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Documents, their origin and their creation

Requests for translation originate in the Commission departments: in the Directorates General, the Cabinets, the Secretariat-General and elsewhere. The requesting departments vary enormously in the amount of translation they ask for. D.G. V is the largest single consumer of translations and over the four months of July, August, September and October of 1994 asked for an average of over 10,000 pages of translation per month. At the other extreme, D.G. XVIII asked for a total of 2,811 pages in the whole of the twelve month period from 1st November 1993 to 31st October 1994. Demand can also vary quite widely over time: D.G. XII, over July to October of 1994 asked for an average of just over 4,000 pages of text. This average figure if considered alone is misleading: in fact, in September over 12,000 pages were asked for, whilst in the other three months, the volume only once passed the 2,000 page mark.

The amount of translation passing through the Translation Service does not reflect the total amount of translation done inside the Commission. It is quite common for an author to organise translation within his own department, for reasons of speed or of convenience. This has obvious consequences for the completeness of document and translation archives and, regrettably, on occasion, for the quality of the translation.

Although requests for translation come from the Commission departments, the documents to be translated may originate elsewhere, most frequently in the Member States. It is perhaps worth remarking that very little can be done to influence the presentation or the medium of texts coming from outside.

When the authors of a text are Commission staff, (and, for that matter, in the case of some outside documents), there is no guarantee that they will be writing in their mother tongue. Also, many documents are not produced by one single author. Documents may be produced by several authors or may contain excerpts from other documents. A direct consequence of all this is that the quality of the original text may not always be equivalent to that produced by a fluent, educated native speaker: there will be ill-turned phrases, clumsy formulations, unwitting ambiguity and sometimes straightforward grammatical and spelling errors. This is one of the characteristics of the work of the SdT which distinguishes it very strongly from most other translation services: translators the world over complain about the quality of the source text they have to deal with, but few are called upon to deal with text written by non-native speakers to the extent that the SdT is.

Some of the people interviewed suggested that the Translation Service might usefully intervene already at the stage when a document is being prepared, serving as language specialists rather than translators. This ties in with a proposal which is sometimes made whereby the Translation Service is decentralized completely and becomes language groups working within the requesting services rather than an organisation separate from the requesters. Attitudes to this suggestion are somewhat mixed. Most of the people interviewed are very aware of a communication gap between the requesting departments and the Translation Service, and would welcome moves to lessen the divide. But the translators in particular appreciate being able to work with colleagues of the same target language, with whom one can discuss problems. Dispersing the translation activity would inevitably mean creating smaller groups, with very few translators into each language. There is also the purely practical problem of being able to cover all the source languages. A translator translates from, typically, two, three or maybe four languages into his native language. In order to provide translation from ten source languages, then, on average three or four translators are required: there may simply not be the volume of work in a particular department to justify the employment of that number. Inconsistency of work load (see earlier) and its mirror image - the difficulty of guaranteeing continuity of service in the event of leave, illness etc., within a very small translation unit - are further problem areas.

A proposal somewhat along the same lines but not posing practical problems to the same degree is already actively pursued by a few departments. This involves the creation of ``task forces'', groups of translators who co-operate directly with a requesting department in a perspective whereby the activity is perceived more as the production of a multilingual document than as the production of a document in one language and its subsequent translation into others. This mode of organisation is not as yet very widespread, but there are plans to increase its use.

An almost diametrically opposed proposal made by some translators (often coming from the southern countries!) is to decentralize work completely and organize translation through teleworking. Whilst this would have some obvious advantages in terms of improved quality of life for those who prefer it and perhaps also in terms of keeping the translator in touch with his own language, it raises difficult problems of organization, of protection of social benefits and of responsibility. The questions essentially turn around who would be the employer, and who would be responsible for quality control. It should also be said that even among the advocates of teleworking there were very few who did not want some contact with colleagues: they imagined decentralized translation offices in the Member States much more than true teleworking from the individual home, except for those whose thinking in this area revolved around the question of family responsibilities.

Yet another proposal is the creation of an editing pool within the SdT. Problems of linguistic quality as well as of format and presentation would be dealt with here before the documents are dispatched to the translation units. The edited original version would be sent to the requester along with the translation.

In the meanwhile, many of those interviewed suggested that since text-processing systems are used in the requesting services to produce documents (Word and Word-Perfect are the two most common systems), the authors might be encouraged to use spelling checkers and grammar checkers more than they currently do. There are, though, inevitable obstacles to the routine use of these tools. Spelling checkers vary in quality from one language to another, and are, in any case, only as good as the dictionaries associated with them. If very many words have to be added before the system stops coming up with irritatingly large numbers of false positives, most users will prefer to rely on their own ability rather than on the checker. Grammar checkers, in their current state, tend to come up with even more false alarms than do spelling checkers, and the problem cannot be made to go away by adding information to the system. Many of those interviewed used spelling checkers as a matter of routine, but only one person reported using a grammar checker when he was writing in English, which was not his native tongue. Even then, he limited use to documents of two pages or less, simply because the very large number of false alarms made the process too time consuming.

Some requesting departments notify the Translation Service when they begin work on a major document which will eventually have to be translated, but this seems to be comparatively rare. A very common perception from the SdT side is that authors simply do not think about translation: thus they have an understandable, but unhelpful, habit of finishing a document and then suddenly realising that it has to be translated, rather than taking the need for translation into account from the start, notifying the SdT of their document production plans and perhaps sending certain parts of the document, for example the appendices, off for translation before the whole document is complete. One of the people interviewed suggested that some of these problems might be alleviated if newly appointed officials spent a month with the SdT before taking up their normal duties in the requesting services. Although this is probably not a feasible proposal, it does highlight how strong the awareness of problems associated with work-flow is. Indeed, we shall see in the section on dream tools that several of the suggestions made seem to corroborate a suspicion that work-flow is one of the major bottlenecks, not only in the SdT, but in the Commission as a whole.

An exception to all this is the multi-thematic documents which pass through the hands of the central planning unit of the SdT. These documents are always announced, and many of them, the General Report for example, are even predictable.

Some documents, but by no means all, prepared in the requesting departments conform to the EUROLOOK standard. However, EUROLOOK was introduced comparatively recently, and its use is still spreading.


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