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An interview with German-English translator Keith Geaney

Many people that go on to become translators have an early intuition that their future profession will evolve around languages. And so it was for Keith Geaney, German-English translator, and law graduate.

In this interview, Keith shares what motivated him to become a language professional and how he ended up as our inhouse German-English translator at SwissGlobal.

Keith, you’re a German-English and French-English translator. What influenced your decision to choose translation as your profession?

It was pretty much a foregone conclusion that I was going to end up working in languages in some capacity. Even as a child, I was fascinated by the whole concept of different languages. I would read the instructions on the boxes of my toys in languages like Finnish, just to see how different from English they were.

My first ‘professional’ translation, for which I was paid money and that came from an independent client, was a recipe for apple pie when I was seventeen years old. My German teacher, Mr Hopkins, encouraged me to go down this path and even brokered another client for me while I was still a student. I think I set what could be a personal speed record to this day with that one: 17,000 words over the course of a weekend!

I then got won over by the glamorous image of the conquering television barrister and decided to study law. Although it didn’t play directly to my core strengths, having a law degree has come in extremely helpful since then – legal translation is a fascinating and pretty recession-proof specialist subject. After university, I temped in London for a while, and one of those temp jobs turned out to be for a major translation agency. A two-week assignment became a month, a month became three months, and three months became a permanent job offer. I was truly enjoying what I was doing for the first time in my professional life.

What does a regular day at work as a translator look like for you?

Now that I am employed as an in-house translator with SwissGlobal, my daily routine is a lot more regular than it was as a freelancer. I get to the ‘office’ (I work from home) at around 08:00 and check my e-mail to see if anything urgent has come up that needs to be dealt with in priority. Then, there is a quick morning meeting with the other in-house translator(s) and the project managers so that we can keep each other informed of our workload and how available we are to lend a hand.

The rest of my day is mostly spent translating or proofreading assignments as and when they come in. I keep a close eye on my e-mails and my Teams chat window in case my colleagues have any questions or requests for me. Since working in-house, I have had the opportunity to take on types of project that I had never encountered as a freelancer, such as subtitling videos and checking the automatic transcripts of business meetings created by speech recognition software.

What are some of the particular linguistic features of a German-to-English translation? What special characteristics do each of these two languages have?

German and English are quite different from a structural perspective. Unlike in some languages, such as French, you cannot keep the syntax more or less the same when translating German into English. The danger is that either your text will rapidly become meaningless, or that you like Yoda sounding end up will. German adjectives also agree with nouns in a way that English adjectives do not (with the possible exception of ‘blond’/’blonde’), so you need to make sure you associate the right adjective with the right noun when translating. This system of adjectival endings also makes word order more flexible in German in a way that it is not necessarily in English. Sometimes, you have to swap the order of the words around completely in order to get a grammatically correct result in English.

Another peculiarity of German-English translation is the German language’s love for abbreviations. Laws, ordinances, educational institutions, cultural heritage locations, sporting figures and more all have their own abbreviations. Some of them have English equivalents; some do not (in which case I leave them as they are and include an explanation afterwards); and some are very obscure indeed, which usually triggers a search through online glossaries, termbases and any similar documents that might give a bit more context.

What are your views on Artificial Intelligence (AI) and Machine Translation (MT) as a professional translator?

This is obviously a very hot-button topic at the moment, as we are entering an era where the place of artificial intelligence in content creation is stirring up a lot of debate. I personally think that what we need right now is a separate term for machine translation in its own right, something that does not contain the word ‘translation’ at all, because translation and machine translation ultimately pursue different objectives. The inevitable risk, and this is something that we have seen for the past two to three years now, is that the two will be marketed as equivalent to each other, when they are not.

Translation is for when you need an end product that will reproduce the contents and meaning of the original material with complete accuracy, unambiguously, seamlessly tailored to its target market and in a smooth and entirely natural style. It is for important things like documents designed to create legal relationships, or product specifications where the slightest mistake can cost a huge amount of money. It is for when you devote the time and the budget to having the work done by experienced, qualified professionals, because you know how important it is to have an impeccable result.

Machine translation is useful if you need to know the overall meaning of a document, especially if you have a large volume of source text, a tight turnaround time and a limited budget. If you need a version of the documents in a language that you and your colleagues understand for internal decision-making purposes and you need to move forward quickly, machine translation might be just fine for you.

It is clear that these two services are aimed at two completely different markets. Of course, one company may have the need for both at different moments in time, but they should be able to make an informed decision about how to invest their budget in each case. They are not currently being informed by all those agencies who are selling machine translation as equivalent to human translation, only cheaper.

This does not only affect clients. Freelance translators are sometimes asked to review a machine translation and produce a result of the same quality as if they had translated the text from scratch (a process that is every bit as time-consuming as actual translation) and are being paid considerably less for the privilege. When I was a freelancer, the agencies that contacted me for machine translation post-editing offered between 35% and 45% of my regular translation rate for this work. Clients need to be briefed by language service providers that the product they are paying for when they order machine translation will be less than perfect, and expectations on translators in terms of rigorousness need to go down commensurately, so that translators can spend less time on these projects and improve their productivity and earning potential.

What piece of advice would you give a young translator starting out in the language industry?

Believe in yourself, first and foremost. You have marketable language skills and very probably a qualification in the translation industry, so you need to be marketing yourself as a specialised professional. This means refusing to work with agencies that offer unreasonably low prices or make unreasonable demands on your time.

A lot of translators start out by doing a mailshot to all the translation agencies whose contact details they can find, but canvassing direct clients from the beginning can be useful as well. These clients may have less regular work on offer, but they are more likely to work with a single trusted partner over time. Depending on your areas of specialisation, you can contact law firms, hospitals, banks, retailers…the list is endless.

The final piece of advice I would give is to avoid falling into the ‘quality’ trap. The translation market is awash with freelancers and service providers whose only marketing argument is the quality of their work. ‘Quality’ gets repeated so often that it eventually starts to lose its meaning. Instead of talking about the quality of your work, talk about what your translations will bring your client: better market reach, a more professional image, better customer retention rates, and so on. The more tangible a benefit they see you can provide them, the more likely they are to work with you. Good luck!