a life.

And, thus, we can rest assured that the final product will be shoddy, useless, inexpedient and ultimately much more costly than if – heaven forbid! – the work had been done by a competent and fairly paid professional, regardless of where he might live.

Saturday, November 3, 2007

Translators: Pearls of Wisdom

I know the only thing any of us really wants to read about is the 10 elusive, surefire steps that will enable us to secure and maintain a steady stream of clients. Or at least enough of them to put food on the table on a fairly regular basis.

If you hang out at any of the major translator sites, you have certainly already discovered the disconcerting fact that we seem to be divided into two major, and apparently fixed, castes. There are those proud few who maintain that they always have more than enough work, and not just any work, but work of the highest caliber and which always commands the most impressive rates.

And, when we, the not so lucky, ask for advice, tips, whatever, those privileged souls often respond to the rest of us untouchables as true Brahmins should. A bit of a sneer, perhaps a touch of patrician disdain, a curt reminder to “check the threads,” “search the site,” as those questions have been asked and answered so very many times before.

Yes, they have been answered many times [and asked many times, for the obvious reasons], and I would certainly counsel skimming through the many threads and articles. I would venture that one might find something useful [and by that I mean a pointer that wouldn’t be immediately obvious to a semi-articulate 4 year old] once every 20-30 pages.

Once you have managed to wade through all the “advice,” you will learn that you should specialize [and that tends to mean legal, financial, medical, engineering, IT and fields of similar ilk]; your profile pages and CVs should be professional, comprehensive and up to date; if you are going to inundate the universe of agencies with your CV, you should at least take the time to be sure they are interested in your particular language pair and field; and, oh yes, be sure to register as a paying member at their translator site.

Um, sure, except perhaps the latter, given that translators starving for work might prefer, for the moment, to invest any excess funds in foodstuffs.

And do I have any pearls of my own, you might wonder?

Work. Translate. For free. There are thousands of organizations out there that are crying for translators, but they, like you, don’t have any spare cash. You will be doing a damn good thing, have an opportunity to practice and perfect your craft, add to your resume and get your name out. Not to mention being able to look yourself in the mirror in the morning.

Spend more quality online time. Fewer craigslist ads and more MySpace. Seriously. If you’re looking for bandwidth and depth, don’t waste your time posting ads. Network, as socially as possible. Start a scintillating blog, possibly in your “field.” Be interesting, make waves, have fun. I’ve had my own for several years, not this one, but another, where I have to use my nom de plume.

More pearls to come.

Wednesday, October 31, 2007

A Cautionary Tale: Shape-shifting Agencies

When last we left the Alpha and Omega Global Worldwide Translation Agency, they were busily engaging the best, most proficient translator a pittance can buy whilst assembling their crack team of assorted project managers, proofreaders, editors and supervisors.

[Important Disclaimer/Disclosure/Caveat inserted at the behest of my own legal team and for the benefit of all those truly professional and excellent translation agencies with which I have had the privilege to work or with whom am I yet to work: Alpha and Omega is merely a fictive representation of a subset of translation agencies. Although increasing exponentially in number, this subset is still, thank god, merely a subset.]

You, the client, located Alpha and Omega through their slick, sleek virtual omnipresence. Their content-rich website, strewn with an abundance of Fortune 500 logos representing the caliber of their numerous clients. And now you have been engaging in a pleasant back and forth exchange of emails with your very own “project manager” who assures you that all is progressing as to plan.

You try not to notice that this person appears to be emanating from a time zone quite some distance away from their much vaunted London “office.” Or that there seems to be some creeping confusion afoot as to who is doing what, odd questions about the “real” deadline and the fact that it’s taking longer and longer for your cheery PM to get back to you.

Time to peek behind the veil?

Would we be surprised to discover that the “owner” of the agency, a disgruntled former translator, lives in a small town in Umbria, his ex-girlfriend has a flatshare in London [the aforementioned “office”] and your trusty PM is balancing a 9-5 job at a shop in NYC, a toddler and her - or your, we should say - project. The harried translator is located even further afield, one of those unfortunate souls who was willing to work for 4 cents per word and whose native language is not what your contract stipulates. This is also contributing to the delays, since he is having to post every other sentence of your translation to various and sundry “term boards” for help with the sublimely obvious.

I am chagrined to report that, aside from some small changes as to locale, I have experienced and/or witnessed all the above over the last month alone. As can anyone, if they know where to look.

Truth be told, there are even worse scenarios, with one lone wretch struggling to perform all the above roles, trying to project what he perceives to be the gravitas, professionalism and competence of an “agency.”

But that is another day’s tale.

Monday, October 29, 2007

When You Should Use a Translation Agency, or not

Yes, as a freelancer I admit my overweening bias.

I would be a much happier and calmer person if everyone who required a translation would circumvent the agencies and deal directly with the translators.

That said, there certainly are times when it’s quite wise for a client to use an agency, primarily when the job is large, complex, requires translation memory tools, involves multiple languages and on a very tight deadline. Or, if your firm or organization simply doesn’t have the time, personnel or ability to organize any of those issues.

So, what exactly do you get when you work with an agency?

Well, first and foremost, higher costs [she notes innocently]. There are many ways to establish fees in the translation business, but the most common by far is by source word. That is, a certain number of cents per word, with the word count being taken from the text which is to be translated.

You will generally be assured that the price is dependent on a number of variables – word pair [some being more expensive than others, usually because they are less common], degree of technical difficulty and deadline. Some agencies will even give you their typical or base fees upfront on their website. The cheapest I have seen are around 15 cents per word, and I have seen them as high as 25 cents. I sense they can go even higher.

What else can you expect? Definitely a “project manager.” This is the person who will, yes, “manage” your project, shepherding it through the various complex stages required to produce a perfect finished product. More or less. She will find the perfect translator(s) who has dozens of years’ experience in your very field, work closely with said translator, fielding any problems or questions and ensuring timely delivery.

Depending on the nature of the agency, she may also be the person with whom you liaise.

You would also expect your project to be proofread by a similarly experienced, meticulous wordsmith. Depending on your requirements, there may also be the organizing and/or distribution of glossaries, translation memory and other aids.

How does any of this compare with what you could expect if you were to deal directly with a freelance translator?

Well, as a point of reference, why don’t we start at the beginning with the ever compelling issue of cost.

Money, or at least personal income, is still a delicate matter for most, not to be discussed at the dinner table let alone be revealed to the electronic universe. But translators do indeed post their rates, or at least the ones which they wish the electronic universe to see and to assume they actually charge and actually get. If there is indeed an average, “professional” rate for many of the most common language pairs, it is probably between 10 and 12 cents a word.

A very poorly kept [due to the fact that it is so widely discussed] trade secret, however, is that many, many translators routinely charge as little as 5 cents per word and some, shudder, even less.

But more about Dirty Little Secrets later.

Therefore we have, say, Alpha and Omega Global Worldwide Translation Agency [entreating the gods and all pro bono attorneys that such agency does not, in fact, exist] charging a client, say, 20 cents per word. They will then either reach into the infinite recesses of their freelance translator base or post their project on one of the large translation sites for “bidding.”

Yes, bidding. Whereupon the tens of thousands of registered site users will submit blind bids including their CVs but also, and of paramount importance, their “best prices.” Best prices obviously meaning those which are furthest down the price chain from the 20 cents they are charging the above referenced client.

So, assuming they are paying some lucky translator – who is, of course, highly trained with vast experience in said client’s very field – 5 cents per word, then that means they are charging the lucky client 15 cents per word for their services. And we can further assume that these services include the above noted “project manager,” the erudite proofreader, their business overhead and some sort of reasonable profit margin.

Now it may indeed be expedient for many clients to embrace this sort of model, but for many others it might be seen as, perhaps, an unwise use of resources. Those clients might be even more skeptical once we’ve taken a peek inside the Alpha and Omega Global Worldwide Translation Agency.

Friday, October 26, 2007

Translators: Cover Letters & First Impressions

Yes, sad, tedious, but ever so true: first impressions are everything, and in our business that means CVs.

But cover letters are even more primary.

Given the number of freelance translators from all over the entire globalized universe who are apparently applying to every single agency and for every single “solicited” translation project, what in the hell is a girl [or boy] to do?!

First, it should go without saying that your cover letter should be absolutely meticulous in terms of spelling, syntax and punctuation. After all, you are selling your communication and linguistic skills. Your primary goal, however, is to catch the recipient’s attention so they do in fact read it rather than throw it into some virtual dustbin along with most of the others they’ve received.

Then make sure that your letter is specifically tailored for the particular job or agency. I, for one, have close to a dozen carefully crafted, tuned and targeted cover letters at my constant disposal. Unless you’re one of those focused souls who has only ever worked, or will work, in one highly specific subspecialty, then you should have a cover letter to suit each of your fields, sub-fields, micro-fields...

And more. Beyond making sure that your cover letter is clearly suited to the specifics of the agency/project in question, you can also take the extra moment to emphasize another of your deeply relevant qualities. One way to discover the relevance of your numerous sterling qualities is to have a good look at the agency’s website. Once beyond the boiler-plate superlatives [yes, they have “offices” everywhere, employ only the finest of translators, will do absolutely anything, are incredibly cheap because they really don’t have any old-school physical offices, have a precious and uncanny grasp of all language cultures and so forth], you can often get a sense of what their real priorities are or at least how they see themselves.

Perhaps they fancy themselves lean and mean [as you are swift and flexible] or upscale and “professional” [emphasize your (pe)degrees] or sleek, cool and technologically supreme [bullet point all the CAT tools you have in your arsenal].

It’s a simple, but important, concept. Basically, you’re just taking the time to do exactly what you would do if it were a non-virtual job interview: sizing up the office, personnel and culture. By reflecting that back, even in a small way, you’re making an immediate, and hopefully memorable, connection.

Wednesday, October 24, 2007

The fine art of finding a translator

It sounds so simple, doesn’t it?

You have some words in Language A which are in dire and immediate need of being seamlessly transformed into Language B. Perhaps it’s a website, or an Annual Report. A birth certificate or an academic paper. A legal document or a love letter.

And your priorities are quite clear: fast, perfect and, most importantly, cheap. Received wisdom, however, holds that you can have one, maybe two, of those qualities, but never, ever, all three.

I shall, of course, beg to differ, based immodestly on my own many years of toiling in the trade. Yes, indeed, I, for example, am known to be fast, good and relatively cheap.

There are several vital steps, however, for ensuring a happy outcome. The first is to understand your role in the transaction. You are the client, you have a job (“project”) which needs to be done, and you require someone (a “provider”) to do it for you. Just like finding a contractor or a physician or someone to cut your hair.

Well, more or less.

But, instead of immediately hitting the Yellow Pages, asking for a referral from the equivalent of your family doctor or stopping the next person on the street whose hair you admire – take a deep cleansing breath and look inward.

Have a peek at your project, and ask it a few questions.

How many words are involved? Most software programs, like Word, have a word count mechanism.

What is the nature of the text – legal, financial, medical, technical, marketing, academic?

What is your sense as to level of difficulty? Would it require someone with extensive knowledge of a specific field, or could it be handled by someone with a good general background?

What is the format of the text ( the “source document”): Word Document, PDF, Excel, Powerpoint, a website, hard copy?

Do you have someone in-house who can handle proofreading and/or editing?

What is your realistic deadline
(preferably somewhere between tomorrow at 9 AM and when you retire)?

Do you have an absolutely fixed budget for the translation or are you in a position to solicit bids?

Once you have assembled all this information, you’re properly positioned to begin your search. Here are your most obvious options:

1. Referrals. Ask around. Colleagues, professional associations, even consulates often maintain lists.

2. Online translation “portals” which provide large (and I do mean large, some numbering in the tens of thousands) databases of available translation agencies and freelancers.

3. Translation agencies which, let’s face it, you’re going to find by googling, and, after wading through 269,861 hits for “translation, cheap, Urdu, engineering”, you’ll go with the first agency which responds with a quote.

4. Freelancers, ditto all the above, but at least you’ll probably be dealing with someone who is willing to give you their real name and some actually verifiable references.

The most important question at this point is whether to go with an agency or directly to a freelancer. Despite my obvious bias, there are clear advantages and disadvantages with both options, all of which we shall entertain ourselves with next.