Jost Zetzsche Tool Kit

Wednesday, December 28, 2005

Penny wise pound foolish

The other day a new client of mine called me to his place for discussions. It seems he wanted a menu translated from English into German as well as into French. He represents a 4-star hotel, here in Chennai.

The requirement for translation into French was straight forward enough. He wanted the entire menu translated. But for translation into German he wanted to economize. He told me that the new menu in English was just a slight modification of the existing menu, whose German translation was already with him. I was to translate only the modifications. I asked him to give the modifications in a different color font. He agreed and emailed me the English menu.

I took up the French translation first and sent him the finished translation. Then I took up the second part of the assignment and then sent him the German translation duly incorporated in the original English menu. All he had to do was to copy paste from the existing German version the entries into the new menu so that he can get at the revised menu in German.

Here he ran into rough weather. It seems that the new menu in English is a fully revised one and bore no resemblance to the original version in matters of sequence or even formatting. He quietly sent me the old German version and asked me to insert the suitable German translations into the new revised menu.

I refused. I told him that this is entirely a different work and as the German words are already existing and my work was just to hunt them and put them in proper places in the new English menu, this work was not susceptible to straight forward word counting. I suggested that I come to his place, sit with the manager in charge of the menu and put the words in proper places, carrying out any further modifications in the format as might be found necessary by the manager at that time. After hearing my hourly rates and learning about the minimum billing for two hours as well as other conditions such as to- and fro taxi fare plus food while working, he became quiet. Though the conversatin was being conducted over phone, I could almost hear his mental gears moving around and meshing into place. He quietly asked me about the possible additional cost were I to translate the entire menu into German, not bothering about the old translation. Here there was no problem as I was already aware of the full word count of the English menu, on which I based my bill. The difference was not much and he said he would let me know. That was yesterday. He is yet to give me his decision. But the reason for my posting this rests elsewhere.

Trouble comes with clients, who try to cut corners and economize. I will not blame the person negotiating with me as he is just an employee of the organisation in question and his instructions are just to get the work done at the cheapest price. So the client goes into rigmaroles to restrict the work. He forgets that by just getting the entire package translated, he saves a lot in terms of time and avoidable botheration. Let me give a few examples.

One officer negotiating with me said that his Director knows French and at a pinch he can very well look after the visiting French expert. Hence I should reduce my rates. I just took a few minutes to demolish his assumption. The French expert was supposed to work with the Indian workers giving them training. Did the officer expect that the company's top official will sit with them and do interpreting? I told the officer that that person was expected to manage the company on the whole and not lose himself in a lower-end job as far as he was concerned. The officer quickly agreed and we proceeded with the rate negotiation.

In another firm, there was a bunch of German drawings. The officer entrusting the work to me marked a few words in each sheet and told me to translate just them as he undestood the other words. I obliged without argument as it was a job paid on an hourly basis, finished the work as instructed and got paid. The trouble was, the concerned officer left the company soon afterwards. His successor was not so knowledgeable and he wanted the meaning of words that were left untranslated. You guessed it correctly. Another work for me. Needless to say, the company ended up paying me much more.

There was this client, who expected me not to charge for interpreting while accompanying him and the visitor to a five-star hotel for wining and dining. He was of the opinion that I should be content with five-star food. I told him politely that I am not enamoured of five star food, in fact was just fed up with them! (pun intended!). Either he pays me for my time or I do not go. He said that he would manage the hotel visit himself and asked me to come for technical interpreting the next day. But things took a differeent turn the next day. The visitor had eaten something, which was not suitable for his stomach. He was an European and there are many spicy Indian foods about which I always caution the visitor. Well, in this case I was not there. The visitor had bouts of vomiting and loose motion throughout the next day. He had to be taken to a doctor, who put him on drips. Naturally I sat by his side and interpreted between him and the doctor, as well as the pretty nurse, whom the expert found to be nice. However the client was not amused, as the expert's daily rate was way higher than my interpreting fees for the three hours spent at the five-star hotel. The client became very thoughtful afterwards.

Then there are clients not wishing to pay for numbers, proper nouns, repetitions etc. They just serve to give concrete examples of penny wise, pound foolish!

Dondu N.Raghavan

Thursday, December 01, 2005

My 2 cents about dealing with the clients - 3

What to write and what not to write as well as how to express oneself and how not do it in letters to a prospective client are all important things and you should not lose sight of them. As already mentined in my previous post, I have developed a sort of letter template. Yet, I do modify it now and then for the sake of variety.

For example, once I introduced myself as an electrical engineer taking up translation work in deviation of my usual introduction as a translator with engineering specialization. In reply, I got this wonderful letter:


With reference to your application for the post of Sales Engineer, we request you to attend an interview on bla, bla, bla.

Regards and all that."

At first I was flabbergasted. Nevertheless, I met the CEO of the company in question and explained to him about the mix-up. He was initially amazed and then burst out laughing. And it seems wonders never cease. He had a German text, which he had initially kept aside for the moment. As I was already there, he gave the text to me for translation. So nothing was lost. Here I learnt two lessons. One is to put more emphasis on my being a translator and mention the fact of my engineering experience only as a support to my translation activities. The other lesson is to never miss an opportunity of meeting a client, however hopeless the situation might appear to be.

Letters should be brief. Yet they should not miss anything important. And they should kindle the client's curiosity. They should focus on the client's requirements. You should always address the letter to the CEO of the firm. All my letters were hand-written and this fact gave them a touch of originality. I lived till July 2001 in New Delhi, the Capital of India. All my translations were delivered in manuscript form. In the bargain, I wrote thousands of pages and my handwriting improved a lot.

OK, you got a letter from the company to come for a face-to-face discussion. Now what?

Before going further, let me make one thing clear. Whatever I mentioned so far and am going to mention in subsequent instalment on this topic are applicable to any venture. Since I am tapping my personal experiences, the activity of translation is emphasized, that's all. It is for the readers to customize the points suited to their requirements.

Now you have entered the company premises. You are asked to wait as the CEO is busy. Even awaiting the call is an art. Some people needlessly become tense. They resort to nail-biting, looking often at the watch etc. Avoid all these manifestations of nervousness.

For just such occasions I go prepared. I take a book with me. I will sit calmly and be reading the book. Time will fly. While reading the book, I will be rehearsing in my mind as to how I could present my case to the CEO. I will think of the possible questions that might be flung at me and rehearse the answers to the same. I will create a few openings of my own and try to keep the conversation under my control.

Keep your eyes open and have a good look at the enterprise's environment. Keep a cheerful face and smile a lot. You don't lose anything by being cordial to all. It is absolutely essential to get as much goodwill as possible. Hence practise this appproach right from the beginning.

Nowadays smoking is strictly prohibited in offices. But the situation was entirely different in the eighties. Whenever the CEO offered me a cigarette, I never refused the first time. Just for these occasions I had fixed myself a quota of 12 cigarettes per year. The moment I accept the first cigarette, rapport is immediately struck between me and the CEO. Here is a small point to remember. An average smoker lives always with a compulsion to kick the habit. Were I to refuse the first cigarette, I appear to him as a show-off having a will stronger will than his. This will not do. Hence my strategy. Anyhow, nowadays such occsions become rarer and it is good.

Listen carefully as the CEO speaks. Understand the company's needs. Only then you can talk about your services in a confident manner.

In my particular case, a typical CEO will always be curious to know as to how an engineer is also a linguist. It is so because, an average engineer is not much good in languages. Well, this is a case of hasty generalization but then this impression persists. Hence you should talk in fluent English. Never neglect anything as being too obvious and/or too small. Don't forget that all these small things join together to create a good impression about you.

Exercise utmost care while agreeing to deadlines. For the client, his work is always urgent and he would like to get the translation yesterday itself. Do not be cowed down to accept unreasonable deadlines. You should keep in mind the other commitments agreed to for other clients. You can translate only so much words per day (2000 words in my case). While declining to accept the deadline as demanded by client, don't forget to be polite.

How do I handle such situations? Suppose I can comfortably give a deadline some 5 days hence. I will ask for 7 days' time. If the client harps on the urgency, I will offer to do the job for 5 days by working extra hours per day. I will also be asking for a premium of 20% over and above the normal price. More often than not, the client will suddenly realize that his job is not so urgent after all. If he is really in a hurry, he may accept the conditions for extra payment and it should not be unwelcome to you. That's all. But one thing, you should honour the deadline agreed to. There can be no two opinions about this.

I will talk about rate negotiations in my next instalment of this post.

Dondu N.Raghavan

Saturday, November 19, 2005

Loss of friend

It is not often that I spend time on forwarded mails. But today's mail was an exception. My friend Ravi Balasubramanian sent me this account in an email. I was quite moved by it.

I was reminded of the Valmiki Ramayana. Sage Valmiki saw a hunter shooting down one of the two Krauncha birds. On seeing the lament of the surviving bird, the sage is moved to utter a curse on the hunter banishing him to wander without abode all the days of his life.

He regretted immediately his loss of temper. But then he was intrigued by the wording of the curse. It had come out as a metered verse. As he was pondering about this, Sage Narada appeared before him and told him that the incident was as intended by God and that he should now write the story of Srirama using the same meter. Thus all the 24,000 verses have the same meter in the Valmiki Ramayana.

Now to the pictorial account below. By the way I have rendered this in Tamil too in my Tamil blog.

1. It was a gloomy Saturday afternoon. A flock of birds was spending great time searching for food and playing on the main road. Out of the sudden, a big truck sped through... sad thing had happened again.

2. Birds can feel too. Although this bird had already died, another bird flew over to her immediately, just like a family member, unable to accept the truth.

3. Not long after that, another car stormed in causing the dead bird's body to whirl with the wind. The spouse noticed the movement. As if she was still alive, he quickly flew beside her again.

4. He stayed beside her and yelled ... "WHY ARE YOU NOT GETTING UP!?"

5. Unfortunately, she's no longer able to hear him. In the meantime, he's trying to lift her up.

6. He, of course, was unable to bear the burden. Another car soon passed by. He quickly flew off. Once the car had gone, he came down again.

7. Although other birds told him its useles, he never gave up. He was trying his best to lift her up to see her flying again. Another car passed by, her dead body whirled again as if still alive and trying to fly.

8. He had used all of his energy, however...
The photographer said he couldn't shoot any longer. The photographer was so worried that the living bird was going to get hurt by passing cars. So he picked up the dead bird and left it at the roadside. The live one still lingered at a nearby tree as if crying with his singing and refused to leave.

Do humans have the same feelings nowadays? I wonder.

Dondu N.Raghavan

My 2 cents about dealing with the clients - 2

My suggestions are for freelance translators only. If you are employed as full-time translator, you will not want for work, if your employer knows what is good for him. As already mentioned in my post about reverse translation, I worked as a full-time translator in Indian Drugs and Pharmaceuticaly Limited (IDPL).

From where can one locate clients? From anywhere is my short answer. Let me elaborate with a few concrete examples from my own experience.

It was 1982. I was proceeding by flight to the Hyderabad Unit of IDPL for some very urgent translation assignment. The flight took one hour. I was leafing through The Hindustan Times provided by the Indian Airlines as courtesy to the passengers. As I was scanning idly the situations vacant page, one advertisement caught my attention. A television antenna manufacturer had advertised for the post of an accountant. Definitely of no concern to me but the fact that it was having German collaboration was of interest. I dashed off a letter to the Chief Executive Officer of the company in question and posted it as soon as I reached Hyderabad. It was a handwritten letter. By the time I came back to New Delhi, I received word from the company to come for an interview. It was an eye-opener for me. From then onwards I started looking out for more such opportunities.

For example, there is a government publication appearing every month. It contains the list of government-approved foreign collaborations. I used to consult this and prepare a list of Delhi-based companies whose German/French collaborations had been approved. Then I would dash off a handwritten letter to the CEO of the company in question. Further developments such as getting replies, having face-to-face discussions with the company directors, turning out good translations etc followed with clockwork regularity in quite a few cases.

Another mehtod would be keeping the eyes and ears open. Whenever new persons are introduced to me, I would talk to them about themselves and they liked such talks. I would know about the companies for which they work and get details of possible German/French connections of the firm. Rest is as already described. Visiting Indo-German and Indo-French Chambers of Commerce for preparing a list of their Delhi-based members is also part of such exercise.

So far so good, let us see now about the drafting of such letters. It is by God's Grace that I found an effective formulla in the first letter itself written by me to the antenna manufacturer way back in 1982. There are just a few changes in the content, especially in the numerical values such as years of experience, age etc. Let me reproduce that letter here.


Sub.: German/French translation services

I am a freelance German/French translator with 7/4 years' experience in the above languages. Being a graduate electrical engineer having worked for 11 years in that capacity, I specialize in translating all types of technical literatures as well as interpreting for the visiting technical experts speaking only German or French.

Given your German connection, I feel that you will be in need of the above services in your line of work from time to time. In case you are interested, we can have a more detailed discussion on the subject.


In those days I did not even have a telephone. Hence all communications took place by letter. Once I obtained telephone connection in 1990, I would mention the telephone number as well. I am mentioning this here just to show that the absence of facilities should not deter one.

Let me describe the response to the above letter. I was called for discussion and I was subsequently entrusted with their German translation work. With time I got their French translation jobs too. During the first discussion the CEO told me that the fact of my being an engineer as well as a translator intrigued him and he wanted to know more. Whatever it might be, the main thing is the getting of work.

We should also be clear as what not to write and speak during subsequent discussions. Before concluding this part, I would like to mention that with the advent of the Internet things are much more easier. But the basic principles remain.

Dondu N.Raghavan

Thursday, October 06, 2005

Entertainment from machine translation

It is unbelievable. I give below as example, a machine translation of the Web page of the German weekly, Der Spiegel". The news item presented here deals with the reaction of the Nobel prize designate M.Yves Chauvin to the news of his winning the Nobel prize. See: lp=de_en& nsch%2F0%2C1518%2C378142%2C00.html

Der französische Chemiker Yves Chauvin soll den Nobelpreis erhalten - und findet die Auszeichnung nicht erfreulich, sondern "peinlich". Der 74-Jährige sagte, er werde nicht zur Verleihungszeremonie kommen und wolle weiterhin zurückgezogen leben.
The French chemist Yves Chauvin is to receive the Nobelpreis - and does not find the honor not pleasing, but "embarrassingly". The 74-Jaehrige said, he to the award ceremony not to come and wanted further withdrawn to live.

Normalerweise reagieren Wissenschaftler mit atemloser Freude auf die Verleihung des Nobelpreises - zumal der Anruf aus Stockholm für die meisten überraschend kommt, da die Namen der Preisträger kaum vorhersehbar sind. Umso erstaunlicher war die Reaktion von Yves Chauvin, der heute von der Schwedischen Akademie der Wissenschaften als einer der drei diesjährigen Chemie-Nobelpreisträger genannt wurde.
Normally scientist reacts with breathless joy to the award of the Nobelpreises - particularly the call from Stockholm for most surprisingly comes, since the names of the winners are hardly foreseeable. The reaction of Yves Chauvin, which today of the Swedish Academy of Sciences as one of the three chemistry Nobelpreistraeger of this year was called, was the more amazing.

"Mir ist dieser Preis ausgesprochen peinlich", sagte der 74-jährige Ehrendirektor des Institut Français du Pétrole (IFP)in Rueil-Malmaison. "Meine Entdeckungen sind schon 40 Jahre alt, und ich bin ein alter Mann." Gefreut habe er sich keinesfalls. "Stockholm hat mich vor einer Stunde angerufen", sagte Chauvin den Reportern, die seine Wohnung in der westfranzösischen Stadt Tours belagerten. "Man hat mir viel Glück mit der Presse gewünscht. Ich beginne zu erkennen, was damit gemeint war."
"me this price is expressed embarrassing", said the 74-jaehrige director of honour Institut of the Français you Pétrole (IFP)in Rueil Malmaison. "my discoveries are already 40 years old, and I am an old man." Was not pleased it itself under any circumstances. "Stockholm called, said me one hour ago" Chauvin to the reporters, who besieged its dwelling in the westFrench city route. "one wished me much luck with the press. I begin to recognize, what was meant with it."

Seine Forschungen, für die er jetzt den Nobelpreis erhalten habe, lägen Jahrzehnte zurück. "Ich hatte genügend Zeit, das zu verdauen", sagte Chauvin, der seine ebenfalls mit dem Nobelpreis ausgezeichneten US-Kollegen Robert Grubbs und Richard Schrock lobte. "Ich wusste, dass meine Erkenntnisse wichtig waren. Ich habe den Weg bereitet, aber es sind meine amerikanischen Kollegen, die ermöglicht haben, dass ich diesen Preis heute bekomme."
Its research, for which it had received the Nobelpreis now, would be past decades. "I had sufficient time, to digest", said Chauvin, which likewise praised its with the Nobelpreis distinguished US colleague Robert Grubbs and Richard Schrock. "I knew that my realizations were important. I prepared the way, but there is my American colleagues, who made possible that I get this price today."

I can go on ad nauseum, but I am sure the above paras more than suffice. I shudder to think about the naive assumption of people pinning their faith on machine translations.

Dondu N.Raghavan

Tuesday, September 27, 2005

My 2 cents about dealing with the clients - 1

I have been practising the profession of translation from 1975 onwards. I guess I can say a few words on the ways and means of attracting clients. One thing is certain. One should know what one wants and should have clear ideas as to how one goes about getting it. Once this is achieved, half the battle is won. The rest is just doing things as per plan.

1. The most important thing is identifying and capturing new clients. This is an ongoing process. A separate post is required to talk about the ways of reaching up to a potential client. The aspiring translator has to write to him. What to write and whom to write and so on form the subject matter of the second part of this post.

2. Know thyself. Be clear about your capabilities and non-capabilities. If you promise impossible things and fail to deliver, your credibility will be the casualty. For example, if the client mentions a deadline for a given job, you should agree only if it is possible for you to meet it. Nine times out of ten the client will just be bluffing about the urgency of the job. If you are browbeaten into accepting the deadline and are unable to meet the deadline, you have only yourself to blame. So, this aspect will form the subject matter of a separate post.

3. Be clear about the rates. Many translators lose out on this aspect. It may be true that the job is easy for them and they love this work. But there is no need to tell this to the client. If you do so, he will start behaving as if he is doing you a favor. So another post for this aspect.

4. Do not for God's sake accept at face value whatever the client says. Some clients are in the habit of saying that they have thousands of jobs in the pipeline and expecting to get some reduced rates from you. This too will just be a bluff. Most probably the job in hand will just be a one-time job. No further work can be expected in the near future. Their stake is in lowering the price. I will tell you how I deal with just ploys in one of my future posts.

5. Do not give unnecessary details. For example, you are working full-time in a company. This freelance translation is just a side-business for you. In such a scenario, you cannot be too careful. You should keep the two activities in water-tight compartments. You should never tell the translation clients as to where you are working full-time and the full-time employer should not know that you are working freelance elsewhere. This is an extreme example and I will elaborate on it in a later post.

6. Be always accessible. Keep your communication channels open. In the present-day setup it is easy to execute. We will deal with this at the appropriate time.

7. Always try to make the best of your situation, whatever it might be. Till 2002, I had no computer. Now I do. I converted both the situations to my advantage. More about it later.

8. Doing the translation is just half the job. Collecting the money is equally important. I will come to this later.

How am I qualified talking about these things and more? I practised them myself from 1975 onwards. At present I am a very successful translator in Chennai, India. No false modesty shall hold me from saying this.

Dondu N.Raghavan

Monday, September 26, 2005

Disturbing thoughts: Is translation a non-value activity?

At times I am asked to come to the client's premises to do translations, whenever the work is of confidential nature and/or is too cumbersome to handle at home. In the case I am going to cite here, there were bundles of French technical drawings in hard copy and I had a merry time translating them.

Enough of background. The contact officer and I were discussing the company's translation requirements. He told me that his bosses wanted him to make do without translation, as the work was at a preliminary stage and one was not sure of getting the order. Hence cost has to be cut. Here the offending word comes in. The bosses said to him that translation is a "non-value service", as it does not bring in money directly. Though taken aback, I was delighted with the opportunity to talk and talk about translation.

My arguments in a nutshell:
Translation is vital, as the client has to understand in the first place the principal's requirements expressed in another language. At this point of time, it is an investment and as is the case in all investments, there can be no 100% guarantee of getting fat returns. After all, the principal may not like the client's rates and not give the order. It is not the fault of translation. Without translation no meaningful offer can be given.

The above mindset of a typical client results in there being no budget provision for translations and in the translation activity not finding a place in the bar charts. Everybody assumes that translation involves just copying into another language and it is just common sense. This is an important drawback for projects involving two parties speaking different languages. Poor fellow, the contact officer had a glazed look after nearly 30 minutes of my onslaught of words.

A few words about the situation obtaining in India. Indian companies have English as the working language and this language is known to many people in Europe, especially in the German and French speaking countries. The top people going to Europe for negotiations get by almost without interpreters and if at all any interpreter is required, the host looks after that. Foreign visitors to India do speak acceptable level of English and more often than not interpreters are not required.

This situation is the main reason why our entrepreneurs are lulled into a sense of false security. Because they were able to pull along without interpreters, they think that their engineers and other officials in the next rung of management can do the same thing. Unfortunately this does not apply to translations of the vast documentation and they are obliged to hire us. But this is bothering them and hence they give statements such as those indicating that translation is a non-value activity. They try to use this argument to browbeat us translators into accepting low rates. This cuts no ice with me, as given half a chance, I start waxing eloquent in favour of my profession. And I stand firm and manage to get good rates.

The reason for this posting is to share my thoughts with my friends in a sympathetic atmosphere and get more points in favor of our case. I request my translator / interpreter colleagues to give more inputs on this question that touches us all.


Saturday, September 24, 2005

Life is very beautiful - 2

When I started learning German, a remarkable thing happened. Till that period whenever I watched a Second World War film, I was seeing the Germans as the bad guys. But once I started learning the language, I started becoming sorry for them. That is the magic of learning a new language.

I was fortunately posted to Madras in 1974. In 1975 I enrolled in the French class of Alliance Francaise. My professor was Madame Sharada Lartet, an Indian married to a Frenchman. Believe me, she was wonderful. Here too I repeated my German experience. I completed all the lessons of the Mauger Rouge - 1 within the first three months after the start of my course in July 1975. With a feeling of deja-vu I started taking books from the library. Then I purchased Mauger Rouge - II and completed that as well within the next month. This was folloed by Mauger Rouge - III. It was really hectic in those days. Sharada encouraged me in all my endeavors. I started speaking French within the first three months. I passed the Certificat exam in April 1976.

Pre-diplome class started July 1976 and I was fortunate to be again in Sharda's class! But catastrophe struck at the end of the first trimester. Our class was cancelled as there were not enough students in our session. We were asked to come to another session but it was not convenient for me. Here Sharada rushed to my aid. She packed me to the third trimester session for students writing pre-diplome exam in Dec 1976. I saved one trimester in this manner.

But wonders did not cease. After one week of this session, the new Professor Maureau took me aside and said that my level was far superior to that of my fellow students. He and Sharada consulted together and Sharada sent me to the third trimester of the Diplome class being conducted by her husband Professor Lartet. I gained three more trimesters in this manner. Dec 1976 I passed Diplome with the mention "tres honorable." Then followed the class for the Diplome Superieur in July 1977, which I passed in April 1978.

Looking back, I wonder what made me tick. Without the help of Sharada I would have been nowhere. She came in my life like an angel. I was overwhelmed with her kindness and was also scared on seeing her trust in me. This made me work hard, at least to justify her faith in me.

It was in this manner that I got German and French, from which I have been translating respectively from 1975/1978 onwards. This has given me a fine opening as I start negotiating with a prospective client. I tell him that I have 23 years' experience as graduate electrical engineer, 30 years as German translator and 27 years as French translator. Thus I have a cumulative experience of 80 years whereas I am just 59 years young. The client would invariably ask "how did you manage it?" and I will say with a straight face "Overtime, sir". This always broke the ice and further negotiations proceed smoothly.

Life is really so beautiful!


Wednesday, September 21, 2005

Life is very beautiful -1

Let me start with Max Mueller Bhavan, Madras, India (a branch of Goethe Institut, Munich, Germany).

It was June 1969. I was awaiting the results of my final year engineering exams. Results came. I failed in 2 out of 9 subjects. All my hopes of getting a first class lay shattered, in spite of the fact that my general marks were far above the threshold for first class. Everything came to naught just because of this failing in two subjects.

My father gave me moral support. He comforted me and said that not getting first class was not the end of the world. My next exams were scheduled for November that year. He suggested that I do something else to distract me from my blues. It was in this manner that I enrolled in German language course being conducted by Max Mueller Bhavan, Madras, a branch of the Goethe Institut Munich. Little did both of us have an inkling of things to follow.

Right from day 1 of the course I took to German like a duck takes to water. The medium of instruction was German. Our professor Herr Sharma made us all feel at home with his wonderful lectures. As far as I was concerned, the moment he taught us a point in German grammar, it appeared to me to be the most obvious thing in the world. Especially the verb having second place in a normal sentence and the last place in a subordinate clause looked so beautiful and poetic.

The course I attended was a normal one with classes of 1 hour each, 3 days a week. We had to pay monthly fees amounting to Rs. 12 (in those days 1 US dollar was equivalent to Rs. 7.50). Exams were conducted at the end of each semester. My first semester exam took place in November 1969. I came first with the grade "sehr gut". Here there was a pleasant surprise. Persons getting "sehr gut" need not pay fees for the first month of the next semester. And they can retain this exemption from paying fees as long as they continued getting this grade in every monthly test. The moment they failed to get Sehr gut once, they had to start paying fees and this was irreversible till the semester-end.. I did not pay a single rupee afterwards. Therefore I learnt German for just Rs.48/ (four months' fees in the first semester)!

In order to avoid problems due to possible missing of classes, I took up the habit of doing the lessons in advance. Before the first semester was over, I had finished the entire book by doing all the grammar exercises of all the 27 lessons in writing. This book covered portions meant for the Grundstufe-I & II requiring four semesters. Classes became a delight and I started speaking German with my professor. He suggested that I start taking books from the library. A new life opened before me. I cleared my engineering exams in November 1969 and concentrated more on German, if such a thing was possible. April 1970 saw me writing the exam for G-I. In July that year I joined the rapid course offering 5 classes a week leading to G-II exam in November 1970 itself.

Here another incredible thing happened. With the encouragement of my professors, I purchased the book for the Mittelstufe and started doing the exercises on my own. In September 1970 I took special permission to attend classes for M-I simultaneously. Fortunately the timings of G-II and M-I classes did not clash. I was taken as a "Gasthörer" in M-I.

G-II exams were conducted in November 1970, M-I exams in December 1970. I came first in both exams. In January 1971, I got a posting as electrical engineer in the Central Public Works Department of the Government of India. Posting was in Bombay. I took tearful leave of Max Mueller Bhavan, Madras and went to Bombay. After settlig down I went to the MMB at Bombay but no MII classes were offered at that time. Around April 1971, I wrote to Max Mueller Bhavan in Poona, a city near Bomay. This MMB offered courses full time and exams were conducted every 2 months. I asked for permission to write the M-II exams in August 1971. It was granted and I passed M-II exams as well. I had to satisfy myself with second rank only. With their encouragement I took the exam for Kleinessprachdiplom in November 1971 and passed that as well.

In retrospect, I see that my failing in the final year of engineering was not at all a catastrophe. It gave a big twist in my life, whose effect is felt even today. More about that later. For the present let me say one thing. Life is so beautiful!


Tuesday, September 13, 2005

Reverse translation

We translators are supposed to translate into our mother tongue only and not away from it. In this connection, let us be clear as to what is meant by mother tongue. Let me take my own case.

My mother tongue is Tamil and I studied in Tamil medium till the 9th standard. All subjects other then English were taught in Tamil only. In my 10th standard, the situation took a 180 degrees turn. I had opted for the bifurcated course in engineering. Now except for Tamil all the other subjects were taught in English! Fortunately, thanks to my mother and my 8th Standard teacher Mr. Jayarama Iyengar, I had a strong foundation in English grammar. And I am a voracious reader. These factors helped me in coping with the changed scenario. I had however a small problem in spoken English, which I solved within a few months thanks to constant practice. Sorry for the digression but then this explains my statement that I consider English too as my mother tongue for all purposes.

Hence as per the conventional wisdom, I am supposed to translate from German or French or Italian into English and not vice versa. Well, I do not accept jobs translating into Italian but I do accept assignments translating from English into German or French.

During the first six years of my translation activities starting 1975, I translated into English only. But then in the year 1981 I joined IDPL as Design Engineer cum French translator, a unique designation without any precedent, but more about this later. In retrospect I see that it was good that I was not aware of this restriction concerning reverse translation. Right from the day one of my stay in IDPL, my bosses started giving me jobs of translation in the pair French<>English. So in this case there was really no choice about declining reverse translation jobs. It was either doing the job as demanded or being shown the door!

Contract specifications in French will come from Algeria. I will translate them into English. Our engineers will then go through them and give their quotation in English. I will render them into French and the whole thing will be sent to the Algerian principal. Here my engineering knowledge stood me in good stead. Not one French translation was returned by the Algerians alleging incomprehensibility. This was actually the routine when my predecessor was there. She was an MA in French and nothing more. Not at all in touch with technical jargon. She had a very bad time.

Now my two cents about reverse translations in general. At the outset let me say one thing. This restriction is a must for literary translations. Hence I will not dream of translating Harry Potter books into German or French! Nor will I be very enthusiastic about translating into German or French the Websites, which will be viewed by native German or French people. The native touch will just be missing in that case.

But then the translation assignments that I usually come across are, more often than not, concerned with technical literature. These are to be read by specialists, who will be more interested in the technical information and less in the language nuances. Here I take the plunge and till date I have been getting along without mishaps.

Another aspect is the question of pricing. In India, the cost of living is less than in advanced countries. Hence our rates are on the lower side. This acts as attraction especially for the Indian clients, who otherwise will have to pay more and that too in foreign currency to native German or French translators.

There is another side to this question. The Indian client will require me to translate from Indian English into German or French. Indian English is a class in itself. It is affected by the mother tongue of the Indian writing the text in Indian English. In that case an Indian translator is more apt to understand the nuances of the original text.

The combination of the above two points is mainly responsible in our getting such reverse translation assignments. Needless to say in my profiles of, Translatorscafe as well as Go translators I offer only translations into English and not into French or German. Thanks to my exposure to the views expressed by other translators in various translators' fora, I have started drawing the Indian client's attention to the necessity of his getting such reverse translation jobs done by native German or French translators. In addition, I bring his attention to the fact that the native touch will be missing in reverse translations done by me. Once the client still decides to give me such work, I take a lot of pains to render them as native as possible.


Thursday, September 08, 2005


The Indian National Scientific Documentation Centre (INSDOC) is a component of the Council of Scientific and Industrial Research (CSIR), Government of India. It was by chance that I heard of Insdoc for the first time in the year 1976. At that time I was not to know that this chance encounter was about to bring about a radical change in my way of life.

I was at that time on the lookout for some translation assignments. I knew German and I was working as electrical engineer in the Central Public Works Department of the Government of India. This article about Insdoc appeared in the Sunday edition of The Hindu. It described the Insdoc activities concerning translations from foreign languages especially into English. It employed a battery of fulltime translators translating from European, East Asian and other languages. The article mentioned among other things the translators panel maintained by Insdoc covering freelance translators translating from those languages.

On an impulse, I took an inland letter and dashed of an application to be included in the Insdoc panel. It was a handwritten letter and cost me just 0.20 rupees. Within a week I received a letter from one Mr. Swamy, Translation Coordinator, Insdoc. He sent me a test piece for translation. I did the translation and sent it back. Next week I received confirmation of my being included in the panel accompanied by a small job. It fetched me Rs.81 (Rs.9 per page)! Since then I received jobs from time to time. These and the other Chennai jobs gave me confidence and I was able to land the job of a full-time French translator (I had learnt that language too in the meantime) in Indian Drugs and Pharmaceuticals Limited (IDPL) in New Delhi. Now this shifting to Delhi reinforced my Insdoc contact and I did a lot of work for them as well. This continued till 1995, when Insdoc activities were very much reduced on account of globalization and people favored private agencies to Insdoc on account of its bureaucratic slowness in returning jobs.

By that time a lot of water had flown down the Yamuna and I developed a lot of contacts including agencies and direct clients. But in retrospect I feel that all these developments were initiated with the help of a single inland letter sent by me nearly 30 years back. My gratitude to Insdoc is ever green in my memory.

Dondu Raghavan

Wednesday, September 07, 2005

Life before Internet

An interesting question was raised the other day in the French forum of the translator portal A member was curious to know how translators got along before the advent of Internet. For the younger generation of translators the very idea of not having the Internet and computers is quite unthinkable. But oldies like me remember well the life before Internet. This is what I wrote in that topic in English after excusing myself for writing in English in a French forum.

I remember very well the life before Internet. Since March 1975 when I started and till Feb 2002 when I purchased a computer, I have been translating manually. I will write the translation by hand and get it typed by a job-typist. We were expected to deliver the translations in duplicate, typed in double space. Each page was expected to carry 30 lines at 10 words per line. These were the specifications prescribed by INSDOC, a government agency in India.

As I gained confidence and my clients became numerous, I started delivering just the handwritten manuscript and charged by the words in the translated text. Needless to say, I did not have anything to do with a computer, much less the Internet. Counting was done manually. Thus, when in the year 1998 I borrowed a book on translation from the local British Council library, I was amazed to read that having a computer is the first requirement for a translator! In those days, the agencies which gave me work would accept the handwritten manuscript and type the same on the computer. I was asked to proofread the typed copies and that was that.

But things were slowly changing and the clients wanted me to deliver soft copies. But I persuaded them to accept my services as described above. As by this time I had become a full time freelancer, I offered to come to the client's premises for the day and do the translation. I used to point out that since typing is done directly on his computer, the confidentiality of the documents will be maintained. Clients liked this argument. On a typical day at the client's premises, a typist will be assigned to me one hour after I start writing the translation by hand and she will go on typing the sheets on the computer. At the end of the day, the typed copies will be proofread and the corrections carried out. The combination of a fast translator and a fast typist was really explosive. Gradually I used to do the editing in the computer. My typist taught me the art of mastering the keys of the computer.

But things could not continue in this manner and in Feb 2002 I purchased my computer. The first translation was to be done in Excel and with the help of the typist I managed to type the translation by myself. What a relief! Since then I have not looked back. With the advent of the computer in my life, Internet cannot lag behind. In fact it has been a big technology leap for me. At present I do work without any paper being involved. I download the file to be translated, take its save-as copy, tile both the files horizontally and edit the top layer file by reading the bottom layer file. At the end of the day I get two documents that are identical in all respects except the language! During the translation I keep a few online dictionaries open for consultation. One google page too is kept opened.

Looking back, I wonder. What made me tick? Things have happened to me and fortunately all of them were favorable or I was able to turn them to my advantage. Even now I can do the translation in handwritten manuscripts. In fact I still do it now and then. There is this client who is having bunches and bunches of engineering drawings. I go to his place and start doing the translations by hand on the blueprint itself. One draughtsman is assigned to me who incorporates them with his CAD software. I charge by the hour and believe me it is a very good rate. Main thing is, both the client and I are happy with this arrangement. Here too I tell the client to place me near a computer with an internet connection, which I consult for difficult terms. I carry my dictionaries with me of course.


P.S. The French translators welcomed my contribution but the main consensus was that it would have been better had I posted in French. Here my colleague Lien came to my rescue. She translated my post in French! Here it is:

La traduction (enfin... a peu pres) Jun 16, 2004

Je me souviens très bien de la vie avant Internet. Depuis mes débuts en mars 75 jusqu'en février 02, ou je me suis payé un ordinateur, je traduisais tout à la main et je le faisais taper par une dactylo. J'étais censé remettre les traductions en double, tapées en double interligne. Les pages devaient faire 30 lignes de dix mots par ligne. Ces exigences étaient dictées par le INSDOC, un organisme du gouvernement indien.

Comme je prenais de l'assurance et que mes clients devenaient de plus en plus nombreux, je me suis mis à rendre directement les manuscrits en faisant payer au mot le texte cible. Inutile de vous dire que je ne connaissais rien aux ordinateurs et encore moins à Internet. Je comptais les mots un par un. Donc, quand en 98 j'ai emprunté un livre sur la traduction à la bibliothèque du British Council, j'ai été étonné d'apprendre que de posséder un ordinateur était la première condition pour être un traducteur ! A l'époque, les agences qui me donnaient du travail acceptaient mes manuscrits et les retapaient sur ordinateur. On me demandait juste de relire et corriger les copies, était tout.

Mais les choses ont commencé à changer, et les clients ont voulu que je leur remette des textes faits sur ordinateur, mais j'ai quand même pu les persuader de continuer à travailler à ma manière. Comme à l'époque étais devenu un traducteur indépendant à plein temps, je leur ai proposé de venir une journée dans leurs bureaux et de faire la traduction sur place. Je m'en tirais en leur disant que, puisque je faisais directement la traduction sur leur ordinateur, la confidentialité des documents était respectée. L'argument plaisait aux clients. Dans une journée normale au bureau, on m'allouait une dactylo qui arrivait une heure après que j'aie commencé la traduction à la main et elle la tapait au fur et a mesure sur l'ordinateur. À la fin de la journée, les copies étaient relues et corrigées. L'association d'un traducteur et d'une dactylo rapides donnait des résultats spectaculaires. Peu a peu je pris l'habitude de relire sur l'écran. Ma dactylo m'avait appris l'art de taper sur les touches.

Mais les choses ne pouvant plus continuer comme ça, en février 02 je me suis offert un ordinateur. La première traduction était en Excel et avec l'aide de la dactylo je réussis à le faire tout seul. Quel soulagement ! A partir de ce moment la je n'ai jamais eu aucun regret. Puisque l'ordinateur était entré dans ma vie, Internet ne pouvait plus se faire attendre. En fait, pour moi, cela a été un grand progrès technologique. Maintenant je travaille sans plus aucun papier. Je télécharge le fichier à traduire, j'en fait une copie, je travaille avec deux fenêtres sur écran l'une au-dessus l'autre, je traduis dans la fenêtre du haut en lisant dans celle du bas. A la fin de la journée j'ai deux documents identiques en deux langues différentes. Pendant que je traduis, j'ai d'autres fenêtres ouvertes pour les dictionnaires en ligne dont j'ai besoin. J'ai aussi une fenêtre pour google.

En y repensant, je me demande : qu'est-ce qui me fait courir ? Il m'est arrivé des tas de choses et heureusement étaient des bonnes, ou j'ai fait en sorte qu'elles tournent à mon avantage. Même maintenant je pourrai refaire des traductions à la main. En fait, j'en fais encore de temps en temps. J'ai un client qui a des tas et des tas de dessins techniques. Je vais chez lui et je fais les traductions à la main directement sur les plans. J'ai un dessinateur qui les saisit sur ordinateur avec son logiciel CAD. Je me fais payer à l'heure et croyez-moi que ça rapporte. Le plus important de la chose, c'est que le client et moi nous sommes tous les deux très satisfaits de cet arrangement. Là-bas je demande être près d'un ordinateur relie a Internet pour pouvoir faire des recherches pour les mots difficiles. J'amène aussi mes dictionnaires, bien sûr.