The tale of a professional translator and the developer next door

A brief story about what a professional translator and a software developer can learn from each other

Once upon a time, there was a professional translator. He was good and serious, but he thought that creativity was all that mattered and never did any planning.

So he would launch into a translation heads on just to backtrack immediately because he had forgotten an old client instruction. Or he would do the last spell-check and then edit again because he forgot to double-check the glossary.

Next to his house lived a developer. One day, seeing how much trouble this caused to his neighbor, he asked

"You should really do a bit of pre-planning. When I have a complex task to do, I just sit down and note each step, in no particular order. When I can’t come up with more, I study the best way to group and sort them!"

The professional translator was skeptical, but thanked his neighbor and gave it a go. It only took ten minutes, but he was impressed by the results. Of course, his workflow was much more efficient now that he had given it a bit of attention.

Most surprisingly, now that each step was off his head and onto a piece of paper, he could lose himself completely in the task at hand, without worrying about what would come next. Being more structured actually made him more creative!

A couple of days later, the developer came to his house to borrow a cup of HTML (always seems to end when shops are closed, isn’t it?) and the translator thanked him for the tip. The developer smiled and then asked:

"Why don’t you also measure your tasks? Just put a kitchen timer on your desk, set it on one hour and work normally. Whenever it rings, just add a tick next to the task you are doing. It worked great for me!"

Once again, the professional translator was skeptical but he gave it a go.

Now that he planned his work, he had already noticed how it seemed to follow some clear trends. His daily tasks, that looked so different before, fell more and more into predictable patterns.

Now that he could also tell where exactly his time went, the results were surprising.

For example, he always felt a bit guilty about preparation time. Yes, it was enjoyable and, yes, a well researched project would lead to a better translation for the client. But was it really time well spent?

Apparently yes! According to data, research had a very negligible impact (less than 5% of the total time) despite being very valuable for the clients. On the other hand, his worst time sink was… line breaks! Many files he worked with didn’t allow automatic word wrap and a good 10% of his went into manually adding line breaks!

So, a couple of days later, he knocked at the door of the developer, not just to thank him for the tip, but to hire him to prepare a macro that would put line breaks for him!

While he was there, he noticed a big Word file on the desk, ready to send for translation. The translator asked

"That looks quite big, you should really check if all of it is interesting for an international audience!"

The developer was a bit surprised for the suggestion. A couple of days later, he gave a good hard look at the text and, sure thing, there was a lot to cut: long lists of company departments (who will care about this is India?), a detailed comparison with a product that was only nationally available, several paragraphs repeating themselves over and over again… This not only made the translation cheaper, but the text became more focused and clear.

A couple of days later, the translator came back to retrieve his nifty new macro and noticed that the Word file had shrunk drastically. With a big grin, he said

"A smart guy once told me that you should really measure your tasks. Why don’t you use wordcounter.com or one of your macro to check the terms you used most, and then think if they really work for your new audience?"

The programmer found the question a bit cheeky, but really started to enjoy this tip trading routine.

Indeed, the list of frequent words gave some interesting leads. For example, he really seemed to use the expression "a little bit" a little bit too much, so he reduced it a little bit.

Also it made him realize that some of the terms were a bit off. As the text was originally a design document, later recycled as a tutorial, it contained several expressions like "refactoring" or "signal to noise ratio" that may confuse readers. The list also showed him how different words like "tab", "label" and "border" were used to refer to the same element, so he merged them into one.

After cleaning and pruning, he just added a quick note next to the main terms and sent the lot to the translator, amazed how this quick check not only allowed him to get a better (and cheaper!) translation, but a better text altogether!

And that got him thinking how the internet is bringing developers and translators together, allowing tools and techniques created by the former to provide great results to the latter and vice-versa.

Let’s join our forces and harness this ever-growing power. Thank you for reading and hear you soon!


Alain Dellepiane

Alain Dellepiane @gloc247 30 August 2012
Alain is the founder of team GLOC. Want to read more about localization? You should probably try this blog's Best of, which has a dozen of the best articles ready to read. (View all posts by Alain ➜)

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