No-Sense Instructions

Black and white photo of a brown wooden arrow providing no guidance
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How many times have you encountered translation projects that could have had ended better,

Some translation orders are doomed to fail even before they actually reach the translator’s desk. How can this happen?

Well, there are plenty of reasons, and they often pile up. But the biggest culprits are usually poorly prepared files, unrealistic expectations, and incorrect instructions.

It’s so frustrating to see clients hiring language service partners and still getting no guidance, with linguists getting instructions that contain errors, lack crucial information, or make no sense at all.

Dear fellow translators and agencies, can we all agree that it’s our duty to advise our clients? After all, you’re the experts.

Imagine receiving instructions like these – and they’re not as rare as you’d hope:

  • ‘Translate to your best knowledge.’

The client hands you an unreadable text, or they fail to provide a product image and you have no idea what the translation is about. That’s a critical fail right there! You can’t do magic, tell the client. ‘NO,’ is a great word. Learn to use it.

  • ‘Follow the length of the source.’

Different languages have different lengths. 30% change in character count is is pretty normal. You won’t find a unicorn in your backyard and you won’t get a translation of about the same length. Adjust your expectations, or shorten your original text. If you’re a translator instructed so by your client, warn them in advance.

  • ‘Follow the capitalization/punctuation of the source.’

Hold up! Languages play by different rules when it comes to capitals and commas. Actually, a bulleted list should NOT look the same in varied languages. Do you have a fancy automated tool to check whether the punctuation in translation is the same? Nice. Switch it off and relax.

  • The client’s glossary takes precedence over external references.

Alright, this one might make sense, but only if everyone’s on the same page. If the client’s glossary has to be blindly applied everywhere, even when it sounds like a language malfunction, it’s a recipe for disaster.

My most “favourite” hands-on experience:

But the client’s glossary has the highest priority.

Insisted an agency. So the EU Medical Device Directive had a special name in that client’s manuals. Wrong, but consistent with their project glossary. Priorities, guys!

In result, someone definitely appeared to be stupid. Either the client, or the translator. But I’m sure none of them actually wanted this.

  • Maybe translate it bilingually – put translation in parentheses behind the source?

So says the client. Nothing unsual or clearly incorrect. However…

The text in question was a piece of code. It should never have arrived to translators. A translator got suspicious, so they asked whether this should really be translated. The client wasn’t sure, hence the question mark in their response.

One would expect the intermediary agency to step in, explain the client this was not a good idea, and issue a competent instruction to linguists. Unfortunately, the agency’s project managers had no idea anything was wrong and assumed their role was to INSIST all client’s wishes were implemented.

When asked for the third time to “comply with instructions” despite my previous lengthy explanations, I was enraged and I asked the agency, how come that they stubbornly kept providing incompetent instructions.

We are not responsible for controlling the prep files once they are ready for translation.

Translation managers replied

We have a happy ending. I didn’t have to implement the error in the end. But I’m not sure whether linguists handling other languages were informed.

The most striking problem is NOT that the client doesn’t know.

The client is hiring professionals, right? The issue is when the professionals they pay don’t know any better. With astonishing frequency, I encounter projects where no one in the supplement chain has competencies needed for the project.

In this era of machine translation hype, the translation industry is cutting costs like crazy, and experienced pros are leaving the business in growing numbers, vanishing like a magician’s bunny.

Big agencies split translation orders into complex series of process tasks where no one is really able to understand the whole and accountable for the outcome. This of course does not apply to all but it is very well possible that a client pays for a complex translation, revision, and QA process employing lots of expensive steps and seemingly awesome technologies, where no one addresses crucial points.

Experience is the Key

If you’re looking for top-notch translation, do your research. You can hire big agencies, sure, but make sure they’ve got the real deal – involving experience. Or go for boutique agencies run by translation wizards who’ll have your back all the way.

Or even build a translation team of your own and make sure your people have the required experience. The most senior ones can help you prepare crystal clear project instructions and head for superstar results.

I’m not being naive. Of course, some clients may be struggling with budget and would rather go for a cost-effective process. That’s a reality. They can get a machine translation for just a couple of dollars. Maybe even have it somehow edited translation newbies. But maybe they’re buying knowledge. These are the two basic options every client has today. The machine translation that costs sesame seeds, or the magic of human touch along with expert knowledge.


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