Translating a need

COVID-19 has brought out the best in us and the worst in us. After five months of lockdowns and reopenings, be they full or partial, we’ve begun to adjust to the new normal. But our world is divided.

Some of us have personal experience of the virus. Perhaps we’ve had it ourselves or know people who’ve come through it relatively unscathed (insofar as they know). Maybe we know people who are suffering the after-effects or who have died because of it. Others are railing against what they see as an infringement of their personal freedom. I’m at a complete loss to understand why someone who has no problem wearing a seatbelt refuses to wear a mask. Safety is safety. Period. The health of everyone (particularly our elderly and those already suffering from underlying conditions) must surely come before the inconvenience and discomfort that comes with masking up. But then, the world as I know it is spiralling out of control with selfishness (the bad kind) and self-centredness reigning supreme.

In the early COVID days, I was at a loss. My Hungarian wasn’t good enough to decipher the daily reports from the news conferences. The sheer volume of reportage was overwhelming. Where to look? What to look for? I wanted to be informed. I needed to be informed. But I didn’t want to alienate my Hungarian friends by constantly bothering them for explanations.

One day, I received an invite from my friend István Fülöp. He’d set up a Facebook group for his international friends. Every day he’d post unofficial highlights of what the various spokespeople had said, adding links to where we could find additional information. If, for example, the subject related to tax issues, he’d summarise the changes proposed and suggest we consult our accountants for further details. The group started small, but word got out and soon more than a hundred of us tuned in thrice daily – morning, afternoon, and evening – to catch up with what was going on.

No one asked him to do it. He did this himself. I was curious as to why. Why give up hours each day to digest news for people (friends of friends) he had never met? And do this for months on end while also running his own business – TrM Translations.

István’s English is better than that of a lot of native speakers I know. His first foray into languages was in the 80s, when he studied Russian. He began his life-long learning of English with a private tutor at the age of 10. He studied for a while in the USA, worked in Germany, and has spent time in the UK and the Czech Republic. In addition to his translator’s certification, he holds degrees in Engineering and Business.

A look at the number of Hungarian start-ups actively competing on the world stage speaks for the enterprising nature of the nation. For István, building and developing his own company was high on his list of things to do. His Business degree majored in Marketing and minored in Entrepreneurship, the latter blossoming when, in the 80s, he happened upon the 1970s British TV series, The Onedin Line¸ which charted the lives of a Liverpudlian shipping family. It portrayed the changes in the shipping industry – from wooden ships to metal ships, from sailing ships to steamships – and illustrated the role shipping played in international politics.

As a would-be EU member in the 90s, Hungary’s horizons were broadening. The need for the accurate conveyance of information through various languages was apparent. As languages were an integral part of his life, when the opportunity presented itself, István left the relative security of a career-tracked position in a multinational company to set up his own translation company.

What started as a one-man rowboat is now a regatta of skilled translators who between them can handle even the most challenging requests. English and German are the most sought-after languages, but there’s a growing interest in other regional languages, such as Polish and Romanian.

A month into his voluntary effort, István (who by now had earned the title of ‘Captain’) began trying out machine translations, asking us to comment on their effectiveness. It’s been two decades since Altavista’s Babel Fish took the world by storm. And for less complex languages, like French and Italian, machine translation has been very effective. But Hungarian, with its rules and exceptions to the rules, was a bigger challenge.

While Hungarian traditionally yielded low-quality results when using machine translation, it has been making steady improvements (Google Translate isn’t the only option when it comes to translating to or from Hungarian). Of course, it all depends on the nature of the text. And for the purposes of our little group, machine translation helped harness the ebb and flow of information. But as with everything, as István noted, there’s always a catch:

A clear risk of using machine translation is that while the sentences generated are meaningful, sometimes the information they convey is the exact opposite of what the original text says, or there might be significant omissions.

Professional software tools used for translation (known to the initiated as CAT – computer-assisted translation) allow for the easy integration of machine translation output into the translation workflow. But, not least because Google as a search engine has been known to penalise websites in terms of ranking if they only offer unedited machine-translated content to their foreign visitors, it’s always best to have a competent native-speaking human do a post-translation copy-edit of the text.

Had it not been for István, I know I’d have long-since drowned in the sea of COVID-related rules and regulations. He went beyond the call of duty by sharing quirky facts about Hungary and Hungarian, educating us about the history and culture of our adopted home. István appreciated how difficult it was for us not understanding the events around us, particularly as everything was constantly changing. And he benefitted, too:

Working on this news ‘gisting’ service helped me keep my mind off things by keeping me busy. It helped me stay up-to-date without giving me time to dwell on the bad news. The group helped me streamline our new service of human-edited machine translation, a budget solution to translate larger volumes of text quickly with reasonable quality while keeping our clients’ costs low.

Our captain did us proud. He helped us navigate uncharted waters and if we could do something for him in return, so much the better. In twenty years’ time, when we’re reminiscing about where and how we spent COVID-19, István’s name will surely be toasted in conversation. In the meantime though, if you’re in the market for some translation, give him a shout. +36-1-59-99-299

First published in the Budapest Times 14 August 2020


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