Sometimes ngrams make life so easy

Coming across the English word “biofouling” italicized in a French text raised a translator’s hackle: my instinct was to translate this as “marine fouling.” But, as the following ngram makes clear, I would have been wrong about this, as the terminology is evidently evolving in English too:

So biofouling it is!

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Lecture notes on internet method N° 1744

As a general artistic rule (which I acquired in the late ‘nineties), when some large organisation starts to talk about devising an ontology, you should definitely run away. Top-down attempts to impose language and structure on a varied ecosystem of independent structures are generally doomed. The only exception to this rule is if you are a highly paid consultant being paid to produce said ontology, in which case, I suppose, good luck to you, though as this is generally public money, perhaps it is wrong to be sanguine even about this.

The thing is, without some sort of information system that enables the linking of grants, researchers, and articles, it’s hard for the public (and policymakers) to get a handle on what’s going on. There weren’t quite oohs and aahs at yesterday’s Deuxième Labo meeting as a speaker demonstrated the UK Research Councils gateway, but I think I did detect a frisson of jealousy and grudging respect.

Audience at ParisTech meeting on profile of French research

Audience at ParisTech meeting on profile of French research, 11 May 2015. ESPCI ParisTech

That the French system is apparently failing to achieve this seems to derive from the usual variety of problems: no-one in the room seemed capable of making a frank ideological statement in favour of openness; nor of the pragmatic reasons why openness speeds research progress. The overriding preoccupation of the room was with the data relating to the grants and salaries received by researchers. This perhaps reflects the concerns of the meeting—about the data about research, not the data from research—but the impression was of managers of unwieldily large groupings (“77 universities and 95 research institutions”) trying to create top-down structures, and failing to gain traction.

A cursory glance at the UK process suggests that their success was achieved by one of the research councils engaging a software start-up to produce the initial system. Its product then attracted other funders, who then chose to migrate to it.

I sensed that there was still a resistance amongst this very establishment group to learning the lessons of the web, namely, that simple, popular standards are more valuable than exhaustive standards (cf JSON vs XML); that if a first-mover has gained advantage you may just have to suck it up (“If you can’t beat ’em, join ’em”); the “not invented here” syndrome; violation of the “rough consensus and running code” principle and so on. The ORCID system for labelling each individual researcher was not mentioned once, until I piped up in the questions. Nor were clear use case scenarios presented. Ho hum!

And, I’m afraid, as is all too common in French academic circles, the meeting started 15 minutes late, and then overran by 45 minutes, which, as a hungry man with a train to catch, annoyed me more than it usually does.

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On the difficulty of bilingual blogging

I’ve been shamefully reluctant to post here, principally because of the rod I’ve set for my own back of maintaining this blog in bilingual form. My original inspiration was the marvellous Céline Graciet. But in attempting to follow her example, I have found the prospect of producing regular EN>FR translations to professional standard a great inhibition to producing even the English text!

I’d been guarding all this as a shameful secret (though my EN blogging continues happily enough), but since I read Ian Monk’s excellent piece Self-translation/Self-destruction I’ve been feeling a lot better about the difficulty. After the obligatory nod to the supreme auto-traducteur Samuel Beckett, Monk writes:

While translating someone else can be a fascinating form of “creation,” which entails grasping a text as closely as possible, then “making” another language “say the same thing,” the entire creative process has already been gone through in great depth when writing a given text for the first time. Recreating it in another language is thus not only tedious, but strangely “artificial,” and the result quite often abortive, while someone else could well have breathed new life into [it] and made it live again happily in its new linguistic world… Years later, I still write in English and French. (Why one, then the other? Sorry, that’s quite another story.) And I still translate. But never, if it can be helped, myself.

Also, producing a bilingual blog uses (and fatigues) exactly the same parts of the brain as does my FR>EN translation and EN editing work, so (happily!) silence here also reflects the fact that I’m usually busy enough doing the paid work that is now coming in regularly enough for me not to worry too much about “marketing myself online.”

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To the business fair

Douglas CARNALL meets Olivier BRETON at the Salon d'Entrepreneurs in Nantes, 21 November 2012

Douglas CARNALL meets Olivier BRETON at the Salon d'Entrepreneurs in Nantes, 21 November 2012

Being an auto-entrepreneur means invitations to various business seminars and fairs regularly arrive by post and email. I’m somewhat allergic to “business” per se, but the conventional wisdom is that finding direct clients is the key to success as a translator. And it’s quite fun to don a suit and hustle round some exhibition booths indulging in the pleasant game of business card exchange.
I went to a couple of talks to keep my ear in. I’m sure you’ll be pleased to know the French talent for obscuring any topic behind a palisade of incomprehensible acronyms has not diminished. If I relocate to Sarthe (72) I can get my rent subsidised for a couple of years, and various loans at very favourable interest rates. If I employ someone who’s been unemployed for a long time, a troubled inner city youth, a disabled person, or can represent my activity as good for the environment, ditto. All this seems very sensible policy, but it’s not really my principal concern.
As I suspected, most of the businesses and organisations represented were either squarely parochial or long-established multinationals: in general the former have little need for language services and the latter are already doing business with a translation house of commensurate scale.
I talked to a few software providers about my own requirements for billing software that supports multiple currencies (answer: that’s gonna cost ya), received an offer from Loire-Atlantique’s premier business newsletter should I wish to do direct mail marketing, agreed to be interviewed by some business students about being “an entrepreneur,” and met a lovely booth rep who aspires to be a UN conference interpreter. All very pleasant and sociable, but I was beginning to be a little disheartened to not even have found one new client, when I ran into Olivier Breton (pictured). That bike of his looks wacky, but in fact it’s a very comfortable riding position (I tried it). And he needs some T&Cs translating into English. Hoorah!

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Two bilingual texts to admire

One naive imagination I held which has been cruelly shattered is that I would be able to advertise my talents merely by linking to the work that I have done when it is published online. Of course, such projects are the exception not the rule: naturally I have to guard the majority of the work I have done—on individuals’ medical and psychological casenotes—in strict confidence.
However, two articles I have translated have now appeared online in bilingual form, and it is a great pleasure to link to them. Both are by my client Youmna Ovazza, a mover and shaker in the digitization of French businesses in the brave new world of social networking online. The first, On Community Management, is an interesting reflection on how Web 2.0 wreaks change on the organisation of companies’ relations with customers and the wider public; and the second, on Sustainable Management, reflects on her experiences managing the companies and teams who do this. As on this blog, you can toggle between the English and French versions on her site, which might be fun for you, if you like that sort of thing.
The appearance of these translations is very satisfying. A text that you wrote, but did not write, appears before you on the screen. A most mysterious and miraculous phenomenon, and I trust that the results are a smooth and effortless read, which in no way reflects the considerable mental labour involved in their production.

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Developing a bilingual site using WordPress

Well, as you can see, there’s rather a nice little pair of flags to the right of this entry, which enable you to toggle between French and English. This feature comes thanks to the excellent qTranslate plugin for WordPress, which provides a reasonably comfortable framework for bilingual blogging. The install was straightforword, though it did introduce a little bug that temporarily trashed date formatting. The solution was easy to find: the qTranslate community are natural documenters it seems, and Google’s indexes had done their work.
A bilingual blog is more than twice the work, but it’s essential for the aspiring translator I think, and most educational.

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The rough school of online translation help

In my quest for at least enough prominence to earn a modest living, I participate in the KudoZ forums at Working translators pose tough terms for others to discuss and propose translations. Each accepted answer earns a few points, whose value is to enhance your ranking in searches for translators at the site.

I’ve got the site configured to send me the questions by email, and I try to respond quickly to those that are within my competence. By dint of an assiduous couple of months glued to my screen, I’ve finally amassed enough points to hit the front page! I rank 25 23 20 19 13 10 of 715 site members who translate from French to their native English with expertise in medicine.

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infrastructure update

I’m in rather a good mood with my technology today, after the recent hassles. The new laserwriter installed with only the minimum of configuration difficulty yesterday, and has been tested connected directly to the laptop and to the network. My recent travails with an update to Ubuntu 11.04 are over: I decided to revert to 10.10 for the time being, and normal service has been restored after several hours of mostly straightforward effort.

I’m now running LibreOffice 3.3.2 which is eight months newer than the default Ubuntu 10.10 install, and will hopefully prove more stable than its predecessor. Although I’m using Firefox 3.6.17 as I write this, I’m finding Chromium 11 very nice to use, especially in the limited screen real estate of the netbook: it’s definitely quicker than Firefox 3.x. I had a brief encounter with Firefox 4.0.1 and it did seem brisker, but I’ve also read comments that it’s a still a bit beta-ish round the edges, so I’m going to hold off the install for now.

And as you’re reading this, you’ll see that I’m finally getting round to hacking in WordPress: the import of the The Proceedings of Cabinet Beezer from was a real treat: a three-step click-click-click of a most wondrous kind.

The next step is to bi-lingualise the site, and it looks like there are various templates and plugins out there that should help considerably, e.g. qTranslate, so look out!

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Is proprietary translation support software worth it?

I’m a happy Ubuntu user, but the reality is that there are still a lot of Word files flying around in the commercial environment. A combination of Open Office and OmegaT seems to handle them quite well, but on my latest job I experienced a number of formatting difficulties that had to be corrected manually, which was both time-consuming and introduced a new potential source for error.

Open Office crashed on me recently, just as I was tweaking a final .docx file before sending it off. Its automated recovery process then recovered the file to a previous version, causing errors to be reintroduced that had already been corrected in a proofing stage. This was vexing, and required another round of corrections.

One obvious way to avoid such problems in future would be to use the industry standard proprietary solutions. I priced this today: Microsoft Office plus SDL Trados Studio 2009 would be at least 650 euros, a considerable overhead given prevailing market rates for translation.

The decision for the time being is to upgrade to the latest and greatest LibreOffice, and persist with OmegaT, but it’s under review. Version control problems caused by software crashes are most unwelcome.

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Running with the ProZ

I regularly update a list of significant projects on my professional profile at I recently paid for full membership to the site in order to bid for a job going by within my fields of interest: and landed it! Which was pleasing. The short test translation of 50 French words translated straight-forwardly into 38 words in English. The site announced ten bids for the job when I went back to look a few hours later, but it was my bid that received a return offer towards the end of the afternoon last Tuesday.

The work required the translation from the French to English of several abstracts and full papers for a specialist healthcare conference to be held later this year. Of the full papers, the longer was fully within the scope of my professional interests in health care and information technology; the other had some straight-forward clinical material, combined with some technical detail in a subject that I have to confess I had contemplated only in the most superficial way in the past.

The search for background information online to assist in my comprehension of this arcana was necessarily brisk, as the first tranche of the delivery had a deadline less than forty eight hours away. That slight hump surmounted, the deadline was easily met.

The longer paper, due last, has had its moments, as my dear old Aunt Margaret used to say, but I now have the comfortable satisfaction of a fair copy of the final draft circulating in-house for minor corrections fully 24 hours before I had initially planned to send it off, and 36 hours inside the deadline.

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