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Working in the dark: why working with direct clients makes my life easier


A translator’s typical day is filled with one recurring, haunting question: “What is the context?”.

But how does that concern you as a client? For the sake of brevity: your choice of provider has a huge impact on the translator’s access to that context. And without that context, it is virtually impossible to translate most texts adequately.

A series of different factors contribute to making interpretation difficult. This article discusses two types of issues, which could be coined technical and organizational. They are, however, related.

To start with, many texts cannot make sense without the other elements that accompany them. The most common example is visual content, (e.g. pictures or graphs). As we know, visual content is very common in business documents. It is even the very essence of PowerPoint presentations.

Now, making sense of the text by looking at this visual content seems an easy, natural way to solve the problem, and I couldn’t agree more. But this is where things can get complex. When a client sends the PowerPoint presentation they created, it’s all good: I can elect either to translate directly into it, or to run it through my Computer Assisted Translation (CAT) tool (see image below), and keep the original file for visual reference.


Interface of MemoQ, a common CAT tool. The left column has the original language, while the right column is left blank for translation. Here, despite the Preview function, no visual context is available.

However, as a translator, I do not always work for direct clients. Sometimes, it is a translation agency that hires me. In that case, I will receive the files from the agency. As CAT tools use specific file types, translation agencies often prefer to send translators CAT files rather than original files, to make sure that they deliver the right type of files for Quality Assurance and project management purposes. The issue is that CAT tools extract text but are not always able to display images.

Sometimes, for valid or unfathomable reasons, agencies are unable to deliver visual reference. The translator is thus left working in the dark, and must translate chunks of text without seeing what they refer to. In some cases, lacking this visual reference can seriously hinder the translation process. This is a major issue when translating User Interface content. To illustrate my point, here are a few segments from a recent User Interface translation:



“Test link”


The isolated words above stood on their own. The content before and after did not give much indication as to what they might refer to. That file, given without any visual reference or glossary of terms, had me scratching my head more than once. I know the word “Global,” but what is it talking about exactly? The same goes for “People” or “Staff”: not knowing what those words specifically refer to, offering an appropriate translation is left to no more than a matter of chance. Is “Test link” content describing a link for the user to test something, or is it content for a button that allows the user to test the link itself? Does the company have an approved translation for the term “Staff”?

To crack the problem, I have only two solutions, of which only one is truly satisfactory: guessing, or asking. Guesswork is not what the client pays for. And it is deeply frustrating from a professional perspective.

This is where organizational complexity and technical issues meet. Because I am not dealing directly with the end client, I lack the context necessary to translate the document properly. The only acceptable solution is to ask for clarification: however, my questions must go through the agency before they reach the end client. This is time-consuming, and agencies typically operate with very tight deadlines. What ends up happening is very often a variation of this:

I send the agency a list of questions. They cannot answer it by themselves, so they have to ask the end client. Unfortunately, time is pressing: I am prompted to provide my best guess while they await the client’s answer. The client doesn’t answer before the set deadline. Time to deliver. All in all, we’re back to guesswork.

Issues arise when part of the work process is off the translator’s hands, and the agency does not have any translation or language capability. Acting as a mere relay does not add any real value to the final product, and makes communication more difficult. On the other hand, it has been my pleasure to work with agencies where the project manager is also the reviewer, or is competent in the translator’s language. As they know the trade, they make sure to get the right documents in the first place, and can answer simple queries, and offer suitable solutions. These agencies add actual value to the translation, and their competence makes working with them easy.

For the User Interface job mentioned above, my reviewer was also the agency’s project manager: she had access to both the end client and the user interface. I pointed out the segments I was unsure about, and she was able to double check in context. Without her, it would have been impossible for me to deliver an adequate translation.

The conclusion to the above is simple: the fewer hoops a translator must jump through to get to the end client and ask relevant questions, the better the quality of a translation. As a translation buyer, this criterion can be vital in your choice of provider. Dealing directly with your translator is, in most cases, the soundest solution. Of course, there are many cases where an agency would be a better fit. If your project involves significant management, several languages, or is otherwise impossible for a single person to handle, make sure that your translation provider has actual language capability, and is not a mere translation broker. Some clients prefer dealing with an agency rather than with an individual. But make no mistake: the text you send that agency is then passed along to individuals outside of it. So, whenever possible, why not deal directly with your translator?

Achieving a similar result through other means

Most texts are born neither of the irrepressible need to write, nor of the love of art. Your content serves a purpose. Sometimes, it is quite straightforward: describing a product, or explaining how to use it, for example. Other times, what you need is more complex, and your content's objective, more difficult to achieve: triggering an action or an emotion, communicating your values, associating your brand with a vision or a way of life. Your translation must be fit for purpose: in other words, it must bring about the same effect as the original text.

Not everyone can write effective content. You invested time, money, and effort into finding a professional who understands your brand, and knows how to promote it. Your translator must have just the same talent.

Translation is a process of re-creation. Not of your words, but of your thought, your brand's personality, and the effect your content has. Marketing translation gives your content a new dress, more pleasing to the foreign eye, as it addresses a whole new audience, with different habits, likings, values, and cultural background. As a consequence, the translation will seek to achieve a similar result through other means.

C. Yalla Translation