Project management for languages of limited diffusion

I’m in Chicago O’Hare as I write this, waiting for my flight and thinking about the Ethiopian family I was stuck behind in security this morning. There were a mother and father, three children with two, as my grandmother would put it, “still on the hip.” I’m watching them go through, the youngest child clinging to his mother’s neck, crying, as security tries to pry him away so they can run him through the body scanner without her. The eldest child, a girl, is crying as security pats her down. Lines of American business travelers stand behind them, moaning and groaning about the extended wait. Meanwhile, the middle child is standing in the body scanner bewildered while a TSA officer pantomimes the position, extending her arms above her head. I stand there and think that this child looks as if she’s standing like a criminal in a lineup and that if I were from another country, if I were a child, if I didn’t speak the language, I would be so confused. I would think: what a crazy, crazy place, this America.

I sincerely doubt that anyone else who saw this was thinking about translation. Security, or lack thereof, is now simply part of airport culture. Yes, airports have their own certain culture. There’s the larger macro-culture of flying in the States, and then there’s the micro-culture that varies a tad from airport to airport. And as with any culture, there are unspoken rules and everyone is aware when they’re broken. The rule-breakers are generally people who have never flown before, such as the woman who’s wearing too much jewelry at the security checkpoint, wrestling with her watch and earrings while the baggage to be scanned piles up on the belt behind her, or the vacationer who doesn’t understand why she can’t pack a jumbo can of aerosol hairspray in her carry-on. We frequent travelers expect them to know these rules. My mother has never flown before. When I start to lose patience with these people, I think of her and of how I would like for her to be treated when she finally flies the friendly skies.

Culture is assumed. Oftentimes, it’s not even possible to identify. This time, I’m flying back from San Francisco, where they call all women “miss.” “Would you like some coffee, miss?”  “Hello, miss. What can I get you?”  As a fully-grown adult, this is hard to stomach — being called something I associate with a child. As a Southerner, I’m used to hearing children referred to as “miss” and adults as “ma’am,” and all this “miss”-ing instantly puts me on guard and makes me feel condescended to. One little word, said in one part of the country to be polite, affects the kind of relationship I have with the person saying it. We’re aware of this. As translators and localizers, we’re so aware of this, we make our living from it. We constantly think of culture in our work for the end translation, but how much do we weigh culture as part of the process to help ourselves?  When we take culture into consideration in our work, do we think about anything beyond the final product?

Three years ago I was on another flight with one of my pro-ject managers. She was reading Culture and Customs of Somalia by Mohamed Diriye Abdullahi (Greenwood Press, 2001). Suddenly, she leans across the aisle and says, “Terena, you’ve got to read this.” We’d been having an issue with our Somali interpreters. We couldn’t get them to fill out their paperwork. They’d call in, wanting to apply as a vendor; you’d conduct a preliminary interview; the candidate would sound experienced, qualified, promising. Then we’d never receive their applications or resumes. Or we would get it, but then they would never sign their contract or submit their mandatory tax documents. At the time, Somali was one of the languages we had the largest number of call-in applicants for, but the fewest number of contractors actually available for work. In addition, when a Somali interpreter or translator would complete the submission process, we’d usually lose them in a year. The call would come, an interpreter accusing us of not paying him for his work when he had ignored multiple requests from our office to send an invoice. Eventually — sometimes months later — an invoice would come, which was promptly paid, but in the meantime, the linguist would stop returning calls or accepting assignments.

It made no sense to us why someone would go to the effort of applying, and then not take the final step of completing a confidentiality form. Or worse yet, why someone would do the work but then never ask for payment. But as I read what my project manager pointed out, it all became clear. “[M]ost Somalis,” Abdullahi writes, “work and deal in a paperless economy in which business transactions and money transfers worth thousands of dollars are enacted with words” (p. 159).

Maybe this is because Somali as a language didn’t even have a unified script until 1972, having previously fluctuated between Arabic, Latin and unique writing styles. Even then, the unified language wasn’t mandatory in schools until 1980, so today’s generation of translators pretty much grew up without a standard script.

In addition to the writing difficulties, or perhaps because of them, common law or heer is the norm in Somalia. When Italian colonials arrived on the scene in the nineteenth century, infractions of heer, “a set of laws, seldom written, that members of a clan or neighboring clans decide to respect” are brought before the guurti — a council of elders (p. 142). Somalis rebelled against the centralized imposition of laws and rules enforced by the Italians, and this community system is still used to socially govern today. So when a project manager slaps Somali translators with paperwork and other formalities, 200 years of colonialism fight back. To them, oral agreements are what’s binding.

Sitting on that plane, my project manager and I realized our project management issue wasn’t an issue anymore. It was a cultural misunderstanding with a solution. Now, when new, Somali applicants contact us, we apologize as we send them our forms, saying, “I know this amount of paperwork isn’t customary in your culture. But in our country, the government and our clients require that we keep certain records. We want to create a relationship of trust with you, but situations beyond our control mean that we do need these back first please.” Or something like that. We also developed a suggested template for invoicing that we send with assignments for translation, reiterating that the invoice is necessary for our tax records and required by the government, again, with apologies. We align ourselves with them — also burdened by the amount of paperwork that a litigious United States has pressed upon us — instead of being the ones pressing.

Like saying “miss” instead of “ma’am,” this small shift in perspective made all the difference. Our Somali availability grew, not just by adding new translators to our list, but also by retaining relationships with the translators we already worked with much longer than before. Mai-Mai availability increased as well, since the Somali Bantu have a similar relationship with legalities and paperwork as the Somali.

A friend of mine who works in refugee resettlement says when you do what we do, you assume some pretty odd stereotypes. While the Sudanese don’t say much, the Congolese want to have a long chat about your family members’ health before they can get down to business. Having entered the professional translation industry from that angle myself, I have to agree. Working in refugee resettlement really gets you thinking about how bereft the language services industry is when it comes to non-FIGS (French, Italian, German, Spanish) languages. In addition to FIGS, another acronym tossed around in resettlement circles is LLD — languages of limited diffusion. I also hear the phrase “languages other than Spanish” (LOS) quite frequently. 

Whatever you call them, these are the languages every translation company offers, but that few companies in our industry really handle a lot of. If you’re a multilanguage vendor and you don’t offer Spanish, there’s probably something wrong. But if you don’t offer Karen, no one will be surprised. For those LLDs provided, it’s not really the language service provider (LSP) doing the work. When you get to investigating some company’s language lists, you find out it just has one Malay person, that its Lingala guy actually subcontracts through another LSP, or that its Chin translator can’t handle anything specialized, only general texts. This isn’t false advertising per se; unfortunately, it’s just how our industry works. Technically, the company does offer these languages and probably would love to take on more contractors for these pairs. But by and large, when it comes to growing and maintaining LLD databases, our industry doesn’t know what it’s talking about.

Having worked in refugee resettlement, I see a vast and wide disparity between the people who speak these languages and the people who sell them. Lori Thicke of Translators without Borders has often spoken of the need to train African translators. Wordfast works through Translators without Borders to grant free licenses to those who volunteer. But having worked almost exclusively with Africans for years, having interpreted for them, with them and beside them, I can say beyond the shadow of a doubt that regardless of what we do to attract LLD translators, if we as an industry do not make efforts to understand their culture and their lives, they will never become career contractors.

We lost a Nepali interpreter last summer to Kroger. Kroger, for those of you outside the eastern United States, is a supermarket chain with locations in 31 states. This man was fully trained and had been working as a translator/interpreter for two years. Now he bags groceries for a living. He makes far less each year than he could have made if he had only marketed himself, but as the income was steady, this decision was the one he felt was best for his family. Culturally, he is the breadwinner, and Kroger could promise him a regular income in advance. Turns out, he only had two clients, so he just worked once or twice a week because he didn’t know how to attract more. We pleaded for him to join the American Translators Association, to get a profile on — anything — but he had a hard time with the whole “self-marketing” concept. To an enterprising American, it may seem like he didn’t really want to translate or interpret, like he didn’t really want to work, but the Nepalese culture is exceptionally laid back and it’s nearly impossible for a Nepali to show assertiveness or aggression.

It’s not just the Nepalese, either, who have issues with self-promotion. I’ve gone to business mixers where French people lined up against the wall, not knowing how to go into the room and make contacts. I’ve walked up to Argentineans at conferences, said, “Hi, I’m Terena” and had them just look at me. This, too, is cultural. In a room full of strangers, a Southerner is destined to make friends, whereas many aren’t, too locked into what I call subway — or airport — mode.

For project management, what this means is that the best translator for the job could literally be at Kroger. Now, I’m not saying we should all hit the Korean barbecue restaurant the next time we need Korean. Heaven forbid that we should ever stoop so low in seeking new talent. In fact, I’ll tell you right now — will beg with you, in fact — not to go to the Korean barbecue joint for Korean translation. Be prepared, though, for your average LLD translator to work another job, regardless of the country he or she is in. The fully-marketed, fully-available Kinyarwanda translator is rare. Plan for limited availability. Because even if you’re working with a full-time translator, odds are she’s contracting with a gazillion other LSPs as well, because being the only Kinyarwanda translator who’s learned how to market, everyone thinks she’s the only one around. She’s going to be busy, whether her side work is in the industry or not. Allow more time.

You should also allow more time for anyone living in a developing country. Even FIGS languages can run into LLD issues if you’re working with a minority dialect of them. Think French for Cameroon, Portuguese for Cape Verde or English for Liberia. In addition to allowing extra time, it’s good to have a back-up plan.

Louisville, Kentucky, where I live, has had three major power outages in the last three years. In the most recent one, I was fortunate enough to have my power restored within 30 hours. After Hurricane Ike, I had to wait 12 days. If you’re an American, not having electricity messes with your mind. People do things they normally would never do, like break bread with complete strangers. One family down the block — Revolutionary War reenactors with lots of campfire equipment — started throwing dinner parties every night. We would sit in the front yard and sing folk songs, drink spruce beer and play whist. The loss of power temporarily changed our culture, which had previously kept people on the same street too buried in their BlackBerries to spend time together. Despite the periodic failures, though, power outages have fortunately stopped being a standard way of life in the United States. In developing countries, though, they still are.

When weighing culture into project management, you also have to weigh in the factors that create it. As a result, depending on the country, we project extra time for delivery because you never do know when the power will go out. Sometimes, depending on the size of the project, we ask our translators to deliver in stages. Regardless of the stage, we ask that they stop working every so many hours to e-mail us what they have, translation memory included. Our project managers are then able to re-

assign the remainder, if needed, to keep the project on schedule despite the translator losing electricity.

This is also an area where collaborative translation could thrive. Were you to pair a developing world translator with a developed country counterpart, the other translator could continue and the LLD translator could revise after he or she came back online. If the power doesn’t go out, you’re able to deliver early to your client, and if it does, there’s no loss. Either way, you’re prepared.

Preparation is really what it’s about. I once heard at a conference that 70% of project management work should take place before translation even begins — that project managers should be that ready for a client’s incoming job. Perhaps some of that 70% should be spent looking into the translator’s culture and determining what factors could go wrong. There’s not a lot of talk in the translation industry about what those factors are. Like I said before, we tend to focus on FIGS rather than LLD. A lot of this is because of a lack of training opportunities available for project managers on culture’s role in the translation process. Heck, for some LLD cultures, there’s little information out there period, much less information tailor-made for our profession. It’s one of the issues that plagues machine translation and makes it harder to develop algorithms for accurately translating obscure languages such as Kalabari. Rule-based systems require linguistic study of a language that hasn’t been studied; behavior-based ones require a compendium that doesn’t yet exist.

These languages are almost infinite in their variety; even my name, Terena, is a minority language spoken in Brazil. As it’s an agrarian tongue in nature, I know one phrase: Pú’i-ti hó’openo ne kûre (Pigs are fat animals). But what does this clever knowledge tell us for project management? That localizing anything modern into this language may be nearly impossible. Translation techniques such as adaptation and lacunas must be used. I must admit, since it’s the same as my name, I feel a personal responsibility to learn Terena, but the urge quickly dies. There are so many languages out there, so many cultures. To study them all would be impossible.

So, how does the project manager cope? Unless you’ve countless hours for perusing the CIA World Factbook, a quicker summary will have to do. This is where the world of refugee resettlement can help our own. Our clients may be corporations, but as health information and software programs stretch out into Africa and elsewhere, localization is needed just as badly for the LLDs as it originally was for the FIGS. 

There is a divide between the professional translation world and that of refugee resettlement. We have the client connection; they have the cultural one. In fact, refugee resettlement agencies are so culturally in tune, weekly cultural orientations are part of the mandatory classes required by the US government for all inbound arrivals. That family in the airport was clearly newly arrived, having to go through security in O’Hare after clearing customs on their way over. Give them a year or two, and they will have lots to share, I’m sure, if they haven’t become experts already. With an introduction to our country as formidable as the one they received, I wouldn’t be surprised if the children don’t become translators, forever seeking subliminal ways to cross that divide.

It’s not often that the professional translation world crosses paths with the ad hoc one, and let’s face it, for the most part, refugee resettlement translators and interpreters by and large are ad hocs. But when it comes to incorporating minority culture into our work processes, we’re the ones with the most to learn. Because while they may speak 2,000 languages in Africa, none of them are Spanish. Nothing against Spanish — in our world, it’s bread and butter — but if you want to specialize or even routinely offer LLDs, you have to understand the people who speak them. 

In their book Sixty Million Frenchmen Can’t Be Wrong (Sourcebooks, Inc., 2003), sociologists Jean-Benoit Nadeau and Julie Barlow write about how “travelers

. . . tend to accept [cultural] obstacles stoically, reasoning (rightly) that things are just done differently in foreign cultures. For some reason, when it comes to the French, North Americans drop this reflex” (p. 9). They go on to explain that it’s because so many American and Canadian aspects of life mirror those of the French that we often forget that they’re exactly that: French. We do not have this excuse with languages of limited diffusion. We cannot hide behind their cultures being parallel universes to our own.

So now the question is, if you were to drop your assumptions about how project management is supposed to go, if you were to lose the culture of being a project manager itself and think about the culture of the translator, what would change? How would you go about your process differently? And how would your client’s translation improve with it?