No Question is Too Small

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questions

This & That ― Vignettes of a Professional Journey
a column by Ines Bojlesen

I recently worked for the ideal client, who was referred to me by another translator and had an urgent legal document to be translated into English. A new client, a tight schedule, a complex document—the perfect combination for chaos and failure, depending on the client’s willingness to give support.

After the usual exchange of files, purchase order, introductory emails and the final “go ahead” message, the client sent me an email with these golden words: “No question is too small—please reach out with any questions related to the source copy, process or anything else.”

How many times have you, my translator colleagues, heard these magical words? Probably very few times! Communication, communication, communication is the key to a successful translation. However, this is more complex than it seems at first.

In contrast to the scenario where a translator and a direct client are the only two parties involved, many players are involved when a translator works for an agency. The project usually starts with the sales department being in direct contact with someone who is not necessarily the person who needs the translation. Once the deal is made, the project is directed to the agency project manager in charge of that account, who distributes the project to the translators for each language needed. In many cases the agency’s client is another agency, or a client of a client, which adds more steps to the process.

As if these different people and steps were not complex enough, different time zones may also factor in. The end client may be in Europe, the translator in Hawaii, 11 hours behind the end client, while the project manager may be somewhere in between in time and space.

At times, something seemingly simple to a monolingual project manager can pose a major problem for translating into the target language. If the translator does not contact the client for clarification, the accuracy of the translation will be in jeopardy.

If you have ever translated a user interface spreadsheet, you know exactly what I am talking about. You may see two words together: Display Order. Which is the verb, which is the noun? Or Connected, without context: is it “conectado/conectada” or “conectados/conectadas”? A Child Plan: is this a plan for children or a secondary plan? Typos can produce a word you spend precious time researching, only to find out it was misspelled.

So much depends on the quality of the communication. However, communication starts with us, translators, being bold enough to ask, to be unafraid of “bothering” the client. We want to perform to the best of our ability; we want to do a good job. Asking is an integral part of doing so, no guessing involved. I never hesitate to make a list and send it to whoever sent me the project. In most cases my list comes back with all or at least some of the answers. When it does not, I use my best judgment and always warn client about the potential issues resulting from the lack of information.

Just as important is to have a good database of answered queries so you can avoid repeating questions in future projects. I keep a spreadsheet “Queries to Client” filed by project and resort to it on a new job before asking again. This saves time for all involved. It also forms a good paper trail in case my translation choice is ever questioned.

Words have exact meanings when they are in context. Isolation is obliteration; guessing is not the solution. We are not “bothering” anyone by asking; we are doing our job. “No question is too small” should be posted in bold letters on the desks of all the people involved in a translation project.

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