The most successful corporate translation projects are those in which all participants are satisfied with the final result. This is by no means easy and can often only be achieved in the mid-term. And one of the keys to this success is the active participation of a client reviewer, a real expert in the product and the terminology used in his local market to refer to it.
One of the main problems with corporate translation projects is that the “coordinator” – the person who places the order – is not the same as the “reviewer” – the person who will actually use the documentation. This is typical of large corporations with offices in more than one language region. The more languages that are coordinated centrally, the more relevant this issue becomes.
Although there are of course exceptions, the “coordinator” typically does not speak the target languages of the project. This means that they are incapable of judging the quality of the translation (accuracy, tone, register, technical terminology, etc.). The coordinator has no choice but to trust the supplier and hope the translation(s) generates no negative feedback. If indeed no negative feedback is received, all is well and the project has been a success. But the nightmare begins when one or more colleagues/acquaintances/distributors send a (generally fairly aggressive) e-mail telling him that the translation was terrible and that they can´t possibly approve it…
Think of how difficult it is to reach a consensus on the exact wording of marketing text (adverts, brochures, etc.) in your own language. Put five marketing people together in a meeting room and they´ll argue for hours before the whole group agrees on what the “best” marketing copy is… Now imagine trying to convert that result to a number of different languages. This process can be very smooth if the coordinator is aware of the pitfalls, but a rough ride if he is not aware of the following language-, business- and people-related issues.
To make matters worse, some coordinators (with only the best intentions in mind) send the translation to more than one reviewer per language. This is great if the two (or more) reviewers agree on their feedback, as the coordinator can now be doubly sure that the translation is correct and appropriate for the company’s needs. But experience shows that this is seldom the case; for all the reasons mentioned above, the chances that two reviewers agree on the quality of a translation are slim.
The following ideas will help you avoid many of the frustrations caused in translation projects:
* The reviewer’s profile – finding the right reviewer is often the root of the problem. These are some of the stereotypical profiles:
1) Country manager – most qualified to review (technical knowledge + marketing criteria) but completely unavailable;
2) Engineer/technician – highly qualified for technical review but not for tone, register or style; might misunderstand the original;
3) Middle level manager – most collaborative and available, might be overzealous in his reviewing. Another typical problem in multinationals is that reviewers do not report directly to coordinators, so they will often take their time over the review process, thereby delaying the time-to-market of the translated documents. A change of reviewer can sometimes be the best solution to frustrating translation projects.
* Scope of the review process – the first problem arises when the scope of the reviewing exercise has not been properly defined. “Please review this translation” is the typical phrase used by coordinators, but reviewing can include lots of different things. Typically, reviewers will spend as much time as they have reviewing a document. If they have lots of time on their hands they will do it thoroughly and in great detail; if not, they will skim read or review only the first few paragraphs/pages of the document. Assuming they have enough time, they will probably go into too much detail and, more importantly, review aspects of the document they should not be reviewing, which creates unnecessary, time-wasting electronic debates.
* Accuracy of the translation – most people will accept that translators should be native speakers of the target language, and most industry players stick to this rule whenever possible. This does mean, however, that nuances (and sometimes even whole messages) can be misunderstood in the translation process, and a typical, client-based reviewer will not spot this (potentially harmful) type of error.
* Technical terminology – the main aspect reviewers should concentrate on. Ideally, a reviewer should be chosen on the basis of his technical knowledge of the product and/or market, so his opinion here is of the utmost importance.
* Tone and register – this depends on the type of document being reviewed. For technical documents, tone and register are usually of little importance; for marketing copy, this is crucial to obtaining a good final result.
* Style – this is where personal preferences are most obvious. Comments like “the translation is awful”, “it does not read well”, “it is too literal” or “this was translated by a machine” create unnecessary bad feelings, frustration and stress. The fact that the reviewer would have translated it differently does not mean that the proposed translation is “bad” or “incorrect”, it just means that there is more than one way to do it. Bear in mind also that sometimes the problem lies with the original text. It is very difficult to turn dry, turgid original text into jaw-dropping marketing copy in another language…
* Market characteristics and appropriateness – here reviewers can add great value, as they know their market and clients better than anyone else, and can therefore judge what the correct tone and register of the final document should be. In this aspect at least, translation project coordinators should take notice of reviewers’ comments and take them very seriously.
* Degree of freedom to “edit” materials received from head office – this differs from company to company, but reviewers will often edit the original and say they are fixing problems with the translation. If your company policy is not to allow national teams to “adapt” your marketing collateral, make sure you ask your translation company whether the reviewer is just fine-tuning the translation or actually changing the marketing message.
* “Preferences” versus “mistakes” – languages are not only constantly evolving, they also vary enormously between regions (the industry refers to these variations as “locales”). In fact, they even vary between speakers (native versus non-native, and even among native speakers). Paradoxically, most people (linguists and non-linguists alike) are convinced that THEIR version of the language they speak is the “right” one, which means that anything we don´t agree with is automatically categorised as a “mistake”… The lesson here is to have an open mind when it comes to language use. Other people’s translations are not always “wrong”, and other people’s suggestions on your own translation are nearly always worth taking into consideration. The key is open, positive collaboration and discussion before jumping to conclusions.
* Limited linguistic knowledge – whereas we all accept that we know nothing of most languages, a little linguistic knowledge often creates an exaggerated level of confidence. This is especially true of English, as most people in business these days have some knowledge of it. An extreme (real life) example of this is the (non-native-English) client who wouldn´t accept the phrasal verb “make up” (as in “the make-up of the committee displeased the main investor”) because he had only come across the word as a synonym of “cosmetics”. This happens most when we know one meaning of a particular word or expression but have never heard the second one. This is totally understandable and it happens all the time.
* Interpersonal skills and attitude – frustration from the translation process is often directly related to the attitudes and reactions of those involved. Language issues create surprisingly emotional reactions, so don´t assume that an irate reviewer is right just because his e-mails are “louder” than anybody else’s. Likewise, a translator/proofreader is not always right just because he “guarantees” he is.
* Politics, power struggles and personal enmity – as in any business process, internal power struggles, hidden agendas and personal relationships always affect the final result. This is pretty much unavoidable and completely outside the translation supplier’s control, but one way to get around it is to obtain the reviewer’s buy-in by getting him involved in the process as early as possible. It´s funny how negative feedback diminishes when the reviewer knows who the translator is or if they´ve been in direct contact during the processs…
To summarise, the best possible result for corporate communications is achieved through the combination of professional linguists and knowledgeable reviewers, and the reviewer is often the key to success. Precisely because they´re so important, reviewers should be chosen on the basis of their technical knowledge (product, market, etc.), their availability and their positive attitude. Depending on the type of documentation, they should stick to reviewing technical terminology or to assessing whether the result is appropriate for their home market. Although it is a huge temptation to do so, reviewers should not offer opinions on (or refuse to accept) other aspects of the translation. The latter should not interfere with linguistic and stylistic issues.
The keys to a successful translation project are knowing how to fit together the puzzle: clear requirements, effective processes, a collaborative culture and the best possible supplier. The reviewer does not always get to see these elements, and this makes confidence-building and trust all-important.