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How to avoid mistakes while working with a translation agency: advice for clients

When purchasing goods or ordering a service, we expect them to meet our expectations. But you don’t always get what you pay for, and that is especially the case if you can’t check what you’re buying in advance.

Translation services are no exception: you can contact a translation agency with a good reputation and recommendations from clients, give them a large order, and subsequently discover that the results are unsatisfactory. Why does this happen, and how can you protect yourself from such situations, especially if you haven’t worked with translation agencies before and have little idea of how they operate?

We wrote a separate article about the criteria for choosing an agency. Let’s take a look at some practical advice on coordinating a translation project.

Most problems in relations between vendors and their clients arise because the parties see the final result in different ways. In some cases, the vendor ignores clear instructions from the client; in others, the client fails to make their requirements clear, thus leaving the vendor room to get creative.

For example, imagine the following situation: a client places an order for a cabinet to be built and pays for it. The cabinet is delivered. Then the following conversation takes place:

“Wait, why does the door open to the right, and not to the left? And why did you use a dark color? And why doesn’t the cabinet reach the ceiling?”

“You didn’t specify the direction in which the door was meant to open, and you didn’t specify the height of the cabinet. So we used our standard specifications, and you approved them.”

“I didn’t approve anything!”

“Your order was completed following this document. Is this your signature?”

“I just signed it without reading it…  I was busy at the time, and I didn’t have time to look at it. The color was completely different.”

“But you still signed it.  And you gave us the go-ahead to get started. You chose the color on the monitor because you didn’t want to wait for the samples. And we told you that the monitor doesn’t render the color properly.”

“You pulled a fast one. I didn’t know what I was signing.”

Then mutual reproaches begin arguments about costs, etc. And all because the requirements were not discussed before the task was carried out.

Similar situations often arise with services that require a creative approach, particularly translation. If you don’t tell the vendor what kind of translation you need, don’t outline your requirements for style and terminology, don’t tell them where the translated text is going to be used, who the target audience is, etc., then the translation agency is going to follow general industry standards. In other words, they’re going to misunderstand you from the very beginning.

If you want a translation of an advertising text that is aimed at a certain target audience, e.g., children, but you don’t mention this, you’ll get “just another” translation. Moreover, it will be completely in compliance with the ISO 17100: 2015 industry standard, but still not at all what you wanted. In response to your complaints, they’ll say: you didn’t ask us to adapt the text for children; you only asked us to translate it. Translation is the transmission of meaning, and the meaning has been transmitted; formally, there’s nothing to find fault with.

Another example: in response to a claim that the terminology is inconsistent with your corporate standards, the agency will reply: since you didn’t provide your corporate glossary, industry-standard terminology was used.

A more complicated case: you demanded a “high-quality” translation, but you didn’t indicate what you meant by this. If you have complaints, be prepared for the agency to cite an industry standard that formally proves that the quality is just fine.

Keep in mind: in none of these cases is the agency trying to change the subject or to pass off poor work as quality work. The problem is not in the quality of the translation itself, but in the fact that the task was vaguely formulated from the start. No two translations are alike.  Anything unclear in the original requirements might be interpreted differently from how you would like it to be — with no malice on the part of the agency: the translators will have to guess what you meant to complete the work order, guided by approved standards and their satisfactory experience with similar projects for other clients.

These sorts of situations please no one — not the client and not the agency. That’s why it’s important to formulate your expectations from the very beginning. Find the time to do this; otherwise, you risk losing a lot more time after the order is completed.

Clearly explain to the translation agency the kind of quality you expect from them. If you have dictionaries, style guides, or samples of correct translations, provide them; if not, explain what norms the agency will have to follow when carrying out the order, and be sure to agree to them.

If you have a large order, don’t send the agency the entire translation: ask them to translate a small part of it and send it back to you to check. This will give you a preview before the entire project is finished, an opportunity to form an impression about how the translation as a whole would look. This will minimize the risk, both for you and for the translation agency.

If you’re not satisfied with the text you get back, immediately inform the manager of the agency and discuss how to proceed. Either the translation agency will consider your requirements or you can change the vendor. In either case, you’ll avoid a lot of problems and save time, and money and spare yourself stress.

To anticipate the client’s requirements, translation agencies often initiate such agreements themselves, e.g., they might send back part of the order before the agreed deadline to get your feedback. The worst thing you can do is put the translated files aside without looking at them, only to be horrified when you eventually open them a month after the project is done. If you have complaints, this will give rise to a reasonable question: why didn’t you mention anything in the early stages of the project? A lack of complaints at the translation stage is treated as a lack of complaints altogether. Presenting them after the fact, when the project has already been delivered and accepted is, at a minimum, a bit strange.

Even if you think that you formulated your requirements very clearly and that there’s no way for them to be misinterpreted, there’s probably something that you may have implied or forgotten to mention. A professional is likely to find something missing. And if it’s a quality agency, they’ll ask you to clarify certain things.

They might ask if you have any style guides, glossaries that need to be followed or approved terminology. This is not an attempt on the part of the agency to make their work easier at your expense — it is an attempt to ensure quality and compliance with your requirements. Questions may sometimes arise about the format of files, the delivery schedule, and communication. If the source text contains errors, is taken out of context, or can be interpreted in different ways, you may be asked to clarify what was meant.

If you don’t provide answers to all these questions, the agency will be forced to make decisions in situations where they don’t have sufficient information, i.e., they’ll have to try to guess the correct translation. And if they make a mistake, then in response to your complaints, you’ll hear: “We asked you about this, but you didn’t give us an answer, which means you accepted the risk.”

You may be distracted or even annoyed by these questions. “Why are they asking me this; can’t they do it themselves? They’re supposed to be professionals, after all.” This is a very common reaction on the part of clients. But not even professionals can read minds.

If there are complaints, you need to be able to state your case. “Your translation is awful!” This is a platitude with no arguments to support it. You need to provide specific examples of incorrect translations that indicate problems with the quality. We wrote a separate article about how to evaluate the quality of a translation.

Any error that is discovered needs to be supported with references to the rules of punctuation, industry dictionaries, instructions provided in advance, etc. If a correction is not substantiated, the agency will reasonably be able to argue that it is not an error but a preferential change on the part of the editor, and they’ll provide citations to authoritative sources. For example, you might say that the word “data” should be used in the plural, not the singular and the translator will reply that both variants are in common usage, and you didn’t specify your preference.

You need to be qualified to evaluate the quality of a translation, and if you don’t have the qualifications, the only thing to do is to hire another translation agency to check the translation based on industry standards and your agreements with the vendor. The results of a professional assessment can provide serious grounds for complaints. Platitudes will be seen as unreasonable nitpicking, in response to which you’ll get another request to produce real evidence of poor quality.

Of course, the vendor may turn out to be dishonest despite all the precautions described above. In that case, however, you can be sure that, for your part, you did everything possible, and you’ll have grounds to discuss a completely different level. In addition, you’ll identify the problem much earlier, and losses — if there are any — will be less painful.

Ideally, such situations should not arise at all. To prevent them, contact a proven agency that has been on the market for a long time.

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