The Light at the End of the Tunnel: Do You See It Yet?

Larry Brouhard

At our annual Christmas Party last year I received a card with the following message:

This may be the last time I attend your Christmas Party as the president of my own translation company. Of course, it may be the last Christmas Party you give as president of your own company.

Who says translators don't have a sense of humor?

Gloom and doom

I think most people in the technical translation business were pretty discouraged by December 1993. ICCS’s first Christmas Party, 18 years before, hosted one other person and myself. We had been in business for a little over three months, had monthly sales of ¥132,000, and boasted of ¥10,000 in the bank before the party.

More than one hundred attended the December 1993 party. Monthly sales were considerably higher than at the time of the first party. But they were 60% below their high in 1991. Worse, after 28 red monthly statements, the bank account was about the same as 18 years before.

In Japan, we are still suffering the aftermath of a crazy time. Companies bought the Brooklyn bridge as often as they could. They did it by borrowing more money than the banks had. And the banks lent the money on collateral of tiny land parcels with astronomical perceived value.

At the same time, pee wee computers began eating into high-ticket mainframe sales: no sales, no new systems, no software development, no translation, no nothing. Japan went to sleep for two-and-a-half years. Well, it did waken now and then to say good-bye to a disgraced politician or to greet a new Prime Minister who would soon leave in disgrace.

In spite of it all, I'm happy to say that my friend is still in business. So is ICCS. We broke even in December and have squeezed by in the months since. We're not out of the woods, but things seem manageable.

Customers' faces have more color these days. Nearly three years have passed and the sky hasn't fallen, so companies are making tentative gestures toward doing something again. Total shutdown seems at an end.

Survival vs. strategic planning

Mass translation rates, at least for computer and telecommunications documents, have fallen steadily in the past twenty years. In the last couple of years they plunged. 1 don't know how far, but I lost many bids on price, and was informed that I was far more expensive than the winner. Most discouraging, in nearly every case, I had quoted break even prices just to keep people working. I was still way too high.

The same thing was happening at our company in Palo Alto. Japanese companies looked to go offshore, but they squeezed as tight as they could. And U.S. companies always looked for the cheapest rate, without a clue about quality.

I wish I could say we survived thanks to strategic planning, intelligent marketing, or superior technical skills. I can't. In addition to a lot of luck, we survived because we didn’t owe any money. We survived because we had some capital reserve. We survived because our people were willing to take extra unpaid days off every month. Most important, we survived because we offered services other than translation.

Where to now?

I hope mass dumping is over and that rates will again become reasonable. I think they will. I don't, however, think they will reach the levels of twenty years ago. Technical translation companies—and technical translators—must add value and other services to get the same return for the same number of hours worked. To survive, we must deliver more than just a translation.

Just as we had to move from typing pools to final editing by the translator, we now have to plan for page layout at the translation stage. In the past, I was against having translators and writers worry about formatting. Too often they spent more time making a page look good than thinking about content. Modem word-processing programs and page layout systems have changed my mind. A well-designed style sheet, master page, or template gives the translator or writer full-document formatting at the touch of a key.

Page layout, however, is not the end. We also have to start thinking about screen layout. Paper-based documentation will eventually give way to online screen-based systems. The biggest improvements to application software from the U.S. in the past year have been in online documentation and real-time computer-based training (CBT). The new help systems, rather than old paper-based designs ported to a screen, are now conceived for the screen. They are appealing and easy to read.

A value-added service we can provide, together with translation, is layout and writing for the screen, and tagging for online lookup and cross-referencing. For clients who trust us, we can build this work into the translation process.

Basic skills

Of course, none of these things are possible unless translators have some important basic skills. Following are seven things that translators of technical materials must be able to do:

1. Describe the technology they translate.

It is not possible to translate a document about an electronic switching system if you think it's a battery-operated stick for whacking the kids when they misbehave. We must study the technology we translate.

2. Explain how it works.

Technical translators cannot be allergic to things technical. The technical translator must be curious about how things work. We must learn enough to extrapolate, to infer something new from something we know.

3. Overcome the original writer’s inability to clearly say what (s)he means.

In technical translation, the original writer, most often, is not a writer. The document being translated may be the only thing the writer has ever written. Technical translators must be able to translate what the inexperienced writer meant, without reading in things that aren’ t there.

4. Read between the lines in the source language.

Conventional wisdom says that the translator should be a native speaker of the target language. This may not be such a good idea in technical translation. If the writer is going to New York and the translator sends the reader to Albuquerque, something awful will happen.

We must learn to read between the lines. We must also develop the confidence to ask about things we don't understand.

5. Write clearly and concisely in the target language.

How often do we see endless nouns strung together with prepositions and no verbs? At the start, every translator must master at least two books on style and then read one new book a year to stay fresh.

6. Use a computer with modern software and communications capabilities.

A technical translator without a computer doesn't have a job. We must get the tools and use them to improve quality and boost productivity.

7. Meet deadlines.

I've saved the most important for last. A product can't ship without a book in the box. Clients will forgive almost anything but being late.

Invite me back

I'd like to end on a personal note. I go into extra innings in a couple of months. I've survived 50 years in spite of myself and plan to spend the next 20 trying to get it right in business. I hope you'll invite me back in 2014 to brag about overnight success.

Thank you.

Larry Brouhard is president of ICCS, a Tokyo-based company that specializes in technical documentation, technical advertising, and consulting. He is also president of PACC, a Tokyo-based company specializing in language training, and Expressed Knowledge Inc. of Palo Alto, California, which develops computer-based training courseware. A native of Arizona, Larry came to Japan in 1963 as an electronics technician with the U.S. Air Force. After 10 years of installing and maintaining radio and navigational aids systems throughout Japan and Asia, he left the Air Force to study sociology at Sophia University in Tokyo. He established ICCS in 1975 and has been a principal instructor and director at the Japan Society for Technical Communication for over 10 years.