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.

Freelancer or translation agency?

“Many corporations prefer to work with large translation agencies so they only have to deal with one vendor for multiple languages. On the flipside, other corporations like working with very small businesses because of the uncomplicated interaction and lack of red tape.”
Dagmar and Judy Jenner

The profile of translation clients and their types of projects generally give us hints as to whether they’re better off hiring a freelance translator or a translation agency. How much text do you send for translation at a given time? What kinds of deadlines do you impose on translators? How many languages do you need your material translated to? Do you require services other than the translation itself?

In most cases, hiring a freelancer directly should cost you less than hiring an agency to do a translation. After all, agencies must pay their employees and infrastructure, and costs are expected to increase with a longer supply chain. Under some conditions, though, the translation agency approach may turn out to be more cost-effective than hiring a freelance translator. Most of the savings depend on the cost of your own time as a service buyer.

Let’s say you have an unusually large translation project with a deadline that would commonly be acceptable for a mid-sized text. A translation agency is geared to set up a whole team of translators, so they all work in their normal routine, at their normal rates. The agency often also arranges for text standardization and reviewing, as needed.

If you hire a freelancer to handle this large project alone, s/he’ll most likely have to deal with schedule disruption and overtime work, which usually translate into a surcharge on your end. Some translators hate everything about project management and prefer to work solo no matter what. But it’s common for freelancers to team up with one or two colleagues whom they trust and offer the same kind of “package” agencies offer. If they are truly professional and care about quality, one of the team members will be responsible for reviewing the whole text and checking for consistency and standardization. This step takes time and, again, usually results in extra charges. One of the posts under the cost-time-quality trianglecategory, “Common scenarios,” has a brief discussion on this and other related topics.

If you decide to set up a translation team yourself, imagine how much of your time you’d spend to recruit and select professionals, provide clear directions, follow up throughout the process, and manage their invoices and payments. You’d normally have to do all or most of this even when you’re working with one professional. Now multiply this work by the number of translators needed to complete the project. On top of that, someone would still have to be responsible for assembling all the pieces and turning them into a smooth and uniform product. This person can be you or someone else you will hire and pay extra for this task. Trust us: it’s not as simple as it sounds. What if you don’t even speak the language?

Similar situations arise when you have to translate a text into several languages, or when additional work is involved, like desktop publishing, text formatting, web editing, audio recording, video subtitling, and DVD authoring. Besides taking care of the project management steps cited above, you run the risk of one vendor having quality issues with another vendor’s delivery, and it may involve delays until all stages of production are harmonized.

Of course, some translators offer services beyond translation proper or may work together with professionals that complement their linguistic work, as Carolina and Bianca pointed out in the case of subtitling and video editing. Also, it’s common to see translators who take on projects that involve languages they don’t speak because they have established partnerships with other professionals who work with those languages. This might involve surcharges or not.

Your best bet is to explain all your needs in detail when you request a quote and see if your service provider is ready to deal with all the stages and languages involved. Resist the temptation to manage complicated projects and save yourself the headache and risk of achieving sub-standard results. Hiring qualified professionals to take care of your projects and having more time yourself to do something else will most likely pay off.

Resources and planning

There’s no doubt that the most interested party in the success of a translation should be the client. However, there are a number of ways in which you might fail to help improve the translation process for lack of information about it. Or, even worse, you might interfere negatively in the outcome.

With this in mind, I’ve listed some measures that ideally should be taken by whoever is involved in a translation project, and not only by those specifically assigned as project managers. I emphasized “ideally” because I understand that real-life situations sometimes get out of hand. Let’s just say the following recommendations are the ultimate best-case scenario, in which everybody wins.

There are still many other tips to come, but I hope the few suggestions below are a good starting point.

  • Plan ahead

I cannot emphasize enough the importance of planning ahead and giving translators the time they need to achieve excellence. If you’ve been working with the same translator for a while, you should have an idea of how much time s/he needs to accomplish a given task. Nevertheless, productivity varies from person to person, from text to text, even from day to day. Also, keep in mind that various “obstacles” might get in your translator’s way at any given time: s/he might be booked for another project and juggling with two or more texts, instead of offering you full-time dedication; the content of your text might differ from what s/he is used to, making the translation take longer; s/he might be busy with personal issues or even planning to go on vacation… and so on and so forth.

What I recommend is talking to your translator about upcoming projects as soon as you know about them. If your company deals with routine translation projects, for instance, there’s no reason for not giving timely notices. Of course you can’t effectively book someone until you know more details such as dates, length of the text, contents, etc. An organized translator will be grateful to know something’s around the corner, and will possibly bear it in mind when working on his/her own schedule.

On your end, make sure everyone involved in the production of the original text observes the time frame. The deadlines should consider the translator’s work and a final reading of the translated text by your team. Be careful, though: having your staff “edit” the translation is a double-edged sword and should be done very carefully and responsibly (I’ll come back to this issue in a future post).

Tight turn-around times are usually accompanied by rush fees, and these are expenses you want to avoid. On top of that, keep in mind that hectic schedules might also affect the quality of the final text—this topic will be discussed in more detail soon.

  • Provide reference materials

When talking about ways to avoid mistakes in technical texts, Chris Durban suggests that you “use in-house subject-matter specialists to provide vocabulary and background materials up front.” This advice certainly applies to all types of texts and media. It’s important to make available to translators any sort of material that is somehow related to the text to be translated.

If you have relevant bilingual documents such as previously translated content, don’t even hesitate! Other useful materials include glossaries (monolingual or bilingual), lists of preferred terms, style sheets, lists of acronyms and their meanings written out, etc. Experienced translators are usually trained to spot pertinent terms, expressions, phrases, and other elements of style that are present even in monolingual texts. So go ahead and send out that 2002 report in English, even though you cannot find its Spanish translation. Likewise, any type of relevant text in the target language (i.e. language into which a text is translated) will be highly appreciated.

These supporting materials will help maintain consistency among your company’s texts and assist your translator in providing high-quality services. They might even shorten the turn-around time.

As you can see, we all benefit from these measures. You increase your chances of getting an impeccable final text, and translators appreciate this support and consideration that help them meet their client’s needs faster and more efficiently.