Based in Germany, Marc Prior is a freelance translator with over 20 years’ professional translation experience under his belt. By day, he translates from German, Italian and Dutch into English, specialising in occupational health and safety and environmental engineering. By night, he’s a mentor on the very popular ITI Professional Support Group and is also active on support forums for a range of Free and Open Source Software (FOSS) tools. Read on for Marc’s take on life without Windows and getting started as a translator.
Naked Translator: Hi Marc. What is the one piece of advice you wish you’d had earlier in your career?
M: This is a very difficult one to answer, because looking back I’d say that there is very little that I would have done differently. I had already decided in my mid-teens that I wanted to go into translation, and I planned my moves accordingly. Combined with the fact that I was in the right place at just the right time on several occasions, things worked out well.
I sometimes wish I’d had the confidence to take certain steps earlier than I actually did: I’d been working as a translator for ten years before I joined ITI, for instance, because I doubted that I would satisfy the membership requirements. Like many other translators, I also seriously undersold myself in my early days as a freelancer. If I could summarize aspects like these, the advice would be to have more confidence in oneself as a business person. Not more confidence per se, though: I was without a doubt over-confident as a translator in the early years, and I think this is a common trait among fledgling freelance translators, and the reason for many problems: over-confidence in their translation ability, under-confidence in themselves as independent business people.
NT: Your website Linux for Translators is a really fantastic how-to guide. Could you give us a general overview of the IT tools you use in your day-to-day activities as a translator? How might this change in the future?
M: Office suite: OpenOffice.org, but I don’t do much translation work within the office suite itself. I also have Microsoft Office, running on Crossover Office so that it will run on Linux. I use both for more general housekeeping tasks, such as converting MS Office files to OpenOffice format for translation in OmegaT, and for tidying up the minor formatting glitches that result from the roundtripping process.
I’ve tried other word processors, notably Textmaker (nicer to look at and much faster than OpenOffice) and Applixware (which has a very powerful integral macro language), but neither comes close to OpenOffice’s conversion filters from/to Microsoft Office, which is by far the most important aspect.
CAT tool: OmegaT. This is the environment in which I do almost all my actual translation work. I’ve tried other CAT tools but at the moment, there is nothing available for Linux to match OmegaT‘s combination of functionality and ease of use.
I use Firefox as my browser and Thunderbird as my e-mail client. I have a range of utilities that I use less frequently for web-related tasks. One of these is Konquerer, the integral file manager/browser utility of the KDE desktop environment. I rarely use it as a browser but I find it very practical as an FTP client (e.g. for uploading new or modified files to my website). Then there are command-line utilities such as wget (which can be used to download an entire website, preserving the structure) and w3m (which is a text-based browser). These will sound very geeky to non-Linux users, but they are very simple and therefore – and this is something that is difficult to appreciate fully without having experienced Linux – they can be combined very easily with other tools for custom functions.
I use Adobe Reader (the Linux version of course) and Kpdf to view PDF files and extract the text from them; both have their strengths and weaknesses. There are also a range of other tools available for converting between different file formats (e.g. PDF to HTML).
The list goes on, with utilities that I use less and less frequently. There is a little program called Winston, for instance, that I use to submit my monthly VAT returns (German law requires them to be submitted electronically). I also have a number of utilities that I wrote myself in the tcl/tk scripting language. In saying this, I am probably also confirming preconceptions (or prejudices) about Linux users all being – and having to be – programmers. This is only one side of the story, though. Linux is a very programmer-friendly environment, and there is huge body of command-line tools, mostly free. It’s surprisingly easy to learn a little programming, especially using a scripting language such as tcl/tk or Python, sufficiently well to “glue” these tools together to perform certain tasks.
How might this change in the future? Well, I don’t anticipate any major changes in the near future. Firefox and Thunderbird are established applications, so their availability and continued development is fairly well assured; at the same time, my requirements are not particularly demanding, so I don’t envisage switching to different applications here. I would not be surprised if we were to see more CAT tools for Linux in the medium term; Swordfish, for instance, has been well received so far, and there is a standalone version of Wordfast on the horizon which will also run on Linux. Development of Anaphraseus, a Wordfast-style CAT tool that works from within OpenOffice, is also coming along nicely. However, my commitment to the OmegaT project means that I’m unlikely to switch to a different CAT tool, at least for routine work.
An area in which we might see some changes is that of office suites. Two interesting recent developments are that MS Office 2007 is now supported by Crossover Office, which translated for the benefit of Windows users means that it can be made to run on Linux; and that the default MS Office file format has now changed over to an accessible XML-based format. In other words, the latest version of MS Office runs on Linux, and quite separately from that, its native files are in a form that can be edited relatively easily independently of MS Office. Translators generally (perhaps reflecting the mood among their clients, as ever) seem to be resisting adoption of both the new version of MS Office and the associated file format, but these developments are a major step forward for Linux users, since MS Office texts can now be edited on Linux either in the native application (i.e. MS Office) or by working directly on the file in another application without conversion and the associated risks of formatting loss. It should also enable OpenOffice to improve its conversion filters. In the longer term, I would certainly expect this to shake up the market for CAT tools a little, though quite in what way, it’s probably too early to tell.
NT: Any advice for other translators who may be interested in dipping their toes into open-source software?
M: Try it! People quite often ask me for advice, and I describe the benefits as I see them but am also honest about the drawbacks. That, it seems, is usually sufficient for people to decide on the spot against even trying Linux. Linux has much higher visibility now than it used to have and my impression is that many people are worried that they might be missing out on some major development. When they hear that life isn’t all rosy for Linux users, either, the response often strikes me as one of relief! Then they go back to using Windows.
Linux doesn’t require any great commitment. It’s out there and can be downloaded free of charge, in dozens of different flavours. All you need is an old (but not ancient) PC, and you can try it out to your heart’s content at no cost.
Something else that I would recommend, now that they have become available, are the new netbook products that are supplied with Linux preinstalled. By these I mean the Asus Eee PC, MSI Wind, Acer Aspire One, and similar products – there are now something like forty different models to choose from, all of which have appeared within the 10 months since the product category was born with the introduction of the original Asus Eee PC. These mini-laptops typically cost between 200 and 400 euros and are excellent second (or more probably third) computers for those occasions when you want to be productive for an hour or two despite being on the move. With its lower cost and more efficient use of hardware resources, Linux is the operating system of choice, at least at the lower end (price and performance-wise) of this product category.
NT: You’ve been a mentor on the hugely successful ITI Professional Support Group for several years now. In your experience, what is the most common misconception held by inexperienced translators hoping to start up in the profession?
M: This one is easy! The mistake most new freelance translators make is to overlook that they are in fact setting up a new business. Some still think of translation as an academic exercise, but the more common mistake is to think of customers as “employers”, and to think that the business side, particularly the definition of their own services and the marketing of them, will take care of itself. Certain translators’ portals, which offer an all-inclusive service to translators including jobs apparently for the taking, exacerbate this impression.
NT: What do you read — in print and online — to keep up with developments in your field?
M: On a regular basis, I read the industry periodical International Environmental Technology, and VDSI Aktuell, the magazine of the VDSI (the society of German safety engineers), of which I am a member.
More generally, though, I keep in step with developments simply by going “the extra mile” when researching. If I face a terminology problem, I try to avoid the temptation of doing just enough research to resolve the particular term. Instead, I read up on the subject, in both source and target languages, which thanks to the Internet is now very easy. This is not only a more reliable way of finding exactly the right term, but also provides a better understanding of the subject as a whole, and therefore improves the quality of the whole text, besides enhancing background knowledge generally which may come in useful in future.
Thanks for sharing your experience with us, Marc – lots of tips and ideas for translators at all stages of their careers.