How MOOCs can benefit translators – and translation buyers too

Academic capIf asked which attributes are typically expected of translators, most people would probably say that outstanding language skills are a must. And, of course, they’d be right – professional translators dedicate many years to perfecting their proficiency in at least one foreign language as well as their command of their native language. But translators also have to be knowledgeable about the various subjects associated with the texts they translate. This means they need excellent research skills and a willingness to learn new material relevant to their areas of specialisation. It’s precisely because of this occupational need to combine linguistic prowess and subject-specific knowledge that MOOCs, the latest development in e-learning, are such a welcome opportunity for translators. But what is a MOOC?

MOOCs – or massive open online courses – enable anyone with an internet connection to take courses in subjects ranging from computing to medicine. Usually free of charge, MOOCs are offered by universities from all over the world, including institutions such as Harvard, Yale, MIT and Stanford. The courses are delivered in conjunction with external providers such as Coursera, edX, iversity and FutureLearn. This is great news for translators looking to keep up to date with the latest developments in their areas of specialisation or even develop new specialisms through independent study. For example, a translator who focuses on IT or software localisation might choose to take, say, a software engineering course on edX to become more familiar with the latest thinking in that field. The even better news for translators is that it’s often possible to find a number of MOOCs on a particular subject in different languages. For example, Coursera currently has a French MOOC on finance by HEC Paris and another course on finance by the University of Michigan in English.

The exponential growth in the number of MOOCs over the past few years has given translators a great way of keeping up with the latest ideas and terminology in their areas of specialisation. What’s more, they can do so at minimal cost and in multiple languages too. But MOOCs don’t just benefit translators. Translation buyers can now look forward to having their texts translated by professional linguists who, at the click of a mouse, can access the latest thinking in a huge variety of subject areas with tuition provided by experts from the world’s leading universities.

Have you ever taken a MOOC? Tell us about your experience!


How do you know if a translation is accurate?

RightYou’ve sent a text off for translation, received the final version back from the translator or agency, so it’s just time to hit publish or print, and then to sit back and wait for responses to roll in…

At this point, if you’re unlucky, the first indication that something has gone wrong may be when a reader points out a fault with the translated text. It shouldn’t ever have to come to this, so here are a few options for checking the accuracy of your translated text.

1) Obvious as it sounds, the first thing you should do is find a native speaker (if you aren’t one yourself) to read through the text carefully. Not all translation mistakes are mistranslations; it can be the case that a translated text is technically accurate, but sounds odd, or reads clumsily. This is particularly true for spelling mistakes and grammatical errors, so don’t forget to take a good hard look at translated texts.

2) Proofreading by another translator will weed out errors, if there are any. Yestrans offers proofreading services as an optional extra or standalone service; get in touch if you’d like a quote. Our basic service always includes thorough proofreading by the translator, but we would always recommend proofreading by a second translator for the best quality.

3) Back-translation is the process of reworking an already translated document, back into the original language. Obviously this method could effectively double your costs (in time as well as money!), but in some situations it is the right way to go. The output is never likely to be identical to the original document, but the meaning should clearly be the same. If you find yourself in need of a back-translation, let us know.

Have you had any amusing or awful experiences with mistakes in translation? What do you wish you had done differently?

What’s in a name? Getting your brand on the road to success in a foreign market

traffic conesThe road to getting your brand established in a foreign market often requires you to steer your way past the pitfalls posed by linguistic and cultural differences. Failing to take these factors into account when marketing a product internationally can harm your brand’s credibility among consumers. So, when moving your brand across the language border, it’s definitely worth giving some thought to how your brand or product names might be received by consumers in your target market. After all, as many companies have found out the hard way, a name that has a delightfully evocative ring to it in one language may – when introduced to speakers of another language – mean something else entirely.

Take the example of American Motors, which – in light of the social unrest in early 1970s America – decided to abandon the name “Rebel” for its mid-size car in favour of the name “Matador”, which was meant to suggest virility and excitement. This appeared to make sense – at least as far as English-speaking consumers were concerned. But when the company introduced the car to the Puerto Rican market, it seems the name was less well received among the country’s Spanish-speaking consumers. Why? Turns out that, in Puerto Rico, the word “matador” can be taken to mean “killer” – a rather unfortunate connotation for Puerto Ricans concerned about safety on the roads.

Another example – also from the car industry – is that of the Rolls Royce Silver Shadow. This luxury car was originally supposed to be named “Silver Mist”, but when the company realised that the word “Mist” in German means “manure”, it was concerned that this name might not appeal to consumers in the lucrative German market. Ultimately, Rolls Royce chose the name “Silver Shadow”. A wise move, as it turns out: the Silver Shadow went on to be one of the most successful models ever produced by the company.

As these automotive anecdotes show, it pays to do some research into the language and culture of the country where you plan to do business. If your brand or product name would cause confusion, embarrassment or offence in the foreign market, you’ll need to consider adapting it.

Have you encountered any odd-sounding brand or product names that really ought to have been more suitably adapted for the target market? Let us know!

Serious about growing your company? It’s all about export.

Euro globeA recent survey by Lloyds Bank found that a majority of medium-sized companies are not exporting and not intending to. The results have met with consternation, as it is widely accepted that increased exports are the key to sustainable economic success for the country – and for your company too. In an effort to boost exports out of the UK, the Government is even running a week of regional events designed to inspire and support all kinds of businesses looking to start trading abroad.

Once you have decided to take the plunge, it would be easy to think that success in your home market can simply be replicated abroad; in fact, you should take a more bespoke approach. A new market is almost like a new business, and it requires its own business model, and dedicated investment too. What you will take from your UK success is plenty of learned experience, and a solid base to strike out from. And if you do it right, you may reach the point where your new market becomes your core market.

You are likely to feel some trepidation in approaching a market without contacts, and perhaps unsure of where to find them; this is an area where you can make the most of the UK Government’s enthusiasm for exports. Your first stop should be at UKTI (UK Trade & Investment), the government department charged with improving overseas trade, where you can find a wealth of information. Their online portal has loads of free advice, and the chance to talk to an export adviser for advice tailored to your sector and your target market.

Having got as much help as possible before looking overseas, the next smart move is to forge a relationship with UK trade commissioners in the countries you wish to target: they can share unparalleled expertise in the local market, and probably get you started with building a network of your own, as well as the key legal and trading requirements.

If you think it’s time to think about exporting – while so many of your competitors aren’t doing so – take a look at, and keep an eye out for Export Week events in your area, 10-14 November.

How I DIDN’T become an interpreter – Luca Dini, Editor-in-Chief of Vanity Fair Italy

We are delighted to bring you this post by guest Luca Dini, about his love of language and how the academic steps he took to indulge it, actually led him onto a different path. Translated from the Italian by our visiting team member Giulia, who was inspired by his words. If you’re inspired too, you can follow his Italian blog here.

The initial impact had been that of the Language Lab and, thinking about it now, it was significant. It was the summer of 1983 when I set foot for the first time in that cubbyhole with scraped chairs, room dividers made of plywood and huge tapes that the meticulous technician entrusted you with against his better judgement; it was as if they were his own sons. It was on the first floor of the grey, shallow building that had once been a jute sacks factory, among the suburban traffic of via D’Alviano and the motionless cranes of the already declining boatyards of Trieste.

I had gone there to apply for the admission test, and to collect at the administrative office what little preparatory materials there were available – at the time you couldn’t apply online; you couldn’t do anything online: you had to be there in person, everything travelled by word of mouth and on the stencil and via train – so I had taken advantage of that occasion to do a bit of training at the Language Lab. I was dreaming of entering the School that at the time guaranteed (and maybe it still does) the best linguistic education of the entire Italian university system – the legendary (at least it was for us “language nuts”) School for Interpreters and Translators of Trieste. It was believed to be the only possible springboard to the famous simultaneous translation booths of that Parliament that seemed so out-of-sight and noble – and I was finding out with surprise that it wasn’t much more well-equipped (and was even less attractive) than my High School, where Professor Sisti made us repeat French nasal vowels at the record player, “Le vent était violant”, while, outside the window panes plastered with play dough, the snow covered Urbino’s red roofs.

That was the first of many times that I verified that you can’t judge a book by its cover, and that it doesn’t matter how many electronic boards you own or how much money you have or how many clothes there are in your closet; the things that matter are your will, your work and your “hunger”.


The hunger had begun more or less ten years earlier. It all began at the time when I used to pass my summer afternoons at the Roman architect’s holiday home, and his children had an Irish au pair, Sally. I envied them so much not because they had three houses; not because at lunchtime they could have mustard, which in my house was forbidden; but because they could understand Sally when she called them from the window for tea break saying “cumwoshyrrandz”. I had that sentence so impressed into my mind that, when I began studying English at Middle School, it didn’t take long for me to figure it out: “come wash your hands”.

Only people who love languages like I did and I do can understand this. It’s the sleepless night before your first trip abroad as a child (Yugoslavia, Postojna Cave). It’s the “cummontappeltoo” dictated by your mum and written with a pencil on a piece of paper just to ask the neighbours’ French relative, “What’s your name?” It’s the happiness of finding out that there’s a new special option to study two foreign languages at your Middle School. It’s the natural choice of continuing your studies at the Language College. It’s loving the dictionary. It’s the enthusiasm of the first experiences as an exchange student (although they were certainly all happy experiences): 14 years old: at Pierre’s, a little jerk from the French Savoy that switched off the television when Italy won the football championship; 15 years old: at Andreas’ – a bearded alcoholic from the German Saarland who talked incessantly about the “cruel Italians” who used to eat birds during the Second World War, but gave me an absent look when I, exasperated, replied “extermination camps, does that ring a bell?” (because we language nuts are xenophiles, but also patriots); 16 years old: at Andrew’s, in the Hampshire countryside, where I found an extraordinary family that has become and will always be like a second family to me. It’s the utter happiness felt during your first fluent conversation in a foreign language. It’s discovering, and beginning to use, words such as “vachement” and “weltschmerz”. It’s the translated words you find written in tiny handwriting in between the lines of the Agatha Christie books in the original edition. It’s the worst travel and overnight stay ever, in Bologna, in an ugly boarding house (worse than the one for the military visit in Forlì), to do the Cambridge First Certificate exam. It’s the disappointment of not being able to pass my fourth year of High School in the USA.

And then you hear from the daughter of the other class’ English teacher about that legendary School. They tell you that it’s almost impossible to get in, that the admission test is lethal, but – partly because the hunger consumes and you know you won’t be happy if you don’t study languages, partly because you are at that age when you see only the glamorous side of a job, so you think that being a hostess means travelling, and being an interpreter means putting on headphones and helping people bring peace to the world – you decide that you have to try anyway.

So, after finishing school, you go on a pilgrimage to Trieste to apply for the test, you set foot in that Language Lab, you meet your first acquaintance – Luciano, who was to become one of my 5 best friends in the world – you go back home, you dedicate a couple of hours a day to the subtleties of French (which I knew better than English, so I thought I had more chance with it) and English (which I preferred), and in September you go back to Trieste for the admission test. Your sigh of relief when you recognize all the traps in the old French text: “tiré à quatre épingles”, which means “all gussied up”, but was translated by some as “pulled by four boars”, and “gare au cocher qui ose…”, which means “attention to the coachman that dares…” but the usual brave one opted for “the pig station”; and I swear it’s all true. You wonder who the hell the “vecchia procaccia” is in the Ignazio Silone’s passage for translation from English into Italian, and from the context you understand it might be the postman, but you are deceived by the feminine gender, so you translate “the old postwoman”; but it must have been a small mistake because two weeks later you call the University of Trieste to find out the results and you find out that there are clean and rigorous selections in Italy too. You will never again see those two or three losers that had told you “I’m recommended by a politician, it’s better for you just to give up – you can only get into the School if you know someone already”. When the administrative office tells you that you passed your exam in both languauges, well, that’s an unforgettable moment of pure joy, a bright future awaits you.


The Trieste experience – besides an initial misunderstanding with what would become my most beloved city, and a little incident along the way with a very strict and slightly crazy landlady who let pigeons into the kitchen but woe betide me if I tried to bring a friend across the threshold (later, I found out why: she was the old prostitute of the neighbourhood and didn’t like to chat) – was absolutely amazing. It’s a bit like developing a disease one day and finding out that you’re not the only one who has it, the next. Suddenly you find yourself among a group of people that compete in WhoHasTheBiggestDictionary and love holding discourse on phrasal verbs. You, an 18-year-old boy, find yourself away from home, among many other young students (foreign students included) as far from home as you are. You understand that Sundays without your mum’s roast are sad. The two weeks left before going back home seem infinite when you’ve run out of money, but you know the friends who still live with their parents – the ones that have lunch every day with their families, and sleep every night in a comfortable bed with clean sheets – miss out on far more things than you do.

But everybody who has experienced distance learning knows that. Besides wonderful friends, nights passed studying, nights passed talking, and meeting the love of my life, what else did Trieste give me?

Trieste, after four very stressful years (compulsory attendance, fifty exams plus the final exam, the viva and the specialist qualification; and when I say stressful, trust me on this, it’s not nice to be afraid of losing an entire year in five minutes during the simultaneous translation exam because you know something about milk quotas, but you don’t know the translation of “rennet”), gave me everything it had promised: a translator diploma and a degree in interpreting. I’ve done translation, I’ve loved translation, and I would love it again. I have studied and obtained a degree in Interpreting. I’ve trained in Consecutive Interpreting: it’s the kind of interpreting you use during negotiations, bilateral meetings and small delegations, and it consists of listening to part of a speech, taking notes, and then translating the entire part using your own personal and crazy symbols system (I still use some of the symbols), that can be read in every language, because symbols convey meaning, not words. I did Consecutive Interpreting professionally sometimes, and liked it a lot. A brief anecdote: at the end of a meeting in Friuli with a delegation of Spanish doctors I took a trip to the toilet, then, when I needed to get out, I realised I was locked in, so I took the emergency exit (the kind of exit that closes automatically behind you and you cannot open it again) and I found myself on a construction site, between stray dogs. I was behind a grating with my briefcase and the synthetic jacket I had bought for my first job, and I had to scream for the attention of a traffic warden who had me freed. But there wasn’t enough demand for Consecutive Interpreting. Everybody wanted – and still wants, I suppose – Simultaneous Interpreting with headphones. I liked that far less, because I am a perfectionist, and to translate into decent Italian I left an exaggerated décalage (the temporal shift between the original and the translation), so I was then forced to do exhausting run-ups, until I decided that it wasn’t the job for me. Laura Gran, my super-zen teacher, used to tell me: you’ll get used to it, it will become second nature to you, in Strasbourg we translate while knitting; it might be because I can’t knit, but I have never achieved that elusive “second nature”.

Even more than professional expertise, Trieste gave me an environment where, potentially, there were more unqualified teachers than qualified ones, but where motivation – the “hunger” mentioned above – was so strong that you could learn something useful even from the dullest lectures. It gave me the unforgettable English lectures of the terrible Professor Snelling, who told us that using one word fewer is better than using one word more. It gave me the pleasure of choosing the right words, playing with their musicality and their shades of meaning. It gave me the habit of communicating as if it were my second nature. It gave me the ability of knowing something about many different fields; of course it wasn’t a very deep knowledge, but I have almost never been completely in the dark. In other words, it laid – without my knowledge – the path towards my calling, even though I didn’t know it at the time: journalism. I know the same has happened to plenty of other people too, for other jobs.

So, with the sole exception of a tiring and useless English-Italian thesis-glossary on bridges made with prestressed reinforced concrete, that cost me a year and now lies untouched in the library of the beautiful new location of the SSLMIT, if I could go back, I wouldn’t change a thing.

Why lateral – rather than literal – thinking is the key to translating marketing communications

cupcake with cherryIf you want your marketing messages to have the same kind of impact on your foreign audience as they do in your domestic market, you can rarely rely on a straightforward literal translation. Say you use the phrase “the icing on the cake” to tell customers about that extra-special finishing touch you’ve added to your product or service. If you want to translate the same phrase unambiguously into French, however, it’s worth bearing in mind that in France it seems to be the cherry – and not so much the icing – that counts. The French tend to say “la cerise sur le gâteau”, which literally means “the cherry on the cake”, to describe that additional special something. Moving away from the culinary setting altogether, a German might use the phrase “das Tüpfelchen auf dem i” (“the dot on the [letter] i”) when referring to the same thing.

What these examples show is that different languages often have their own distinctive ways of expressing the same idea. If you want to communicate clearly and effectively in a foreign language, you need to be aware of these kinds of differences – and a literal translation in many cases just won’t do.

When adapting the tone of voice of your marketing communication to suit your target audience, it’s vital that the translation of your message takes into account the linguistic and cultural norms of the foreign market. To take one example – it’s quite normal for German advertising copy to encourage readers to “convince themselves” of the merits of a given product or service with a phrase such as “überzeugen Sie sich selbst davon!” Yet, such a command – if translated literally into English as “convince yourself about it!” – might well elicit an indignant response from, say, British or American readers. A freer translation along the lines of “why not see for yourself…” would be more in keeping with Anglo-American cultural expectations. A good translator will be aware of these kinds of intercultural differences and think laterally – rather than literally – to get your message across in the way you intended.

What other factors do you consider important when it comes to getting across your marketing message internationally?

Skype Translator – looks can be deceiving

Skype is the latest company to reveal its attempt at machine translation as a helpful, language-barrier-breaking tool. The demo video looks great – unless, that is, you can speak German. On the surface, Skype’s prototype of its translation tool looks fantastic. Most of the translated English subtitles seem adequate, if not especially accurate. You can also see the Skype expert chatting away, the translated German subtitles appearing, and the German-speaking woman seemingly understanding them. However, all is not as it seems. The German woman is talking painstakingly slowly – nobody would speak that slowly or pronounce their words so clearly in a real conversation – and she isn’t speaking with a regional accent or using slang.  She’s also using simplified sentences that often sound very similar to their English equivalents (see the first screenshot below). Given all this, it’s not that surprising that the English subtitles are pretty decent.

“Hallo mein Freund” = “Hello my friend”. Perfectly accurate translation.

Hallo mein Freund” = “Hello my friend”. Perfectly accurate translation.

“Ist es wahr dass du bald nach London umziehst?” should be “Is it true that you will be moving to London soon?” – close but no cigar.

“Ist es wahr dass du bald nach London umziehst?” should be “Is it true that you will be moving to London soon?” Not perfect, but you know what she means.

The man speaking English, on the other hand, is talking quickly and has a regional accent. He also isn’t taking adequate breaks to let the subtitles appear, and is using idioms that won’t translate literally into German. The German subtitles that the woman is reading are nothing but a word-for-word translation of the English, so they don’t make a lot of sense in German.

Literal translation of the German subtitles: “also Skype has its headquarters in London. So I want to be closer my team and you are. Right. Indian food is fantastic. I have some fantastic restaurants there is told”

Literal translation of the German subtitles: “also Skype has its headquarters in London. So I want to be closer my team and you are. Right. Indian food is fantastic. I have some fantastic restaurants there is told”

Literal translation of the German subtitles: “So what the things. So, what spends you in the USA additionally, of course helps me with this demo?”

Literal translation of the German subtitles: “So what the things. So, what spends you in the USA additionally, of course helps me with this demo?”

Although this demo seems great to the untrained eye, Yestrans doesn’t recommend using this tool with international clients in a business setting just yet. It’s an amazing piece of technology with a lot of potential – but it doesn’t work well enough yet to be sure that your message is getting across. Google translate can work some of the time but can’t be relied upon to be accurate when it counts. The same seems to apply here: the technology is good, and can be useful, but isn’t yet at the right level to deliver consistent and accurate results.