Blog May 2020

I had hoped that by the time this was out of the oven the UK would be ending its lockdown.

Let me start by welcoming you to ALPHA’s website. I had hoped that by the time this was out of the oven the UK would be ending its lockdown. Sadly, that hasn’t happened yet, and at ALPHA in Cambridge we are now in week 9 of working in isolation, from home. In the world around us they are starting to speak of the “90% economy”, and speculation is ripe as to quite what that’s going to mean and how much longer personal liberties are going to be curtailed for the good of mankind. And what the total loss is going to be once it’s all been added up, not just in terms of the global economy, but in terms of society, and each and every one of us.

After 30 years of walking or cycling to the office every day I am feeling rather discombobulated by the Covid-19 measures. I miss colleagues appearing at my door, wanting to have a chat or a moan, bearing gifts of crumbly sweets from China, a Bretzel from Munich or a chocolate-coated prune from Tallinn. Basically, I can’t wait for all of us to connect once again and get together in the real sense of the word, not just via Skype and Zoom, which, as has now officially been proved, requires a lot of extra concentration, does your head in and tires you out.

Over the past ten years a number of people have asked to work remotely from home. Now I am wondering whether having to work from home is a rather different kettle of fish from wanting to. But for now, let me jump on this opportunity for a brief recollection of how it all began and what the basic ideas were, back in 1987, when I set up ALPHA. This could be indeed a moment to realign ourselves and provide a renewed sense of purpose, in sharing a fascination for language, and tackling problems together when we finally go back to working from the office. For there is no doubt that much has changed in the translation industry during the past 30 years and that this has had a huge impact on our profession.

People often ask: What’s so special about ALPHA? And I think I can honestly say that most of our staff, past and present, all through the years, would say: its people. Even our former colleagues have invariably paid tribute to the friendly, international atmosphere, the kindness of their colleagues and the companionships and friendships they have struck up. The majority also says that ALPHA is a great place for putting into practice what they learnt during their translation studies, for picking up new skills and for advancing for people who are that way inclined – or of course as a springboard for other ventures.

Which is kind of nice to hear, reassuring, and pleasing, since people were at the heart of the ALPHA model right from the start. People under one roof, working together, united by a common passion and enthusiasm. This meant translators initially, but as time went on came to include project managers, desktop publishers, QA staff and many others who made it possible to meet our clients’ ever-changing needs and who participated in our collaborative effort. People sharing their love for language(s) and for producing translations of high quality, attempting to make our clients happy – and also themselves as a team and as individuals.

This radiant, positive feeling is a confirmation that the basic idea was perfectly sane and has remained valid all these 30 years. That working in a team, or teams, is superior and preferable to the model that most other translation companies chose to adopt, that of dispersed freelancers across a more and more globalised world. That our way of working allowed people to identify with their job, with their projects, with the company’s clients, and that this instilled in them a sense of professional satisfaction and pride. (Something which many now lament is absent in today’s translation industry, when its practitioners are treated like anonymous robots). At ALPHA we have always prided ourselves on treating colleagues with appreciation and respect, which includes listening to them.

But we believe that we are equally good at listening to our clients, understanding what they are trying to do, suggesting ways to solve their problems, getting their message out in a number of languages to many cultures, enabling them to reach their intended audience in the best possible way,with the right voice, steering them away from potential pitfalls.

ALPHA’s ideal way of working is based on a cooperative approach: cooperation among the translators, transcreators, linguists, project managers and all staff, but cooperation also in the relationship with our clients. Would it not be nice to think of partnerships rather than of clients and vendors? Where this is achieved we feel a true sense of achievement and success, and it translates into mutual trust and higher-quality outcomes. Where it isn’t, there tends to be frustration, disappointment and the sense of an opportunity missed.

A successful translation project depends more than anything on trust and confidence. And that only arises through relationship building and open communication. Each party has certain obligations that it must fulfil – otherwise the whole exercise is bound to go pear-shaped. A translation (i.e. the output of the act of translating) in itself is based on trust. The recipient (in this case the client) must have confidence that what they are presented with is an accurate and faithful rendering of the source and is a good/fair/acceptable rendering of the intended message.

In trying to perform their function properly and to a professional standard, translators must make choices. Choices of the type: How close to the source do I need to be (“just how faithful?”) in order to render its meaning accurately, and how free can I allow myself to be in order to bring the message across in a way that will achieve the desired result, including emotions? In trying to do this, the translator performs a balancing act – between freedom and faithfulness, creativity and precision, and in doing that puts his/her head on the line. Knowing that you have colleagues around you to support you and give you guidance and support if you need it, really helps. As does the certainty that you can inspire each other through exchange and bouncing ideas back and forth. It has always seemed to me that being creative on your own is hard work. You can easily fall into a rut. You might be re-using the same phrases, the same constructions without even being aware of it. In a collaborative environment, you have the chance to pick up new expressions, a new turn of phrase, and you can try out your ideas on fellow translators. You may be unable to get your head around “Position of distal locking screw at 5mm from nail tip allows to head very distal tibial fractures”. Don’t despair, a colleague might be able to help you out!

All translation companies promise high-quality work. Actually delivering it can be tough. It requires effort and input from both sides, the client and the translation company. Over time, a relationship of trust will evolve, where both sides appreciate and value each other’s contribution. That’s where we like to be.

I’ll stop now, leaving you with this thought: Yes, translation has changed a lot over the past 30 years. These days, most discussions revolve around CAT and MT and quality control. But, quite frankly, mostly it still is about human ingenuity.


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