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Tips for Surviving Your First Mistake in a Translation Agency

Nobody is perfect – and at some point, everyone will make a mistake. The only question is “when?” Even professionals are not safe – but the thing about mistakes is that they help you learn. It’s important that you accept these mistakes, take responsibility for them – and use them as a stepping stone towards being a more successful person.

Still, there’s more than saying “I’m sorry, moving on” behind such a mistake. In order to protect your job as a translator in a certain agency, there are certain steps that you need to follow. This guide will help you through your first mistake so that you can be safe, learn from it, and then move on.

  • Letting the Client Know Right Away

Some people prefer going by the “If I don’t say anything, maybe they won’t notice” method. If you’re lucky and no one notices, then you’ve lucked out; you just have to be careful that it never happens again.

However, this may also go the other way, with the client finding out by themselves – or from other sources – that there is an error in the text you have translated for them. The next step would be them coming at your agency, roaring thunders and lightning, threatening they are going to sue.

To prevent this from happening, you might want to take some initiative. If by any chance you realize the mistake before the client does, do not hope for a miracle and pretend the mistake does not exist. Instead, make sure that you contact the customer right away, giving them notice (hopefully) before they use those documents.

If you do this, the client will also hopefully see that you are an honest person – one who places the interests of the client over their own.

There’s no guarantee that you won’t have to suffer from this mistake – but taking this initiative might just soften the blow. This way, you might get away with just a warning instead of being fired.

  • Explain Yourself – Not Excuse Yourself

There’s a very big difference between explaining what happened and making excuses for yourself. People choose translation agencies over freelancers for this exact reason – simply because they expect transparency at all points.

A client is more willing to trust an honest translator that brings all cards to the table rather than one that seems picture perfect – but also seems to be hiding something. Most people have an eye for these kinds of people.

Start by explaining why this mistake happened – but don’t make it sound like you are looking for excuses. If you’re trying to put all the blame on external factors, this might not sit well with the customer.

Instead, put your hands up (in a manner of speaking), admit it was your mistake, but also make them see that you learned from it. Show them that you can move forward with this mistake and use it as a stepping stone.

How well this explanation will be accepted, it will all depend on the severity of the mistake. Obviously, if you compromised the work of your client, it’s clear that they might have a bone to pick with you afterward.

However, if you do manage to show them that you’ve learned from your mistake, they will obviously appreciate your honesty. This way, there’s a high chance that this client will use your agency again in the future.

  • Offer to Fix Things

You’re working for a translation agency now, so your mistake is the entire company’s mistake. Unless you “clean” the black spot on the image, it will stay dirty and compromise the reputation of the company.

Obviously, this does not only mean that you have to fix the text you messed up. You will actually be expected to do that, considering they paid your agency to get the correct text.

Instead of just fixing things on the spot, you might also want to fix them on the long run; fix the relationship, not just the text. If the customer is still not happy, offer them a discount for their next order – or even throw some freebies in the mix.

Offering your services completely free of charge might not be the ideal scenario for you; however, if you risk losing a potential customer, it might save you hassle and money in the long run.

Instead of thinking of it as wasted time, think of it as an investment for the future. If the client leaves unhappily, then there’s no way they’ll be using your agency again. Furthermore, there is also a high chance that word will spread, placing a big dirty spot on the company. You don’t want a mistake like this to hit the breaks on your career.

Final Thoughts

Mistakes are always bound to happen; that’s how we actually learn and become better about our job. But remember that every mistake you make will reflect on the agency that you are working for.

If you follow these tips, you may be able to prevent a small mistake from growing into a full-blown disaster.

Communicating in the web: spreading vs selling

First of all, I love the internet. I love its reach, its speed, its lack of boundaries. I love the interactivity it provides. I love the amount of knowledge it makes available for everyone.

Blogs, podcasts, webinars, online courses and social media are wonderful tools. We are getting more information than ever, kids are learning so much quicker, and ideas are being conceived, developed and deployed globally using web tools.

Language is the biggest obstacle to true globalization — even more than technology, I think. English is currently the world’s lingua franca, but this doesn’t mean that everyone can understand it. It only means that it’s the language that is most translated from and to.

Projects like TED are amazing. Sponsors cover the costs, the speakers waive their remuneration, and the videos are translated into dozens of languages by volunteers through their Open Translation Project. TED offers good support to translators; every translation is revised by another volunteer, and the result is quite good.

However, there are two main issues with crowd-sourcing and similar strategies.

First, crowd-sourcing requires an infrastructure, which is not very simple or free. TED or Facebook or Twitter can use crowd-sourcing for translation and achieve good results, but that’s very different from John Doe wanting to translate a promotional video to put it on the website of his small office supplies business so he can sell items in other countries. Fansubbers translate their favorite shows and movies for free, but I doubt they will be interested in subtitling John Doe’s promotional video. And this video won’t be launched on TED, either. So John Doe, like most other people in the planet, will need to find a translator.

Second and most important: “free,” “amateur,” or “dirt cheap” are concepts that more often than not don’t entail good quality. And by “good” I mean professional-standard good, not good enough.

TED spreads ideas in lots of languages for free. The videos can be understood in all of those languages — the translations are good enough for that. But TED is not selling a product or a subscription; it’s doing non-English speakers a favor. The same applies to the Facebook or Twitter interfaces.

But what about John Doe? He can choose to translate his website for free using a free machine-translation tool, or ask his niece who took Spanish lessons to do it cheaply. A tech-savvy neighbor might even put subtitles on the promotional video for him. The resulting quality would fall between embarrassingly bad and good enough.

What image would he convey to the outside world? We express ourselves through words; if these words suggest carelessness, why should our other products or services be trusted?

I’ve talked about this before and certainly will talk again. If you want to sell a professional service or product, you need to convey a professional image. This shouldn’t require any further explanation. A Geocities-style website and a Hotmail e-mail address can look suspicious and put people off, and the same applies to the way you communicate.

And, when dealing with multimedia, not only do you require a good professional translator, but a good professional translator with experience in the form of multimedia you have in mind. Translating a website is not the same as subtitling a video, which is not the same as dubbing a video. Trying to cut corners will very likely lead to amateurish-looking results.

This is why I was very happy, but not surprised, when I was hired by a client to translate and subtitle a TED Talk. They were going to use it to convey a professional image and so they hired a professional translator and paid what she asked for.

Recently I was also paid to translate videos on health which are freely available on YouTube. Same thing: my client wanted to put those videos on their website through which they provide health-related services, so they didn’t look for free translation.

The same applies to the publisher that hired me to subtitle some interviews with George R.R. Martin, as I described in this other post. They want to sell the translated books, so they didn’t go for fansubbing.

It’s very straight-forward, isn’t it?

The internet is an awesome universe where ideas can be shared and goods can be sold. But these two activities shouldn’t be confused when considering what type of language service works best for each.

Doing it right the first time around

In our earlier post, we talked about clients asking for discounts on “short” files, on “easy” projects, and on the promise of a long-term collaboration (the good old “volume” discount).

While each argument had its own counter-argument, the underlying notion was that professional translators―those who translate for a living, usually as their exclusive activity―invest in continuing education to offer an added value (their valuable specialized knowledge) and become truly accountable for their work, thus contributing to the success of their clients.

This time, let’s explore three additional topics that I often discuss with prospects.

  • “What’s your best rate?” ― My best rate is $1 per word. Oh, you meant my “lowest” rate? Sorry… You see, when I heard “best,” I immediately thought about what would be best for me.If I could earn $1 per word, I would be able to work fewer hours per week, take a longer vacation, spend more time with the kids, and maybe even retire sooner. I didn’t realize you meant the best rate for you…Why don’t we just do this: You send me the files you need translated, I’ll analyze the project, calculate how much time and effort it would take me to complete the job and then send you an estimate. I believe that would make everybody happy!
  • “I can find cheaper than that!” ― I’m sure you can, but does “cheaper” mean “better”? It usually only means you’ll pay less for a service, but there will most likely be consequences.What happens if you receive the translation and are extremely disappointed with the final result? Do you pay for the substandard translation service―fearing the wrath of a translator of questionable quality who will badmouth your company on-line―and then hire a proper translator to redo the whole thing? This way you’ll spend more than you had originally budgeted for and wait longer for the project to be completed.And that is assuming you can actually read the final result of the substandard translation. What if you hired a translator to work on your beautifully crafted message and have your words written in a language you cannot understand? Do you really want to wait and see whether your marketing materials, those important contracts, or the guidelines that your branches overseas need to follow have actually been translated correctly by the candidate who offered to work for the lowest possible rate?Why don’t you make an informed decision to go with the translator who is truly a great fit for your purposes? Don’t be carried away by the “average rate in the market” idea. Keep in mind that you’ll be getting what you pay for. And I’m sure you are looking for accurate translations that will help your product or service do well in foreign markets.
  • “We’re just a startup and…”  If you’re a small company that is trying to break into your own market, you should be in the best position to truly appreciate a good deal when you see one. Maybe you’ve just furnished your office and went with a reliable brand because you want your furniture to last. You sure had to buy computers and equipment to perform your activities, so you identified the state-of-the-art technology that will make your work easier, eliminate re-work, and increase productivity.When it comes to hiring translation services, please follow the same mentality. You know good deals don’t always come with a small price tag. Actually, if the offer sounds too good to be true, there may be a catch. The service turnaround is too fast? Quality may suffer. The price is very low? Odds are you’re talking to a beginner translator who may not have the necessary knowledge to convey your message accurately. So, why don’t you go with professional translation services and do it right the first time around?Actually, according to colleagues in the industry, including both translators and project managers, startups and small businesses are among their best clients in terms of communication and payment. Companies with this profile tend to appreciate the one-on-one exchange that is only possible when you’re working with your translator as a team in order to achieve a common goal. And, as a company working on a tight budget, you sure would appreciate when things are done accurately, within the agreed turnaround, and without any surprises along the way. Think of translation as an investment that will help your company grow and reach a whole new market. If you’ll make money out of it (even if the return on investment is not immediate), why shouldn’t the translator get his or her fair share for a service that was crucial for such growth?

As you can see, your decision-making process when hiring translation services isn’t limited to the price tag alone. What may seem like a great deal at first, with discounted rates and impossibly fast deliveries, will most likely be far from the results you wish for. Effective translations are produced by professionals who truly understand your needs. And you won’t find these above-average professionals charging the so-called average rates.

Tell your translator the purpose of your translation

This text was written by Levent Yildizgoren and originally published on his company’s blog. I decided to republish it on TCZ because it addresses in a lot more detail one of the items tacked in my article Defining project specifications, namely, the importance of informing translators of the purpose of a text. Thanks a lot for sharing it with us, Levent!

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When choosing to translate any form of communication, informing the translator of the purpose of the text is paramount. Specifying the purpose of the translation will not only ensure that it is fit for purpose, but will also save you time and money. Is the translation required for a short business email, to be published on a website or just to understand the gist of the information?

Literal translations express text word for word and are devoid of any undertone or nuances. They are usually intended to understand the content of the source text, for instance back translations. With literal translation any internal inconsistency or error in the source text will be transferred into the final translation. A publication standard translation, stylistic and professional, is far from the literal example.

For the majority of translations, successfully conveying the meaning of the text is more important than remaining faithful to the original lexis. There are varying degrees of freedom in translation. The translator has to make difficult decisions with regards to grammatical and sentential issues, cultural transposition, tone, and social register. To classify a text can be tricky, but the key is to provide as much relevant information as possible. Generally it is clear whether a text is fictional or non-fictional. However, the purpose or context is often a point for clarification. Most non-fictional texts can be categorized as below:

  • Informative (commercial) – magazine article, advertisement
  • Informative (persuasive) – political tract, business pitch, marketing communication
  • Informative (empirical) – technical manuals

Is the article to convince, inform, inspire, console? The list is endless.

In order to ensure that the translator can classify the material correctly, it is important not only to supply the purpose of the text, but also the context in which it will be used. The sentence structure and vocabulary used in the translation will vary according to the information that you provide. For example, the level of language used for a user manual would not be suitable for a magazine article. The purpose of a text will also affect the manner in which cultural references and idiomatic phrases are conveyed.

With regards to context, if the translation is an addition to previous work (in a brochure, perhaps), providing any reference material or supplying a glossary of terminology will ensure that the translation is consistent and functional.

Who is the translation aimed at? The target audience plays a vital role in deciding the style and register of the translation. Tone has a great impact on the way the text is received and in turn how successful the translation is.

The amount of information that the translator has will determine the extent to which s/he can compensate for translation loss in the finished article. Professional translators are trained to recognize the requirements of a text, to make decisions that will effectively communicate the style and meaning of a text with minimal distortion of the original copy.

A translator’s choice of vocabulary throughout the translation process will directly affect the success of the translation. Providing the purpose and context of the translation will ensure that these decisions are informed decisions.

Controversial approach: “penalties” for low rates?

We all tend to agree that the “you get what you pay for” rule generally applies to goods and services regardless of the industry. In the translation business, what I describe in a previous text about the common scenarios involving the cost-time-quality triangle is usually true:

“Lower rates are often charged by novice translators or those who have no option but to work for extremely long hours to make a living. Conversely, more experienced professionals usually charge higher rates, which are, more often than not, proportional to the quality level of their services.”

In a subsequent post under the same category, I briefly analyze the relationship between a professional’s working hours and translation rates. Those who charge peanuts have to work incredibly hard to make a decent living. Moreover, those who have no choice but to work very long hours are less likely to focus on their translations, do exhaustive research, and revise the text until it’s impeccable, among other details that interfere in the quality of their output.

All these arguments seem logical, as quality is a direct result of a combination of attention, research, revision, and expertise, of course. A professional needs to spend time with a text to be able to put all these into action. If time is not available, one will expect a drop in quality. Naturally.

Now what if a “bottom-feeder” intentionally disregards quality because the rate s/he is getting is “not enough” to pay for his/her full attention, proper research, and careful revision? Sad but true, as you can see in this Google Groups discussion. I’ve reproduced the original text (which is a reply to another translator’s message) and highlighted the parts I consider a must-read.

This is an interesting scenario, especially because I believe it happens more often than we would expect. And I don’t mean the intentional “customer suffers” approach. Instead, the real, widespread problem is the circumstantial—and sometimes inevitable—results of low rates, as I’ve described.

This attitude will sooner or later boomerang back at unprofessional individuals like this one and damage their reputation, as Kevin Lossner points out in his comment under a blog post about it. To complement the cycle, I quote Werner Patel’s explanation, found in another a blog comment, of how it can backfire on clients:

“If they [clients] are too short-sighted to realize that they’re only hurting themselves by throwing peanuts at language professionals, they will eventually go out of business due to lack of quality and professionalism.”

There has been good discussion around this topic through blog posts and comments, as seen in Ryan Ginstrom’s and Corinne McKay’s posts, both published in 2008. Still, I thought I should bring this up again by adding a few extra lines about it and making these links available. The subject is a perfect fit for this blog, in harmony with a bunch of previous articles, and I don’t think it’ll ever be outdated.

Subtitling – Part II

(4)    Why didn’t you list (audio) transcription as a common step of the subtitling process?

Transcription of the audio is not necessarily part of subtitling. A common misconception is that the translator needs to type the text in the original language before, and only then begin working on the subtitles proper. The truth is most translators work faster by listening to the audio in one language and typing it directly into the other language.

Nevertheless, the transcribed material is sometimes used by clients for preparing manuals or other sorts of texts in the source language (i.e. original language). Most subtitling professionals will provide you with the transcription if you make it clear you also need the original content in writing. Remember this service takes time and, therefore, should be agreed upon beforehand. It will certainly be charged as an extra service.

(5)    How many professionals do I need to hire?

This depends on what product you need and the type of professional(s) you hire. Some translators only do the linguistic part of the job, whereas others handle the full video editing process. Some of them will deliver the subtitled video after having outsourced the video editing phase, for instance. Here’s our advice: describe the final product you need; the translator will most likely give you some options and tell you what s/he is able or unable to do.

To maximize your results and minimize costs, we suggest you do everything at once. Translating the material this week with one professional, then looking for another professional to edit the film next month might result in wasted time and money. Even if two or more professionals are involved, the process will be streamlined if they can communicate and agree on certain technical details.

(6)    Besides the video itself, what other material should I provide?

Other than the reference materials you’d usually send before any sort of translation task, good written support materials (audio transcription, original script, dialog list, etc.) often make translators less prone to misunderstanding the audio. It might also speed up the process, since the professional won’t have to listen to an unclear excerpt numerous times before s/he gets the right message. Many translators add a surcharge when this type of written reference material is not available.

(7)    Are there legal issues, such as intellectual rights, that I should be concerned about?

If you are the creator or legal owner of the audiovisual material, you obviously have the right to translate and distribute it. And, when you hire a translator, you usually retain the intellectual rights over the translation as well. This may not be the case in every country and every situation, though. So, if you have intellectual property concerns, discuss them with the translator in advance.

In the case of third-party contents (films or TV shows, videos from another company, or even materials downloaded from websites such as YouTube), you must acquire the rights to translate them and distribute it. A copyright breach could entail legal consequences for you and the professionals involved.

Now that you know a bit more about subtitling, we hope you can optimize the communication with your translator from the onset of each project and, consequently, achieve the best results. Feel free to email us and use the comment section to ask questions about subtitling and the audiovisual translation field.