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The human factor in translation projects: why being a good translator is not enough 

In this article, we will talk about communication between a translation agency and translators, and how it affects their cooperation.

In our experience, at least in 30% of cases, relations between a translation agency and a translator are suspended because of a mutual misunderstanding, or difficulties in cooperation, even when the main criteria, such as quality of work, rates, and cooperation conditions, are satisfactory. Let’s consider why sometimes a translation agency may refuse to cooperate with a translator who can provide high-quality translations at an acceptable price.

Before assigning a job, a project manager should contact a translator by any means to make sure they are ready to accept and complete the task. Additionally, the project manager should be certain that they are available during working hours, as requests, additional questions, or updated instructions, can be sent at any moment and must be forwarded to the translator as soon as possible.

If a translator does not answer emails, phone calls, or messages, then the project manager will assign jobs to someone more communicative, to be on the safe side. New projects will pass by those who don’t answer the phone or reply to emails quickly, and if this happens to a translator too many times, eventually they are crossed out from the list of available translators.

Prospective freelance translators should understand that phone, email, and instant messengers are channels that allow them to retain their clients. If you won’t answer phone calls from unknown numbers, don’t check your email for days in a row, and stay offline, you will simply be forgotten by the fast-paced, dynamic nature of the industry

Of course, life is not all about work, and you won’t always be able to reply to the client instantly. For example, you won’t be able to do so when you are on vacation, at a football match, or visiting a dentist. However, at such moments it does make sense to set up a message such as: “Dear clients! Currently I’m on a trip to the Himalayas and won’t be able to receive your orders until September 23rd”. This information is important to clients as they will immediately know that you haven’t just disappeared all of a sudden, but are absent for objective reasons. Moreover, a clearly defined return date will make you look much more professional.

In any case, if you missed a call or an email from a client, it is better to apologize and explain the reason for your late reply. This way your client will know that you are interested in further cooperation and that your mailbox or telephone number is still active.

Business hates anonymousness and nicknames. Everybody wants to know their business partners by sight. An email from someone nicknamed “Daisy Beauty”, or from an anonymous sender with an email address like child.of.the.moon@nightmail.com will put your partners on guard. If an email does not have a signature with a name and surname, their first logical question will be “Who is this?” even if they communicated with the sender before. If the matter concerns an ongoing project, the manager has to spend time identifying the author and the project in question. The sender may even get marked as spam by mistake. That’s why you should follow several simple recommendations:

  1. Make sure to specify your sender’s name in the email settings instead of using a nickname (e.g., “John Smith” instead of “Dark Lord”). Otherwise, the manager won’t know your real name and how to address you.
  2. Put your signature in every email.
  3. It’s recommended to create a mailbox with the following email format: Name.Surname@domain.com. The email address will look more reputable than, for example, LittleMouse28@farm.com.

The same is true for telephone communication. Be sure to introduce yourself when calling a client on a work-related matter. Your telephone number may not be saved in the manager’s phonebook and they may not recognize you, even if they called you 10 minutes ago, since they have already called three other people in that time.

Keep in mind that a good project manager assigns and accepts dozens of jobs during the day, sends and receives hundreds of emails, and makes a lot of calls. Don’t complicate their work by staying anonymous.

Candidates often send emails with attachments but no text. No greeting or explanation about the attached file is a quiz for the manager. It helps if the subject has some information in it, and the sender is not a Dark Lord. Never send empty emails like these: they can be easily ignored or marked as spam along with the sellers of miraculous pills and the Nigerian orphan princess who doesn’t know how to spend her two billion dollars! Be sure to say hello, address the recipient by name, and explain the purpose of the email at least in one sentence. For instance, “Hi Anna, I am sending you the test translation to apply for the position of a freelance translator. Regards, John Smith”.

It is also important to confirm that you have received a client’s email. Not only is it polite, but it also clears the sender’s doubts about whether you have received their email.

Any business communication, with a translation agency in particular, should be carried out in a polite and professional tone. Debatable issues and differences that inevitably arise during work should be discussed calmly, without mutual reproaches.

You’ll agree that the phrases “I’m sorry, but I don’t understand how the application works” and “This Trados app of yours is dumb!” are perceived very differently. In the former case, the manager will surely try to help you; in the latter case, they will never contact you again. If a manager hears or reads a phrase like “At those rates, you can translate it yourself“, they will think that further cooperation is futile. While a phrase such as “Unfortunately, I won’t be able to work on this particular project with the current rates” leaves open the possibility of a compromise, or at least allows ending cooperation without negative emotions. It is important for your translator’s career in the long run. The world of translation is small. People often meet again several years after their previous cooperation in a company or on a project, now having new roles and working for new companies.

Communication style is inseparable from your reputation. Many mistakes may be forgiven by a civil and politely spoken person, while a rude and overconfident person will be dumped at the first opportunity, even if their work is satisfactory.

As you know, any two translators will translate the same text differently, even if both of them are professionals. Each will inevitably put a part of themselves in their translation: distinctive phrases, structure of the sentences, style, etc. That’s why, if several people work on the same project, there is always a need to reduce it to a common denominator, i.e. to unify the style and terminology. Below are some typical examples of a lack of coordination:

  • The same article is named differently in different sections of the text.
  • Both personal and impersonal expressions are used in the same text (“It was decided that…” vs. “We decided that…”).
  • Grammar rules accept multiple variants, e.g. both verb (“cancel”) and gerund (“canceling”) are permissible.
  • A space before the percentage sign is sometimes used and sometimes not used in the same text.
  • “Centuries” are written using both Roman and Arabic numerals.

Special instructions and glossaries are created to unify a particular style. All translators who participate in a project should observe them. However, sometimes it turns out that not everyone is ready to work as a team. Some translators may be irritated because the style required as per the instructions is “too dry”, others may not like the terminology approved by the client, etc.

Now here’s the real kicker: quite often it turns out that the translator is right. For instance, the client’s terminology can be approved by an incompetent secretary or a foreigner who doesn’t speak the target language. Style guides may provide strange requirements. For instance, they forbid addressing the reader directly or require using only the terminology provided in the glossary, regardless of the context.

To observe such requirements, the translator often has to create a text that they would not write voluntarily. Some translators don’t want to put up with this “violation of rights” and may start a revolt: they edit the instructions and glossaries, or just ignore them without the client’s approval. Although they are guided by good intentions and a sincere wish to deliver high-quality translations, they anger the client and drive the manager crazy. The latter may find him or herself caught between the hammer and the anvil, as they have to maneuver between the translator and the client. When there is a rebel amidst a team of translators working on a project, the editor in charge of consolidating the texts has to rewrite the insurgent part nearly from scratch, so that the text complies with the client’s requirements and would have at least some degree of uniformity. As a result, the editor is irritated (“You had detailed instructions!”), the rebel is offended (“My translation was better than the original text, but nobody appreciates my toil…”), and the manager grits their teeth (“Unnecessary problems again!”).

In the end, translation agencies “isolate” translators who step out of line too often. These translators are offered only jobs that have no specific instructions attached to them and that can be done independently, without causing a conflict. If there are no such projects, the agency simply suspends its cooperation with the translator.

Translators should not perceive editors, translation agencies, or clients as their opponents, but understand that they are all in the same boat. If a translator narrows their role down to “received — translated — sent”, they isolate themselves, turning from a valued stakeholder to a functioning cog in a large machine. Thinking like that can work for some specific jobs, but it has a harmful influence on the process as a whole. That’s why, if an instruction seems strange to you, inform the manager, specify the issues that arise from observing such instructions, and find out if you have to observe them. With the manager’s approval, the translator has the moral right to completely shun the responsibility for possible problems caused by observing such instructions.

A translation agency that cares about the professional development of its translators will provide them with feedback on their performance. Feedback helps translators to better understand quality requirements and improve their professional skills.

The translation agency doesn’t aim to reproach its translators in any way or assert itself at their expense. Doing so makes no sense, as it entails additional costs and doesn’t benefit the company in any way. A low evaluation score for a translation simply indicates that some aspects require improvement. The purpose of providing feedback is not to punish but to show where more attention should be paid next time. If a translator ignores the feedback and makes the same mistakes over and over, they are less likely to get new orders. A manager, as a representative of their translation agency, will not waste time on a translator if there seems no sense in further cooperation. If your translations are evaluated, even if the score is low, this in and of itself means the translation agency is interested in further cooperation.

Needless to say, sometimes the editor’s corrections are disputable and may be discussed. However, you should always comply with ethical standards, be polite, and make no personal remarks. Commenting upon corrections with phrases such as “As broad as long” or “Where on earth did you get this editor?!!” indicates that there are communication issues. In most cases, cooperation with such translators is suspended, even if the text they provide is satisfactory.

Review and analysis of client feedback require time, but they should be perceived as investments in one’s professional development. In fact, by doing this, a translation agency spends its resources and editors’ time on developing and improving the translation service it provides. In the short term, it is easier and cheaper for a company to simply send the edited text to the client without informing the translator about the edits. In this case, however, everyone loses in the long run: without feedback, translators keep making the same mistakes, don’t develop any further, and risk being reduced to mere suppliers of raw materials; editors have to correct the same mistakes over and over again, and the company lacks skilled translators.

High-quality work requires time. However, the responsibility to provide a quality product doesn’t negate a translator’s responsibility to meet their deadlines. Always fulfill the jobs assigned to you on time. You are just one link in the production chain, so any delay on your part may cause a domino effect; with a product’s release being delayed on another continent as a potential result.

If there is something you don’t understand, if you have overestimated your abilities, or if you cannot complete the job in time due to unforeseen circumstances, make sure to notify the manager immediately by phone or email. Do not be afraid to upset the manager, as you’ll have to do this one way or the other. The sooner you report the issue, the more time the manager has to handle it. They can cushion the blow by assigning your job or a part of it to another translator, negotiating with the client to postpone the deadline, etc. If you keep the problem to yourself until the deadline, you’ll end up sending the manager into a tailspin, and they will have no wish to cooperate with you in the future.

As you can see, simply being a good translator is not enough to make a career in this industry. You must be able to communicate with your clients, work in a team, compromise, meet your deadlines, learn from your mistakes, and observe simple rules of business communication. We hope that you will benefit from these recommendations. 

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