How (not) to hire a translator

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A friend of mine, Sarah, works for a media company that recently needed some transcribing and translation services, and it fell to her to locate some translators and take care of the project. Although this was her first time working with translators, her experience a) ends happily and b) might help others who may need a translator one day.

And luckily for my blog, her recent foray into the translation world turned up a number of learning curves, that I thought I’d share with you here…

Lesson 1: Finding a translator

Sarah messaged me one day saying that they needed some interviews transcribed and translated into French, Spanish, German and Italian – 40 minutes of video in total. Fortunately, because they were a media service, they could create the subtitles themselves, but they needed to outsource the language-y bit. Sarah asked if I was interested in translating it into French or Spanish.

Here’s where I rolled out my well-rehearsed response: “Actually, I only translate FROM French and Spanish INTO English.”

How come? Translators tend to only translate into their native language, unless they were raised fully bilingual. You can nearly always tell when a non-native speaker has written something – it’ll be a tiny grammatical error or unnatural turn of phrase. Sarah realised that for this job, she would have to find a French translator, a Spanish translator, a German translator and an Italian translator, not one person who can do all four. Damn it.

Lesson 2: Finding a good translator

I was able to recommend a German and Spanish translator to her, and suggested she look in the ITI Directory for the other two. The ITI Directory lists their members who have passed the ITI assessment for their given language combination, and who have agreed to abide by the institute’s professional codes of conduct, so at least you know they’re legit.

Sarah’s reply was “Yeah, someone in my office just recommended Fiverr, where you can get stuff like that for a fiver. But how would you even know that it’s right?”

Quite so, Sarah. A quick look on Fiverr shows me that people are generally offering to translate 500 words for $5 (so that’s £3.98 – even less than a fiver!). Bargain, right? However: translating 500 words would take, on average, about 2 hours, which means that these people are offering professional services for WAY beneath minimum wage.

And that’s not even taking in account the fact that these interviews need to be transcribed first – transcription on its own can take 2-4 times as long as the original video itself.

Companies are often very budget-driven, but in the case of translation, the old adage “buy cheap, buy twice” tends to be pretty accurate. I, myself, have often been asked to redo shoddy translations, where the translator clearly either didn’t have time to do a good job, or just didn’t know or care about how to translate the text well.

So, my response to Sarah was that if these videos were for an end client, and they actually wanted them to be seen by other people, they should probably go for the professional option.

Lesson 3: Agreeing the price and project details

Once Sarah had found some translators and received quotes from them, she found another surprise: the quotes included one price for the transcription, and another for translating the transcribed words. This quoting method is pretty common – I don’t know if there are many translators who are able to listen to audio in one language and instantly write it in another.

Once Sarah’s manager realised this, he decided to change the project: they would transcribe the interview themselves in-house, and only hire translators for the second part: putting the text into the other languages. Businesses are often looking to save money, so it’s lucky that in this situation they had the proper resources to do the English-language part themselves. Sarah told the translators about the change – it was now a 5,500 word translation, no transcription – and confirmed the projects.

Lesson 4: Having realistic expectations

Cue snag number 3: Sarah’s manager had told their end client that he could return the work quickly, and asked if the translators could return their work the next morning. Now, a translator’s speed varies from person to person and obviously depends on the subject matter as well, but 5,500 words would take about 3 days; possibly more if you factor in proofreading and the fact that the text is taken from a spoken interview, so may have a less formal register. Sorry manager, no can do – he should have checked that the deadline he had given was realistic first.

To cap it all, although the project had already been confirmed, the manager asked Sarah if she could ask one of the translators to lower their price by about 10%, even though the work had already started.

Sarah felt awful – after all, if there was a problem with the cost, it should have been brought up before the project was confirmed. She sent an email along the lines of “Sorry to ask, but could you lower the price…?” but was so racked with guilt that she sent another one straight after, saying “never mind, I’ll tell my manager you said no!”

Perhaps the translator would have agreed, perhaps not – but it’s best to be honest about your budget from the get-go, to avoid these awkward conversations further down the line.

Fortunately, the rest of this project was smooth sailing. The company was happy with the translations, and they now have some good translation contacts in case the need arises again. Managing a project with multiple people and languages can be daunting, but once you are more familiar with the process, then expectations can be managed and the end result becomes a lot more successful for everyone.

Names have been changed.

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One thought on “How (not) to hire a translator

  1. Pingback: Fiverr: Do you get what you pay for? (Part 1) | Bellingua Translations

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