Buzzword or Bonanza?
A Translator Reflects on Best Practice
There’s no doubt that “best practice” is a hot topic today. The exact phrase brings nearly 40 million hits with Google, including 16 sponsored links related to sales and marketing, education, research, manufacturing, information science, health care, and more. Amazon.com lists over 2300 books with “best practice” as a keyword. To me it was pretty much just a buzzword. It sounded good, and I assumed it was an apt description of the way I ran my business.
Most of us would agree that what’s best for the buyer is best for the provider in the long run.
According to the Wikipedia, the term “best practice” was popularised in professional and business management books starting in the late 1980s and generally refers to the best possible way of doing something. While the term is relatively new, the concept is as old as the human race. Enterprising people have always looked for better ways to perform tasks and reach goals. If vast numbers of people in similar circumstances have the same goal and can agree on the best way to achieve it, the procedure could be labelled a “best practice.”
With the advent of the Internet, it became easier than ever to share experience and learn what practices others considered best. Translators, who once worked in relative isolation, quickly embraced this medium, and now we can pick the brains of colleagues worldwide through online forums, newsgroups, mailing lists, blogs, and virtual communities. If we aren’t careful, these can distract us from our daily work, but they are a handy and seemingly inexhaustible source of fact, opinion, and advice about best practice.
My husband worked for a company that was taken over by Dow Chemical just before he retired. Suddenly his work routines were subject to new dictates from above. Dow had a prescribed procedure for every piece of equipment and every step of every corporate activity, it seemed, which its experts had determined to be “best practice.” I mention this only to illustrate the complexity of the concept and its application in industry and commerce.
By whose standards is “best practice” determined in the language service industry? Surely most of us would agree that what’s best for the buyer is best for the provider in the long run. Organisations like the Better Business Bureau are founded on this principle, and discussions in various ATA forums and elsewhere testify that we, too, know on which side our bread is buttered, at least in theory.
When I invited input for this article from the ATA Business Practices e-group, ATA President Marian Greenfield put hers in a nutshell: “Don’t accept any job you can’t do in an excellent fashion and on time.” Jutta Diel-Dominique put it even more succinctly: “Dare to say No.” Viewed as best practice, rather than as the only permissible practice, this is good advice. My qualifier merely acknowledges what all of us have faced or can at least envision: those desperate situations where we are the only help available and less-than-excellent is quite acceptable.
The Dow model would have us define the concrete steps by which we determine whether a job we are considering meets Greenfield’s criteria. What does “on time” mean? (Don’t laugh! Any project manager will tell you that many translators don’t know. Or they count on a grace period.) Just how good is “excellent,” and in whose eyes? How do I calculate the time it will take to achieve excellence, with the entire source text, the client’s specifications, and my calendar of other commitments before me? Surely it is “best practice” to have a plan, so that when the phone rings or the request for a bid lands in your inbox you’re ready.
A widely accepted “best practice” in our industry is for translators and interpreters to work only into their native or dominant language. Unsavvy clients often assume that if you can translate from a language, you can also translate into it. Bolstered by unwarranted client confidence, some translators make the same assumption without ever putting it to the test. But most of us know that we are more efficient and produce higher quality when working into our A-language; and that if we must work into our B- or C-language, the best practice is to have a qualified native speaker edit our work.
In the ATA brochure “Translation: Getting it Right,”1 author Chris Durban makes this point to translation buyers as well. “OK, there are exceptions,” she adds. “But not many.” After advising buyers how to recognize the exceptions, Chris puts their doubts to rest with this observation: “Do translators living outside their home country lose touch with their native tongue? At the bottom end of the market, perhaps. But expert linguists make a point of keeping their language skills up to par wherever they are.”
The Translation Journal blog (http://translationjournal.blogspot.com/) contains an interesting discussion of this surprisingly controversial issue under the heading “Native Language.” There an anonymous translator who goes by “Yamishogun” says, “Sadly, many Japanese feel that a foreigner can’t fully grasp their language.” He cites an agency in Japan that refuses to hire native speakers of English because they make too many errors and another agency in which two-thirds of the translators are Japanese who translate into English. But he adds that most of their translations are edited by native speakers of English.
Russian linguist Carol Flath, speaking on her experience interpreting for the US Department of State at the arms-reduction talks in Geneva in the early 1990s, said that interpreters in these settings normally worked from their A-language into their B-language because of the sensitive nature of negotiation. The assumption was that the original speech could be better understood and conveyed in all its nuances by a native speaker of the source language. Do deviations from the usual view of best practice invalidate the latter?
A second pair of eyes can invariably find ways to improve even the most brilliantly written prose, whether original or translated. Freelancers working for an intermediary or direct client with its own editors may feel they are covered, but even these buyers prefer translators who self-edit and proofread carefully. When asked to provide the end product for a direct client, do you routinely factor the cost of an editor into your quote? I rarely do unless the client requests it. Far be it from me to claim that this is best practice. I’m comfortable with it only because of the nature of my clientele and market niche. But even self-editors need a set procedure or checklist. Tomorrow I will write my self-editing checklist in a sticky note on my computer desktop. There! I’m the first person to be inspired by my article :-).
What is your self-editing routine? Surely it includes a spell-check. But when do you run it-as the first, last, or dare I say only step? Do you edit and proofread on screen or print out drafts? How many passes do you make through your work? Do you look for all types of errors at once or concentrate on one at a time, such as omissions, numbers, consistency?
It seems odd to call honoring deadlines “best practice,” as if any other practice in this regard were also acceptable to a degree. Jutta wrote of a client who had recently expressed gratitude that she always met deadlines. “I was surprised that this could even be an issue,” she said. “In my opinion, any deadline should be written in stone for the translator until the client gives the green light to hold the file.” Of course it is best to get all terms of an agreement in writing, but oral contracts are also binding, including any deadline agreed upon. And do clarify the expected hour of delivery, not just the day. If a client asks for something by noon, you cannot assume that end of the business day is soon enough. You have no idea what a domino effect in the production process a late delivery might trigger. Best practice is to negotiate an ample lead time, but when a deadline is tight there is usually a reason. When the unexpected occurs, next-best practices may come into play, but they must always be linked with one best practice: communication with the client. Ignoring or unilaterally extending a deadline is not an option.
Virginia Pérez Santalla brings up another area of best practice:
In my opinion, keeping up to date in current events and current slang, in our field and beyond, is something we must do. Often, we find new expressions in the texts we translate that have just crept into the language from everyday occurrences and, if we don’t pay attention to what’s happening around us, they catch us by surprise. Whether it’s ‘bling’ or something else, new terms have a way of showing up where we least expect them.
How do you keep up with your fields of specialization and with the language in general? This becomes more difficult, but all the more critical, if you live outside the country where your target language is spoken. How many unbillable hours a week do you spend keeping current that you would not have spent, were it not for your business? Do you take them into account when setting rates for your billable time? As Diel-Dominique reminds us: “Do not sell yourself cheaply. Stick to your guns regarding rates and payment expectations. If you don’t, you are hurting yourself, your colleagues and our profession as a whole.”
Dorothee Racette reminds us that running an effective business is part of ‘best practice’ for translators. “This includes keeping track of orders, maintaining an accounting system and assessing clients before entering into a business relationship,” she says. “Good business habits can’t be established overnight but are frequently overlooked, even by very accomplished translators.”
The systems we use depend to some extent on the size and nature of our business. Do you maintain a client database? How do you track quotes and pending jobs? Do you put expiration dates on your offers? I have quoted on jobs and had the client accept it up to six months later, but some never reply. How long should quotes be kept on file? If you bill by the word or line, how do you define “word” or “line” and do you base it on the source or target language? What types of work do you bill by the hour? When do you quote a flat fee? Do you know what your normal hourly or daily output is for a given document type? How do you organize receipts? My biggest headache is keeping track of acquisitions and removals of office equipment, reference books, etc., for business property tax purposes. If anyone has a simple system for that or knows how to do it with Quicken, I’d like to hear from you.
You probably began reading this article expecting to find answers, but instead I kept piling on questions. That’s because I discovered, in fulfilling this assignment, that I have much to learn about best practice even in the autumn of my career. But I can at least say that “best practice” is no longer just a buzzword to me. I’d now venture to say that it could even become what Webster defines as a “source of great wealth or profits”-a bonanza.2 But then you probably knew that all along.
1 “Translation: Getting it Right,” a guide to buying translations, originally developed for the Institute of Translating and Interpreting (UK) and now published by the American Translators Association in slightly modified form for use in the US.
2 as defined in Webster’s New World College Dictionary, 4th Ed.
By Ann C. Sherwin,
Translator and Editor,
Raleigh, NC, U.S.A.
Originally published in CATI Quarterly, newsletter of the Carolina Association of Translators and Interpreters
This article was originally published at Translation Journal (http://accurapid.com/journal).