Some thoughts on feedback and the translation process

Sorry for the unannounced week of silence here at Thoughts on Translation; I went on vacation for a week and suddenly became violently allergic to using my laptop… but it seems that the bad reaction has now passed and Thoughts on Translation is back at the treadmill and ready to open up some new topics.

So, let’s talk about feedback and the translation process. One of the things I enjoy about working with direct clients is that I’m in control of the translation workflow, and I get direct feedback on my work from the person who I hire to do the editing. When I work for direct clients, I do the translation, then I send it to my editor, then I review her comments and if there are any that I have questions about, we talk about them together before preparing the final version of the document to send off to the client. However, the feedback flow normally ends there; a client will sometimes offer a sound bite assessment of a translation — “it was great, just what we needed” or “could you make the tone a little more casual?” or something along those lines, but my sense is that very few translators received detailed feedback from their clients.

When one works with a translation agency, things often go a little differently. Although it’s not a good practice, there are some agencies that don’t proofread the translations they receive at all, they simply forward them to the end client and assume that the translator has done an excellent job. Obviously everyone’s business model is different, but I decline to work with agencies that do this, simply because I think that every translation needs to be seen by at least two sets of eyes, and at agency rates I cannot afford to hire a second translator to edit my translations before I submit them. A second category of agencies are those that have their translations proofread by someone who reads the target language but may or may not read the source language. Finally, there are some high-quality agencies that have their translations reviewed by a second translator working in the same language combination as the person who did the translation; very quality-conscious agencies might even have these two people collaborate, the way my editor and I do when we work with direct clients. In all cases, agencies may or may not send the translator any feedback that they get from the end client.

These various feedback models raise a few questions. How can translators improve their work if they don’t get detailed feedback on it? How can clients provide feedback without getting into a “your word against mine” situation with their freelancers? Who should be the ultimate authority when it comes to a choice of words? Should agencies be obligated to provide the translator with the final version of their document as it was sent to the end client?

This topic sprang to my mind because I’ve recently come across some sticky issues involving feedback. One involved a translator whose work was butchered by an editor before being sent to the end client who then complained about the quality of the translation, and one involved my own unpleasant experience with an agency that assured me my work would be edited by a second French>English translator and then didn’t follow through. I agree that the QA and feedback process has its issues: QA and feedback take a lot of time; if you’re working on 3,000 words due tomorrow, the collegial back and forth with your editor probably takes time that you don’t have; in addition I think that agencies are simply not in the business of providing continuing education to translators, and they’re afraid that if a translator receives a poor review of his/her work, it will lead to conflict. However, lack of feedback is also a problem because it deprives translators of the opportunity to improve their work, and leaves translators wondering what happened if they’re suddenly dropped by a regular client.

Personally, I firmly believe that the best process is for a translator and an editor to work together, with the editor’s suggested changes going back to the translator. In addition, I’m fortunate to have gotten to the point in my business volume that I can ask about an agency’s QA and feedback process and decline to work for them if they don’t meet what I consider an appropriate standard. However, I’m not so sure about the best model when there isn’t time for this three-step process to happen. Anyone have feedback stories to share, or suggestions to offer?

4 Responses to “Some thoughts on feedback and the translation process”
  1. durf March 31, 2009
  2. kisaob April 1, 2009
  3. Victoriya April 2, 2009
  4. Talking from here July 28, 2010

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