Lost in translation

Sponge Mode


After a burst of activity around these parts, things have been rather quiet lately.

For one thing, my muse is far away.

For another, I’ve been working like a fiend. For once, I’d love to talk about that, because I’ve been translating pretty high-visibility stuff, for instance for a company whose products I use and praise quite frequently on this blog (hint, hint, nudge, nudge, know what I mean, know what I mean?). But thats where NDA’s come in, so I won’t say anything more.

It’s not like there’s nothing to talk about. There’s too much in fact.

For instance, it’s amusing (so to speak) to see the US try to figure out how to fix the system while Europeans are trying to figure out what to replace it with.


What about you? Are you A, B, C or D?

Blogging, posting links to silly videos, let alone reading inane chatter on Twitter don’t seem like particularly interesting pursuits in light of everything that’s happening.

I guess I’m simply in sponge mode.

09. March 2009 by sknob
Destination: Lost in translation, Surfin' | Leave a comment



I translate software programs, and the associated help files and manuals, for a living. Most of these programs (and manuals) are American and I translate them into French. And they are not obscure little programs. No. They are created by big international companies, like Microsomething, and HAL, etc.

The best of them are not inspiring literature, and the worst of them are horribly written. But they share common features, in that they are written by “anglo-saxons” for “anglo-saxon” readers.

And therein lies the rub. Many years ago, I attended a seminar on international management. The objective was to raise awareness of the fact that people from different cultures have different unconscious assumptions when they interact with others. For instance (I was told), Brits rarely say “no”. They’ll say “that’s an interesting idea. I’ll take it under advisement”. You get the idea.

I have yet to see any evidence that the american tech writers whose “works” I translate have any clue about cultural differences.

I’m not referring to the frequent use of baseball metaphors. Or amusing generalizations like “In a world were bridges collapse and water mains explode, where brown-outs and black-outs are common, you need to backup your precious files with our wonderful software”. (This would be incomprehensible to a French reader, because our infrastructure is much sounder).

I’m referring to something else entirely.

The US unconscious assumption is that it would be rude to assume that the reader knows anything, so one must start from the beginning and spell everything out.

The French unconscious assumption on the other hand, is that it would be rude to assume the reader is a total ignorant moron, so one must treat him like a reasonably intelligent adult and skip the basics when they are thought to be self-evident.

Here’s an example. Let’s say we have something that goes like this (pretty typical, I swear!):

“Double-clic on the XXX icon to launch the application. The application lauches. Once the application is launched, the application window appears. Once the application window has appeared, clic on the YYY button that appears in the window” etc, etc.

A French tech writer would write:

“Double-clic on the XXX icon to launch the application, then clic on the YYY button”.

From the French perspective, the reader will automatically deduce that once the application is launched, there will be an YYY button one can click on, somewhere obvious.

But if I condensed the above US example to the above French version, my clients (translation agencies in remote places of the world like China) would not be pleased. I’m paid to translate everything, or they’ll assume I’m cheating (and besides, the translation software tools I have to use pretty much force me to translate sentence-by-sentence…).

So all I can do, is try to avoid repeating the words “application” and “window” five times each, but most of the time, the French translation will still appear to be “written by morons, for morons” (WBMFM)…

While this example is a bit extreme, the problem rears its head in more subtle ways all the time.

Take something seemingly innocuous like “Create a new blog post” (or “Create a new user” or “Type Ctrl+N to create a new document”).

Can you see the problem?

Can you “Create an old blog post” or “Create an existing blog post”?

Duh. “Create a blog post” is quite sufficient, but I never, and I mean NEVER encounter that formulation.

But at least it is easy to fix it in the French to minimize the WBMFM effect on French readers…

And it goes on, and on:

“In the Login window, type your name in the Name field and your password in the Password field”.

“Click on the Next button to go to the next screen”

“Click on the Quit button to quit the application”

“Click on Continue when you are ready to continue”.

“Click on Finish when you are finished”


I could go on and on (so I will, for a bit).

Americans write “Our software is the absolute best”, “Our company is the world leader in ZZZ software”. Well, in French, you would say “among the best” or “one of the world leaders”. It’s a little less boastful and shows a little more decorum and restraint and etiquette (besides, legally, you can’t make such claims unless you can prove them).

And then, there’s the EULA (or “fucking EULA” is I always seem to refer to them). These End User Legal Agreements are obnoxious in so many ways, but the point I want to make here is that I’ve translated tens of thousands of words worth of EULAs, even though they refer to US law, and are for the most part totally inapplicable and unenforceable in other countries under different judicial systems.

You would think the software publishers would catch on and at least not spend their money on having their EULAs translated, but no.

So there you have it. If you’re French and have read one of the manuals I’ve translated, I truly and sincerely apologize if you felt repeatedly insulted, but there’s only so much I can do.

13. December 2008 by sknob
Destination: Lost in translation | 5 comments

The hard dish installs the manual

A little (more) translation humor (via Reddit).

14. July 2007 by sknob
Destination: Lost in translation, Surfin' | Leave a comment

Translation and Politics: Follow-Up

Remember this story I blogged about a few days ago ?

Well, 20 Minutes reports that the management of the France 2 TV station was not amused by the translator who took some liberties when translating Nicolas Sarkozy’s speech. An “Inadmissible” incident is what they called it, and it cost the translator his job. But he won’t be voting for Ségolène Royal. He’s an American…

Update : Libération has an article up on the subject now.

30. April 2007 by sknob
Destination: Lost in translation, Surfin' | Leave a comment

Translation and Politics

I’m a translator. It’s actually quite a strange thing to write for me, because this state of fact kind of crept up on me over the last few years. But professionally, that’s what I am now. Officially.

It’s also presidential election time in France. 10 days to the 2nd round. Nicolas Sarkozy the conservative against Ségolène Royal the socialist.

For the first time in last Sunday’s 1st round vote, France experimented with electronic voting machines in some districts. It was a disaster. Most people over 65 couldn’t use them (too complicated, too hard to read). And overall, they turned out to be very inefficient and slower than manual voting, causing huge lines of disgruntled voters (check out this report in English).

There had been controversy about their use. Could they be trusted? Could they be manipulated? Hacked? (Answer: yes).

But as usual, nobody considered translation and basic ergonomics. Most of these machines are American or Dutch, and the software and ergonomics of the US machines turned out to be more than problematic (see this site, in French) :

  • Poor translation and translation-related bugs: translated text that overflows beyond the screen area, literal translations (“Resume” translated by “Résumé” as in “Synopsis”), missing or wrong accented letters (Can you spell Sgolne?), non printing accented characters…
  • Poor ergonomics: Tiny text. The interface mentions a round green button (it’s a diamond). To vote, you have to press on a big RED button at the TOP of the screen, instead on the aforementioned GREEN button at the BOTTOM of the screen. DUH!!!

And how about this: Every day, the evening newscast of the France 2 public TV station is subtitled into English for the US market (???). Yesterday, whoever was doing the translation let his incompetence, subconscious or anti-Sarkozy political opinions appear on screen.

Sarkozy was saying: “I invite all of the people of France (…) to rally around me”.
The translator wrote: “(…) to rally my inflated ego”.

25. April 2007 by sknob
Destination: Lost in translation, Surfin', User Interface Design | Leave a comment

The Woof Commences Now

So Microsoft is said to have a half-billion dollar budget to advertise its new Windows Vista operating system.

And they came up with the following, inspiring slogan: “The Wow Starts Now”, next to the new, rounded Windows “Start” button.

Umm, OK.

I couldn’t help remembering that when the first iMac came out, you know, the blue, bubble-shaped original iMac, that’s what Apple used on its Web site: A nice picture of the UFO-like iMac, and the word Wow.

Either it’s a coincidence (the original iMac came out in 1998), or the lucky ad agency is making a comfortable profit.

Besides, the iMac was a true departure from the status quo. It wasn’t beige, it wasn’t rectangular, it didn’t even have a floppy-disk drive for god’s sake!

Vista, on the other hand, brings you a brand new shiny, over-the-top graphical user-interface, Aero (a bad-taste copy of Apple’s Mac OS X graphical user-interface, Aqua) but not much else. It requires a recent PC (or Mac), and has some embarrassing compatibility problems (like not being able to run Microsoft’s own XP help files).

It was supposed to be a radically new OS under the hood, but after several years of delays, all the revolutionary under-the-hood stuff was jettisoned. It may be better than Windows XP, but that’s not saying much. And in some ways, it’s worse. Much worse.

Anyway, let me get to the point. the other day, strolling by the PC City store in my (Parisian) neighborhood, I noticed a French version of the slogan on a big Vista poster.

They translated “Wow” into “Wouah”. “Wow” doesn’t exist in French, so they came up with a bad phonetic equivalent which is hard to parse. Remove the leading “W” and you get “Ouah”, the French translation of “Woof”, the barking of a dog.

And they translated the rest of the slogan, to “L’expérience ‘Wouah’ commence maintenant. Now, that “commence” is an unfortunate choice, because the Windows “Start” button is labeled “Démarrer” in the French version of Windows, and not “Commencer”.

To be fair, most Ad agencies use Macs, so maybe they failed to catch the reference, and went with what sounded good. But what about Microsoft France? Didn’t they notice?

Or maybe I’m reading too much into the use of the word “Start”. Maybe the reference to the Start button was unintentional in the English version, in which case the French version is fine.

It’s just that I would have thought that half a Billion dollars would at least buy you a pun.

08. March 2007 by sknob
Destination: Geekiness, Lost in translation, Surfin', User Interface Design | Leave a comment

Best of one world, worst of the other

For my translation work, 90% of the time, I have to use a specialized translation software package by TRADOS (basically, it’s a database system that stores pairs of orginal and translated phrases, and speeds up translation work by making it possible to translate repetitive text only once). This is Windows-only software, and even though it has existed for well over a decade, is just a horrible piece of shit. It does what it is supposed to do, but slowly, and with pitiful to infuriating “ergonomics” (even by Windows standards). Still, it’s the “industry-standard” and my customers require me to use it.

I’ve been running TRADOS under Windows 2000, installed on VirtualPC, which emulates a whole PC, on my iMac G5. Phew! Considering the huge overhead of emulating an Intel processor on a PowerPC Macintosh, it’s a surprisingly usable solution. But as I said, TRADOS is a sloth even on a fast PC so the combination really slows me down when I have to translate multi-megabyte Word files etc.

So late last year, I started thinking I should buy a PC, preferably a laptop, to do my translating. As I started pondering this, with sad resignation, the incredible news hit the airwaves: Apple was switching it’s entire Macintosh line from the PowerPC to the Intel architecture. It quickly became clear that the only (albeit HUGE) difference between a Mac and a PC would be the Operating System (if you don’t care about the hardware design). This meant that in theory, Macs could run Windows. So I decided to hold off on buying that PC and toughing it out with my VirtualPC/iMac G5 combo. I would wait for the Intel-based successor to the iBook (the “consumer”, $1000 Mac laptop) to come out. By then, solutions would probably exist to run Windows “on top” of Mac OS X, like VirtualPC did, but this time without the emulation layer, i.e. at native Windows speeds.

Well, the MacBook, the iBook successor, came out about a month ago and it is a very appealing machine.

In the interim, Apple released a free utility called BootCamp that allows you to boot either into Mac OS X, either into Windows XP. Microsoft, who bought up VirtualPC a few years ago, merely said they were exploring the possibility of porting VirtualPC to the Intel Mac. But a relatively obscure company (to Mac users anyway) beat them to market with a similar product, Parallels Desktop, which allows Mac OS X to host pretty much any PC OS, including Windows, at native speeds (except for graphics, but I’m no gamer so I don’t care), with cut and paste and file sharing between the two environments working concurrently. This is exactly what I need, because I run Trados on Windows, and everything else on Mac OS X!

This detailed review compares the two alternatives in some depth, with many little videos.

The irony is that general-purpose Mac software that hasn’t been ported to the Intel architecture now runs in a transparent emulation layer, Rosetta, with their PowerPC code being translated on the fly to Intel code, much the way VirtualPC converted Intel code to PowerPC code on my iMac G5. (More specialzed software, like many of my music-making tools, doesn’t work with Apple’s emulation system, and has to be ported, so for now, I’m hanging on to my iMac G5 for music-making).

So with all the pieces of the puzzle in place, and with some trepidation, I bit the bullet last week and ordered a MacBook, which I expect to receive next week. I already have my copy of Parallels and Windows XP (shudder!) ready to install.

I’ll let you know how it goes.

17. June 2006 by sknob
Destination: Geekiness, Lost in translation | Leave a comment

episode iii, the backstroke of the west

A little translation humor that should amuse Star Wars fans and others… Sub-titles translated from English into Chinese and then back into English (by a machine?) : episode iii, the backstroke of the west

09. August 2005 by sknob
Destination: Lost in translation, Surfin' | Leave a comment

Coming up for air

Haven’t had any time for sknoblog or any other artistic activity lately. I’ve been doing software localization and translation work to feed the kiddies. Most translation work in the Internet age is outsourced by software companies to China and India, and translation rates have fallen dramatically (generally to a few lousy cents per source-language word). Thankfully, most of these Chinese and Indian agencies understand that translations need to be done by native speakers of the target language, so the work makes it back to France. But to pay the rent, you have to be able to translate a lot of words each day.

I used to have a handsomely-paid job before the iBubble burst, and even though I had more money than I needed, boy was I miserable. I had to manage dozens of people, which meant inspiring confidence on the worksite, and questioning the legitimacy of my role back home. As a manager, I was also supposed to close ranks with top management, but I ended up clashing with them constantly instead, and defending the work conditions of the people I managed. As a general rule, top management is only interested in doing a good job if it serves their selfish, political purposes. I was just interested in getting the job done right, without anyone getting hurt in the process. At first, because I delivered on time and on spec, I earned myself a lot of corporate credit, but when it became clear that I wasn’t deliberately aiming for corporate advancement, I was dismissed as a pitiful slob, with no ambition and no better than any other working stiff.

Also, having worked on cutting-edge multimedia projects in my job before that (the worlds’ first QuickTime VR CD-ROM for Apple, the worlds’ first interactive video DVD-ROM for Intel, etc.), and having published my own multimedia creations, how was I supposed to get excited about creating boring websites for huge corporations? How do you not laugh or puke when you meet a twenty-something product manager for a margarine, who waxes poetic about his product, tears of emotion welling up in his eyes, much like a curator speaking of the art hanging on his gallery walls?

So when the opportunity arose to get out, with a little parachute, I jumped!

I then worked for a couple of years on a secret project before my cash started to run out, which is when I turned to translating (a long time ago, I used to work for US software companies, and at the heart of my mission was getting stuff translated into French. So I started contacting translators I used to work with, and voilà).

I actually enjoy translating. Even though it can be tedious, it is an intellectual affair, and translating software is a problem-solving activity–which is something I strive on–because often times, you have bits of text that are out of context that don’t make sense, and you have to deduce what is going on as you go along. On some occasions, it can even be a creative or aesthetic affair that provides some “artistic” satisfaction. And I can work in my jammies, listening to my favorite music, and I can organise my time any way I want, and pick up my daughter at school every day. The only downside (apart from the comparatively lousy money), is that like any other “independent” worker, I never know where my next job will be coming from, or even if there will be a next job…

So this may be my fate for the foreseeable future, even though miraculously, the secret project refuses to die…

And for the first time in my life, I would actually be able to play my music live, in front of a hypothetical audience (having learned to play some of it on the guitar), so should the opportunity arise, I’m ready.

17. June 2005 by sknob
Destination: Lost in translation, Making Music, Multimedia Authoring, User Interface Design | Comments Off