When and how should clients get involved in translation?



Sometimes clients put their faith entirely in a translator. Other times, they’re passing on texts that they’re not particularly attached to and hoping to get a translation done quickly and efficiently. But other times, it’s a different story. Clients can be very attached to documents they need translated or have a lack of trust in translators to do their words justice.  Or maybe they think that by being closely involved with the translation of their documents, they’re being helpful or ensuring quality control.

This is the case for Hank Enright, Director of International Training for Papa John’s Pizza. CMS Wire reports that Enright regularly checks Spanish translations of corporate documents, like training manuals. He often finds mistakes. For example, instructions for pizza delivery in English remind employees to “never leave the car running” – in Spanish, this was translated to “do not exit the vehicle running”.

Well done, you might be thinking. But “checking” and changing a translation can have serious consequences. For example, while Enright speaks fluent Mexican Spanish, it’s not his native language; an English-speaking American, he grew up in Mexico. This might mean that in some ways, he knows the language and culture well. But does he know it better than a translator who might be truly bilingual as well as bicultural, and who’s also studied the subtleties of Mexican Spanish and culture in ways that Enright probably hasn’t?

It’s easy to see both sides. Enright and his company want error-free documents, and Enright has the ability to spot mistakes. The translator(s) who work(s) for Papa John’s seem(s) to make mistakes. So why shouldn’t Enright be involved?

The bigger question to me is, why is this translator or translation team making mistakes?  Some of them seem pretty serious – and obvious.  Could it be a cultural misunderstanding, even if both the translator and Enright know Mexican culture well?

In this case, a solution is glaringly clear: Since Enright seems to like being involved in the translation process, why not let him communicate directly with the translator(s)?  This way, he could ask any questions he might have – not to mention clarify his preferences on certain things.

At least in this case, Enright seems to be doing a good job. I know translators who’ve been shocked to discover that clients have completely altered their translations, to the point that the text is now stiff at best, and incomprehensible at worst. Sometimes a client makes changes this way after getting new, last-minute instructions from higher-ups on the corporate ladder. He or she might think they know the target language just enough to make those changes themselves, but the result often shows that they were wrong.

Other clients seem like they just can’t trust a translator, so they take a perfectly functional translation and convince themselves there are mistakes. They then “re-translate” it into something of inferior quality. This hasn’t done them any favors; they’ve lost time and money and haven’t even come out with an improved product.

So, what is the solution if you feel like you’ve gotten an inadequate translation, if you have highly specific instructions from your organization, or if you simply don’t trust translators?

One thing is to check out your translator or translation company’s reputation. You can do this by visiting their website, doing an online search for them (consider including the word “review” or “customer review”), or even asking them upfront to give you some references, qualifications, or names of other clients.

Another option would be to talk to colleagues and other people you respect who often have to use translators, themselves. Ask who they use for their translations, and what they think of them.

If you already work with a translator or translation company that you trust, but still aren’t sure they’ll know how to meet your specific needs, get in touch with them. This is the best advice I can think of, across the board. Personally, I love it when clients give me information that can help me determine something like tone, or their preferences regarding special office or job jargon, and other ways to make a translation perfectly tailored to their needs, and I’m pretty sure most other translators feel the same way. When you send a document to translate, don’t be afraid to include your notes, observations, thoughts, or needs.  And remember to be reachable in case the translator gets in touch with you for clarification.

Most of us want things done quickly, efficiently, and perfectly. Talking to a translator won’t hinder that – in fact, it will help you get the translation you want in the first place, without making changes that could cause a translation to become incomprehensible.

by Alysa Salzberg

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