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I say tomato, you say error!

I say tomato, you say error! Medical translationFew things are as frustrating as arguing about stylistic errors in a text or translation. These are the kind of discussions where everybody feels their viewpoint and stylistic preference are correct. Usually, these situations don't get resolved in a cooperative manner.

Over the past few days, a troika of articles have touched on the topic of stylistic and linguistic conventions.

The transubstantiation blog asks the question Which Standards Apply? and observes that "[o]ne of the most confounding issues for translators, editors and proof-readers is not knowing which standards to use when working on a particular document".

The author makes the point that while various standards exist (e.g., ISO 4217 for currency abbreviations), individual clients will often have their own (conflicting) standards - or no standards at all.

Jost Zetzsche's Tool Kit #144 laments that "[o]ne of the more time-consuming and unnecessary problems in communicating with clients is disagreements on linguistic renderings for which there are several 'correct' solutions" but goes on to offer a solution.

Jost had in the past proposed a German style and formatting agreement. He made this available to his readers, asked for input - and was dismayed by the lack of response.

On the Translation Tribulations blog, Kevin Lossner picked up the theme by voicing frustrations with "niggling, repetitive questions about stuff like subheader capitalization" and similar issues.

While he sees the possibility of saving time with a standard style guide, he doesn't seem hopeful that a large-scale, industry wide effort would catch on. "A good idea in principle; I hope something comes of it", is his view on the possibility of a Google docs project with different documents for various languages.

Isn't it incredible that we are still struggling with this? I remember this being a hot topic 10 years ago, when the new German spelling rules were actuall new. Is it possible that absolutely no progress has been made in the past 10 years?

By and large, no, it doesn't appear that we have made any progress. My guess is that it goes back to the fact that nobody cares - until there is a "mistake" (real or imagined).

Many client contacts don't know anything about language and just act as go-between for projects. Translation companies don't value the importance of proper style either. Most of them are in the business of shuffling paper. And because of that linguists don't get paid to pay attention to style. Their clients demand lower prices and quicker turnaround times, not stylistic master pieces.

So unfortunately, despite all of the best efforts of the EU (PDF link) and individual folks involved in translation, authors, linguists and client reviewers seem destined to continue the age-old arguments of car vs. automobile, annoyance vs. frustration...

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  1. Diana said...
    As incredible as it may seem, yes, we are still struggling with this!

    The industry is not making ENOUGH efforts to come to some kind of agreement.
    I tend to create some standards for each project, include some long-lasting conflicting issues in the glossary and then struggle with colleagues to have them follow the instructions.

    Nevertheless, I believe that the more we talk about this, the better.

    Thanks for the article!
    Diana Kreimer
    Paulina said...
    I entirely agree that there will be no end to stylistic quarrels. There is a group of ignoramuses who like pretending to be wiser than others, and this group, together with real language purists, will never stop pointing out mistakes, even those insignificant or imagined. One can always improve his/her native language, but I really hate when people correct Polish into more Polish.
    I am not deluded that any unification is possible because, anyway, I will keep saying "w każdym bądź razie" irrespective of any purist's opinion ;-)
    Diana said...
    Common sense should mark the end to stylistic quarrels, but you know, common sense is the less common of all senses!!!

    On a side note, my grandfather was Polish, but I do not understand Polish, unfortunately
    Paulina said...
    The problem is two-facet. On the one hand, disorderly language, on the other - excessive purism. I see no way of conciliation.
    We should do our best in translations and defend our point of view, but be sure that problems are bound to appear.
    Michael said...
    I don't think it is so incredible. Language and typographical conventions are in constant flux. They are subject to "style guides" that are unique to individual publishers, and often designer and typographers have a say and decide by what they think "looks better" – perfectly legitimate in their universe. If anything, rules that once existed are getting much more fragmented in the same way that writing and sources of references get more fragmented. I think the train of unified rules has long left the station. As I said in my comment on Transubstantiation, the best we can do, I believe, is to take into account who the material is for and to come to some intelligent agreement with the client on how to treat each individual project. Jost's form may be a good starting point.
    Paulina said...
    Just as I wrote my comment yesterday, I had a case of a client request relating language correctness. The symbol of litre in Polish is l in lower case, yet the client wanted it to be "international" (meaning like in the USA, Canada and Australia - upper case). Of course, my client is my master and if a client wanted me to spell "hunny" instead of "honey", I'd have it his/her way... Or wouldn't I?
    Diana said...
    As long as we know what is correct and we use it when our "master" does not demand otherwise, I believe it is OK to accept our client's suggestion.
    nachoua said...
    i think Diana is right, specially when it doesn't come to imposing PURELY erroneous terms.
    Paulina said...
    I think that each case is individual. What seems PURELY erroneous to us, may be correct in the jargon of our client's branch...
    Barbara Thomas said...
    Actually, I've been asked to follow a style guide fewer than half a dozen times in almost 30 years of translation experience. In every case I was sent an in-house style guide and, generally, an official glossary. End of problem.

    I've never been asked, say, to follow the Chicago Manual of Style or the AMA/Council of Biology Editors equivalent, which would be a fairly straightforward request and most of us have those references. Maybe it seems too obvious.

    When editing material like manuals, I have been asked to refrain from doing anything more than correcting grammatical and terminological errors, which, I think, is prudent advice if you are confident about your primary translator. As a project manager I might add: "please include any suggestions to improve readability, etc., as a separate note." If you want to reduce the number of such "helpful" suggestions, you might add "For each suggestion, please explain why you think the text should be more substantively revised."

    In some cases, translators are simply not receiving enough instructions.

    As an aside, in almost all cases, translators are outside the quality control loop. They should be receiving the edited translation and signing off (or not) on the changes. This step provides feedback, which helps to improve their skills, but also occasionally saves the agency from implementing changes that shouldn't be made.
    Oliver Lawrence said...
    Correctness is one thing, style another; the boundaries between the two are blurred, partly due to changes in accepted usage over time.

    Any customer is entitled to have a house style, but this should be documented and communicated to the translator at the outset.

    Reviewers and translators need to cooperate and cultivate an open-minded attitude. They also need to keep up to date, as certain constructs (eg starting a sentence with a conjunction, split infinitives) are more widely acceptable in certain contexts than they once were.

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