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A Complex Role in Languages We Can’t Read: Case Study in a Khmer safety warning

Any discussion on standardizing LPM competencies is incomplete without explicit emphasis on the product we’re all producing. As an LPM, I’m charged with overseeing the production of translation products in languages I often can’t read! When professionals can’t read the language of the product they produce, an appropriate minimal level of qualifications and skills becomes especially important!

Consider the image below. That image is the translation that will eventually be delivered to the client. I am the project manager charged with overseeing the production of that high quality, accurate translation product… But I have no idea what the text in that image says. I don’t know how the characters and diacritics of that language work together to form meaning. I can’t say if that content contains misspellings, is grammatically correct, or even if it says what the source says.

Do you know what language that is? See if you can make an educated guess.

What I do know as a localization project manager is what the source content says. See the image of the source content below. For this translation job, I’m working with a user’s manual for a large, dangerous piece of machinery that has tons of volts of electricity running through it, and knives and gears and hole punchers. 

A very important warning sign!

Note that English readers of the source content are warned that if they don’t understand how to properly operate this piece of machinery, adverse effects might include damages to property, physical injury, and death! That is to say, as the project manager on this job, if my team doesn’t get the translation right, we jeopardize the safety of target users who can’t understand the instructional text. And this is true for many high pressure domains, such as medicine, nuclear power, and immigration, to name a few. A mistranslation in a legal text may lead to unfair judgments. Marketing content that has not been properly localized may damage a firm’s reputation in a target market beyond recovery. The adverse effects that I as a project manager and my team can have on clients, target users, and the reputation of our industry cannot be taken for granted.

Certainly, I’ll want to start by assigning the project to a trusted translator with experience in mechanical engineering. If I assign the job to an unqualified provider, the project is definitely doomed from the start! Still, the translator is just one professional in a long localization production chain. The project will pass through various stages, including quoting, preparation, translation, formatting, quality review, packaging and delivery.

A very basic localization workflow

If the project is not properly handled at any stage, that compromises the quality of the final deliverable…1 Consider how each role in the localization production process influences translation quality:

  • Those in sales negotiate with clients for the budget and timelines necessary to produce a quality translation product. If they don’t understand what goes into producing the product we’re selling, we might not have adequate localization budgets, or the risks associated with rushing sensitive content may not get explained to clients.
  • Desktop publishers format the translated content delivered by the translator. If they don’t understand how the formatting of languages differs from one language to another, they may introduce errors into the file which they are not qualified to recognize, since they don’t read the language.
  • Quality reviewers check formatted files for a variety of issues. They must understand both the stylistics (date and time formats, punctuation, etc.) of the target language they’re working with and the subject matter of the source. If they don’t, they may introduce errors into the file which they are not qualified to recognize, since they don’t read the language.
  • Localization project managers understand, anticipate, and plan for issues that arise when localizing content from one unique culture to another. If they don’t, issues may arise late in the production process which could have prevented. In the rush to fix those issues and still make delivery on time, inconsistencies or errors may be introduced into the content.

1 Thank you to Richard Gliech, whose comments on the article Key Components of Successful Translator Recruitment became the thesis for the presentation The Project Life Cycle for Project Managers.

Localization project management, and localization production overall, is therefore much more about understanding and identifying what one doesn’t know, and making sure to follow best practices and find the qualified professionals that do have the answers to important project questions. Localization project managers with no experience at all in languages are most dangerous because they don’t know what they don’t know. A cultural bubble prevents them from understanding that each language has unique intricacies that must be attended to. The same goes for account representatives, formatters, and quality control reviewers who lack a background in translation. If any of these roles mishandles the project at any stage, that compromises the quality of the translation deliverable. Compromises to quality impede the understandability of the translation product. In the case of this user manual, the target user needs to be able to understand the translation to operate the machinery safely.

The translation of the warning sign above is Khmer. Khmer is undoubtedly an interesting language for many reasons. As a localization project manager who knows little about the language, I find Khmer to be interesting for the word processing aspect of the language, that is, how Khmer is literally typed on a computer. Depending on the font used, Khmer word processing must be carried out using a different keyboard configuration. To produce text in the Limon font, for example, Khmer word processing must be carried out using the keyboard configuration on the left. To produce a text in the Khmer OS font, the keyboard configuration on the right must be used.

A keyboard configuration for keying the Limon font in Khmer
A keyboard configuration for keying the Khmer OS font

Why is this important to localization project management?

Well, let’s say I don’t know about this aspect of the language when making a new translation request to my talented Khmer translator. The talented translator asks me which font to use. I’m unsure why they’re even asking, and so I tell the translator that she or he is free to chose a font of her or his liking. The translator elects a font that can be produced using a keyboard configuration that is more easily keyed. They make delivery, and I take the product through production, then deliver to the client. The client tries to program the delivered Khmer translations into a software application, and unfortunately, all the font shows up as corrupt! Certain Khmer characters have been replaced with strange circles or question marks. 

The client asks if I can help. As it turns out, they need content in a unicode font in order to program the content into the software. The product I delivered is not in unicode font. I try to change the font manually, just like I would do in English, but that doesn’t work. So I ask the translator, Hey, could you change this font for me? The translator responds, Are you crazy!? I can’t just change the font. If you want a different font I’ll have to retype the whole thing using a different keyboard configuration.

When tight deadlines for software launches are the norm, you definitely don’t want to be learning about this very important aspect of the Khmer language after you’ve already delivered your product to the client! In this scenario, the entire project (translation, formatting, quality review, packaging, delivery) will need to be started from scratch.

Back to the important warning sign in Khmer… The red arrows below point to corrupted characters in the Khmer. That is, the actual correct character that should be where the red arrows are pointing have for some reason been replaced with circles that have no meaning. Remember that this translation should warn Cambodian users of dangers to their lives if they don’t follow the instructions for operating this piece of machinery. If the desktop publisher or quality reviewer don’t notice this issue, and if I don’t work with a qualified translator to identify and correct the corruption, lives could be at risk.

Font corruption in Khmer

Fortunately, as a qualified professional localization project manager, I knew to ask about the intricacies of working with the Khmer language when the project started. Prior to translation, the translator, desktop publisher, and I carried out testing to ensure that the correct font was used. After testing, the content was translated, and then formatted by a qualified desktop publisher. The file passed through internal quality review before finally going to the very talented translator so she or he could check my team’s work. The font corruption was identified by the team, and the font corruption was fixed thanks to the collaboration of the team.

Here below is an image from the final check that the translator performed… He tells me, “Perfect, you’re good to go now!”2 After a long project, this is a welcome relief! I can now deliver the product to the client, confident that target users will be able to use a big, scary piece of machinery safely. That’s the confidence that comes from working with qualified professionals across all stages of the localization production process.

The relief that comes from working with professionals!

2 A professional Khmer translator was paid to translate and help develop the images used here from the ATA58 presentation The Project Life Cycle for Project Managers. Thank you Vitou Keo for your translations and consulting on this project!

Works cited

Brandt, Alaina. “The Project Life Cycle for Project Managers.” American Translators Association, 58th Annual Conference, 28 Oct. 2017, Washington Hilton, Washington, D.C. Presentation.

Sites DOT MIISThe Middlebury Institute site network.