Doing it right the first time around

In our earlier post, we talked about clients asking for discounts on “short” files, on “easy” projects, and on the promise of a long-term collaboration (the good old “volume” discount).

While each argument had its own counter-argument, the underlying notion was that professional translators―those who translate for a living, usually as their exclusive activity―invest in continuing education to offer an added value (their valuable specialized knowledge) and become truly accountable for their work, thus contributing to the success of their clients.

This time, let’s explore three additional topics that I often discuss with prospects.

  • “What’s your best rate?” ― My best rate is $1 per word. Oh, you meant my “lowest” rate? Sorry… You see, when I heard “best,” I immediately thought about what would be best for me.If I could earn $1 per word, I would be able to work fewer hours per week, take a longer vacation, spend more time with the kids, and maybe even retire sooner. I didn’t realize you meant the best rate for you…Why don’t we just do this: You send me the files you need translated, I’ll analyze the project, calculate how much time and effort it would take me to complete the job and then send you an estimate. I believe that would make everybody happy!
  • “I can find cheaper than that!” ― I’m sure you can, but does “cheaper” mean “better”? It usually only means you’ll pay less for a service, but there will most likely be consequences.What happens if you receive the translation and are extremely disappointed with the final result? Do you pay for the substandard translation service―fearing the wrath of a translator of questionable quality who will badmouth your company on-line―and then hire a proper translator to redo the whole thing? This way you’ll spend more than you had originally budgeted for and wait longer for the project to be completed.And that is assuming you can actually read the final result of the substandard translation. What if you hired a translator to work on your beautifully crafted message and have your words written in a language you cannot understand? Do you really want to wait and see whether your marketing materials, those important contracts, or the guidelines that your branches overseas need to follow have actually been translated correctly by the candidate who offered to work for the lowest possible rate?Why don’t you make an informed decision to go with the translator who is truly a great fit for your purposes? Don’t be carried away by the “average rate in the market” idea. Keep in mind that you’ll be getting what you pay for. And I’m sure you are looking for accurate translations that will help your product or service do well in foreign markets.
  • “We’re just a startup and…”  If you’re a small company that is trying to break into your own market, you should be in the best position to truly appreciate a good deal when you see one. Maybe you’ve just furnished your office and went with a reliable brand because you want your furniture to last. You sure had to buy computers and equipment to perform your activities, so you identified the state-of-the-art technology that will make your work easier, eliminate re-work, and increase productivity.When it comes to hiring translation services, please follow the same mentality. You know good deals don’t always come with a small price tag. Actually, if the offer sounds too good to be true, there may be a catch. The service turnaround is too fast? Quality may suffer. The price is very low? Odds are you’re talking to a beginner translator who may not have the necessary knowledge to convey your message accurately. So, why don’t you go with professional translation services and do it right the first time around?Actually, according to colleagues in the industry, including both translators and project managers, startups and small businesses are among their best clients in terms of communication and payment. Companies with this profile tend to appreciate the one-on-one exchange that is only possible when you’re working with your translator as a team in order to achieve a common goal. And, as a company working on a tight budget, you sure would appreciate when things are done accurately, within the agreed turnaround, and without any surprises along the way. Think of translation as an investment that will help your company grow and reach a whole new market. If you’ll make money out of it (even if the return on investment is not immediate), why shouldn’t the translator get his or her fair share for a service that was crucial for such growth?

As you can see, your decision-making process when hiring translation services isn’t limited to the price tag alone. What may seem like a great deal at first, with discounted rates and impossibly fast deliveries, will most likely be far from the results you wish for. Effective translations are produced by professionals who truly understand your needs. And you won’t find these above-average professionals charging the so-called average rates.

A case of disgraceful incompetence

An interesting project that should have inspired admiration and pride was launched in Brazil in March 2012. The Brazilian Federal Supreme Court published an International Portal with a “trilingual glossary.” According to the portal, the project is designed for the international reader and seeks to present the Brazilian legal system to the international jurist community in a simplified way.

Great initiative, isn’t it? Well, I can tell you the Brazilian translator community isn’t at all happy about it. Unfortunately this online tool was launched despite its shamefully poor English and Spanish translation and terminology work. The mistakes are numerous and hideous, making the glossary not only practically useless, but also potentially dangerous.

The portal includes a brief description of how the glossary was prepared: “contou com a colaboração de vários servidores e estagiários poliglotas,” i.e., polyglot employees and interns have collaborated on the glossary. How nice of them!

Fellow translators have been contacting the Supreme Court and trying to make the institution realize the glossary cannot be kept online in its current state. They have also urged that this sort of task should be performed by professionals who have expertise in translation and terminology, i.e., translators and terminologists, not polyglot employees and interns. A standard response has been sent to them all (“thank you… your input will be used in our ongoing review of the glossary… yadda yadda yadda”), but no actual correction has been done so far.

Since we cannot predict how long the glossary will be kept as-is, I’ve saved a couple of screenshots to document the case (click to enlarge):


There are countless horrendous mistakes (and not limited to translation), but my goal is not to write a review of the actual content. My intent is to highlight some of the possible causes and consequences of this project gone awry.

Why are these mistakes so serious? Portals and websites like this one, created and endorsed by a supposedly respectable government body, a high authority in the field, are often regarded by translators, students, and the whole international community as trustworthy references. They should be reliable sources of terminology and information in general. They must, therefore, have top quality material, carefully prepared by a team of highly qualified translators and terminologists and, hopefully, validated by experienced professionals in the legal field; and definitely not done by polyglot employees and interns. I don’t even want to imagine the gaffes, mistranslations, miscommunications, lawsuits—to say the least—that may result from this amateur attempt…

The least they could do now is to (1) take down the whole glossary, (2) post a public apology on the website recognizing the serious flaws, and (3) have the whole job redone by translation and terminology professionals who specialize in the legal field.

Why did I decide to bring this case to my readers’ attention, after all? It’s a common myth that being bilingual or polyglot is enough for anyone to perform a translation task successfully. The reality is far, far different. I know a huge number of people who are great at speaking their second or third language, but aren’t able to translate a line without making it sound rough, awkward, or too literal. Note that I’m not even referring to highly specialized terminology, which requires a whole set of different skills. Knowing how to carry out proper terminology research is a must, but not something everyone can do. Even within the translation community, you’ll often find a professional who specializes in, say, medical translation, and won’t take on even the shortest text on oil & gas.

I believe a great many failures in translation projects often result from the translation buyers’ lack of information about our field and its difficulties. The main goal in this blog is to make a difference by raising awareness on a series of issues that are little recognized by non-translators or even unknown to many of them. I prefer to think the Supreme Court was just naïve when setting up this project. Let’s hope the people in charge of this glossary learn from their mistakes and make amends. Of course hiring translation and terminology experts will cost a lot more than simply using employees and interns. And having the work redone will probably go over budget. But shouldn’t a proper feasibility study have been carried out in the first place?

To wrap up, check out the collage of images below, which has become popular on many social media websites. I think no further explanations are necessary.

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.