Wednesday, 30 November 2011

Kindle eReader: tool or toy?

Curiosity finally got the better of me, and I am now the owner of an Amazon Kindle eReader - the version with a keyboard, Wi-fi and 3G Internet access.

First impressions

I don't want to go through all the features - there are plenty of technical websites that do that (including Amazon's own website). I will focus on two aspects. Firstly, what have I noticed about its usability in practice over the first few days? And secondly, how useful will it be for me as a translator?

Let's start with a couple of negative points. Although the text is crisply defined and can quickly be adjusted to different sizes, the background is rather grey. I knew in advance that the Kindle screen is not "backlit", so it needs daylight or artificial light to read. But comparisons with the legibility of text on paper are only partly true, because the background is darker than paper. Reading it in a dimly lit room is rather difficult, so you need a reading light or a clip-on battery light. With the right lighting, however, it is easy and pleasant to read.

Turning the pages of a book is easy and quick, especially compared with printed books. In other respects, however, navigation is slightly clunky and takes some getting used to. There is no mouse or touchpad, and this Kindle doesn't have a touchscreen. To move around on the page, there are 4 tiny little arrow keys, and to move to a word in the middle of the page you have to press the down and left/right keys several times. I suppose I am spoiled by my other equipment: desktop PC with a mouse, laptop/netbook with a trackpad or mouse, smartphone with a touchscreen. So my first impression of the Kindle keyboard is rather like time travel - as if I were moving back to a slightly older technology.

Some of the ebooks that I have downloaded are even more difficult to navigate. One of the things I want to do with the Kindle is to read the Bible. I have checked a number of Bibles in both English and German, and incredibly I find that many of them have no table of contents at all. The Bible is not the sort of book that you read sequentially from front to back, so a table of contents is essential. I have found one or two that I can use, but the selection of properly indexed Bibles is very small indeed.

One feature of this Kindle is the free Internet access over the 3G network in all of the countries that I am likely to travel to. This feature is mainly designed to let me access the Amazon store when I am on the road, but the Kindle also has a rudimentary browser (which Amazon calls "experimental"). I have tried it, and I am really able to access my own e-mail account with this browser. But operating a browser with only arrow keys and no mouse feels rather clumsy. It is easier, faster and more pleasant to check e-mails and the Internet with my smartphone, in spite of the smaller screen. So I will hardly use the "experimental" browser in Germany, where I have an Internet flatrate on the smartphone. But it will be useful, for example, when I visit the UK and am not within reach of a Wi-fi access point.

Kindle for translators?

On my Kindle I have three free monolingual dictionaries (Oxford Dictionary of English, New Oxford American Dictionary and Duden Universalwörterbuch). Here, the indexing is excellent. I can choose one of them as my default dictionary, and when I am reading on the Kindle I can look words up directly from the text. Or I can open one of them from the menu and search in the dictionary, and even turn the pages to check out entries before and after the keyword I have entered. A couple of times during the last few days I have used these dictionaries to check terms in both German and English in the course of my work. I will probably also download a thesaurus for English, and one for German, too.

Amazon's Kindle shop offers various bilingual dictionaries, although most of them seem to be targeted at general users rather than professional translators. There may be some specialist dictionaries worth buying - for example I am currently checking the free sample of an illustrated bilingual engineering dictionary. The Kindle Shop could also be a useful source of monolingual specialist literature. There are dictionaries in either language for subjects such as law, property/construction and many others. It also offers the text of German laws for a very moderate price.

Another feature of the Kindle is that I can send my own documents to it in various file formats. This could be useful for anything I need to refer to during my work (source documents, abbreviation lists, background texts etc.). To test this function, I sent the DVX2 manual to my Kindle. It is a PDF file which is over 600 pages long, and the table of contents is not indexed for the Kindle, so navigation is limited. But I entered the search term "DeepMiner", and it jumped through the manual from one instance to another until it found the section that actually explains how this function works. I was then able to rotate the screen to wide format and adjust the size so that I could read it reasonably well. The display is not in colour, and navigation is more clumsy than on a desktop or laptop computer, but for some purposes this function could be useful.

The classic use for the Kindle, of course, is to read books from start to finish. This works well, and it is convenient to have a selection of books in just one relatively lightweight device which claims to be able to store 3,000 books or more (especially when travelling). Only time will tell whether I use my Kindle mainly for leisure reading purposes, or whether it really becomes a regular part of my workflow.

Friday, 11 November 2011

DVX2 screenshot gallery

At first sight, the screen of the Translation Memory program DéjàVuX2 (DVX2) is just a mass of boxes, a chaotic pattern of vertical and horizontal lines. What are they all for? Where in this enormous jigsaw puzzle can I find the text I want to translate? What other information is provided on the screen, and how is it helpful? The best way to explore this is with screenshots.

The classic layout
When you start working on a project with DVX2, the screen will probably look something like this. The pane at the top left is the working area. The left column is headed "German" - that is my source language. The right column, English (United Kingdom), is where my translation goes.

At the bottom left and bottom right of the screen I can see my reference material. At the bottom right I have terminology suggestions ("AutoSearch Portions"), and at the bottom left I have similar sentences ("AutoSearch Segments"). The top right ("Project Explorer") shows me the files in the project. When I am working on the translation, I normally hide this pane so that I have the full window height for the terminology.

There are various ways to personalise this layout. I can change the font and type size in the various windows, and I can also change the arrangement of the different panes in the working window.

My personal layout

Modern monitors, laptops and netbooks tend to have a wide screen. There is not much space to display elements above each other, so it is sometimes better to display the elements side by side. Therefore, my normal DVX2 screen looks like this:

In this "tramline" layout, the working area is in the middle of the screen and the reference material is arranged to the right and left. It provides more context (i.e. the text before and after the active sentence). The shorter lines could be a disadvantage for longer sentences, and especially on smaller screens. The above screenshot is taken from my 22" monitor. On my 10" netbook, this layout is rather more cramped, although it would be just about workable:

One way to make the lines longer in the working area is to work in a separate text area at the bottom of the screen and to split this text area vertically (Tools>Options>Environment). The active sentence is highlighted in the grid, but the working area is now at the bottom, i.e.:

I often get jobs with very long sentences, and sometimes the reference pane on the left is empty for most segments. In such jobs, I can simply hide this column, which gives me longer text lines even without using the separate text area:

Hide and display

In the last screenshot, note the little tabs on the left and right of the screen. They are "mouse-over" tabs. If I want to have a quick look at "AutoSearch Segments", I simply move the mouse over the tab, and the AS Segments pane opens up, but closes again when I return the mouse to the main grid.

Note also the little drawing pin icon at the top right of the "AS Portions" pane. This is a three-way switch for the display of this pane. It can either be fully displayed, as it is here, folded away like the "AS Segments" pane, or it can hover as in the mouse-over function. The combination of the tabs and the drawing pin icons takes a bit of practice, but it helps me to be flexible in using the screen layout.

Smaller details

There are a number of smaller details in the screen layout which can be useful.

The top of the DVX2 window shows the name and path of the current project. For example, the project I used for these screenshots is on drive D at the location shown.

These six icons are in the middle of the bottom edge of the DVX window. Mousing over them displays what they mean - here I had the mouse over the first icon (AutoWrite). The background colour shows me whether the function is on or off. Here, for example, AutoWrite, AutoAssemble, AutoPropagate and AutoCheck are enabled, but AutoSearch and AutoSend are disabled. These functions can also be switched on or off via Tools>Options>Environment, but the icons are quicker.

This is the area above the working part of the grid, and it contains a few hidden details. The grid language heading boxes (here "German" and "English") switch between alphabetical and chronological view of the project sentences. The language field with the flag has a little arrow to the right, which leads to a list of the target languages in the project (useful for project managers, but not usually for freelancers like me). The box "All segments" also has a little arrow, which opens up a list of types of sentence (all fuzzy matches, all exact matches etc.). The empty box on the left is a row finder. If I know the number of a segment, I can type it here, and DVX2 jumps to that segment (useful if I am proofreading and notice that a segment needs more work when I have finished proofing - I simply jot down the number and jump to the segment afterwards).

The tabs above this row show the name of the files which I have opened, so I can move to another file simply by clicking the tab. That in itself does not sound special. But these tabs can also be used to display files side by side (or one above the other). I can then compare my work on two files in context, for example like this:

This article only looks at the main grid, in other words the screen which I usually see when I work on a project. It does not explore the menu or any of the subsidiary screens, nor does it examine the efficiency of the many functions of the program. But I hope that this visual summary gives a general impression of the working environment.

Wednesday, 19 October 2011

Deep mining with Déjà Vu X2

"Déjà Vu" is a translation memory program created by the company Atril. It stores my previous translation work in databases and uses these databases to help me in every new translation job. There are three types of database. The "translation memory" (TM) contains the sentences in my source language together with my translations of these sentences. My main TM has about 385,000 sentence pairs in my two languages (German and English), so it is effectively an archive of all the work I have done since I started using Déjà Vu in late 1999. The "termbase" (TB) has terminology items which I have entered. My main TB has about 54,500 terminology pairs. In addition, there is a "lexicon" for each project, which is a place to put proper nouns, client-specific terminology etc. When I work on a new translation project, the program calls on these databases to offer as much help as possible. Sometimes this enables me to work much faster on a project. But usually I have projects with long and complicated sentences, especially contracts, so the speed gains are usually more modest. The main benefit of Déjà Vu for me is as a tool for quality which enables me to be more consistent in my work.

Over the last 12 years I have seen three generations of the program. The first version was known by the abbreviation "DV3". The next generation, DVX, was released in May 2003. The latest version is DVX2, which was released in May 2011.

Each new version has new features. A list of new features in DVX2 can be found here. One new feature which has puzzled many people is "DeepMiner". The theory is that it uses both the TM and the terminology databases to retrieve even more material. But how does it work in practice? There is a training video which uses an extremely simple example to show cross-analysis between the sentences "I have a brown dog" and "I have a black dog" when translating them into French.

So far so good. In practice, however, my sentences are never as simple as this example, and the size of my databases means that DeepMiner has to work much harder. As a result, using DeepMiner on a largish project with big databases can be very slow. And in my experience, DeepMiner is sometimes not helpful because it tries to be too clever and reconstruct the solution from similar sentences in the TM, and in the process it may overlook what I have in my termbase and lexicon. Thankfully, it is easy to switch the DeepMiner function on or off.

So how helpful is this new function? To illustrate this, let's look at one example sentence from a complicated German land purchase and partitioning contract in two alternative versions: with and without DeepMiner:

My translation:
I make the following declarations not in my own name, but as a manager with power of sole representation of ...

Looking at the first half of the sentence, where do the phrases "my own name" and "the following declarations" come from in the example with DeepMiner? They are not in the terminology hits for this segment, and there is no whole sentence match. But the TM has many matches containing "die nachstehenden Erklärungen" and the translation "the following declarations" (although "nachstehend" on its own is only in the TB as "hereinafter"). The first three words "my own name" seem strange at first sight. Somehow, DeepMiner seems to have found a correlation between the words "ich ... im eigenen Namen" and the English "my own name", in spite of the fact that the TB entries which use "im eigenen Namen" only offer the English "its own name" and "his own name".

At least in this example, DeepMiner offers solutions which go beyond the conventional assembly and pretranslation routines in the previous version of DVX. In my experience, it is still a matter of trial and error - sometimes it finds surprisingly good suggestions, but sometimes it is not really helpful. One possible workflow to get the best of both worlds is to "Pretranslate" the whole file with DeepMiner activated and then, if the solution is not helpful, to "Assemble" the individual sentence without DeepMiner. To do this, the settings for Pretranslate are:

And the settings for Assemble (under Tools>Options>General) are:

I am still experimenting to find out how DeepMiner can be used to best advantage, so perhaps I will be able to add more insights at a later date. Before too long (hopefully) I will comment on some of the other features of DVX2 such as AutoWrite, the information design options in the variable grid layout etc.

Monday, 4 July 2011

Translating is believing

There is something special about language. And we, as translators, are in a special position to appreciate it. We have the incredible privilege of using the raw material of language - words, rhythm, imagery - to earn our daily bread.

Part of this privilege is that we see the beauty, uniqueness and variety of two (or more) different languages. This is not only found in literature - we can experience the special charm of our languages even in everyday speech. And every language has its own local variants. I have just experienced a couple of weeks in the west of the USA, where English is the same language as my native British, and yet somehow different. In my adopted language German there are intriguing differences between “High German”, the “Berlinerisch” dialect that some speak in the city where I live and other regional variants such as Bavarian, Swabian, Sächsisch, Mainzerisch and many more.

Fascination at every turn! And this leads me to ask where all of this comes from.

Language is wonderfully creative. Whenever I am reminded of the special quality of our “raw material”, it makes me doubly grateful to the Creator who made it all possible. Working with language means handling a miracle. For me, translation is a celebration of my faith in the God who gave us language.

Here, I am not trying to build a logical and irresistible argument for belief. I am not trying to prove anything to those who do not believe. I am simply giving expression to my own sense of wonder. This is my reason for the title of this article: “Translating is believing”.

Wednesday, 22 June 2011

The voice in the restroom

It was in a men's restroom (i.e. a toilet) on a rest area (a lay-by or service station) next to a freeway (a dual carriageway) in California. Suddenly, a woman's voice rings out loud and clear, speaking in a language that hardly anyone can understand. She says “Dem Strassenverlauf sechzig Kilometer folgen!” Just imagine how the heads turn!

Oops, I have my GPS sat-nav in my shirt pocket and forgot to turn it off when I got out of the car. The lady in the electronic box obviously thinks I am still driving and wants me to continue for sixty kilometres (or is it kilometers?) straight ahead.

Yes, folks, I am taking a two week break. I am in jet lag country, a land where I have to make many adjustments. The most obvious is the time difference. When we touched down at San Francisco International, it was half past ten on Sunday evening - but in Berlin, which we had left just a few hours previously, it was already 7:30 on Monday morning. Nine hours! And in a couple of weeks I will have to make the same leap in the opposite direction!

Another adjustment is the language. When I left my home in Berlin, I thought I was going on holiday. But now I find that I am on vacation, and I am faced with a number of language mysteries. The first is the coinage. Exactly what value do nickels, dimes and quarters have? Quarters are explained on the coin (quarter dollar), but the dime coin only confesses to being a dime, without any numerical value, and the nickel (as far as I can make out), is just a slang term for one of those tiny coins with its value printed in words much too small to read in a hurry. Oh for those days of my youth when my currency of everyday use was denoted by easy-to-understand concepts such as tanner, copper, bob, quid and the good old threepenny bit.

So although I can hear and speak my native language here, some of the words are rather “foreign” to me. The water to wash my hands comes out of a faucet instead of a tap. A covered shopping arcade is a “mall”, which rhymes with “fall”. And the word “fall” itself has a couple of extra meanings. In the singular it is the season after summer, and in the plural it denotes a waterfall - as in the “Middle Falls”, which we saw yesterday. Very impressive, but it was only one “falls”. And the word “lever” rhymes with “clever” instead of “beaver”.

Power sockets have their own very distinct character here, too. A cute little face, but with a square nose and square eyes like a cartoon character. Perhaps the square eyes come from watching so much TV.

And even the seasons are different here. On the longest day in June, a day so hot that even the air conditioning in an American car is struggling to keep me moderately cool, a road though the mountains has to be closed because of deep snow. If I really tried to hitch a ride (or lift) there, I would have to wait a few weeks. Does anyone know what mountain this is? Anyone care to guess in the comments? Then I will let the cat out of the bag. Hey, that's probably a Britishism, I wonder what the locals here would say.

(Later addition:) OK, time to spill the beans. The mountain is Mount Shasta, which rises to over 4,000 meters/metres. The "Road closed" sign is at about 2,000 metres on a road that leads past the mountain, and even when open it probably does not go much higher than this car park.

We are staying in Redding, about 80 miles further south, and attending a Christian conference at a church here. There is a good view of Mount Shasta from the church grounds (sorry: campus).

Friday, 10 June 2011

Babel in reverse?


In many countries around the world, this Sunday (12th June) is celebrated as Whit Sunday, and in some places Whit Monday is a public holiday - and a day off work for employees in many business companies. So it is an important date in the calendar. But if you ask what is actually being celebrated, most people, even in churches, are lost for words.
The first "Whitsun" was the very opposite. In a spontaneous gathering in first century Jerusalem, which was rather like a "flash mob", the confusion of languages which originated in Babel was overcome, at least for a short time. The story can be found in the New Testament (Acts of the Apostles, chapter 2):
They (the believers) were all filled with the Holy Spirit and began to talk in other languages, as the Spirit enabled them to speak. There were Jews living in Jerusalem, religious men who had come from every country of the world. When they heard this noise, a large crowd gathered. They were all excited, because each one of them heard the believers speaking in his own language. In amazement and wonder they exclaimed: "[...] All of us hear them speaking in our own languages about the great things that God has done!" Amazed and confused, they kept asking each other, "What does this mean?" (Acts 2:4-7, 11-12, Good News Bible)

What happened?
The city was full for a Jewish religious festival. The visitors and residents were ethnic Jews and were there for the festivities, which were conducted in Hebrew. Some of the people in the city actually lived in other countries and spoke other languages. The text gives a list of the languages represented, citing 14 or 15 different languages or language groups. But almost all of the speakers of these languages probably spoke Hebrew too, at least as a second language, because they obviously kept their ties with their ethnic home country, otherwise they would not have come to Jerusalem for the festival. And although they had different primary languages, they were still able to communicate with each other about the surprising events they were witnessing. This discussion, and the public speech by the Apostle Peter which followed, were presumably in Hebrew - and without any miraculous translation.

Was it really necessary?
The New Testament narrative portrays a language miracle, a reversal of the events at Babel which I commented on in an earlier blog post. But what was the point of this miracle?
●   It apparently did not happen during Peter's subsequent speech. The message about Jesus was evidently not conveyed by a language miracle, it was conveyed in Hebrew, and the listeners were able to understand and respond.
●   The people in the crowd were able to discuss the events among themselves without a language miracle.
●    The language miracle came at the start of the flash meeting, when it seems all of the believers were speaking at the same time. They must have been pretty loud, because it was the noise that attracted the crowd. It was only after the crowd had gathered that some of the listeners started saying, "Hey, that's my home language! How come you speak that language?"
 ●   We are not told in detail what was communicated by the miracle. We are told that the believers spoke of "the great things that God has done", but the detailed explanation was then given by Peter in a separate speech, presumably in Hebrew.
So although this event was a language miracle and had an influence on the way the message was received by the crowd, its real significance seems to lie elsewhere - not just in getting the message across.
And this brings me to another observation on the way language works.

The credibility gap
This blog post is difficult for some to believe. When I speak about a language miracle, I am convinced that it is possible. To me, this is a logical consequence of my faith in God. Perhaps some of my readers do not agree. In itself, that is not a problem. I am sure that we are mature enough to differ without any hard feelings. But our differences also have a linguistic element.
When I speak about my faith, listeners who do not believe in God can understand the words, but they may find it difficult to grasp what I am talking about. Sometimes it even seems as if we can't communicate at all.
Similarly, if you tell me about the joys of deep sea diving, some listeners may feel the exciting ripple of water on the skin and the joy of seeing the many life forms that live under water. But the only message I receive is the claustrophobia of the diving mask and the fear of getting water in my nose.
Our experience of the world influences the way we "understand" language, and differences in our subjective make-up can interfere with our objective ability to comprehend what another person is saying. So when I talk about my belief in God, more than just linguistic ability is necessary to "receive" the message.

The view from the inside
As a linguist, I am curious about the phenomenon of "speaking in tongues" (which is the jargon term for speaking in unknown languages). This phenomenon still happens today, and sometimes I hear such unknown languages used by others, sometimes I use this phenomenon myself as a style of prayer. I do not know whether my own prayers in "tongues" are ever in an identifiable language. I have heard reports of such prayers being identified as specific languages (including a report from someone close to me), but usually I simply do not know. And if I try to analyse the sounds made, this somehow detaches me from the prayer. I can pray in "tongues" or I can analyse - but not both at once. And it is always my choice - this form of prayer is not compulsive or involuntary.

Language as a mystery
I regard language itself as a mystery and a miracle. This post simply explores one facet of this mystery. There is much more that could be said - so feel free to add other aspects in the comments

Wednesday, 4 May 2011

The specialist opportunity

As a translator it is important to develop expertise in special subjects. But how can we do this? One possibility is to use the opportunities which arise in the course of our work, and then develop them. In my first few years in the translation business, especially in my work for various agencies, I came in contact with a number of subject areas. Some of them were isolated encounters – the topic did not really arouse my interest and I did not develop it. Others became a springboard into a genuine specialism. It has taken time, effort and money to develop these special areas, but I believe that it is worthwhile.

I would like to begin with a little chart to show ten possible stages in this process:


Some special areas are well defined, and there are clearly targeted courses to help us develop our knowledge.  Other specialist areas are less formally structured, and greater resourcefulness is required to develop our skills and find information.
Let me explain this by three examples with anecdotes from my own experience:
1. Technology (the partial specialist)
2. Architecture/building/property (the self-taught specialist)
3. Law (informal learning and training courses)

1. Technology (the partial specialist)
The first translation agency I worked for specialised in technical subjects. I worked on a freelance basis, but usually in their offices. On my first day I was nervous about the subject area and expected that I would be far too slow because I was new to the subject. However, in my very first job there (about a conveyor belt for transporting coal) I found that I could work quickly and well, and I even found a logical mistake in the source text which the end client then corrected. Within a couple of weeks I gained a reputation for speed and competence.
Encouraged by this success, I then took and passed the State Translation Examination in Berlin with Technology as my special subject.  But "Technology" covers many individual disciplines, and I didn't see any realistic way to develop my skills and knowledge in this wide-ranging field. So although I started well and still occasionally do jobs in technical subjects, I only regard myself as a "partial" specialist.

2. Architecture/building/property (the self-taught specialist)
I started my freelance translating career in 1991 in the most exciting city in the world - the reunited city of Berlin. I had been here long enough to know about the Berlin Wall and the exciting days of political and social upheaval. When the building boom in Berlin began in the early 1990s, this led to a number of translation jobs. I became increasingly familiar with architectural and building texts and translated a number of books on the subject. I started to collect reference works in both languages, especially in my native British English. Then came the opportunity to work on a bilingual dictionary of building (Cornelsen Wörterbuch Bau), which meant that I had to research even more monolingual texts. I even attended building trade fairs (one in Berlin, one in Birmingham/UK) and collected brochures and other information. I subscribed to a couple of e-mail forums where practitioners talk about their trade, exchange references, argue with each other – and never ever worry about other languages or how to translate anything that they say.
This has led to work in a number of areas and text types: the lyrical prose used by architects and journalists to describe works of architecture, technical descriptions of building processes and materials, texts on urban planning, road and railway construction, rehabilitation of polluted sites, heritage conservation, property advertising materials, a couple of interpreting jobs in construction planning meetings, contract translation and interpreting jobs related to property purchases etc.
I have never heard of any structured courses or teaching materials directed at translators in these subject areas. The translator can benefit from courses in related areas (e.g. Law), but on the whole, this subject area is a field for the self-taught specialist.

3. Law (informal learning and training courses)
Here, too, I started from small beginnings and developed specialist knowledge and skills over a number of years. I had some previous experience with legal texts before I began translating as a career, but no formal background. When I passed the State Translation Examination in Berlin, I became eligible to work as a court-approved translator and interpreter. This led to my first experience of a formal training session in the area – a seminar held by the BDÜ which explained the basic principles of working for the courts.
After several years of informal learning and many successful translation jobs, I then heard of a number of courses on legal translation at the City University in London, and I have attended a total of five such courses, ranging in length from one day to four days. Some of the people who attended these courses worked hard to obtain a degree (Diploma or M.A. in Legal Translation), others (like me) just attended them for the learning experience as CPD courses ("Continuing Professional Development"). Courses like this are not cheap – the course fee for each course comes to a few hundred euros, plus the cost of transport to London and accommodation. But this investment is important if we take specialisation in our translation work seriously.

Over to you, dear reader. Where have you been through similar steps to become a specialist? What other possibilities have you identified? Have you found this development easy or difficult?