As my dedicated readership will no doubt know, I want this blog to serve as a resource for anyone out there who suddenly finds themselves needing to buy translation and needs help on where to start.

Over countless years, I’ve watched my husband’s eyes glaze over when I start dropping jargon into stories about my day. So I know that for industry outsiders, translation really isn’t as simple as “language A translated into language B”.

Recently, we’ve been discussing how to get the best results from your translation project, and part of the key to that is to prepare a project brief. A project brief would usually contain information about the audience of a text and what the customer wants to achieve with the text.

For example, a technical manual and a press release will have very different requirements for use of language.

Any translation will do?

The answer to that question entirely depends on what you want to achieve with your translation. If it’s a simple case of needing to understand a document, then sure. Any accurate translation will do.

Yet, if your aim is to drive traffic to your website or to increase engagement on your social media profiles, perhaps there’s more to it than that.

So, on to the main point that I’m trying to make. If you send the same text to different translators, you’ll receive different translations back. Each one will be a faithful rendering of the original, but they will have a different effect on the reader.

To illustrate this point, I’m reposting an oldie, but a goodie – from 2013 to be exact.

Five translation requests, five translations

My colleague sent the following short passage from a French novel to 5 of my translator colleagues, and asked them for their translations:

Le pigeon roula un oeil rond, s’envola et ne revint jamais plus. Il en avait trop vu. Il était si vieux. Il s’en alla mourir dans une tour de Notre-Dame”. (Paris au mois d’août, René Fallet, Editions Denoël, Folio, 1964).

Here are the results, in no particular order:

  1. “Rolling his round eyes, the pigeon took flight, never to return. He had seen too much, aged too much. He would find his final resting place in one of the towers of Notre Dame.”
  2. “The pigeon rolled a round eye and flew away, never to return again. He had seen too much. He was so old. He went away to die in a tower of Notre Dame.”
  3. “The pigeon rolled a beady eye and flew off, never to return. It was so old, and had seen too much.  It disappeared into one of Notre Dame’s towers for the last time.”
  4. “The pigeon swivelled its beady eye and flew off, never to return. It was so old, and had seen more than enough. It fluttered into one of the towers of Notre Dame, there to end its days.”
  5. “The pigeon rolled his eye back, flew off and never came back. He had seen too much and was too old. He went to die in one of Notre Dame’s towers.”

As you can see, and as predicted, no two translations are the same, even though some contain identical elements. Nor are any of them “right” or “wrong”; they’re just stylistically unique (and all perfectly accurate!). Each translator has found a subtly different solution to the same linguistic problems.


In-depth analysis

The reasoning behind the choice of words was influenced by the instructions they were given. This was a “free” translation with no guidance or restrictions. But let’s consider a couple of the translations in more depth.

The second translation is arguably closest to the original. It keeps the short sentences, the factual descriptions of the pigeon and its actions. To be critical, I would argue that it has the least impact of the five.

The fourth translation takes a less literal approach – it adds information with the “beady” eye of the pigeon, combines sentences to create more of a flow in the text, and creates a far more powerful image in its description of a pigeon that “flutters” into a tower, “there to end its days”.

Each translation has its merits and would fit with a different translation brief. Without any instructions, the results vary wildly and the translator must judge the best style from other factors.

In a way, therein lies the beauty of language and, by extension, translation. When it comes to matters of style, there’s a lovely mutability to the art of translation; it’s a constantly shifting process, depending on any number of factors which influence the lightning decisions being made and remade over and over again in the translator’s brain as it analyses the text.

And of course, it’s also highly individual. Each of the five translators would be able to explain the precise reasoning behind their choice of words, depending on the unique picture conjured in their mind as they were translating.

Personally, I’m not familiar with the original French novel. I couldn’t tell you whether the second or fourth translation is a “better” approximation of the writing style of the author in the rest of the text. It’s hard to judge anything on the short excerpt that we see here, and in a way, this is why the translations are so different.

It’s not actually about right or wrong

At a professional level, and in texts involving any degree of stylistic interpretation, we don’t often deal with “right or wrong”; more with shades of equivalence and nuances of meaning. As shown, each of the five translations is accurate and would pass through a second review with no changes.

Unless perhaps, there was a translation brief to follow.

Needless to say, in any commercial translation there are factors such as customer dictionaries and style guides that will all inform translation choices. However, one of the main factors will always be the type of text and its intended audience.

If we assume that this project was a literary translation, then the first, third and fourth translations are all well suited.

If we assume that the intention was actually to create a newspaper article (a slight stretch, but bear with me please…), then the second and fifth translations would be my choices.

Yet however fascinating that might be, these types of differences and the reasoning behind them largely belong in the realm of Translation Theory. Nice to read about in a blog post and to give a little insight into the profession, but less relevant to the modern translation industry.

Customers want to be sure that the translations they receive are optimised for their intended audience. A project brief is the best way to pass this information along.

In fact, it doesn’t need to be a long and arduous undertaking – it would be sufficient to provide a line or two detailing exactly who will be reading the text and what function the text has.

What do you think? Can you see the value in a translation brief?

Author: Bethanie Melly, Senior Project Manager

Eagle-eyed readers, and dedicated STAR UK blog fans (I mean, there must be at least one of you out there, right?!) will have noticed that, recently, there’s been a whole lot more content appearing on this humble page.

We’re aiming to provide translation buyers with useful content that clarifies the potentially confusing world of translation. I’ll admit though, we don’t just want to be useful.

We want translation purchasers to contact us with potential projects. We want to talk to them about how STAR UK can help with their global strategy.

Except that it’s not really about what we can do. It’s about what they need.

In recent years, much of the translation purchasing process has become what you might call “transactional”. Clients want to buy translations in the same way as they buy their office supplies. Basically, with a pre-agreed price and with a minimum of interaction.

office supplies

It sometimes feels like we sell our highly skilled professional service as a product, and not a particularly valuable one at that. Or perhaps “not sufficiently valued” would be a better way to put it.

However, that’s not really the client’s fault. If we present our service as a commodity to be bought by the unit (the word), then we can’t blame the customer for buying it in that way.

Is there another way?

There are clear and obvious reasons how we’ve ended up where are:

  • Clients want transparency
  • Per-word pricing allows for easy comparison between quotations
  • Per-word pricing makes translation an out-of-the-box solution

Transparent pricing

It would be lovely to charge by the hour like a solicitor, but that’s not where our industry is right now. Different translators will translate at different speeds, but does the quality of their output warrant the vast difference in pricing that this could lead to? Of course not.

In addition, there are considerations related to software tools. Translation technology, whether Translation Memory or Machine Translation, needs countable units to be effective. The value these tools add to the translation process, both in terms of accuracy and speed, especially for technical material, is too great for that genie to ever go back in the bottle.

Translators and translation agencies need to be able to agree a transparent price before translation work begins.

Have translations become a commodity?

Although I think that the commoditisation of the translation industry is a topic worthy of its own blog post, it is relevant to this discussion too.

Commoditisation occurs when consumers can buy the same product or service from multiple businesses and price is the only distinguishing factor. Translation quality is subjective and is not always distinguishable at a glance, so it makes sense that price is a far easier differentiator when looking to purchase translations.

Not very satisfying though, is it, selling translated words as though they were so many nuts and bolts?

nuts and bolts

What’s behind that quote request?

It’s so easy to perpetuate the narrative when presented with a quote request.

Select customer. Check. Select languages. Check. Enter the statistics. Check. Create Quotation. Boom. Job’s a good’un.

But is it?

While we accept that we’re not going to change the basic pricing model, and nor should we want to. We are increasingly asking ourselves and our clients what lies behind their request for 500 words in German and Spanish.

It shouldn’t be ground-breaking, but it is a mindset change. For all parties.

More than just words?

Translations are more than just words in another language. Translations are a way of communicating with people across the world.

We’ve been asking our clients what they hope to achieve with their translated documents. More leads and conversions? Increasing customer or staff engagement? Perhaps it is a new product launch, or you need to ensure compliance with regulations in your new markets?

For each of these intentions, there are subtle changes in how language is used. We might not notice it when we are working in our native tongue. We flit between marketing brochures and technical manuals and easily switch between using persuasive sales arguments and accurate technical terminology.

For a language service provider, these considerations affect the choice of supplier for your project, and on rare occasions, the price of translation itself.

However, this goes beyond just the choice of supplier.

More questions, more listening

We’re asking a lot more questions and doing a lot more listening, having longer conversations about things other than the immediate project. And by doing so, we’re finding new ways to help – structuring content to be more efficient for translation, assisting with the content creation itself, improving and maybe automating workflow processes, advising on local market requirements, or perhaps working on multilingual SEO.

You are the experts in your business

It seems to be a bit of an obvious one, but as the customer, you have the best knowledge of your products and your industry, but also the challenges you face.

While we can’t claim to know the minutiae of the technology in a combustion engine (though that might be a poor example, as our technical translators work on these kinds of texts all the time), we know a fair bit about our business, translation.

competitive pricing

We’re the experts in translation

By this, I don’t just mean that we have qualified staff and we can understand at least two languages. I mean that we can add value to translation projects with points that a customer might not have considered.

We understand about optimising files for translation so that customers can keep their costs down and improve TM leverage.

We can help with advice on when a translation is required, and in which languages it might be needed.

We can even help you with the technical side of your multilingual website, potentially simplifying your processes.

Sometimes these are issues that the clients themselves hadn’t recognised. Sometimes, the client has just accepted the status quo without realising that there are better options out there. Perhaps they know the issue is there but are too busy to be able to remedy it themselves, or don’t have the requisite knowledge or skills.

We enjoy creating lightbulb moments when a client realises we can significantly reduce their costs, or dramatically speed up the turnaround times.

This is where we add value. Not just as translators, but as experts in multilingual communication with knowledge and training to be valued and shared.

Author: Bethanie Melly, Senior Project Manager

Here at STAR UK, we have two teams of translators working from various languages into English, and a team of project managers looking after the project details and smoothing the path to translation brilliance. As a part of that PM team, I’m biased about the positive impact that we have on our day-to-day running, but recently, this was reinforced when we started introducing two of our newer PMs to the art of scheduling translations

To clarify, there are two very important schedules here at our Guildford office, keeping track of what everyone is working on and what’s coming up imminently. We have a team working mainly from French into English and a team that works primarily from German into English. On first consideration, scheduling a translation could be reduced to: Give it to someone with the ability and capacity to deliver by the deadline. However, defining ability and capacity is key. We’ll start with looking at whether someone has the capacity to deliver a translation by the requested deadline.

Timing is paramount

There’s no getting away from it, we all experience time pressure in our jobs and the translation industry is no different. Deadlines are set in stone and project schedules are planned to the minute. We know that, sometimes, a customer’s latest request really did need to be done yesterday. Often, we need to find a supplier who has some free space to complete a project on the very same day. Other times, we need to find someone with a big enough gap in their schedule to take on two weeks’ work at short notice. Being aware of resource capacity is instrumental in us delivering the best service and sometimes working a small miracle to have tricky translations delivered in no time at all while not compromising on quality.

 Experience is everything

Next, let’s look at finding someone with the ability to translate our text. At a basic level, this means someone who is confident working in that language pair. But for us, it goes deeper than that. Every single one of our translators is a highly qualified linguist with extensive training in our TM tool, TransitNXT, but as individuals, they all bring something unique to the team, whether through personal interests or thanks to their on-the-job experience. We have our resident technical translation gurus, of course, but among our number, we can also count on horse riders, cycling enthusiasts and domestic goddesses. This knowledge can be invaluable for certain of our customers who know that we go the extra mile to ensure that their translation uses appropriate language and terminology.

Consistency is crucial

Don’t get me wrong, a speedy service is important, but our main focus is the quality that we deliver. Our customers spend a long time crafting the perfect marketing slogan, or creating a brand identity to maximise product sales. We have extensive translation style guides to ensure that this work is not in vain when it comes to your multi-lingual presence.

When scheduling a translation project, it is important to balance these three aspects. The schedule becomes an interlinking web of decisions that guarantee that we always deliver the best possible translations to our customers. When training my colleagues on the various considerations of translation planning, I was struck by the number of factors we take into account, some of which I didn’t list here. Translation projects are not assigned to the first available resource – we craft our translations with the same care our customers used to write the original content, and this means that only the best will do.

In fact, the Project Managers are often in the background, much like support crew at an event or the runners on a TV show, but this doesn’t negate our importance. Next time you send us a translation request, you can be sure that at least part of the success of your translation is due to a Project Manager working tirelessly behind the scenes.

Author: Bethanie Melly, Senior Project Manager