Saturday, February 19, 2011

Improving translator-customer communication

The basis of communication is making sure both parties are talking about the same thing. I assume that both parties are equally responsible for ensuring that the communication is as clear as possible. In this post I want to discuss a few points that translators and their customers would do well to clarify early on, to avoid any misunderstandings.

Apart from the issue of price, there are several important aspects of a translation job: quantity, time, and area of expertise.

1. Quantity of work:

Customers don't always understand the way translators estimate the quantity of work. Translators usually describe the quantity of work in terms of word count, or in terms of hours. Most translators I know usually have a price per unit of 250 words. This is a more specific quantity than "per page", as the number of words on a page can vary dramatically. The translator is responsible for explaining to the customer how to count the words in the source text, divide by 250, and multiply by the price. Note: when translating some language pairs, the word count of the target language can change significantly, and this is something else that the translator must explain to the customer, if the job is charged by the word count of the target text. The customer is responsible for making sure what the quantity of work is, in the terms the translator specifies. Either send the translator the text asking for an estimate, or make sure the translator's explanation is clear, and give a reliable answer regarding the quantity.

2. Time:

Time is a sensitive matter, since so many of the translation jobs are urgent, and since most translators are freelancers rather than employees with fixed working hours. It is important for both parties to discuss the time available and the time required for the job. This stage can only take place after the quantity of the work has been established. The translator must be realistic about the time required for the job, and how many hours can be spent on the job. If there is a deadline, the translator should be absolutely certain that it can be met, preferably without having to work longer hours than usual. When translators have several jobs lined up, they have to establish the order of priority, and make sure all jobs can be completed in time for the customers' deadline. The customer should be responsible for leaving sufficient time for the text to be translated. Translators are never thrilled when the customer needs the translation "yesterday"! Customers should also take into account that their freelance translators have other customers as well. To ensure the translator they want will be available, customers could contact the translator in advance, saying that a particular job will be coming soon. That way, the translator can consider turning away other jobs to keep some time free for the promised job. This is easier to do once the translator and customer have formed a relationship of trust. This trust should not be broken, so a promise of future work and a promise of future availability must be kept.

3. Area of expertise:

Finally, it is essential to match the right translator with the right job. Translators are responsible for defining clearly their area of expertise. People who say they translate "everything" probably don't realize how unprofessional that sounds. Few people can read and write all types of material equally fluently. Some are literary translators, some use their previous experience in legal, technical, medical, or academic areas to translate in these fields, and so on. Translators should never accept work they are not fully confident that they can translate at a sufficient level. This is another excellent reason for asking to see the material before committing to do the work. Customers should be aware that for different types of text they will have to find different translators. They should also learn how to assess and explain the nature of the material, and not assume that every speaker of the source and target languages can translate everything.

To conclude, both parties should be aware of each other's needs and expectations. Being open, honest, and specific throughout the communication is essential to building a good working relationship. Translators should know when to say "no", for reasons of insufficient time, inadequate pay, or translation jobs beyond their area of expertise. Customers should learn how to describe the work required accurately, and to anticipate the time the translator might need to do a good job.

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