Word on the Street: Four keys to successful client reviews

If you hired people to paint your house, would you tell them which shade of paint you wanted before they completed the work, or after? Logically, you would communicate your preferences beforehand. Or, if you had no strong preference, but your spouse did, you would involve your spouse from the start to determine the preferred colors, shades and sheens.

That sounds rather obvious, doesn’t it? Unfortunately, this logical order of articulating preferences before a project is not always so obvious when people order translation.

When a company requests translation, the requester often likes to have an internal reviewer check the translation to ensure that preferences are implemented. This is natural, since the requester usually does not understand the language in question, and must therefore rely on others to know if the desired quality is achieved. Said reviewer may be an employee, distributor or other individual who lives in the target market and speaks the language being translated.

Regrettably, these client reviews are often an afterthought that do not follow the common sense that would be used to evaluate a paint job. This painting analogy follows a common-sense approach to reviewing subjective quality and it applies to translation reviews on the following four levels:

1 Reviewers must have native ability to evaluate.

2 Reviewers must understand that their role is to ensure success.

3 Reviewers must participate from the beginning.

4 Reviewers must confirm preferences in written reference materials.

1. Reviewers must have native ability to evaluate

When a colorblind software developer I know was put in charge of user interface design for his company, he naturally protested that he was not the right choice. He knew his opinions would differ significantly from most users, and he did not want to be held responsible for introducing any aesthetic flaws. Similarly, it could be problematic to ask a colorblind uncle to inspect the paint job on your home. Nevertheless, many translation requesters trust their internal reviews to nonnative speakers of the target language.

Nonnative reviewers will frequently introduce errors that they mistakenly believe to be improvements. Even if they are working together with the translation provider’s native-speaking linguist, the back-and-forth required to prevent such unintended errors can dramatically slow the process.

Ideally, depending on a reviewer’s level of involvement, he or she should also have a solid knowledge of the subject matter and basic principles of writing and translation. You would have more success trusting a former construction contractor who understands the difference between semi-gloss and satin paint sheens than you would if you trusted a critique from your cousin who only dabbles in finger paints.

2. Reviewers must understand their role is to ensure success

Human nature makes us feel inclined to point out every error, no matter how small or subjective. It has been said that if you gave an English reviewer the complete works of Shakespeare, a red pen and instruction to find errors, that reviewer would surely prove her worth by covering those masterpieces in red markings. Likewise, the paint inspector who feels he must prove his worth by finding every possible imperfection will likely find enough to delay a perfectly respectable project.

Translation reviewers are often put in the same situation, notified at the end of a project and instructed to “find any problems in this translation.” That mindset repeatedly creates unnecessary conflict that results in delays and extra costs, regardless of whether the translation is good or bad.

To avoid such wasted effort, reviewers must understand that their role is to ensure successful translation. To ensure success, the review must not be performed as a last-minute afterthought.

3. Reviewers must participate from the beginning

As alluded to in the paint analogy at the start of this article, confirming subjective paint preferences after a job is completed would lead to unnecessary rework, extra costs and unplanned delays. The same consequences occur when translation project reviewers fail to express their preferences beforehand because they are not involved until the tail end.

Even when reviewer involvement is explicitly requested beforehand, many reviewers may not become involved until after the translation is complete. The reviewer and the company may not make enough of an effort to get involved early on because the reviewer has another job to complete. The result is that the company spends unnecessary time and expense making changes to a good translation simply because some personal preferences were not known beforehand. This can be as bad as repainting a recently well-painted house simply because the preferred shade was not identified beforehand.

This is not to say that each translation requester must have a reviewer and a strong preference about everything. The point is that if a reviewer does have a preference, that preference should be specified beforehand. The easiest way to involve reviewers early in a translation project is to schedule time for them to approve translation glossaries and style guides before translation begins.

4. Reviewers must confirm preferences in written reference materials

Jonathan Kirk, the former CEO and founder of Elanex (recently acquired by Straker Translations), used to explain that when a translator must make a choice between more than one good option in terminology or style, that preferred decision must be recorded in reference materials like a glossary or translation style guide. He would often repeat, “whenever more than one person is involved in translating, translations based on references will be consistent, while translations based only on preferences will be inconsistent.”

Large or small, the translation glossary and style guide may originate from the requester, the reviewer, the translation provider or even an industry standard like the Microsoft glossaries and style guides. Additional reference tools including translation memory, reference translations and agreed quality metrics are also helpful. Client reviewers must be sure their preferences are recorded in reference materials or translation specifications and affirm as much. Translation should not proceed until the reviewer has approved the reference materials, just like house painting would not proceed until the client has signed off on the color and other specifications.

This pre-translation approval gives reviewers a much more productive way to prove their worth and ensure the success of a translation project. In this process, reviewers are much more invested in helping translation providers succeed from the beginning, as approving reference tools before translation will help ensure that reviewers’ preferences are implemented from the start. Consequently, reviewers’ efforts are magnified and they tend to spend less time working on the project than they would if they were asked to prove their worth with excessive, belated use of a red pen.

Anecdotally, about 90% of all linguistic headaches associated with client review will be avoided by following these recommendations. When colleagues in the language industry tell me about painful interactions between client reviewers and providers, those reviewers are almost certainly not native speakers who approved glossaries and style guides before translation. Such linguistic preparation will help ensure that competent translation requesters, reviewers and providers are united as they each work toward the success of the project.