Norms for terminology queries when working with translation agencies
Thread poster: S E (X)

S E (X)
Italy
Local time: 07:03
Italian to English
Apr 29, 2011

Hello all,

In my experience working with perhaps 20 different translation agencies, primarily in Italy but also in the UK, US, and Canada, if I need further context in order to translate a few words correctly, the agencies ask that I make note of the words and then they either get back to me with the information I requested or they handle it themselves.

Recently, however, when preparing to deliver a completed project I asked the Italian agency I was working with how they would like me to make note of my queries (in this case, there were two words I couldn't unravel out of 7000+), the response was "no unresolved terminology issues, thank you".

I have been working with this agency since last fall, but they only started sending me a lot of work within the past month or so. I hadn't had a terminology question up to this point. The contract says that any problems that arise during the translation should be signaled in a translator's note to be delivered with the completed translation. But apparently in my PM's view, "problems" do not include terminology questions (which strikes me as odd).

This was a job with a short deadline for a relatively low rate. It was essentially a marketing project but for a cosmetics company and so involved a great deal of industry jargon and scientific terminology. I have a fleet of dictionaries and glossaries for this kind of work, as well as experience. The nature of the work is that there is inevitably a great deal of terminology research to do and, in this case, not very much time to do it in. The two terms in question were made difficult because neither have entries in my dictionaries/glossaries, and one shows up online in exclusively negative contexts but was used in the source text in a positive way, while the other only shows up online in 7 instances (!) and with no useful context at all.

In the end the agency preferred that I deliver late in order to try to resolve the terminology questions myself, explaining that they cannot very well send the file to the client with two untranslated words (I should mention that the file was not going to be sent directly to the client but to a reviewer).

After a lot of additional research and a lot of luck, I did manage to translate the two terms and I sent my PM the updated file. But the what they really wanted was to receive the file on time with no unresolved issues.

My question for you is this: How much is too much? As I mentioned above, this project had a short deadline and paid a relatively low rate. The amount of term research required was substantial due to the nature of the products being marketed. My research was successful for all obscure terms in a 7000+ word file with the exception of two. In the end I did manage to figure out the remaining two, but it took the better part of an hour of my time and resulted in a late delivery. I love doing terminology research, and am always willing to go the extra mile, or kilometer as it were. But not all issues can always be resolved by a sole translator, especially when the deadline is tight (and the rate low). And every other agency I work with knows this, save this one.

I should also add that this agency has an excellent BlueBoard record and an amazing client list - they send fascinating projects, every time!

Have any of you worked with agencies who have top clients but require no unresolved terminology issues (for projects with short deadlines)? How have you handled it -or how would you handle it?


 

Tomás Cano Binder, BA, CT  Identity Verified
Spain
Local time: 07:03
Member (2005)
English to Spanish
+ ...
It makes sense that you solve all terminology issues Apr 29, 2011

Sarah Elizabeth Cree wrote:
Have any of you worked with agencies who have top clients but require no unresolved terminology issues (for projects with short deadlines)?

No, I haven't, but I have seen customers dump colleagues from other languages who asked too much (and I knew they were asking too much and could have resolved the issues with more terminology research).

In general, I reckon that there is a pile of information out there in the web if you know how to look for it, and for many years I haven't had the need to ask for terminology, unless two or more terms are widely used in the market and I need to know which is preferred by the customer.

Things you cannot avoid however are ambiguous descriptions, sentences that don't make sense in context, wrong terminology even in the source text (for instance if you are translating an incorrect translation)... In these cases, it is unavoidable to ask the customer or at least report the issues and how you resolved them, for further consideration by the customer.

As for the time spent researching terminology, I think it is time well spent even if you don't get a penny for it: you learn things and, if you properly document your terminology in a termbase, you will be able to reuse that knowledge in the future.


 

Phil Hand  Identity Verified
China
Local time: 14:03
Chinese to English
Treat your translation with the same level of respect as the client Apr 29, 2011

If the client gives you short notice and low pay to complete a translation - well, I think that tells you how important they think it is. As the science in cosmetics adverts is all made up pseudoscience anyway, in your case I would have felt very justified in just making up some "sciencey-sounding" pseudowords and making that do - with or without a note to the end client, as you see fit.

Of course, being a translator, it's inevitable that we like our work, and enjoy putting more into it than the pay or the client really deserve. Like you say, terminology hunting is a pleasure.

That's how I rationalize my late nights to myself and to my wife, anyway!


 

JaneD  Identity Verified
Sweden
Local time: 07:03
Member (2009)
Swedish to English
+ ...
Kind of agree with Tomas Apr 29, 2011

As Tomas says, it makes sense that you solve all terminology issues... to a point.

I never submit a translation with missing terms, but I often submit one that has terms where I can't possibly know what the "correct" translation would be - company-specific jargon, for example. I just flag these as something the client should be informed about, and I have never had any problems with any agency as a result.

I do have one or two agency clients where they have a way of working which means that they are happy to try to help out with terminology issues before a translation is submitted, but they are quite rare.

So generally speaking, "if you really can't find the right term, make a best guess and mention it to the agency on delivery" is my advice.


 

S E (X)
Italy
Local time: 07:03
Italian to English
TOPIC STARTER
issue has a little more to do with timing and grey area Apr 29, 2011

Thank you for your reply Tomás and I could not agree with you more about term research being worthwhile.

As I mentioned in the original post, I love doing terminology research. Time spent on it is win-win.

However, the issue I raised here is not whether term research is worthwhile (which it obviously is). It's more a pragmatic issue of being willing to spend all the time it takes but not actually having all the time it takes due to a tight deadline. As I said, I always go the extra mile (or extra 10). But sometimes the road ends abruptly at a cliff, if you see what I mean. It's all very well and good to be willing to take all the time necessary, but the realities of deadlines don't always let us.

The two terms I mentioned did in fact fall within the grey area:

One is commonly used to mean an undesirable disease (negative) whereas in my source text it was being used to mean a beauty-enhancer (positive), which raised red flag. What I needed was confirmation that the term choice was not a MISTAKE and that the client really did want to use a negative term in a positive way.

The second term only had no dictionary/glossary presence and only 7 (seven) hits online, total (eventually I worked out that it is a rarely-used synonym for a slightly more commonly used term). I needed confirmation that it was not a TYPO.

Would this be a case of "asking too much" or not taking responsibility for resolving term issues? (Genuine question.)


 

Christine Andersen  Identity Verified
Denmark
Local time: 07:03
Member (2003)
Danish to English
+ ...
Wow! I ask the experts, often the client. Apr 29, 2011

It does depend, of course, on what the problem is, and to a certain extent on how much time you have.

If I am sent two hours' work with less than three hours to deadline, then the agency has to help out, and I fling all problems straight at them.

Most of the agencies I have worked with have a clause about not contacting the end client without their written permission. I respect it, of course. However, for client-specific terminology, one agency in particular, but others too, sometimes respond to a query by giving me their contact's phone number or mail address and suggesting we sorted it out direct. You are then quite certain that the answer is correct, a least for that client.

Normally, I mail the agency with my query, and the PM mails the client. When questions are correctly set out and explained, clients often respect the fact that you know your limitations and want to get it right first time. The answer may be circulated to other translators working with other languages.

However, I do make considerable efforts first to find the answer somehow.

I tell the agency as soon as I realise it is going to be difficult, and don't wait until deadline is approaching. Very often, the end client knows the answer at once, and it saves a lot of time. Not only mine, but theirs, because I can then insert the term correctly, check any collocations, cross references or whatever, and deliver on time.

I do work for one agency with a 'no issues' policy, also a comparatively low-paying one, and the PMs cannot always read the source language. Since the target language is English, I can usually find a solution. (THANKS to KudoZ for instance...)

However, if I suspect I am going to have trouble with one of their jobs, I simply do not take it on. Their rate does not cover hours of googling and phone calls with people who might or might not know, and I have plenty of more helpful clients.

We are linguists, not mind readers, and we do not always have all the documents or background knowledge. It is not always possible to know which of several terms is the right one. In many cases it is important to know, not to guess, and then honesty is the best policy IMHO.

I do not know of any clients who have dropped me because of my queries, but several come back regularly, sometimes with useful hints or word-lists to help me.


[Edited at 2011-04-29 21:51 GMT]


 

Tina Vonhof
Canada
Local time: 23:03
Member (2006)
Dutch to English
+ ...
With Christine Apr 29, 2011

I translate a lot of diplomas and university transcripts, sometimes in e.g., electrical engineering, or agriculture, or other fields that I know little or nothing about. After I do the most extensive search possible in glossaries and websites, I ask the agency to pass the question on to the client. Usually when I receive the document, I go over it right away and do the terminology search first, so that there is enough time for the end client to respond. Surprisingly, sometimes even the end client doesn't remember what certain courses were about!

 

Mette Melchior  Identity Verified
Sweden
Local time: 07:03
English to Danish
+ ...
Low rate does not necessarily mean low expectations... Apr 29, 2011

Phil Hand wrote:

If the client gives you short notice and low pay to complete a translation - well, I think that tells you how important they think it is. As the science in cosmetics adverts is all made up pseudoscience anyway, in your case I would have felt very justified in just making up some "sciencey-sounding" pseudowords and making that do - with or without a note to the end client, as you see fit.


I am sorry, but I strongly disagree with this argument. If you have agreed to a certain rate and deadline, then you have also agreed to the work conditions for that particular project. If you think a project is too big or complex to complete in a satisfactory way with such a short notice, you should try to negotiate a longer deadline or simply decline the project - and the same goes for the rate.

Low rates don't necessarily mean low expectations. However, I know that even though you have calculated with what you thought was enough time, something unexpected might come up which is impossible to solve within the given time. In such cases, I use my best judgement based on the research I have done and add a comment about my doubts when I deliver the translation (or before if that is possible). I think that is better than to deliver an unfinished text with terms or parts that are still left in the source language.

As for Sarah's question, I really don't think the examples you give can be viewed as "asking too much". Nobody can know what all the writers in the world meant by their sometimes obscure choice of words, and not all specialist terminology can be found online (although admittedly, a lot of it can if you know how to find it...).

I believe it is better to ask than to guess, and I know for a fact that many clients appreciate this approach. - And as Christine says, the questions will often be easy for the client to answer.

- We should also remember that there are other ways to resolve terminology problems than googling, dictionaries and KudoZ. Sometimes it is better to ask someone who actually works in the field, although I have to admit that I only do that very rarely, and if you could expect the client to know the answer, I prefer to go through the agency first.


[Edited at 2011-04-29 16:14 GMT]


 

Kaiya J. Diannen  Identity Verified
Australia
Member (2008)
German to English
Serious concerns Apr 29, 2011

I find it hard to agree with the concept that the "translator must solve all terminology issues".

I translate from German into English, and not only is it a matter of routine that documents have spelling errors, grammar issues, and missing words, the sheer number of (occasionally outlandish) compound words sometimes makes it impossible to *know* that you have come up with a correct translation.

You mention the mysterious term with only 7 Google hits - with German, I have lived through that and worse.

I have also sent inquiries to agencies asking the native speakers their opinion of a particular (invented) compound word, only to be told that they also have no clue as to the author's intention (they usually go on to contact the end client and report back to me).

I have my pride, and I always do the research first - occasionally for hours on end - but by the same token, sometimes there is simply no way to know something without asking.

As for the time/price issue (and the fact that the agency has a sterling record), that is a more personal question.

In my book, if you face deadlines again and again that impede your ability to do the job to the best of your ability, that is a serious concern.

If you face an intractable attitude on the part of the people who are supposedly working with you to deliver the best possible final product, that is a serious concern.

Personally, I would be put off by people in that position who appear not to want to assist in the process. Depending on how obstructive that attitude becomes to the process as a whole, I would probably start accepting fewer jobs from them, and ensure that the jobs I did accept met my criteria for acceptable deadlines and pricing for the effort involved.

Just my 2c.

Good luck!


 

Phil Hand  Identity Verified
China
Local time: 14:03
Chinese to English
I'm not sure where we disagree... Apr 29, 2011

Mette, I don't see what we're disagreeing on.

I said:
I would have felt very justified in just making up some "sciencey-sounding" pseudowords and making that do - with or without a note to the end client


You said:
I use my best judgement based on the research I have done and add a comment about my doubts when I deliver the translation


I honestly think we are describing exactly the same strategy here. I'm describing it with a much more pejorative tone, because I am sincerely disgusted by the cosmetics industry - I believe it to be a vapid suck on the creative energies of millions of people worldwide. (Here's a comedy sketch to prove it! http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=lOYCkHFMnVc )

But my personal prejudice about the subject matter aside, we're both talking about making a best effort translation and alerting the client to be possibility of error if necessary.

On this point, though, we might have a real disagreement:
If you think a project is too big or complex to complete in a satisfactory way with such a short notice, you should try to negotiate a longer deadline


I'm actually trying to move beyond that stage, to become more than a "1-gear translator". What I like doing is taking hard jobs and giving them all my time and energy. But now I've got kids and need to make this job time efficient, I'm trying to learn to take less interesting, less important jobs, give them the budgeted time, and send them on their way. It's tough, because I love what I do. But not every translation job needs the whole nine yards. Lots of clients want something quick and usable. Providing to that market is a pretty valid thing to do with one's time, as well.


 

Mette Melchior  Identity Verified
Sweden
Local time: 07:03
English to Danish
+ ...
Clarification Apr 29, 2011

Hi Phil,

Yes, you are probably right that we don't disagree that much after all. What I reacted on was mainly the first comment about the payment and deadlines reflecting how important a client considers a job to be.

Of course you are right that there are different markets and that not all translations need to be spotless to fulfil their purpose. I just wanted to point out that you can't deduct what the client's expectations are just from the rate and deadline. People might have very different perceptions of what a 'reasonable' or 'normal' rate is for a certain type of text in a certain language combination.

It is also in their own interest to make these factors work to their benefit so it is our responsibility to only agree to conditions we think are reasonable and which allow us to complete the job in a satisfactory way. Especially because many clients and translation agencies seem to have unrealistic perceptions of the time and effort it requires to translate a given amount of text.


 

Phil Hand  Identity Verified
China
Local time: 14:03
Chinese to English
If not price, then what? Apr 29, 2011

Not sure we should be hijacking Sarah's thread, but still...

Mette said:
I just wanted to point out that you can't deduct what the client's expectations are just from the rate and deadline.


I don't see what else we have to work on. For a lot of jobs, all I ever get are a couple of form emails from an agency, then the file. And even if you do have some contact with the client, when you ask, "what sort of quality do you need for this document?" 99 times out of 100, they will reply: The best! It must be perfect, and I must have it yesterday, for no money!

Remember we're in a market, and in a market, price is information. It's a clear signal about what you're buying/selling. If our clients don't understand the market - and I agree, they often don't - then ultimately it's their problem. We should educate them when we can (I seem to spend my life doing that here in China), but I can only hold a client's hand so far. I'll be honest about what I can or can't do, but when they put their money down on the table, they have to deal with the consequences of what they get for that money.


 

Kevin Fulton  Identity Verified
United States
Local time: 01:03
German to English
Translator needs to be self-reliant, but ... Apr 29, 2011

... the agency needs to provide support as well. Good agencies usually have a stable of translators whose knowledge/experience they can draw on when needed, or have sufficient relations with the client so they can ask for a clarification of a term.

Agencies I regularly work with send me terminology queries from time to time from other projects. Usually these are relatively obscure terms that require specialized knowledge or resources, but some are easily resolved by a quick Google search, and I wonder about the ultimate quality of the translation.

Unfortunately some agencies regard themselves strictly as an intermediary without providing any real value-added services.


 


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