In this article we will try to tell you what is happening in a translation agency after your order has been received in the pipeline. It would seem there’s nothing to tell: “the text is received, sent to translator, received from translator, and sent back to the customer”. But believe us: with many orders there are micro dramas that nobody will tell you about — for your peace of mind.
Let’s look into the backstage and see what is happening there...
What’s happening to your files when you do not see
Sometimes it happens that a customer who has no experience in relations with translation agencies sends a file and requests to translate it paying no heed to such a “trifle” as its format. But it’s critically important for a translation agency how the easily sent text can be processed in various software applications.
For instance, if the customer sends the translation agency a scanned copy of the document, prior to translation the translation agency will have to OCR the text and edit it.
The customer often sends the translation agency a PDF file and expects that the translated file will look the same. However, PDF is extremely inconvenient for processing. Initially it was developed by Adobe in order to eliminate the dependence of the displayed text and images from the used platform. This format fits the purpose perfectly. But it is not so easy to convert PDF files into an editable format. Then, after finishing translation, it is still more difficult to recreate the original PDF file in the translated form. Indeed, it is a separate and rather time-consuming operation: layout, which requires participation of an additional player — layout designer. Even if the translator can do all these operations, he will have to spend additional time. Logically, it adds up to the cost of the order due to additional services (OCR, editing, layout, etc.). Most often the customer does not know about all these operations and rests assured that the translation agency makes just a “simple translation”. Many translation agencies prefer not to overload the customer with unnecessary details to the extent of including all the operations in the price and calling them collectively a “translation”.
That’s why, to make the translation process less expensive, try to send the files in the editable formats: provide either text (for example, in Microsoft Word format), or the original format of PDF files (PDF is always a secondary format created from something else). Otherwise, the translation agency will have to reject the project due to its unprofitability, or raise the cost of its performance taking into account additional work.
However, even if a file has a simple and editable format, a serious translation agency carries a range of operations on it:
1) The text is analyzed by special software applications searching for repetitions. If there are many repetitions, it means there will be less work and the translation agency can offer you a discount.
2) Files are converted into special formats. The converted text is translated and then checked in additional tools allowing to detect and correct various mistakes. Many translation agencies have their internal, “secret” know-hows for such purposes, designed for a certain language or program. And finally the file with the edited text is converted back into the format originally sent by the customer.
3) The final file is checked for correct conversion results and then is sent to the customer who in most cases has not the slightest idea about all those complicated operations or just is reluctant to go into all technical details of the process.
The above operations are required to assure quality. They are easy to perform, if a file has an editable text format. If the customer sends a scanned image or PDF file with a complicated layout, such operations get more difficult dramatically and the translation agency has to work using “antique methods”: OCR the text or preliminarily type it, translate at sight in order to translate it in a usual way afterwards. This increases the project cost for the customer and reduces its attractiveness for the translation agency. That’s why both parties will win, if the files are easy to process.
Urgent call to arms: how it happens
Translation is a very time-consuming job. Translators work with different speed. The norm is considered to be 1 page (250 words) per hour or 8 pages (2000 words) per day. Even if a translator works overtime and with great speed, he will hardly succeed, without reducing quality, to translate more than 20 pages (5000 words) per day. And he will not be able to keep such pace for a long time.
However, often translation agencies are contacted by customers who need their text to be translated with the deadline “the day before yesterday”. For instance, the customer proposes to translate 1000 pages (250,000 words) in a week because “it’s very urgent!” A simple math shows that speed of such translation exceeds the norm by many times. One person will need at least five months to complete such huge amount of work. But the customer will not even hear about this: at best, the customer agrees to prolong the deadline for two more weeks. The manager explains the customer that he is taking risk as at least ten translators and three editors will work on the project. The outcome text cannot be consistent in principle. If the customer agrees to such conditions, the translation agency starts having scarcity of the resources: to fulfill the project with good quality, it needs about 15 people. Moreover, the projects from other customers should not be jeopardized.
In such cases they usually mobilize “reserve translators”, i.e. freelancers who receive work from time to time. The final quality of the completed job depends on competence of this outsource staff and efficiency of the manager whose team has grown by 15 people (and if there are several managers, their cooperative work should be taken into account). Such task can be managed only by the companies that have foreseen such a development and had time to prepare a cushion, i.e. prepare reserve “production capacities”. If the project came as a surprise and the translation agency risked taking it, no one will envy the customer and the translation agency.
That’s why, if you give a large order to the translation agency, make sure that its production capacity is sufficient to manage large volumes without sacrificing quality.
Why translators are asking questions? Can’t they just translate?
Here is a funny real-life story.
A representative from a world-famous company contacted a translation agency and offered a prospective project. The companies of such level usually provide their materials such as glossaries with the approved terminology (the same terminology in various companies is often translated differently), style guide, requirements to follow, already translated materials, etc. collectively called “reference”. That’s why at the stage of agreeing terms, a manager said that he was ready to follow the customer’s requirements and asked to provide the available materials. He thought that such an approach will show how competent the translation agency is. But the customer’s reaction was much unexpected: “I give you the order, what else do you need? Will you not be able to find the dictionaries yourself? You are the professionals, it’s your job!” The impression was spoiled and the order was not received.
Well, professionals ask the customers questions. Sometimes they ask many questions. This is an evidence of professionalism: a professional tries to find out what customer needs are and tries to satisfy them as much as possible. Imagine that you make renovations in your apartment: you have hired a designer and construction workers and told them “Make renovations!” They will have many questions to you but it does not mean that they would not be able to make renovations on their own. But will you be happy with the result, if nobody asks your opinion while work is in progress?
The same applies to translation agencies. Amateurs will take and fulfill a large project turning a deaf ear to the customer’s needs. Professionals will make inquiries whether you have standard style guides and terminology. They will ask you to look into an intermediate result of their work in order to make corrections promptly. They will consult with you regularly on the disputable matters and will ask to explain, if something is unclear. Perhaps they will seem a nuisance to you, but they do this to eliminate any pain in the neck in the future. Otherwise, after the project has been delivered, it may turn out that the customer and the contractor did not understand each other. Such mutual misunderstanding could result in enormous costs.
How to harm yourself in the right way
There are many small misunderstandings between customers and translation agencies in the process of work. However, sometimes customers’ requirements get anecdotic. Below are some of the extraordinary but real-life situations.
— The customer provides a glossary with the approved translations of the terminology. However, he wants this terminology to be used only in the form it is indicated in the glossary, i.e. in the nominative case. But in many languages (e.g. Russian) the same word can have dozens of grammatical endings which are non-existent in English.
— The customer provides a glossary with obvious mistakes such as spelling mistakes, etc. However, he forbids correcting such mistakes in the translation. It turns out that glossary has more priority than grammar rules.
— The customer provides a text with bad segmentation where each sentence is broken into several parts randomly. However, he requires providing the translation for each part separately. It is unclear what to do, if the word order has changed after translation.
— Having received the translation, the customer “translates” it back to the source language using Google Translate (i.e. makes a so-called back translation and what’s more, it is machine translation). Then he makes a list of what he thinks are “translation errors” and sends it back asking to make corrections so that this “back translation” matches the source text.
— The customer asks to make a translation of interface lines for some software application by simply exporting it into the text format but providing no context. E.g. simple English word “Select” might be the text on a button, checkbox, instruction etc., and each should be translated differently in Russian, as English verbs have only 2 form (select/selects/selected), while Russian translation would have dozens of variation depending on the verb mood, tense, gender etc.
— Having received the translation, the customer entrusts its QA to an incompetent person. Then he sends back the list of “corrections” asking to incorporate them.
— The customer requires that the number of words in the translation should be the same as in the original (yes, such things really happened).
In all those cases a translation agency faces a difficult dilemma: what has it to follow: the customer’s requirements or literature norms? In other words, the translation agency should make the decision which side it should take: the customer’s side or its future clients who are the end-users of this translation. If you insist on literature norms, the customer may be offended and refuse from cooperation. If you fulfill his requirements blindly, the customer will suffer from it afterwards. In any case the translation agency risks losing its reputation: either the customer will tell other customers that his requirements are not followed, or somebody will read a “compromise” translation and will make a conclusion that this translation agency is incompetent.
What should be done in this situation? The option “to reject” is unacceptable in most of the cases, as it results in financial losses or deterioration of longstanding relations with the customer. That’s why a professional “deal with your conscience” usually looks as follows:
— The translation agency warns the customer about possible negative consequences of following his requirements.
— The customer clearly acknowledges that he understands probability of such negative consequences and assumes responsibility for them.
— The translation agency follows the instructions, makes the second warning and thus finally washes its hands of the matter.
Such half-juridical “rite” is used by the translation agency to defend itself from claims regarding quality as it always can produce old “agreements” and justify itself by saying that “it was your instruction”.
That’s why, if the translation agency starts protesting against your instructions, do not jump to conclusions: most likely it sincerely wishes to protect you from the problems. The best thing to do is to trust to professionals.
Role conflict: what your secretary is afraid of while working with a translation agency
Translation is a highly qualified work requiring special knowledge, skills and personal qualities. To become a good translator, one needs many years of studying and practice as well as versatility of interests and polymathy that can’t be gained in a month. That’s why, to work as a translator, it is not enough just to speak a foreign language.
Let’s consider some regular occupation, for instance, a tiler. From an outsider’s viewpoint it looks as if there is nothing difficult in it: mix the mud and set tiles evenly to the floor or on the wall. However, try to start doing such seemingly elementary work and you will see that it is not such an easy job: sometimes the tiles are set unevenly or not firmly, sometimes seams have different length. In the result, when you look at the floor set in such way, it is quite clear: it is amateur’s work. The same applies to translation: if it is made by an amateur, it will have a lot of blunders: accuracy mistakes, omitted or extra commas, spelling mistakes and stylistically ugly sentences.
There are many companies where translation is entrusted to a secretary or just to somebody “who knows foreign language”. Most often it is an unskilled employee. But the task is set by the manager and it should be completed. So he completes it according to his skills either understanding his incompetence or making an erroneous assumption that he produces a real translation. It is noteworthy that most often the secretary’s manager is satisfied with the result of such work as he himself cannot evaluate quality of translation.
But the volume of text that should be translated is increasing and the secretary cannot manage it. So the manager decides to turn to professionals, the translation agency, and delegates the work with it to the secretary who has an unclear idea of how the high-quality translation should look like. The secretary is cornered: his boss entrusted him an impossible task but he cannot reject it. That said he needs to show the results of his activity, give appearance of usefulness. The secretary’s situation gets more complicated, if the translation agency representative makes a review of the text that was earlier translated by the poor secretary, and gives uncomplimentary remarks about its quality. The secretary has to defend himself and prove that he can cut the mustard. Sometimes incompetence combined with the right to make decisions results in his editing the texts unnecessarily just to show that “we weren’t born yesterday”. But he actually introduces mistakes in the text artificially. While doing so he peremptorily presents claims regarding quality of the translation agency’s work without any reasons (he does not know about the industry standards). As the result, everybody loses:
— the customer who will get a poor quality translation or will incur additional costs;
— the translation agency that will spent a lot of time unproductively;
— the secretary who has to do the job he was not trained for, being in continuous anticipation that his incompetence will be found out.
Worst of all, such a lose-lose situation gets stable and may last for years. The translation agency does not want to lose the customer and adapts to its “peculiarities”. It follows the customer’s instructions by the principle “the customer is always right”. The incompetent employee suppresses any attempts by the translation agency to change the situation for the better (as it means to recognize that mistakes were made earlier under his guidance). The manager has no idea at all about all this behind-the-scenes activity. All trash is hidden under the carpet, and it is getting scarier and scarier to lift it. And the customer’s company, which often even does not know about it, suffers losses (reputational, financial and others) because the translation on its website or in its documents is far from ideal.
To avoid such problems, the customer has to entrust translation QA to competent employees or engage a competitor translation agency for audit review. While evaluating quality, it should not be guided by somebody’s personal opinion but strict standards of translation quality.
We have considered only a few aspects of relations between customers and translation agencies. As you see, a translation agency work cannot be reduced to just the scheme “received, translated, and sent back”: in addition to difficulties with internal production processes, a translation agency may sometimes have non-standard situations in its relations with customers. We hope that being aware of these nuances, the customer will be able to make more informed and mutually beneficial decisions.