Tell your translator the purpose of your translation

This text was written by Levent Yildizgoren and originally published on his company’s blog. I decided to republish it on TCZ because it addresses in a lot more detail one of the items tacked in my article Defining project specifications, namely, the importance of informing translators of the purpose of a text. Thanks a lot for sharing it with us, Levent!

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When choosing to translate any form of communication, informing the translator of the purpose of the text is paramount. Specifying the purpose of the translation will not only ensure that it is fit for purpose, but will also save you time and money. Is the translation required for a short business email, to be published on a website or just to understand the gist of the information?

Literal translations express text word for word and are devoid of any undertone or nuances. They are usually intended to understand the content of the source text, for instance back translations. With literal translation any internal inconsistency or error in the source text will be transferred into the final translation. A publication standard translation, stylistic and professional, is far from the literal example.

For the majority of translations, successfully conveying the meaning of the text is more important than remaining faithful to the original lexis. There are varying degrees of freedom in translation. The translator has to make difficult decisions with regards to grammatical and sentential issues, cultural transposition, tone, and social register. To classify a text can be tricky, but the key is to provide as much relevant information as possible. Generally it is clear whether a text is fictional or non-fictional. However, the purpose or context is often a point for clarification. Most non-fictional texts can be categorized as below:

  • Informative (commercial) – magazine article, advertisement
  • Informative (persuasive) – political tract, business pitch, marketing communication
  • Informative (empirical) – technical manuals

Is the article to convince, inform, inspire, console? The list is endless.

In order to ensure that the translator can classify the material correctly, it is important not only to supply the purpose of the text, but also the context in which it will be used. The sentence structure and vocabulary used in the translation will vary according to the information that you provide. For example, the level of language used for a user manual would not be suitable for a magazine article. The purpose of a text will also affect the manner in which cultural references and idiomatic phrases are conveyed.

With regards to context, if the translation is an addition to previous work (in a brochure, perhaps), providing any reference material or supplying a glossary of terminology will ensure that the translation is consistent and functional.

Who is the translation aimed at? The target audience plays a vital role in deciding the style and register of the translation. Tone has a great impact on the way the text is received and in turn how successful the translation is.

The amount of information that the translator has will determine the extent to which s/he can compensate for translation loss in the finished article. Professional translators are trained to recognize the requirements of a text, to make decisions that will effectively communicate the style and meaning of a text with minimal distortion of the original copy.

A translator’s choice of vocabulary throughout the translation process will directly affect the success of the translation. Providing the purpose and context of the translation will ensure that these decisions are informed decisions.

Translation agreements

“Spoken words fly away;
written words remain.”

– Latin saying

Once you have spoken or exchanged emails with the translator and all the relevant project specifications are well defined, the best next step is to put everything together in clear writing.

This can be done rather formally, by adapting a model contract to your needs and having both parties sign it. A translation agreement should be designed and customized to establish the specificity of the relationship between a translation buyer and a language service provider in any particular project.

Alternatively, a more informal way of specifying all pertinent details in writing is by email. I myself started using this email method at first: I’d write an email with all the specifications, send it to clients, and ask them to reply stating they agreed with the terms and conditions. Only then would I begin working on the project.

Lately I’ve been using a model contract and asking for signatures—it projects a more professional image and gives both parties a better sense of security.

In any case, I’d advise you not to rely only on spoken words or agreements.

Having a client–provider agreement is one of the requirements of the European quality standard for translation service providers (EN 15038:2006) and the Canadian Translation Services Standard (CAN/CGSB-131.10-2008), both developed to ensure the quality of translation services offered by translation agencies and translation companies.

A translation contract protects both parties: you and the service provider. Even if the translator doesn’t take the initiative to send you an agreement, you’re right to request one. Not surprisingly, some translators develop mistrust toward clients who refuse to sign this type of document. Come to think of it, if the service request is genuine, why wouldn’t a buyer want to formalize it in a contract? Conversely, you should be careful when dealing with a language professional who is not willing to sign an agreement.

Below is one of the most comprehensive model contracts I’ve seen, provided by the American Translators Association (ATA). There may be other specific issues either party might want to specify in writing.

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Post update – Jan 27th, 2012

Seeking to help translators draft their own contracts and agreements, the ATA Business Practices Education Committee has put together the Guide to a Translation Services Agreement.

This publication provides not only a customizable model contract in one column, but also enlightening explanations in the second column. While undoubtedly handy for language professionals, it’s certainly useful to translation customers as well.

To help with ease of access, this resource has been added to TCZ’s “Useful links” section (left column).

Defining project specifications

“If you do not invest time to brief your suppliers, there is little chance that you will get what you want or need. It may take only 10 minutes longer than telling your assistant to ‘get this translated,’ but if the right person spends those 10 minutes chatting to the translator (or even the project manager), you will probably save money and stress further down the line.”
– Chris Durban

When discussing quality in translation, I wrote that the product should comply with the client’s instructions. For this to happen, you must communicate your needs properly in the first place. But what needs, exactly? Well, it varies from project to project, but there are several details you should tell your translator.

A fascinating aspect of translation is the possibility of rendering a text in countless “right ways.” The right way for you depends on what you need and how exactly you want it. Don’t expect your translator to rely on assumptions and guess your preferences and needs. Good communication is key.

In November 2010 I had the pleasure of attending a talk by Alan Melby on how to measure translation quality. At that time, he had listed as many as 21 translation project parameters, i.e. specifications that should be given to translators if quality is to be achieved. Together, Durban and Melby chose the top ten items that were included in the publication Translation: Buying a Non-Commodity. Here’s their list, followed by a set of questions/comments I have added:

(1) Audience – Who (ideally) is supposed to read your text? Should the translator have the lay public or specialists in mind? Academics or high-school students?

(2) Purpose – Is your text going to be used in a brochure to persuade someone to do something? Is it for internal communication or for relating to clients/prospects? Do you need just to get the gist of a text or is it for publication? Most of the time the purpose of a text is also linked to its type—see item 5 below.

(3) Deadline – When does the text have to be delivered? If needed, establish partial deliveries up front. Sometimes not only the date counts, but also the time of delivery (in which case, be clear about your time zone).

(4) Price – How much is the translator getting paid? Is the project being paid per source word (volume of the original text) or per target word (volume of the translated text)? Alternatively, is the professional being paid by the hour? (I intend to write about how translators usually calculate their rates.) Also discuss details such as when (upon delivery? a week later? a month later?) and how (via bank transfer? by check? PayPal? Western Union?) this amount is to be paid.

(5) Subject area and type of text – The clearest way of dealing with these specifications is by sending the whole text up front for the translator to analyze. If this is not possible, a sample usually works. Remember that most translators specialize in certain areas, meaning that there are subject areas they don’t feel capable of translating well. For your own good, don’t insist if a professional refuses to take part in a project (refer to item #3 of the American Translators Association Code of Ethics and Professional Practice). As for the text type, is it a letter? A sales agreement? A training video?

(6) Source language and regional variation – Is it written in Canadian or South African English? European or Brazilian Portuguese? Spanish from Chile, Peru, or Venezuela? There may be significant regional differences that interfere with the translator’s understanding and decision making.

(7) Format – First off, inform the translator about the media: is it a written text, an image, a video, or an audio file? Then, is it an editable PDF, DOC, or HTML file? AVI or MPEG video? Also, in what format should the target text be delivered?

(8) Volume – How long is the text? For written texts, it’s generally better to consider the word count. The number of pages doesn’t always help, since there are variables such as number of columns, font size, spacing between lines, etc. As with item 5 above, sending the whole text up front allows for a precise analysis.

(9) Target language and regional variation – Is the text supposed to be read mainly by Brazilians or by Portuguese people? By Mexicans, Spaniards, or Argentines?

(10) Steps to be followed – Is there going to be, for instance, bilingual revision by another professional after the translation proper? What about monolingual revision? Is the text being sent for the translator’s approval after each step or at the end? Who’s taking care of these phases of the project? Also, discuss deadlines for each step.

Sometimes you’ll have to negotiate a few of these items, such as price and the end format, but others are merely facts that need to be communicated—preferably in writing. They’re essential especially when you’re dealing with new service providers. With long-time collaborators who already know what you usually need, make sure to let them know when any of these parameters diverge from the “standard.”

On a lighter note…

By Alejandro Moreno-Ramos