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Choosing a Translator: Hint – It isn’t us

Although I have done a translation or two for very special clients on occasion, make no mistake, EditPro is not a translation service. I have long held the opinion that most translations are inaccurate at best. In evidence of that, many of the editing jobs I do are edits of bad translations.

Think about that.

Many of my clients not only pay for a translator at rates up to €40/hour, but also pay me to edit and revise what was written at rates up to €60/hour. That’s not merely expensive; it’s ridiculous. I realize I am speaking against my own interests here, but this is my interpretation of service. I believe that service providers are obligated to give the best advice possible on all topics related to the service, even if that relationship is only tangential.

In my efforts to help you choose better, I had a chat with a very experienced freelance translator. Let me tell you a little bit about the person I will call “Translator Guy” because he is that exclusive. Translator Guy (TG) has been living in Germany for over 25 years. TG has shared his receivables and they are, ahem, substantial. TG has made freelancing into an art form and has a client retention rate that makes him the envy of most of us who do freelancing in Germany (his client list includes a major German telecommunications company).


EditPro: How long have you been doing translations?

Translator Guy: Since early 1992, when I started working for a major German software company. When I resigned after a year due to personal reasons (spouse relocation), they asked if I would consider continuing working for them on a freelance basis. The rest, as they say, is history. I still work with them today.

EP: Are there different kinds of translations? If so, what are they?

TG: Yes, definitely. A marketing text has a completely different tone than a scholarly article, and both are completely different than a legal text. If certified translations are required, that adds an entirely new level of complexity. A good translator has to be able to read the tone of the source text and reflect it in the translation. An interview transcript, for example, should be translated more idiomatically, to reflect the spoken word rather than potentially obscure technical details. Does the text involve a manager addressing her team or is it about an expert discussing the features of a new product release? When it comes to connecting with your audience, tone is just as important as terminology.

EP: What is the most important aspect of your work?

TG: Above all, my ability to research.* Whenever I get a new client, the first thing I do is check their website to get a feel for their communications and overall tone. If I don’t know what a certain widget is called, I have to look that up, too. Ideally, there will also be someone I can contact at the client company to clarify any questions that arise. Translation is often seen as a “black box”, where you plug in the source text and the target text is produced in a mechanical fashion, without any outside interaction, but that couldn’t be more wrong. Ideally, translation will be an interactive, iterative process between translator and client.

*It was very gratifying to hear that TG incorporates research into his translations. This is something I do in my editing, as well. If a supplier lacks curiosity about your topic, they are likely to be operating without your interests at heart. This is critical.

EP: If you were hiring a translator, what would you be certain to check?

TG: Samples of their work, both past and present. Unfortunately, even a university degree in translation isn’t hard proof of someone’s quality as a translator. They might be technically adept, but be unfamiliar with certain German idioms or metaphors, for example. Or they might make the cardinal mistake of trying to translate into a language they didn’t grow up speaking and produce awkward phrasing or even embarrassing double entendres. EP: What is the absolute minimum qualification a translator should have?

TG: Since I don’t have any official translation qualifications or degrees myself (I studied humanities before moving to Germany), that’s kind of a tricky question for me. At the very least, a translator must be able produce perfect output in their native language and have sufficient knowledge of the source language to grasp both the content and tone of what is being said. They should be masters of grammar and prose and be able to multitask efficiently.

EP: What are the biggest mistakes you see companies making when they hire a translator?

TG: Trying to cut costs by hiring entry-level people, or even working students. That’s when you see rookie mistakes like misinterpreting the genitive case as plural (because of the “s”), confusing direct and indirect objects, or translating prepositions directly when English uses a different one in certain phrases. When you commission a translation, you’re essentially entrusting your company’s voice to that person. Quality is key and when it comes to quality, there’s no substitute for experience.

EP: Why are there such immense price variances from translator to translator? Does cost always reflect on quality? What's the middle ground?

TG: Translation is both an art and a science. People who are equally adept at both aspects are rarer than you think and can demand a premium. A good translator has the ability to produce a text that isn’t only technically accurate, but engaging as well – I often get feedback from my clients that they found my translation easier to understand and more compelling to read than the original. That’s the ultimate compliment and what I always strive for. In my opinion, international “translation agencies” that claim to produce perfect output for 4 cents a word – and then turn around and outsource bits and pieces to all takers for half that word price – just can’t produce the level of quality that’s required to win over today’s demanding customers, particularly since English-speaking companies are leading the customer-centricity movement. I encourage companies that want good quality at a reasonable price to go to the extra effort of working with freelancers directly, instead of agencies, because they can get a better deal by cutting out the intermediary. EP: You have a unique concept of translation in that you only translate from German to English. Why do you think this is important?

TG: I disagree with the German educational (and certification) system in that I firmly believe that people should only ever translate into their native language. In my case, although I’ve been in Germany for nearly three decades and now speak fluent, accent-free German, I could never be sure that anything I translated into German was 100% accurate and grammatically correct without unreasonable effort – double-checking the gender of every noun, for example. Your mother tongue is different: you have an almost innate feel for the right preposition or turn of phrase for a given situation. I do occasional interpreting work in both directions, so I do make some exceptions, but not when it comes to the written word. EP: What's the biggest nightmare story you have heard or seen about a translation gone wrong?

TG: There have been many occasions over the course of my career when I’ve been asked to step in and rescue a project that had gone horribly wrong. One 10-page translation of a planned marketing campaign and its key aspects for an electronic component manufacturer, for example, was good prose, but had very little to do with the source text. Instead, the translator apparently decided to brainstorm his own concepts – I can’t say whether it was because he didn’t understand the concepts or simply didn’t agree with them. Needless to say, the author of the original plans was less than pleased that her ideas had apparently been tossed out the window in favor of the translator’s misinterpretation of the elements in question.


So, if that was too long and you are looking for the highlights:

  • Do not choose a translator without seeing an example of their work.

  • Do not choose a translator solely based on qualifications or price.

  • Do choose a translator who is a native speaker in the target language.

  • Do choose a translator who is open to being collaborative with your team.

But, seriously, do not pick me. I do not do translations.

Photo by Deanna Ritchie on Unsplash

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