Perhaps the largest challenge of professional translation is the subjectivity of language. Even this simple posting could be edited into a great number of variations, depending upon each of our personal preferences. That’s the beauty of language and human communication: while there are rules on how language is to be structured and used, it remains incredibly personal.
The other day a client contacted us with feedback from their end-customer saying that our translation was terrible – “unintelligible” was the term they used. It’s the sort of email that causes the pulse to quicken and a knot to form in the stomach. We are all problem solvers, we want to fix the situation and make the pain go away as fast as possible. Our first clue that this was perhaps not a “typical" translation problem was the hyperbole of “unintelligible.” However, since people get understandably agitated when deadlines and reputations are on the line, and since we’ve seen language debacles large and small, we took this seriously and the team jumped into action – keeping a calm head and professional manner - not adding fuel to the fire.
A quick review of the final translation we delivered did not unearth anything “unintelligible.” Our independent reviewer noted some debatable preference choices, but otherwise indicated it was a proper translation. This suggested that the end customer was seeing something different from what we delivered. We asked our customer to send us the files their customer reviewed, and after some detailed detective work, we could see that the end-translation was a heavily modified version of what we originally delivered. Informed of this finding, our client discovered its customer had given them a list of change requests, and rather than consult us, someone from our client took it upon himself to change the translations. He inserted new content assembled from free online machine translation. The client updated terminology using global search and replace, ignoring context and noun endings, resulting in major grammatical errors. In places, the final document was truly unintelligible. Now we had a situation where the end user was unhappy with the translation provider they never met but believed was incompetent.
When the problem is ours, we admit responsibility and correct. When translating for an intermediary, the most successful results happen when translation is not treated like a “black-box” and we are put in direct contact with the end-customer reviewers. This applies equally to multi-national companies with in-country reviewers and centralized translation management. This essential rapport does more than help us promptly approve glossaries and style guides. It gives us the opportunity to address potential issues before they become part of the project landscape.
Reviewers will always have personal preferences, and rightly so. By developing a strong relationship with the reviewer, we can incorporate the individual element that makes language so powerful and so personal.