For non-linguists, buying translations services can be frustrating.
The suggestions in this guide are aimed at reducing stress and helping you get the most
out of your translation budget.
Translation, interpreting —what’s the difference?
Translators write, interpreters speak.
If you are working with written documents such as a user manual for your German customers, responding to a RFP for a new business opportunity in Canada, creating a billboard for a sale campaign in Argentina or filing a report in Chinese that your new subsidiary in Shanghai said you must read and understand—you need a translator.
If you want to communicate verbally with your participants in a conference, or interact with people in a foreign language face to face or via telephone, conference call or you have a lab tour with Mexican visitors, a board meeting in Japan, a parent-teacher conference with a family that recently arrived from Somalia—you need an interpreter.
How much will it cost?
Interpretation services are charged by time. Minutes, hours or a daily rate.
Translation services are charged by the word. Prices range from 1 to 10, and while high prices do not necessarily guarantee high quality, we believe that below a certain level you are unlikely to receive a text that does credit to your company, its image and its products. If translators are netting little more than a babysitter, they are likely unprofessional or are not giving your document the attention it deserves.
How much time did your team spend producing the original?
Does your international message deserve any less attention?
A professional translator can produce an average of about 1,500 words a day, then you will need to add time for a proofreader to go over the translation. So a 1,500 word document should be professionally produced in 1-2 business days.
When choosing a translation service provider, calculate how much you’ve spent to develop the product or services you want to promote outside your country.
If you cannot afford a professional translation, perhaps you are not ready for the international market yet.
REMINDER: The added value that a translation company offers such as translator selection,
project management, quality control, file conversions, standardized presentation of multilingual projects, etc., also has a price tag, however it saves you time and hours of work.
What about translation software?
If you are pressed for time and want to get the gist of something for your own use (in-bound), translation software may be helpful. It is certainly fast. And you cannot get much cheaper than free.
However, do not use raw computer output for anything out-bound that is related to your business or products. It is simply not suitable: you run the risk of looking inarticulate, of being liable for personal injury. Even irresponsible.
Careful editing of machine output by skilled human translators is one option, although not all translators will accept such assignments. The texts generated by computer programs are so skewed it is faster to start from scratch.
Resist the temptation to do it yourself
Speaking is not writing.
Oral fluency does not guarantee smooth, stylish writing. We all speak English, however we are not all writers.
Even if you regularly negotiate successfully in French, German or Spanish, and spend lots of time in the countries where those languages are spoken, 99 times out of 100 your written command of a foreign language will be immediately recognizable as “foreign.”
This may or may not be important.
It may not be important if:
(1) your main selling point is price (price-driven clients will put up with a lot if they manage to understand the basics)
(2) you want to emphasize a certain foreignness – however in business, is that wise?
REMINDER: If you wish to project a professional international image, you will probably be better served by a less ethnic approach. In many cultures, awkward or sloppy use of the local
language—especially by a native English speaker—is not amusing. It is insulting.
Tell us (translation service provider) what the translation is for
A speech is not a web site.
A sales brochure is not a catalogue entry.
A graph heading is not a directional sign.
An article in The National Enquirer is not a prospectus for an Initial Public Offering.
Style, pronounceability, word choice, phrasing and sentence length—all will vary, depending on where your text will appear and what you want it to achieve.
An experienced translation agency will probably ask you for this information; make sure you know yourself.
You will get the best results from developing an ongoing relationship with a translation agency that can provide you with a dedicated team of translators. The longer you work with them and the better they understand your business philosophy, strategy and products, the more effective their texts will be.
Reminder: Be sure to tell your translators what your text is for, so that they can prepare a foreign-language version with maximum impact for that particular audience and medium.
Teachers, academics & students: at your own risk
For many companies faced with foreign-language texts, the first stop is the language department of a local school or university. While this may—sometimes —work for inbound translation (i.e., when you want to find out what the other guys are up to), it is extremely risky for
Teaching a foreign language is a demanding activity that requires a special set of skills. These are rarely the same as those needed to produce a smooth, stylish translation. The risks are even greater if you opt for student translators, which may seem like a nice, inexpensive option.
Food for thought: Would you approve of medical students performing minor operations to pay their way through medical school? (Would you describe your brochure/letter/annual report/speech as “minor”?) Would you have your company’s financial statements prepared
by business students to save money?
What language do your readers speak?
Spanish for clients in Madrid or in Mexico City? British or American English? Contact your foreign partners to find out precisely what is needed. Register is also important. German for doctors and medical personnel, or for healthcare consumers?
Are you selling savings products to the general public or investment funds to financiers in Canada or France?
Remember, too, that some countries require documents to be available in two or more languages; non-compliance can result in fines and worse.
Reminder: Speak your readers’ language. Put yourself in their shoes, and zero in
on how your products and services can serve their needs. Be concrete. Be specific.
(The same applies to your source promotional materials, of course.)
An inquisitive translator is good news
No one reads your texts more carefully than your translator. Along the way, he or she is likely to identify fuzzy bits—sections where clarification is needed. This is good news for you, since it will allow you to improve your original.
Reminder: Good translators strip down your sentences entirely before creating new ones in the target language. And they ask questions along the way.
The home stretch: have typeset copy proofread by your translator
Always. Even if you have a sound procedure in place, with reliable translation providers who know your company inside and out, last-minute additions (headings, captions, word changes) by well-meaning non-linguists can sabotage an otherwise effective document.
Caution: It’s easy to stumble. A well-meaning German businessman axed the “s” from “Headquarters,” explaining “we have only one.” French typesetters regularly add an “s” to “Information.” In 2009, the “RESET” button US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton gave her Russian counterpart was erroneously labelled “OVERCHARGED” in his language. No proofreader in sight!
Typography varies from language to language
Many printers and office staff are unaware of this—or don’t take it seriously—and may “adjust” foreign language texts to bring them into line with their own standards. But French has a space between a word and the colon that follows, and writes quotation marks « ». In German, nouns take capital letters. In Spanish and French, neither months nor days of the week take an
initial capital. Oh, and never type just an “n” when Spanish requires an ñ…
Food for thought: A bilingual banner in the US celebrated 100 anos of municipal
history. Año is year; ano is anus. (Would you leave out the squiggle from the letter Q? What a ouestion!)
Translators and bilinguals: look closer
Professional translators are writers, producing texts that read well in the target language. They are usually fluent in their source language(s) as well. But they are above all effective bridges between the languages they work in; they can render the message of the original text, with
appropriate style and terminology, in their native language. Bilingualism is something else. Bilinguals speak two languages fluently, but are not necessarily good at moving information between the two, especially in writing. And many people described as bilinguals overestimate their communication skills altogether.
Food for thought: Lina’s, a pricey French sandwich chain, advertised for franchisees abroad with a text concocted by a self-proclaimed bilingual employee. Slogan: “Tomorrow, we will expect on your dynamism.” Response: zero.
Caution: Bilingualism on its own is not a guarantee of written fluency or skill in translation.
“Technical terms pose few translation problems.”A widely-held myth.
True, scientific nomenclature in fields like botany, zoology, etc. is both rigorous and international—when properly used. And an illustrated parts list in, say, a tank
maintenance manual, will normally be fairly straightforward to translate.
Yet even specialists writing on technology in their own language can trip up.
Tech translators, like others, must ensure that their output reads at least as well as the original, and sometimes better—hardly surprising, since it benefits from the concentration and skills of a second specialist. Incorrect use of technical terms often means a translator is in over his/her head. One solution is to ask subject matter
specialists for input and review.
Food for thought: Always arrange a final pass by a professional translator to double-check
grammar, syntax, punctuation and style before going to press, especially if your subject matter
experts are not native speakers. Your translation service provider should offer this service to you at no extra charge, for the translations they provide.
Plan ahead: if your company has its eye on markets abroad, start looking for translation talent now. And once you begin producing texts for translation, give your translators as much leadtime as possible.
Take control of the controllable: consider producing an in-house glossary. (This is an excellent way to make your original documents more consistent.) Work with translators and in-house staff to develop a bilingual version.