What Translators Wish Their Clients Knew — A New Series from LanguageTran
There’s a place for DIY translations, and there are times when a quick and dirty translation is all you need. But, as Corinne MacKay tells us below, everyone should know that, like many other industries, there are different segments in the translation industry, and clients should be aware of what they need. Ideally, before the project starts.
We decided to start this series with Corinne MacKay, who writes the Thoughts on Translation blog as well as TranslateWrite.com. Corinne is a translator-educator, and does an amazing job helping translators see their way through to a successful career translating. We have been reading her blog for quite some time now, and figured she’d be great at explaining the translation process to clients. We were correct! Corinne is a busy woman, and will soon be speaking at (yet another) translation conference, so we feel lucky that she took the time to do an interview.
LT: We’ll start with the burning question: What are your thoughts on the industry today? What do you wish the clients knew before they started the translation?
CM: I think that the translation industry today is a really interesting place to be. The demand is huge, and it far outstrips the supply of qualified translators. But at the same time, I think that the gap between the market served by bulk-market agencies and the market served by premium-market agencies and freelancers is growing. I wish that more clients knew that just like any other industry, the translation industry has segments, and you need to clarify whether you’re looking for a translation provider whose business model is high volume and low margins, or a translation provider whose business model is more artisanal.
We couldn’t agree more. As a company who values a close relationship with our clients, we also wish everyone knew that not all language service providers are the same. Kind of like how not all restaurants are the same: sometimes a Big Mac will do, other times you want something a little more.
LT: Do you have any ideas on how to get the word out about the different translation services available? We find our clients sometimes come to us after having tried DIY, for example. Any thoughts on how to educate about when to use a professional?
I definitely deal with this too (“If only we had found someone like you six months ago”). First, I think that we have to cut clients some slack; for example I don’t know anything about the accounting industry except that my accountant does my taxes; how would a car parts company be expected to know anything about translation?
Good point, Corinne! We couldn’t agree more.
Second, I think that we just have to keep getting the word out however we can: writing articles and doing presentations for professional groups in industries that use a lot of translators (law firms, patent firms, pharmaceutical companies, software companies, etc.), and pointing out news stories that show that languages matter.
For example I think it’s instructive that of all the ways Mark Zuckerberg could put his presumably limited free time to use, he chose to learn Mandarin Chinese. Or that language barriers are a huge issue in the Ebola epidemic; that kind of thing. As US residents and English-speakers, we tend to think that the world is dominated by English and no one needs to translate. But in reality, a majority of Internet traffic comes from countries where the dominant or official language is not English. I think that the more we can keep hammering away (diplomatically!) at messages like these, the better off the industry and our clients will be.
Very good point.
With my own clients, I keep gently repeating the American Translators Association’s message: translation errors can be costly and embarrassing; a bilingual person isn’t enough–you need a professional translator; use ATA or a similar association to find the right person or company.
LT: In your blog, you mention that you also didn’t know much about the translation industry before you started working in it. Do you feel (as I do) that there is a bit of a knowledge gap for many people about how the industry works?
CM: Absolutely. And yes, you’re correct. I had a BA in English and French and an MA in French Literature, but when I asked my professors over the years about translation, they said things like, “I’m sure you have to speak more than one foreign language,” or “It’s all outsourced to low-wage countries and you make five dollars an hour,” or “You have to translate in both directions,” things like that. Add to this that in the US, there are so few college-level programs for translation that it’s hard to train to be a translator or interpreter even if you want to, and you end up with a lot of people who are learning on the job. And yes, on my first day as a translator, I sat at my kitchen table with my baby daughter and a yellow pages (remember those?) and started cold-calling translation companies to see if they would send me some work.
LT: What are a few things you wish translation agencies knew to better serve both their clients and the translators?
Agencies have a hard job because they’re running interference between the client’s expectations, what the translator can realistically do, and what it’s going to cost. But I do think that agencies should open more of a communication line between the translator and the client, for everyone’s benefit. For example it’s not unusual that even a very basic question like “What is the client going to use this translation for? Are they going to publish thousands of copies of it, or do they just want to know what it says in English?” takes a long time to have answered, or is not answered at all. Many agencies also prevent translators from communicating directly with other translators and editors working on a project, which I think is counterproductive. My favorite agency client uses a true team approach: everyone in a certain language combination is paid the same rate, and everyone knows what that rate is, and everyone has the e-mail address of all the other translators. As an experienced translator, I really like that kind of transparency.
Those are excellent ideas, Corinne. Thank you. We agree that the more transparency, the better.
LT: What are some tips clients could use to reassure themselves that the translation agency they are working with is doing a good job? What are some things the client can ask/look for?
CM: Does the translator ask questions? Does the translator want to get not only the words, but the tone and style of the document right? What do native speakers of the target language think of the translator’s writing skills?
Great points. Love the point about finding out what native speakers think of the translator’s writing skills.
LT: What got you to begin blogging? Why did you start blogging?
CM: My good friend Beth Hayden was an early adopter of blogging and social media (before we really even had the term “social media”). She convinced me to take her “Basics of Blogging” class in 2008, back when I didn’t even know how to comment on someone else’s blog. The time was right, because I really got in on the ground floor of blogging for the translation industry. My intent was not really to win awards or sell books, but in time, I came to see that there is a huge audience of freelance translators who want to discuss ideas about the profession and trade suggestions, and it kind of took off from there.
LT: How would you describe the workflow between all the parties involved: translators, proofreaders, editors, the agency and the client? Is there anything in these relationships that you wish the client understood better?
CM: To get the best possible translation, the client should provide as much information as possible up front: what’s the purpose of the translation? Does the client have any other translations in the same language combination, or better yet, any documents that were written originally in the translation’s target language? What kind of tone and style does the client prefer? Conservative? Snappy? Funny? I think that lots of agencies assume that clients will provide this information if it matters to them, when in reality the agency should be *asking* these questions and not relying on the client to know what to ask.
Very well put. At LanguageTran, we try very hard to communicate this, but I think we will take this information and try even harder from now on. It’s true: The more information the client provides upfront, the fewer chance for misunderstanding down the road.
LT: What is the most annoying misunderstanding about what you do?
CM: I’d say it’s a tie between people who don’t know the difference between a translator and an interpreter, and people who don’t understand that translators generally work into their native language only. These misconceptions aren’t the general public’s fault, but any professional translator has probably corrected them several thousand times.
Thank you so much, Corinne. We appreciate your time and your thoughtful answers.