A perfect profession for life-long learners

Translation and learning go together like peanut butter and jelly. Every text we translate has a subject matter–often specialised, obscure, or technical. To translate a document accurately, we must not only know rare words, but also understand the subject matter. This is why regular continuing professional development (CPD) and, if possible, specialising in a particular subject area are so important.

What makes for good CPD? CPD can develop subject matter knowledge, language skills, or business skills. It can range from formally taught and accredited courses to personally directed study. Here’s a quick rundown of some CPD ideas I’ve either completed, am working on, or plan to explore in the future:

Distance learning:

The World Intellectual Property Organisation’s General Course on Intellectual Property (certificate of completion with distinction)

Dr Bruce D. Popp’s patent translation seminar

Grundlagen der Elektrotechnik I at TU Clausthal


CIOL Conference 2020 presentations: “Digital marketing for freelance linguists” by Martina Eco, “Translating fiction vs non-fiction books” by Michelle Deeter, “Launching a portfolio career as a linguist” by Reza Navaei

University lecture classes, e.g. mechanical engineering, electrical engineering, nanophotonics, and photonics sensors at Heriot-Watt University


Reading Mika Waltari’s “Sinuhe” in German translation

Writing comments on Reddit’s German-language community, r/de

The WIPO Patent Drafting Manual

If you have the time and energy, this period of lockdown and social distancing is a great opportunity to do some digital CPD. Some online classes even offer the opportunity to connect and discuss with other students, so you can combine learning with socialising. Need ideas? One option I encountered recently is a MOOC offered by the University of Edinburgh on COVID-19 critical care. It’s aimed at upskilling healthcare workers, but could be useful for medical or public relations translators seeing an influx of work relating to the coronavirus pandemic. Or, for a more relaxing approach, maybe order some novels in your source language and immerse yourself in escapist literature.

That said, taking a break from homework is a perfectly sensible reaction to the state of the world at the moment. I hope everyone in the linguist community and the people we help are safe and well. The New York Times reported last week that nearly 4 billion people–half of humanity–are in some form of lockdown. There’s nothing wrong with pausing for a moment to let that sink in.

Should I hire a freelancer or a translation agency?

It’s difficult to choose a language service provider or freelancer when you don’t know much about the translation process. Having worked both directly with clients and through agencies as intermediaries, I can offer some insight into what type of provider might be best for your project.

It’s better to work with a freelancer if:

– You need translations in one or two language pairs.

– You are going to have multiple projects of a similar type and need to maintain consistency of style and terminology between them.

– The project is creative or literary.

– The project requires specific expertise.

– You would like to communicate and consult with the translator or provide feedback.

A freelancer can get to know you, your company, and your goals closely and incorporate your feedback to deliver high-quality, tailored translations. They can maintain a termbase specifically for you to ensure consistency across projects. As they grow familiar with your products or specialist area, they’ll become more and more efficient. These benefits come from working repeatedly with one person who can fine-tune their service to your needs.

It’s better to work with a translation agency if:

– You need translations in many language pairs, whether in one project or in different projects at different times.

– You need large volumes translated quickly.

– Your projects span a variety of different subject areas.

– You don’t want to provide feedback or interact too much and simply want a finished translation.

Language service providers have large pools of translators, editors, proofreaders, and reviewers to draw on. They can put together a team and turn around high-volume projects quickly. Most will have at least an editor or proofreader review the translation and may have a multi-step quality assurance process.

In short, freelancers can be more tailored, agencies more systematic. That said, there are good and bad eggs in both baskets, so it’s always worthwhile to ask for recommendations and read reviews before choosing a service provider. A great way to find qualified freelancers is the Chartered Institute of Linguists’ Find-a-Linguist directory.

Could you please direct me to the space train station? New Space in Germany.

In honour of my much-anticipated viewing of the first two episodes of Star Trek: Picard this evening, I spent a few hours today idly Googling the German space industry. Best takeaway so far: the German word for spaceport is “Weltraumbahnhof,” which means space train station.

My first instinct was that this difference reflects the historical importance of trains to Germany versus ships to the United Kingdom, but since the German word for spaceship is also Raumschiff (“Raum” = space, “Schiff” = ship), that doesn’t quite hold up. Further research hasn’t resulted in a convincing reason for the choice. Airports are also called ports in German (“Flughafen”), Russian isn’t a likely source since their word, cosmodrome, derives from the Greek hippodrome, a horse racecourse. A bit of defiance against the ongoing creep of Denglisch, perhaps?

In genuine spaceport news, Germany, like Scotland, may soon become host to one or more micro-spaceports. The Scottish site of choice is Sutherland, while the German candidates are Rostock-Laage (in Mecklenburg-Vorpommern) and Nordholz (Lower Saxony). Micro-spaceports can launch small rockets with commercial satellite payloads, a main focus of the upstream sector of the New Space industry.

This is all part of recent movements in Germany and Europe as a whole to foster the emerging private space sector. Last fall the Federation of German Industries (BDI) published the Berlin Space Declaration outlining eight recommendations for space policy, including the construction of micro-spaceports in Germany – I haven’t found an official English translation of it, but I’ll highlight a few more points I found interesting:

  1. The first recommendation is “Deutsche Astronautin 2024 mit zum Mond fliegen lassen”: “Send a German female astronaut along to the Moon in 2024.” Notable is both the explicit call for a female astronaut and the fact that German astronauts will still be tagging along on NASA missions for the foreseeable future. Independent access to space is a key goal for European policy-makers, but it’ll be a while – the infrastructure gap with the USA is huge.
  2. A call for a “schlankes nationales Weltraumgesetz”: a “lean national space law.” Can’t wait to read this when it comes out!
  3. Happily, one of the points mentions the need to prevent and remedy space debris (“Weltraumschrott”), a high-priority issue for the global space industry and one I’ve engaged with in my work for the Gateway Earth Development Group and at the Institute for Astronomy in Edinburgh.

The space industry is one of my main sectors of interest , so I’ll no doubt be writing more about it soon. In the meantime, please enjoy the Scots Wikipedia entry for the word spaceport.

The Fascination of the Nitty-Gritty

As I booked my tickets for the CIOL Conference 2020 this morning, my main object of interest was naturally the programme. Many of the events are about the business side of freelancing – digital marketing, specialising, business development, future trends, working with different types of clients. Only Michelle Deeter’s session on translating fiction vs. non-fiction books and Oliver Lawrence’s session on editing skills seem to be about translation as a practice. (Maybe Gabriela Bocanete’s talk on slowing down, but it’s difficult to tell from the name.)

This perhaps reflects the fact that linguists en masse are far more confident about their language skills than about their business skills. These two aspects of the job – the language side and the business side – are what I most often see discussed on linguist fora and communities online as well. While most translators enjoy translating and a few are enthusiastic about business, I hardly ever see anyone talking about the thing I like best about being a freelance translator: getting to see a whole bunch of documents.

Our society is so large and our economy so complex that each of us only concretely understands a very small part of it. The rest is a black box. What is it like to be a quantitative analyst, congressional aide, junior solicitor, consultant, line chef, bank director, level 3 tech support? What do all these people do all day, how do they do it, how do they hold each other accountable, how are their actions connected to the rest of us? Freelance translation is a sluice gate that lets a tiny trickle of the vast stream of information underwriting all this activity flow directly into my inbox.

That’s what I like best about it: reading the fine print, seeing how the sausage is made, the nitty-gritty of diverse workplaces and situations. In my case, the fine print may be software maintenance contracts, patents on incredibly minor details of design, internal reports about developments on such-and-such a market, terms and conditions for such-and-such a widget, court cases in which someone didn’t pay for the monster piece of industrial equipment they ordered, or assessments of the impact of EU emissions regulations. The experience has the immersive quality of archival research about it.

These things sound dry and technical, but I love reading them and I love the background research. (Exception: insurance policies. Never again.) Freelancing clues me in to the detail happening in other people’s lives all the time. It has made me more tolerant of mistakes, inefficiencies, and mysterious (to an outsider) goings-on in the everyday world around me because I am more aware of the effort and limitations involved.

Of course, I definitely need to brush up on my digital marketing as well. See you at the conference!

Deepfakes and German law

A couple months ago a friend sent me this entertaining fake clip of Richard Nixon reading an alternative speech – never given – announcing the deaths of the Moon landing astronauts. Naturally, it made me wonder how deepfakes will be handled in English/US law compared to German law when clips like these inevitably become more common.

The German legal system typically gives citizens more extensive privacy rights than common law does. The German Art Copyright Act (Kunsturheberrechtsgesetz) prohibits using someone’s images without their consent. The German Telemedia Act (Telemediengesetz) and Network Enforcement Act (Netzdurchsetzungsgesetz) provide tools for preventing the distribution of prohibited content through social media. Finally, as part of the general personality right (Persönlichkeitsrecht) granted by the German Basic Law (Germany’s constitution), individuals have a “right to their own image” (Recht am eigenen Bild). This means people have a right to decide whether pictures of them may be published. In an example case, in 2009 the District Court of Ingolstadt ruled that a picture of people dancing at a night club in which individual faces were visible could not be published without the consent of those recognisably depicted:

Head note of case

1. Die Veröffentlichung von Fotos, die eine Person in einer Menge von Menschen in einer Disco zeigen, wobei jedoch die Erkennbarkeit der Gesichtszüge der fotografierten Person als Einzelperson gewahrt bleibt, ist ohne Genehmigung der fotografierten Person grundsätzlich unzulässig.

2. Eine ausdrückliche oder konkludente Einwilligung aufgrund der Tatsache, dass es heute zunehmend als üblich angesehen wird, dass in Diskotheken zu Werbezwecken Fotografien gefertigt und im Internet veröffentlicht werden, ist vorliegend nicht anzunehmen. Insbesondere kann auch im Betreten der Diskothek nicht per se vor diesem Hintergrund eine stillschweigende Einwilligung erkannt werden.

Quick translation

1. The publication of photographs depicting a person in a crowd of people at a night club in which the facial features of the photographed person as an individual are recognisable is fundamentally prohibited without the consent of the photographed person.

2. The fact that it is increasingly considered usual today for photographs to be taken in night clubs and published on the Internet for advertising purposes does not mean that explicit or implicit consent can be assumed in this case. In particular, entering the night club cannot per se be recognised as tacit consent because of this background.

Another area where German law gives strong protection is “revenge porn.” In the UK, revenge porn was made a sexual offence in the Criminal Justice and Courts Act 2015. In the USA, the law differs on a state-by-state basis: most states ban revenge porn, but whether it is classed as a felony or a misdemeanour varies. In Germany, meanwhile, the Federal Court of Justice found revenge porn to be a violation of a person’s constitutional rights:

Head note of case

Fertigt im Rahmen einer intimen Beziehung ein Partner vom anderen intime Bild- oder Filmaufnahmen, kann dem Abgebildeten gegen den anderen nach dem Ende der Beziehung ein Löschanspruch wegen Verletzung seines Persönlichkeitsrechts zustehen, wenn er seine Einwilligung in die Anfertigung und Verwendung der Aufnahmen auf die Dauer der Beziehung – konkludent – beschränkt hat.

Quick translation

If, in the course of an intimate relationship, one partner creates intimate images or videos of the other, the depicted individual may have a claim to deletion against the other partner after the relationship ends on the basis of violation of his or her right of personality if he or she – implicitly – limited his or her consent to the creation and use of the images or videos to the duration of the relationship.

Where does this leave deepfakes in Germany? Probably nowhere good. Private individuals will no doubt have claims to injunction and damages, if they have the means and wherewithal to pursue them. Public figures and politicians generally enjoy less protection, especially against satire or other substantive criticism of their actions. My gut feeling is that deepfakes that aren’t obviously satire – which, one supposes, defeats the purpose of a deepfake masquerading as “real news” – will readily be found to be violations of personality rights or may constitute defamation, depending on the case. But I’m no lawyer, and this looks to be a complicated and rapidly evolving area of the law. Drop me a line if you know of any interesting court decisions about deepfakes!

Read more:

Das Man / The They

The first few chapters of Sarah Bakewell’s excellent At the Existentialist Café: Freedom, Being & Apricot Cocktails dip into German phenomenology as context for her history of the existentialist philosophers. Phenomenology was an early 20th century German and French school of philosophy that sought to describe our subjective experience of the world – what is it like to be conscious, phenomenologists asked, once our assumptions and everyday habits of thought are stripped away? Phenomenology’s ambiguous superstar, Martin Heidegger, is someone I knew of largely because of his reputation as a Nazi supporter on the one hand, and a densely inaccessible writer on the other.

A key part of Heidegger’s description of human existence is his concept of das Man. This “man” is not the man of English, but variously translated as “one” in the sense of “one eats dinner in the evening”; “you” as in “you live, you learn”; or “they” as in “they say it will rain tomorrow.” None of these translations have quite the same flavour as das Man. “One,” although the most literal equivalent, is stilted and can read as a passive-aggressive command. “You” has the right tone of diffuse neutrality in some contexts, but the general “you” has other uses and The You feels entirely too direct and personal when the entire point of das Man is its impersonal and invisible nature. “They” implies distance and a subtle critique – The They might well be the title of some dystopian novel (cf. Zamyatin’s We) in which sinister conformity plays the villain.

What is das Man actually, if it isn’t quite one, you, or they?

  1. What everyone else is doing, and what we think we should probably also be doing.
  2. In Bakewell’s words, “an impersonal entity that robs us of the freedom to think for ourselves.”
  3. On the other hand, a “neutral repository of shared intelligible practices.
  4. The totality of our unconscious, learned knowledge of the social and practical world, projected by our minds outwards such that it appears embodied in the world external to us.

As such, das Man is the shared standards that allow us to navigate the world, the bedrock of our connectedness to the rest of humanity, and indeed also that sinister perceived collective from which we struggle to distinguish ourselves as individuals. What happens when those shared standards change? Think of human rights, animal rights, the environment, and matters of social justice: how quickly has #MeToo changed public attitudes to behaviours once accepted as, if not good per se, at least unalterable and probably harmless? A gap opens up between those who believe one acts in such-and-such a way, and those who believe one acts in some other way. From across this gap, the actions of other people appear unintelligible, incomprehensible – like those of Heidegger himself to a modern reader.