Against Babel: The World Bank Scrubs the Hubbub

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Anti-Babel: A translation hub designed to reduce the hubbub.

A few years ago, the World Bank woke up to the fact that it sucked at translation.

So it decided to develop

A Document Translation Framework for the World Bank Group and Strengthening Public Information Centers

How has that worked out, I wonder? They promised to produce a progress report in 2004, but I cannot seem to find that on their Web site.

I hope the current availability of the online multilingual terminology database it has developed is not indicative of its progress since then:

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I ask because lately I have gotten more involved in thinking about how to help improve the process of translating financial reporting and investor relations materials of various types. And do it relatively cheaply. See, for example,

Who does this sort of thing well, and how do they do it?

NYSE-Euronext, for one, it seems to me, from a quick inspection, does this sort of thing pretty well. I should write to them and ask them how they do it.

The principal risk to the Bank lies in not undertaking the investment to manage translation needs more effectively. Without an integrated quality assurance process, or guidelines and criteria to help staff make decisions on languages or translations, the Bank is not carrying out its responsibilities to communicate effectively with stakeholders and people affected by its work.

The consequences of mistranslations:

However, the new framework would also bring risks. Increasing the numbers of translations could also mean increasing the potential for miscommunications, and thus the risk of corporate liability. This risk would have to be managed. A proper quality assurance process, including vendor vetting and selection, terminology and glossary management, and so forth, would be built into the translation workflow process to provide business owners the resources to procure quality translations. Business owners would remain responsible for the overall quality of their documents, and GSDTR would remain fully responsible for the quality of the translations it produces. The use of formal disclaimers should help protect the Bank and its staff from the consequences of mistranslations.

Use only translators who can prove they know what the hell they are doing to a decent degree:

A second risk lies in the framework’s assumption that adequate numbers of good translators are available to carry out the increased amount of translation the Bank would require. By putting in place a system to find and vet vendors and check the quality of their work, the framework would address the issue of quality, and the Bank’s needs for translation would create demand that would help increase the numbers of translators over time.

Standard disclaimer:

“Este trabalho foi originalmente publicado pelo Banco Mundial em [LANGUAGE] sob o título [TITLE] em [YEAR]. Esta tradução em [LANGUAGE] foi organizada por [PUBLISHER]. [PUBLISHER] é responsável pela exatidão da tradução. Em caso de qualquer discrepância, prevalecerá o original em [LANGUAGE].”

Resistance from some clients tends to come when you point out, for example, that the messy little guide to quality control published by the Bank belabors the obvious about how to assure editorial quality and accuracy in any editorial product.

The messy little guidelines:

Before clicking on publish in your content management system, you edit it, then you copyedit it, then you proofread it, then send it to be laid out or prepared for Web publication, and then you proofread it again, because — in the case of my last full-time job, for example — Omar the Art Director, for all of his other virtues, is a subliterate slob with a propensity for fat-fingering your copy while jiggering it.

It is amazing how often you hear the complaint that this only encourages backsliding in the translator’s quest to achieve perfection and infallibility, and besides, is too complicated and time-consuming.

The “prep” step is a familiar one to good translation agency managers: When you send the project, you indicate special vocabulary needs and preferred terminology (with sources), editorial style to be followed, and stuff like that. And indicate the deadline, of course, and other pertinent information.

You cannot get people to do things the way you want it done unless you tell them how you want it done.

I am just the kind of grey, soulless bureaucratic twit to suggest to a client recently that the client gin up a standard routing slip for assignments rather than their current system of simply attaching the file to an e-mail, writing “do this,” and signing the message with a smiley.

I am also big on document management software and version control and auditability and all that stuff.

But then again, sometimes people pay you to give them your best advice, then ignore it. I can tell you stories. But as long as they pay you, what the hell, right?

Change is upsetting. Repetition is tedious. Three cheers for variation! –Mason Cooley


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