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Inherent Problems of the Translation Industry: Lack of Communication

 

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Most translations are done through translation agencies globally. Agencies, especially big players, ask translators to play by the agencies’ rules. By putting their own priorities first, such as project schedule, agencies may inadvertently cause various problems. For example, if the main translation team is not available for the next part of a long-term project, an agency will give the job to someone else who will likely do not have a clue about the project or do not care about it as much as the main team. Or an agency may force deadlines on translators without giving much thought to the negative impact of working under time pressure. Although this can be unavoidable at times, such things are detrimental to the industry in the long term, at least because they force the best translators to stay clear of agencies. They just find it difficult to deliver consistently good translations under these conditions.

I believe that by discussing these types of fundamental challenges, we can understand them better and learn how to tackle them properly. This article describes another similar problem: lack of communication between agencies and vendors. It is not uncommon for everyone in the supply chain to do their job without understanding what is exactly required of them and what their client thinks of their work. Let’s look at various areas where communication typically fails:

Instructions

An agency, being a middleman by nature, must pass instructions and information among clients, translators, editors, DTP specialists, QA specialists, and so on. A simple example is a client’s instruction not to translate particular text in a project. The entire project team must be made aware of this instruction, so that, for example, an editor does not translate what was left untranslated by the translator. Relaying this instruction is relatively simple. But as the project rolls on, other instructions may emerge. The translator will have questions, and answers will have to be shared with the rest of the team—a more challenging task, since the project is already underway. The client may change his mind about something or provide feedback on the first batches of translation, and this will have to be shared with the team as well. With larger projects, instructions and exchanges keep piling up, and some of the agreements between the team and the client inevitably fall between the cracks. Unaware of these agreements, people make incorrect changes, wasting time, decreasing quality, and creating frustration for themselves and others.

As with all aspects of miscommunication described in this article, there are two reasons for this problem. The first one is the lack of systems. Having no system to save and communicate instructions leads to losing some of them. For example, we use a combination of a knowledge base + project management system to handle the instructions.

The second reason is the human factor. Whether there is a system or not, people may ignore instructions. For instance, project managers who are constantly under time pressure may forget to communicate instructions or hope the team will be able to figure them out themselves anyway.

Notes

Translation is a creative process involving extensive research and dealing with ambiguities. The choices a translator makes may be unclear to others, especially editors. For example, unaware of the hours a translator spent researching and honing a particular sentence, an editor may consider it inaccurate and edit it.

This aspect can be improved in two ways. The first one is asking everyone who works on a translation to leave notes for those down the supply chain. You can do it by using the note feature now available in virtually all translation memory tools. Notes are convenient both for the one who makes them and those who read them. The fact that people may not care to comment about their choices is another story. But I believe many would, given a chance. Good translators do not want other people to tear down their work due to miscommunication.

The second way is by avoiding the error described in the next section.

Changes

Quite often, an initial translation provided by a vendor gets edited by someone else. But how often does this vendor get a chance to review and approve those changes? I believe very rarely. This is another communication issue that is detrimental to quality and adds to stress upon stakeholders. When translators do not approve the changes made in their work, the risk of errors increases significantly. Translators often understand projects better than anyone else and can quickly see whether the changes made to their translation are incorrect.

For example, an agency sends a translation for editing to an editor who is not aware of the project instructions or is less qualified than the translator in the first place. This editor wreaks havoc with the translation, which would still  be okay if the translator had the opportunity to reverse those changes, given a chance. But the agency does not let that happen.

Agencies choose not to share changes with translators, because this is a time-consuming activity that—from agencies’ perspective—does not have any direct benefits, but only creates delays. Another reason is that not all translators will approach these changes constructively. Some say the changes are fine without looking at them, either because they do not have time or cannot stand the very idea of someone tampering with their work. Others will contest each edit so fiercely that an agency will have to return their comments to the editor—the process of approving or reversing those changes can become infinite, with vendors locking horns.

Lack of feedback

Translation agencies tend to take all the credit for good translations, forgetting to share positive feedback with translators. But when it comes to negative feedback from clients, the first thing they do is put the blame on the little guy. (This is not unique to the translation industry, but a major relationships issue in general.) Translators hate this. You may do 20 good jobs in a row, and no one thanks you for it. But even one error can infuriate an agency and make it forget about those 20 jobs.

Translators rightfully want feedback. It should not be limited to passing on the end client’s feedback, which might be too rare. Instead, an agency should be providing vendors with their internal feedback regularly, recognizing translators for doing a consistently good job or going an extra mile.

In conclusion

As a middleman, one of a translation agency’s main priorities should be ensuring proper communication between all stakeholders. This is not always the case in the real world, though, because some agencies have “more important” priorities or are afraid of allowing vendors to communicate with each other and the client. Working to improve communication can help agencies retain, and build better relationships with, the best translators, with a positive impact on translation quality.

Please disagree with me in the comments if you have a different opinion. You can read more on this topic in other articles about translation agencies

2 comments

  • Kos Ivantsov says:

    I don’t want to disagree, can I still leave a comment? Not being an agency but having done several projects for Velior as a freelance translator, I can responsibly say that good communication with the client makes a world of difference. Naturally, when you work, you want to deliver a good quality product, but without being really sure what good quality is (as expected by the client) in this or that particular case, it may become a challenge.
    BTW, I really can’t recall a client who would answer my questions as promptly or bear with my annoying inquires so patiently as Roman had been doing during the projects I did for his company. Thanks for this great article — this is not just a bunch of Roman’s musings, I’m sure it’s written based on practice — and thank you again for really great experiences I had working with you.

  • Susan Welsh says:

    As a freelance translator, I strongly agree with the importance of feedback from agencies. I always ask for it, but seldom receive it. I don’t mean general comments such as “your translation was good,” but rather, if possible, a file with “tracked changes” by the editor or whoever signs off on the document, so that I can learn from my mistakes. I have even offered a discount to one client, whose jobs are particularly difficult, if she will send me such feedback–but so far she has not done so. (Her jobs are always “due tomorrow,” so maybe she feels she doesn’t have time, although it’s hard to see how it adds any time.)

    Since freelance translators often operate in isolation, this is one of the best (only?) ways to improve one’s work.

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About the Author

Roman Mironov
Roman Mironov
CEO & Founder

As the founder of Velior, Roman has had the privilege of being able to turn his passion for languages into a business. He has over 15 years of experience in the translation industry. Roman has helped dozens of clients increase sales by making their products appealing for speakers of other languages.