The translation process: art or science?

As we previously established in our latest LinkedIn Pulse article “Will machine translation ever replace human translators?”, translation is undoubtedly a creative pursuit. On the other hand, any agency will tell you that, in business terms, it’s a process that can be systematised and standardised for maximum efficiency. It almost sounds like these two facts conflict with each other – so conflict an inevitable part of the business? Not at all. It would be easy to suggest that the translation industry is an intractable battle, with translators and their delicate artistic temperaments fighting project managers who want to turn the whole thing into a production line – but the truth is that the two groups can and do work together very well, producing excellent results for end clients. A translation workflow is neither wholly art nor exclusively science – so where do those two categories overlap, and what can be done to make the process as seamless as possible?

A lot of it comes down to project management. A good project manager will recognise that, while translation projects always share some similar features, no two jobs are ever exactly the same. A good project manager will therefore account for a project’s unique characteristics when drawing up their expectations for time and budget. The simplest example, of course, is that the word count for a text will affect how long it takes to complete – but there are also questions like the complexity of style and content, or whether the client needs extra services like desktop publishing or SEO. We’ll look at these kinds of issues in more detail when we talk about the translator’s role in making everything go smoothly.

Naturally, it’s also important to pick a competent, professional translator. This is made easier by setting professional standards and ensuring that translators adhere to a strict code of conduct. Membership of one or more professional associations is usually a good signal, and of course, you want to make sure that your translator has as much experience as possible, in the translation industry in general and in the project’s field in particular.

In other words, once you have a clear, comprehensive, and realistic plan for a project, it’s easier for the project manager to organise what comes next. And what does come next? Well, it’s all about giving the translator as much support as possible. The project manager should act as the middleman between the translator and the end client, answering questions and passing messages between the two to facilitate clear and efficient communication. The project manager will have one eye on the client’s needs – tracking the state of the project through the workflow to ensure on-time delivery, and carrying out quality control if necessary so that the final delivery is the best it can be – and one eye on the translator’s needs, sourcing any reference material the client may be able to provide and taking care of all the backstage administrative tasks so the translator can focus on what they do best: translation.

And on that note, what exactly can the translator do to keep things running like clockwork? As with the project management side of things, a lot of it can be done before the first word of a translation is typed onto the screen. Just as the project manager has a responsibility to set realistic deadlines and budgets, the translator has a responsibility to check those constraints and make sure they can be met. They should carefully read through the document to be translated, identifying any potential issues before they start so that these can be flagged to the client, clarified and resolved by the project manager.

What sort of issues might these be? As we said earlier, it is of course important to consider the content and style of a text, especially if deadlines are tight. Word counts are often a decent guide to how long a translation will take, but they don’t tell the whole story. Sometimes you have to take the extra time to get your terminology or phrasing exactly right. A particularly complex technical or legal project, for example, might take much longer to complete than a more general document of comparable size.

A professional translator will also check the source document carefully for potential errors, omissions, or unclear wording. The translation is all about carrying over meaning from one language to another – so if the meaning is unclear in the original, the translation can hit a roadblock until the issue is resolved. Similarly, it’s not unheard of for a source document to contain mistakes of one sort or another, be they anything from typographical errors to incorrect statements of fact – after all, everyone makes mistakes from time to time. Once again, a good translator will spot these and flag them up for the project manager to relay to the client. As a result, one nice side-effect of this process is that having a document translated into a new language will often also improve the quality of the source-language text! After all, it never hurts to have an extra pair of eyes looking at a piece of work.

Once the document has been delivered on time and the client is satisfied with the work, it’s time for a translator’s favorite part of the job: getting paid. This part of the process is more or less invisible to the end client, of course, but it’s actually an essential part of a translation agency’s business practices since prompt, efficient payment is a great way to build relationships and retain the best translators. Exact processes vary from business to business, of course, but they always require some degree of interaction between project managers, translators, and accountants – so the project manager’s work really isn’t done until everyone is happy on all sides of the project. Once a job is closed out, with a bit of luck there’ll be just enough time for a deep breath and a quick cup of coffee before the next job rolls in, and the engine of productivity whirs into life again.

All of this is how you end up with a beautiful final translation in your inbox, with a minimum of fuss and hassle. We hope you’ve enjoyed this look behind the scenes at the translation process – and if you have any additional questions about how it all happens so smoothly, why not leave them as a comment below? We’d love to hear your thoughts.

Professional translation is an art. Don’t hesitate to order it only from the team who believes in it. Contact Translators Family today!

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