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The Quality Puzzle? Feedback is my Answer

One of my clients called me yesterday and told me their language teacher revised a brief letter I had translated a couple of weeks ago, asking my opinion about corrections. I started musing on one the most abused words in the translation industry, and in other sectors as well, e.g. quality. What is quality?

Certainly, quality implies professionalism. The good translator relies on:

  1. Education: a foreign language or translation degree, continuous learning
  2. Expertise in one industry: finance, law, tourism, mechanics, etc.
  3. A well-defined process: a proven workflow (from the client’s request through terminology search, translation, editing, to delivery)
  4. Effective use of glossaries and terminology databases
  5. Style-guides: linguistic and editorial guidelines in compliance with the client’s requests or industry standards

In three words: expertise, method and client’s input.
However, some criticalities are difficult to handle. 

  1. Source has impact on quality
    The source or the original text to be translated is often full of mistakes (dates, numbers), puns and other expressions with strong cultural connotation. For example, one of my clients used to make a lot of references to baseball in financial documents, which need to be localised, since baseball terminology is often obscure to the Italian reader. Most simply, there are spelling errors; “price” is very different from “prize”, and context is not always of use.
  2. Feedback is rare
    Even for qualified translators with years of experience, feedback is important. Translation agencies sometimes (not so often as one could expect) review translations, though they give feedback on rare occasions.  Direct clients even more rarely. Translators usually apply a quality control process: am I using the right terminology? Is style adequate to end use? Interpretation? Grammar? Spelling check? However, translators are human beings, and they make mistakes like anyone else. Maybe, there is a new term in the financial industry that you do not know, or an acronym used only by one company that you understood in the wrong way. If you never get feedback, quality may be affected in the long time.
  3. Those who control your work are not qualified
    Sometimes people who check translators’ work do not know the source language, or the target language is not their mother tongue. Reviewers are not always experts in the field. Some prefer a literal translation, or the text in their own image, without confrontation.
  4. Translators think they are perfect
    As in other professions, translators that work hard and do their best on translations often think they are perfect and that the words they have chosen are the best you could find. However, translation is not an exact science; there are many ways to translate one single word, and numerous nuances in any language, not to mention client’s preferences.

How can you solve the quality puzzle? Apart from professionalism and expertise, in my opinion the only way for freelance translators to assess the quality of their own work over time is asking for feedback frequently and persistently.

Communication and feedback are necessary to understand what your clients expect from translations. Probably, there is no perfect translation but the right translation for one specific purpose and “buyer”.

Please send me your comments about quality. How can translators constantly improve?