For translation editors: Four practices for maximizing your value

For translation editors: Four practices for maximizing your value

May 16, 2022 By Stephen Jensen


The problem:

Translation editors face a unique problem within the editing profession: clients who judge quality based on the features of another language. Structural and stylistic differences between two languages, such as Japanese and English, can be vast. And when a client is unfamiliar with those differences, they are less likely to embrace them in a translation. Divergences from the source text might be seen in the opposite light: as evidence of careless or clumsy writing. As a result, the translator’s and editor’s work ends up misunderstood and underappreciated. This creates lost value for the editor, client, and readers alike.

The solution:

To deliver higher value that clients can appreciate, translation editors should do four things:

1. Get to know the source language

2. Find right-fit business partners

3. Manage creative risk

4. Communicate with the client

Knowing more about the source language allows the editor to develop hacks for identifying problems and proposing solutions. Partnering with skilled translation teams who share the same approach to value creation can help editors produce better content and communicate more effectively with the client. Managing creative risk is about making decisions that fall within the client’s range of tolerance for unexpected solutions. And communicating with the client is how editors bridge the gap between value they can deliver and value that is understood and appreciated. 

Good translation requires creativity, but at a risk

I’ve been translating for 11 years, and I cannot tell you how many times I’ve seen my translations messed up in publication.

Someone down the line — an editor, a proofreader, the client — probably thought they were doing the text justice. They added a “missing” word or changed a phrase to align it more closely with the source text. Either way, they threw off the delicate balance of factors I was considering when crafting my translation, resulting in copy that was awkward, harder to read, and less engaging and useful to readers.

That’s not to say I’m perfect — far from it. But something kept happening downstream that put my translations in jeopardy. 

I can think of a few reasons why. Many clients and editors I have worked with are native Japanese speakers. They might not know English very well. Or they might overestimate their English writing abilities.

But there are two more-significant reasons, and they’re interconnected.

The first is a misconception of what an effective translation requires. Many people see translation simply as a practice of transmitting meaning — the content of the message being communicated. This is a conventional view of translation that prioritizes direct, literal accuracy and adherence to the structure and style of the source text — neither adding nor taking away. In this view, comparison with the source text is the true and only way to measure a translation’s quality.

But this view is narrow and limiting. In corporate and stakeholder communications, the field of translation I work in, translation is more effective and provides higher value when understood as a process of advancing communication goals — only one of which is to transmit meaning. Good translators, like all good communicators, think about what is being said as well as why, how, and to whom. They adapt the end product based on that information. This is something all good editors understand, intuitively and by training.

However, my problem of messed-up translations was being exacerbated by something else: the huge structural, stylistic, and cultural differences that exist between Japanese and English.

Consider just a few of the differences between these two languages and how they shape writing habits.

When two languages are this different, translations that are well written — and edited — will inevitably look and sound much different from the source. Creativity is an inherent and necessary part of the process — so much so that translation is sometimes called “transcreation” (though the distinction is somewhat arbitrary and may be more useful to clients than translators in certain contexts).

When collaborators or clients don’t understand this, solutions in the translation become a creative risk — increasing the likelihood that they will be misunderstood, underappreciated, and rejected or “corrected.” This creates lost value that affects everyone: the translator and editor, the client, and readers alike.

Translators and translation editors can’t afford not to navigate this problem wisely.

To do that, I recommend the following four practices. The first is geared toward editors. The last three are relevant to both translators and translation editors. 

1. Get to know the source language

You don’t need to be fluent in the source language, but the more you know the better. Take time to learn the basic features of the language — its syntax as well as cultural factors that influence writing. Knowing more about the source language allows you to develop hacks for improving the text, which you can then deploy quickly and confidently across different projects.

For example, knowing that important information tends to appear toward the end of Japanese sentences and paragraphs is a valuable insight for an editor working on from-Japanese translations. I often start the editing process with some reorganizing and moving that information toward the beginning. This almost always improves flow and makes the writing more engaging.

Knowing the source language also equips you with information for explaining your decisions to collaborators and clients. Like the editing hacks you developed, you can deploy the same arguments across projects. In longer-term client relationships, this repetition reinforces the client’s understanding and builds trust. 

2. Find right-fit business partners

I spent the first few years of my translation career feeling like a cog in an invisible machine. As a freelancer working for large agencies, I communicated only with project managers and never with the editors and proofreaders. Rarely did I receive direct feedback from the client. Collaboration during the writing process was practically nonexistent. Translation guidelines and quality assurance protocols were cumbersome — and didn’t seem all that effective anyway.

Then I found EcoNetworks, and realized how amazing it is to work with a small team of talented people who approach translation creatively and collaboratively.

My project managers and editors (sometimes they are the same person) have exceptional English skills and an exceptional attitude. They know English well enough to appreciate my work, but also respect my opinion on matters of grammar and naturalness. They also provide valuable ideas of their own.

I recommend finding translators and teams who not only are skilled linguists but also share the same philosophy and approach to value creation as you do.

A great translation team will do the following:

3. Manage creative risk

I define creative risk as anything that challenges the client’s expectations of the delivered translation.

The first step is understanding your assigned role as an editor. Does the translation have to closely follow the source text? Or can you make improvements independent of it?

If the former, your creative risk is relatively high and your role, narrowly defined. Stick to basic elements like grammar and word choice.

If the latter, you have more freedom to do things such as reordering sentences and paragraphs, rewriting headings and captions, or cutting fluff. But be careful! You still need to have good reasons for your changes and explain them to the team and client when appropriate (as all editors must).

If you aren’t sure, then be conservative. Base your decisions on experience with the same client or with other clients.

I recommend testing your creative risk over time to see how much value you can offer that your team and the client will appreciate. Communication is essential for understanding and taking creative risk.

4. Communicate with the client

As in other fields of editing, it’s important that the client understands the rationale behind every decision in the translation. Radical departures from the source text — such as reordering paragraphs or deleting an entire sentence — require better reasons and more persuading.

The teams I work with use the Comments and Track Changes features in Word to communicate our research and thoughts to the client and provide them with alternatives. Sometimes we include a back-translation of the text to give them an idea of how it reads in English.

It's easy to overwork a translation and push your solutions too far. Decisions related to organization, flow, and efficiency are like editing the client’s writing in their own language, and they may or may not appreciate this. Prioritize your ideas and focus on those that have clear benefits and persuasive reasons. This eases the client’s review process and highlights your value.

Keep in mind that if your comments need to be translated back into the client’s language, the more you have to communicate, the more work you may be creating for other team members.

And lastly, get your hands on feedback from the client. This is crucial for understanding the client’s needs and meeting them where they are. If that’s not possible, check the content once it is published. This is important for understanding which ideas were adopted and rejected by the client, and how to better serve them and other clients on future projects.

If you implement these four practices well, there’s a better chance that your translations, too, won’t get messed up.

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