February 21st, 2007



Translating isn't that hard when you're working with familiar or simple texts. I do it all the time at work (not to mention in my brain) and I do it on the fly at bedtime whenever one of the children brings me a Swedish book for a bedtime story. However, even when "fluent" in a second language and well-versed in word choice and use, turns of phrase and styling, translation work sounds a lot easier than it is.

I handle a lot of translations during the course of my work every week. I don't do them myself; we have an agency for that. Our corporate language is English, and while we rarely translate our corporate materials to Swedish (mostly because Swedes have such excellent English), we localize nearly everything to the standard FIGS languages, plus Dutch and Portuguese. FIGS is an acronym for French, Italian, German, Spanish. I had never heard the term before I started at this company 2.5 years ago, although it's a widely used one.

Our Asian offices have been, for the most part, handling their own translations to Chinese, Japanese, Korean and Taiwanese, but even some of these languages are starting to be managed, for certain pieces, by the corporate office. Because we have business that is growing rapidly in eastern and central Europe, as well as Russian, I am no stranger to dealing with Slovakian, Hungarian, Polish, Russian and the occasional Finnish text. Some of the languages require a lot of tricks, since they use other alphabets and symbols, or letters that are not standard to the typical font. There doesn't seem to be any sort of over-lay that you can find to put over your keyboard which indicates which keys correspond to these letters and symbols for other languages, though I am convinced such a thing is probably available somewhere. If not, there's a money-making opportunity there for someone!

At home, I can flip my keyboard layout with the touch of a key-combo between Swedish and English. The physical keyboards have different placements for certain letters and symbols (the basic alphabet keys remain in the same places) and though I learned to touch-type as a teenager on a standard QWERTY keyboard, I had to learn all over again when I came to Sweden, and am still slower when typing with the keyboard in Swedish mode, as I do when I'm typing HTML code, for example.

When I work with non-Western alphabets at work, I am able to flip between different keyboard layouts, including Chinese, Japanese, Cyrillic, Korean and several others. The problem is that I don't have any idea which key corresponds to which symbol when I am in need of, say, Japanese. So I have to rely on cutting and pasting already translated text and if I need to correct one letter or symbol, instead of finding it and typing it, I have to cut and paste it from somewhere, too. The mini Character Map program which can be found on every PC (programs/accessories/systemtools) helps a lot, but not enough.

When I am localizing something into one of the Western languages, even though I am the opposite of fluent, I can still read quite a bit, and orient myself in the text quite easily, since so many words are similar enough to be familiar. I can usually tell if the paragraph I am pasting in is the correct one because I can see enough similarities to English in the text to help guide me. That's not the case with Japanese or Russian or Finnish or Polish. Yesterday, my colleague informed me that we will probably be adding Arabic soon to our common languages. Then I'll have the added challenge of not only a completely new alphabet of symbols to deal with but the fact that the text has to go from right to left! :D

The translation job that I accepted earlier this week has me in a bemused and focused language dither. I go to bed each night, after translating a page or so, with word choices dancing in my head instead of sugarplums. Not only is the subject matter fairly obscure, there is the added difficulty that much of the language is archaic. Even Anders doesn't recognize some of the words that stump me, and often the online dictionary is equally stymied. So far, so good, however. Several of the pages I'm working through right now contain the text of newspaper clippings from the 1890s. Some of the subject matter is also specialized lingo, which regular dictionaries and lexicons don't contain. Thankfully, since the jargon is related to music I have all the members of my choir to fall back on (and maybe Mia!) for help.