I think we’ve all been there – you receive a request from a new customer and the project is more complicated than just file A translated from language X to language Y. It’s human nature that we want to show off our best sides and demonstrate our competence from day one. We understand that our customers are busy people, and that translation is our job, not theirs. They want to pass the translation request to their chosen supplier and receive back their requested translations.

Should we ask questions at all?

For this reason, we sometimes feel uncomfortable asking questions in case they give the customer a negative impression. Maybe the customer will think that we don’t have the expertise, or maybe they will think that we’re too much hassle to deal with. However, I come at this from a different angle – maybe the customer will see our questions as confirmation of our commitment to delivering the best service. We are demonstrating that we are paying close attention to their material and are invested in delivering high-quality translations first time. I would even go so far as to say that a sensible question will never reflect badly on the person that asked it.

We are often contacted by potential customers with requests. Some come from our colleagues across the global network of STAR offices. Some are based in the UK and deal directly with us in Guildford. Regardless of which office they contact first, they receive the same service from us, and part of this involves being asked questions.

Saving time and money

In some cases, our questions allow the customer to simplify their workflow. By working in the files in a different format, we might save DTP time. Or, by offering an extra service, they reduce the need for multiple suppliers. In other cases, our questions relate to the translations themselves, whether it is a terminology point, relating to the writing style, or even clarifying some unclear text.

Working with existing documentation

One new customer came to STAR via a recommendation from a colleague in a different department. They had previously been translating training documentation using in-house staff, but were finding that the increased volumes were putting them under too much pressure. Thanks to their in-house team and their existing bank of multilingual documentation, re-use of translation memory was an important consideration. It was important from a financial point of view to keep costs low, but also in order to maintain the tone of voice and preferred terminology. With this in mind, the team were diligent in using the concordance function and checking fuzzy matches. We were also asked to check the existing material for consistency and any errors. So far, so good.

In the case of this customer, it was inevitable that questions would arise. Some related to minor terminology points; such as the difference between a participant handbook or notebook, while some related to the writing style and the use of the active or passive voice. Liaising with our colleagues in Switzerland, we sent these questions to the customer and found that they appreciated our efforts.

These initial questions and answers formed the basis of an updated terminology list and a comprehensive style guide. We know that our customers appreciate our collaborative approach. They are the experts in the material they send us but might not be experts in the translation process. They know that they can trust STAR to ask the right questions.

Trust me on this one, questions don’t make you a nuisance – they show that you care about what you do.

If you’ve ever purchased translation services from a translation agency or a freelancer, the chances are you were charged by the word.  There are other charging models out there – hourly, by the page, by the hour – but word rates are by far the most common. It’s easy to see why – words are easily countable, so both purchaser and supplier can be certain what the cost of a project will be with no nasty surprises.

However, the word rate method of charging often leads to complaint on the supplier side of the “commodification” of the translation services industry, turning a highly-skilled profession which adds significant value into McJob where price is the only consideration. That might be slightly overstating the case but it’s certainly very easy for a purchaser to ask for a penny or a cent off a word price, and in a very competitive market, it’s often difficult for the translation supplier to refuse. Hey, what’s a penny? And if you’ve come down from 12p per word to 11p, surely there’s not much more pain in going down to 10p…

But let’s consider what you are buying for that 12p. Is it really just a word in a foreign language?

NB In all these, we’ll assume you’ve purchased from either a reputable translation agency or qualified freelance translator.

Highly qualified professionals

Most professional translators will have a post-graduate qualification in translation and possibly experience in working in their chosen industry sector – legal, medical, engineering etc. A good translation is not necessarily something that can be achieved by someone who “speaks a bit of French” or even someone who is genuinely bilingual. Translation is a skill that needs to be learned and practised.

Your word price may also include proofreading by a second professional translator – so that’s two highly-trained language experts working on your document.

Local market expertise

Ideally the translator will be a native speaker of the language they translate into and working in the relevant country. They’ll have a good understanding of their industry sector as it operates in their country and will adapt their translation accordingly. Wording that works well in the UK, the US or Europe may be completely inappropriate for the Middle East or Asia. Think of the value this adds to your content, and the trouble it could save you – you’ve not only gone to the trouble of communicating in your customer’s language but you’ve gone the extra mile to ensure you’ve done it as well as possible.

Project management

It’s easy to imagine a project manager at a translation agency is simply there to send and receive emails, answer a few phone calls. The reality, of course, is very different. A good project manager adds considerable value to every project they work on – preparing source files so they’re in the best condition for translation, working with multiple file types, sourcing the best translator for the job (or translators on a multilingual job), answering queries from both translator and client, ensuring delivery is timely and fault-free. The list could be endless but perhaps the most value is added through the relationship a project manager builds with a client. Over a period of time, she will suggest improvements to your processes that will help you get the most out of your translated content, saving you time and money, bringing expertise to your business that you’re unlikely to have.

And all for the price of a word!

I’ve worked in Translation Project Management for just over five years now, and I have learnt a lot in that time. Some of it is random; just trivia knowledge about languages. Some of it is the kind of specialist terminology that you’ll need if you have to perform emergency maintenance on a concrete pump while in Germany, but most of it relates to the main part of my job – managing and scheduling translation projects.

As I write this, it’s a beautiful May day when it’s just warm enough, but not too hot, and I can see late-afternoon sunshine through my office window. It feels like the perfect time to share with you my top tip for ensuring that your translation requests can be carried out with a minimum of delay. You see, if you’ve ever had dealings with western European countries in May, you know that it can be harder than you’d think to arrange a translation. Every few years, the planets align in their favour (or to your disadvantage, depending on your viewpoint) and our European counterparts have at least 4 national holidays in the same month. For our Project Management team in the UK, this results in a rollercoaster workload – peaks that coincide with deliveries needed before the next national holiday, followed by a lull while everyone eases gradually back into work after a long weekend. This can be frustrating when trying to organise translations for our customers, so my top tip would be to always plan ahead when it comes to translation. There are multiple factors that affect our ability to deliver a translation, but they can often be countered with some forward-planning.

National holidays

I touched on this one already. In May, the UK has two bank holidays, both on a Monday. This year, my colleagues in Germany had a holiday on the 1st, 10th, 21st, and 31st May. Where these fall on a Tuesday or Thursday, many staff take advantage of the potential for a four-day weekend. And who can blame them?! It does have a negative effect on translation deadlines however, as it reduces the amount of working days available in which we can work on the texts.

Busy periods

Busy periods and holidays seem to go hand in hand in the translation industry – partly for supply and demand reasons. Christmas, Easter and the summer months are all busy periods when there are more requests and fewer available translators. When we hear that customers are planning a large website or catalogue translation project, we try to advise that this is carried out away from these times to avoid this lack of availability having an impact on quality.

Shorter turnaround times

I’ll admit it, this is not a factor that affects our ability to deliver, but it is always a consideration for us and it does relate to planning ahead. When a translation is planned in advance, we can offer far shorter turnaround times. It will never be possible for 10,000 words to be translated in a day, but we can avoid the additional days that need to be factored in while we wait for resources to be available to start work on the text.

Availability of key resources

Wherever possible, we build a team of translators who always work on requests for a certain customer. For urgent translation projects, it is not always possible to arrange for this team to work on the text, and our customers must choose between their urgent deadline and the risk of using resources who are less familiar with their texts.

In summary, with a bit of advance warning, the STAR UK PM team can pull off some incredible feats. We’re used to factoring this in to our schedules and are also able to keep you updated as to any upcoming dates that may affect timings.