Wednesday, 9 January 2019

Terminology in the construction industry (German/English)

Terminology is more than just words. Dictionaries and glossaries are helpful, but often they do not tell us the whole story. Meaning always involves the context - not only the way the word is used within the sentence, but often also the social context in which the word is used in the country where the text originates. This is illustrated by a few terms that I have seen in the course of my translation work:
Baumeister - Entscheidungsvorlage - Decke 
Baurecht - Bestand - Erschließung
Baumeister
This is usually translated as “master builder”.
In Germany it is used mainly as a historic term for the architects and builders who created projects such as cathedrals, palaces or major public buildings. In many cases, the same person was responsible for the design, the planning and the construction work on the building site. In Germany the term was still used as an official qualification and job title until the 1980s. Now, it only survives in job titles in some regions, such as the “Regierungsbaumeister” as a grade in the civil service system or the “Dombaumeister”,  the person responsible for conservation and repairs in a large cathedral.
However, the term “Baumeister” still represents an official job title and professional qualification in Austria and Switzerland. It is an all-round qualification which includes building skills, engineering, architecture and design, detailed planning, legal knowledge, building and project management.
What about the English term “master builder”? It is also used historically for the all-round experts who worked as architects and builders in former centuries. Nowadays, the term is mainly used for high quality building contractor firms who join together to promote their services, e.g. through the Federation of Master Builders in the UK, the Registered Master Builder scheme in New Zealand and similar organisations in other English-speaking countries. However, there is a relatively new trend in English which is similar to the historical master builder model: the concept of “design build”. In projects based on the design/build concept, there is a single contractor which is responsible for both the design and the construction of the project. The modern “design build” idea originated in the 1960s, but it is very similar to the historical model. However, the focus is on the project itself and the team of specialists, not on the qualification of any individual person.
So where does this leave us as translators? As so often, it depends on the context and the purpose of the translation. To translate the German “Baumeister” we have two key terms - the traditional “master builder” and the modern “design build” concept. In each case, we must decide how these terms can be combined to give the best rendering in the specific context.

Entscheidungsvorlage
In construction projects this term refers to information or a report which is presented to the client or developer. It usually outlines the advantages, disadvantages and costs involved in various options for details in the building plans, so that the client can make an informed decision. Possible translations are “decision memo”, “decision paper” or “proposal”. One of my translation clients is designing a major building and uses the term “decision memo” to describe such reports. In this context, I find this a good solution.
In other contexts, however, it may be completely wrong. In governments, for example, the preparatory work by civil servants to help ministers draw up new legislation may be described as an “Entscheidungsvorlage”. In English this would probably be a “draft”, or perhaps a “draft bill”. In other contexts, “Entscheidungsvorlage” could be used for a “change request” in factory or office management processes, a “credit report” in banking, and so on.

Decke
The basic meaning of the word “Decke” in buildings is the “ceiling” in rooms. But in multi-storey buildings, the ceiling of one level is also the structural floor of the next level. In building descriptions, the term “Decke” is often used to refer to the concrete floor/ceiling slab in such buildings. In road construction the word “Decke” is also used for the top road surface. Therefore it is important to find out what the word actually refers to in context.

Baurecht
In general and legal texts this term may refer to building law as a branch of law. But in texts about specific building projects it usually means “planning permission” or a “building permit”. So the phrase “Baurecht beschaffen” means “obtaining a building permit”.

Bestand
This can refer to the pre-existing state of a building, an urban district, a facade, a wall, a floor or some other detail of the built environment. When used in texts about monument conservation or restoration it may mean the historical original condition - and sometimes the goal of the project is to restore a building so that it is as close as possible to the original. In other texts about functional refurbishment or construction it usually refers to the existing building, the existing urban context or similar.

Erschließung
Another deceptively simple term. A dictionary suggests development, access or opening up, but the actual use in construction-related texts is rather more complex.
When used in connection with a whole building or a building development area, the word may refer to the road traffic system leading to the property, the public transport system or the supply of infrastructure services such as electricity, water, sewers, gas or other facilities.
In a single building the word may refer to the points at which the building can be entered, i.e. the main entrance doors and any entry ramps or other entry points for vehicles, or to the pathways or entrance roads leading to these access points.
Within a building, especially in large commercial buildings, the term is also used for the features designed to enable movement within the building, such as lifts and stairs (for vertical access), corridors, and in some cases moving walkways.
Often, these different meanings can only be deduced from the context. The translation will usually include words such as access, development or entrance, but the translator must add other elements to explain what type of access, development or entrance is meant.

Wednesday, 12 October 2016

“We ran out of legs”

This sentence appeared this week in an Internet newspaper report. How would you translate it into other languages? Surely it can't be that difficult! Every word is short, and I'm sure you had no difficulty understanding any of the words. So what is the speaker trying to tell us?

I looked at various on-line machine translation engines to see how they would translate it into my second language, German.

I entered the English sentence “We ran out of legs." and found four different suggestions:
Wir liefen aus Beinen (Google Translate)
Wir rannten aus Beinen (Microsoft Translation)
Wir sind an Beinen knapp geworden (Promt online translator)
Wir hatten keine Beine mehr (Systranet)

So Google and Microsoft seem to think that Beinen (legs) is a place and that we left this place by running. Promt thinks that there is a shortage in the supply of legs, and Systranet says “We had no legs left”. I looked at a few other on-line translation websites, but I found that they had simply copied from one or more of the above sites.

Time for some context?
I found the above sentence in a BBC report on Tuesday's football match between Germany and Northern Ireland. The sentence was a quote from the Northern Ireland Manager Michael O'Neill: “In the last 20 minutes of the first half we had opportunities on the counter-attack and we could possibly have done a little bit better with those. We ran out of legs a little bit to threaten them.” So in context he is saying: our legs were tired, we weren't fit enough, we couldn't run fast enough. And it turns out that one of the on-line translations would actually work in a translation of the report (the one by Systranet), although in this case I suspect that this was more by accident than by design.

Easy if you know how?
Would you have understood the sentence from the outset if I had given you the context? I'm sure most of my readers would have had no problem, although some familiarity with football jargon (in this case the frequent metaphorical use of “legs”) would be helpful. But how would you fare if a report on a football match told you that one team had “parked the bus”? Or if the German report on the same game spoke of “Beton anmischen” (mixing concrete)? Would you instantly recognise that these images denote a densely packed defensive approach to the game? And how well would you understand the use of the word “leg” in another sporting context, such as cricket (leg before, leg sweep, leg spin, leg slip, leg side, short fine leg, leg boundary)?

The lesson for today
This very simple example sentence tells us a few things about translation.

1. Context is everything. Even a very simple sentence consisting of well-known words can be a complete mystery if you don't know the situation that it refers to.

2. Dictionaries will never catch up with usage. The way words are used is constantly changing, indeed they are often used in new and unique ways at the whim of the individual writer. Writing a dictionary is like trying to pin down a moving target.

3. Computers can only go so far. Humans are creative in the way they speak and write. If you use language creatively, I can normally understand you – as long as you do it in a language that I know well. But the computer hasn't a clue what we are talking about. The computer can recognise and manipulate patterns in the data, and some computer programs can do this very very well. But if our use of language goes off into uncharted territory, the computer is often up the creek without a paddle.

4. Subject knowledge is crucial. I can understand reports on football and cricket matches because I know the games and played them myself once upon a time. But show me a report about motorcycle speedway, deep sea diving or Mah Jong, and your guess is probably much much better than mine.
Applying this to my regular translation work: I have developed expertise in translating materials such as contracts, legal reports, court papers, architectural descriptions, building specifications and similar areas. I can understand what the writers are talking about in German, and this enables me to translate their texts into English. But I would be hopeless in subject areas such as cookery and textile design, and I am uncomfortable with medical texts.

5. There's more to it than meets the eye. Translation is a highly specialised skill, and most people don't understand what it involves. And to my translator friends and colleagues: I would suggest that you specialise, learn to understand your subject areas extremely well in all of your languages, and never forget that you are offering a specialised expert service.

Monday, 23 November 2015

Modern mass migration and “Christian values”



Many people in Europe and North America are worried about the current influx of migrants and refugees. One argument used by some of these people is the fear that the arrival of thousands of migrants from the Middle East will somehow erode “Christian values”. I wonder what Christian values they are talking about. Christmas will soon be upon us, and I stumbled on a couple of interesting incidents in the Bible narrative surrounding Christmas. So bear with me as I outline some of the “Christian values” which I see in the Christmas story.
“We three kings of Orient are ...”
In chapter 2 of Matthew’s gospel we read of “wise men” who arrived in Bethlehem from a country in the east, bringing gifts for the newly born Jesus, whom they described as the “new-born king of the Jews”. We are not told how many wise men there were, we merely read that they brought three extremely expensive gifts. The traditional interpretation in most churches is that there were three (and only three) of them, and that they were kings. This version is re-enacted in children’s plays in churches and schools throughout the western world. But the real surprise in the story lies elsewhere.
Cultural and religious misfits
Jesus was born as a Jew. The narrative of his birth, life, death and resurrection in the Bible is full of references to prophecies in the Jewish Scriptures, which churches refer to as the “Old Testament”. But the wise men from the East who came to pay their respects to the little baby were not familiar with the Jewish Scriptures. They got their information from watching the stars. They were not Jews, nor were they Christians. They were astrologists. Their cultural and religious background was completely different from the normal environment which is presented in the Bible. But in the biblical narrative, these differences are not emphasised at all. The central point of the Christmas story is the baby Jesus. People came from different social, cultural and religious backgrounds to honour him. The narrative in the Bible does not build walls between different world views. It simply points us to Jesus as a person.
Political crisis
However, the visit of the wise men did lead to immense political problems. This was because politicians heard about the “new-born king of the Jews” and felt threatened. The king of Judea at the time, Herod, wanted to solve the problem by killing the new baby. He tried to enlist the wise men as spies to help him. And when this intrigue failed, he massacred dozens of babies and toddlers. But he failed to kill Jesus. The narrative in Matthew’s gospel tells us that his father, Joseph, was forewarned in a dream, and that the family therefore fled to Egypt.
A refugee child in Egypt
So in his formative years Jesus lived for a while as a refugee in Egypt. The Bible does not tell us how long this lasted – perhaps a few months, perhaps two or three years. In our modern world, there are thousands upon thousands of refugee children, many of them from the Middle East. I wonder how it affects our “Christian values” if we remember that Jesus was in exactly the same situation. Today there are many refugees who have fled from Egypt looking for a safe place to live in another country. Some of them are now friends of mine in Germany. But in the days of Jesus, Egypt was apparently a safe country which was able to harbour those who were politically persecuted in other countries.
My personal “Christian values”
As a practising Christian, I consider it important to be friendly and tolerant to everybody, as far as this is possible. I am pleased to live in a country (Germany) in which many people say “Welcome” to refugees. I am pleased to be a member of a church which has open arms for people from other cultures. I am always happy to hear other languages around me, even when I can’t understand what people are saying.
What about the problems?
Of course there are problems. Managing the massive influx of hundreds of thousands of refugees, even in an affluent country like Germany, is an enormous task. I do not envy the politicians who have to find practical solutions on a day to day basis. And there will always be friction between people with different political and social opinions.
The important question for me is not whether we all agree in the issues of the day. My central concern is our underlying attitude. Are we willing to be open for everyone? Do we want to build walls between people, or do we want to build bridges? We need to know what we want before we can start arguing about how to achieve it.

Wednesday, 21 May 2014

The (almost) speechless translator

It is estimated that there are over 7,000 languages in the world. As a translator, this brings me down to earth. I can communicate properly in just two of these languages (English and German), with a reasonable reading level in one more (French). I know a few isolated words in one or two other languages, but I would not be capable of holding a conversation in any of them. This means that I am speechless in 99.9996% of the world’s languages.
This is underlined whenever I travel to a country where one of these 99.9996% of languages is spoken. Over recent years I have had language adventures in Italy, Mexico, Spain, Kenya, Turkey, Iceland and Israel. In all of these countries I am dependent on people who speak an “international” language. Usually this is my native English, sometimes my adopted German.
On my latest international holiday earlier this month, I was intrigued by this road sign, and I still don’t know what the author wants me to do:
I also found it challenging to cope with this parking ticket machine in Jerusalem:
However, in my experience Israel was usually good at catering for multilingual needs, and traffic signs and road names were usually given in three languages:




In some cases, monolingual Hebrew signs were supported by pictograms, and in a few cases pictograms were used without any text.



A special curiosity was this clock in the town of Zikhron Ya’akov, which uses the traditional numerical values which are expressed by using the first few letters of the Hebrew alphabet.
For the record, the clock shows half past one (1:30 or 13:30 hrs). Otherwise, I only saw western numerals in Israel – except on the automatic car park information signs in Tel Aviv, which show the number of free spaces in Hebrew numerals.


As a final remark, I was very encouraged by a sign that I saw in the small town of Mas’ada in the very north-east of the country, a town with a large Arabic-speaking population close to the borders with Lebanon and Syria. As we drove out of the town, we saw a sign in three languages (Hebrew, Arabic and English) which said “Peace be with you”. I hope that this multilingual and multicultural attitude will prevail more and more in Israel.

Wednesday, 8 May 2013

Humpty Dumpty and the TAUS quality concept



The “Translation Automation User Society” (TAUS) is a think tank which promotes the use of machine translation and technology within the translation industry. It organises events and offers services such as data sharing and language technology training. A recent article on the TAUS blog focused on the problem of quality evaluation in automated translation. It proposes a model called “dynamic quality evaluation”. This model has also been discussed onthe LinkedIn group “Translation Automation”, and Rahzeb Choudhury of Leeds University kindly sent me a link to a longer report in PDF format, the DynamicQuality Framework Report.
Looking at these materials, the underlying logic looks to me rather suspect, like a circular argument. It is worth considering the reasons for this.
The TAUS demographics
The Dynamic Quality Evaluation Framework report is based on a study conducted with a number of major multinational organisations (“reviewers”) which have a high volume of text which needs translation. Most of these organisations are large businesses with high volume technical products such as Dell, Google, Microsoft, Phillips and Siemens. The organisations also include the EU, which has a high volume of translations between the national languages in the European Community.
In other words, the work of TAUS, at least in this particular instance, is based on a very limited sample, i.e. major international organisations with an extremely high volume of multilingual text requirements, most of which service a limited range of subject areas. There is no consideration given to highly complex and confidential legal texts which will be read in different jurisdictions, no mention of complicated architectural texts, of urban planning, high-powered business management documents and much more. Given this highly selective demographic situation, it is not surprising that TAUS claims broad agreement on certain priorities in its reports and other documents. I would suggest, however, that the translation industry is much broader than the demographic group represented by TAUS.
The part and the whole
This limited demographic sample would not in itself be a problem if TAUS freely admitted that the study deliberately focuses on a certain scenario and certain types of translation work. But the actual usage in the report exacerbates the problem and is often misleading. For example, there are frequent references to “the translation industry”, although the actual descriptions and conclusions actually apply to clients (and perhaps selected suppliers) in the translation technology industry working on high volume automated translation in specified subject domains.
If the work of TAUS claimed to be impartial academic research, it would take a far more self-critical approach to its own sampling procedures and would openly point out the limitations of its material. Instead, it acts like a political pressure group, presenting its results in the way that most suits its own agenda. In some of the TAUS material that I have read, I have wondered whether this confusion is deliberate, or whether it reflects a genuine inability to perceive that there are different perspectives on the issues.
Dynamic quality evaluation – a definition of convenience?
The report on “dynamic quality evaluation” uses this very problem as its starting point. It states, for example, “Quality evaluation (QE) in the translation industry is problematic”. The blog post claims “The industry needs common measurable definitions”. Both of these statements pose more questions than they answer. Which sector(s) of the translation industry is TAUS referring to? What quality is referred to, who wants to evaluate this quality, for what purpose and in what kinds of text? What measurements could be used to define something as flowing and variable as language? To what extent would industrial-scale evaluation and defined measurements miss the essential characteristics of the material they are used on?
Instead of dealing with these fundamental issues, TAUS posits a quality evaluation system with three main elements, which it calls utility, time and sentiment. We are told that utility refers to the functionality of the content, speed refers to how quickly the translation is needed and sentiment denotes the effect of the resulting text on the brand image. You may notice that the actual quality of a text is not one of the three elements. So where does it come in? As far as I can gather, it seems to be relegated to a sub-category of “Utility” and to be marginally touched on in the category “Sentiment”. At the stroke of the categoriser's computer keyboard, the quality of the text itself is relegated to a mere sub-category.
The pinnacle of the “dynamic quality” logic is reached in the blog post. At the conference which is reported on the blog, there were apparently some participants who did not agree with the majority opinion – they advocated absolute rather than relative quality, and they felt that universal measurable standards did not do justice to the phenomenon of translation. Then comes the classic conclusion: most participants at the conference felt that “unless we maintain the simplicity of the model we get lost in endless details and personal requirements, and we end up … having no generalizable reference …”
Get yourself a cup of coffee and sit down and consider this sentence for a few moments. I would paraphrase it like this: some people argue that the world of language and translation is complicated, but we can’t handle a complex world because we could then not create the simple and measurable system that we want. We must have simplicity, so let there be simplicity. Simplicity rules, simply because we want it to rule.
This is rather like the semantic principles expressed by Humpty Dumpty in Lewis Carroll's novel “Alice in Wonderland”: “When I use a word, it means just what I choose it to mean – neither more nor less.” It would be a wonderfully simple way to use language: I say what I want, and it means what I want. The only problem is the puzzled expression on the faces of my listeners.
The toxic disclaimer
The final section of the blog is where TAUS dances on the borderline of Imperialism. In the title of this section, and three times in the paragraphs, it mentions the possibility of applying for the “dynamic quality” system to be certified as a standard. Each time, the possibility is retracted, at least partially, rather like the song of the Mock Turtle in Carroll's novel: “Will you, won't you, will you, won't you, will you join the dance?” In a TAUS context, this translates as “we would not be so sure that we would want to apply for official standardisation” and “Whether we go for standard certification is a decision we can take together when we get to this crossroads”.
Together? Dear TAUS, does this mean that you will gather all of the translators in the world and involve us in deciding whether to apply for certification of a standard? I think not. Your agenda seems to be domination of the translation industry rather than cooperation with real life translators. You do not look kindly on people like me who have differing opinions, far less do you take us seriously. For you, we are unwelcome “quality gatekeepers” who are “blinkered by prior assumptions”. Ho hum, I suppose Humpty would be proud of these sweeping allegations.
Unintended consequences
The occupation of Gaul by the Roman Empire gave rise to the insurrection by Asterix and Obelix in the wonderful French comics and films. Many other literary parallels come to mind, such as Luke Skywalker and the Empire, Thursday Next and Goliath Corporation, etc. If you continue to play Humpty with the values which translators hold dear, please do not be surprised when you meet opposition. Every group which aspires to global domination must expect resistance. The rhetoric adopted by TAUS and others will bring forth a myriad Luke Skywalkers, and your glorious automated future will be lit up by the flash of lightsabres all over the globe.
Previous related posts on this blog