Should You Ask the Client?

Running a successful business can mean having to successfully negotiate around landmines, and oftentimes there are no right answers. Every client is different and most situations are unique. One issue we've been thinking about lately is whether or not you should ask the client about questions you have concerning the source text, formatting, the intended use of the translation, the audience who will read the text, etc. 
Again, there are no hard rules, but we try to solve this potential issue ahead of time by:

  1. Asking the client about where the translation will be used before we accept the project. We also ask about any specific requirements the client might have and then list those in our price quote, which the client will sign.
  2. Some clients will not react the way you'd think, and they will tell us to "just translate this document." We tend not to work with those clients, because clear communication and expectations are  key. We can't meet expectations if we don't know what they are. We don't want to set ourselves up to fail. Great translations are always collaborative efforts, and that includes the client. We know they are busy, but their participation might be necessary to guarantee the result that they want.
After we've started the project, we generally follow a few guidelines before we ask the client:
  1. We do some brief research into the issue using our high-level dictionaries and some basic internet research skills. It might be something obvious that we are not getting, or it might be something very tricky.
  2. We discuss it to see if one twin has the answer, which is oftentimes the case.
  3. If that doesn't solve it, we ask the client.
  4. If need be, and if the client wasn't able to fully answer the question or explain it well (or doesn't have the time to answer), we ask one of our resident subject-matter experts (legal and IT) to see if they can shed light on the issue. Many times, many of our clients work in the marketing department and didn't write the text, so occasionally it's quite a bit of work for them to track down the answer.
  5. Alternatively, we post the issue on a translator listserv. Our colleagues are truly wonderful.
We usually prefer to ask the client rather than post too many terms on translator listservs, because many times the client can solve something in 10 seconds that would waste our colleagues' time. For instance, no fellow translator in the world knows what "TCM"' stands for, but the client does: it's an internal acronym for a content management software that's named after one of the company's software developers. We did the right thing by not spending an hour researching the term, as we would not have found it anywhere.

In general, we think asking the client (legitimate) questions is a good thing, because it shows the client that you care and that you are putting some serious thought into your work. On the other hand, asking too many questions makes you look like you are not trying hard enough and don't have sufficient resources or research skills. For instance, you don't want to ask your client what FMCG is (you can find that in three seconds).  Many clients really welcome questions and go out of their way to answer them, while others might be slightly annoyed that you are "wasting" their precious time or might not answer at all. We try to make it easy on customers by collecting our questions and sending them in one easy e-mail, which clearly details and references the questions. 

What about you, dear colleagues? Do you have any rules on how you handle this tricky subject?


Christopher Köbel on November 9, 2012 at 2:08 AM said...

Good (local) morning,

you're definitely spot-on with your observations.

While I do work with clients who just "want this translated", I point out that answering some easy questions before I get to work will raise the translation's quality. Also, it helps to beg the client for an acronym glossary (acronyms in the source text are easily found with a regular expression such as /[A-Z]+/, or maybe /[A-Z]{1,5}/ if there are other all-caps words in a text).

Usual questions revolve around target audience, close or adapting translation, informational or to be published, etc.

Sometimes, more specific things influence the translation's quality: «Your text will go from HTML to PDF brochure, should I leave the straight quotes or replace them with typographic ones?»

I follow your style when questions pop up during translation, too. If something cannot be resolved quickly, I mark it in the CAT tool or jot down a quick note.
Either a bit of research will answer it (maybe another document from the same client provides some context?) or I ask colleagues or professionals in the client's industry. If nothing will come of it, or if I suspect it's some obscure in-house acronym, I will finally ask the client my gathered questions - just like Twin Translations does.

What I'd like to add: I have a cooperation clause in my terms of service. Should a project contain errors because the client didn't provide me with some crucial answer, I wash my hands of it. It doesn't occur often, but in one case, a pointer to the clause made a lost reference document magically reappear.

Kind regards
Christopher Köbel, DeFrEnT

Judy Jenner and Dagmar Jenner on November 9, 2012 at 12:10 PM said...

@Christopher: Thanks so much for your thorough and insightful comment. We really appreciate it and love your point about the cooperation clause. We have something similar, and we should perhaps change the name of the clause. Right now it's called --> client's responsibility, but we could probably reword it a bit to achieve the purpose you mention. What a great conversation!

Excellent idea to tell the client that the translation will be much better if he/she just answers a few simple questions. That usually motivates clients to take a few minutes out of their busy days.

Oliver Lawrence on November 12, 2012 at 11:45 PM said...

Hello folks,

There are some very good points here.

One thing I would add is about timing. If you raise your queries too quickly, then you risk bothering the client unnecessarily and making yourself appear slipshod if there are questions that you could've answered on your own with a bit more thought. If you raise them too late in the piece, you may irritate the client by not giving them enough time to respond before the translation is due. I tend to raise my queries after I've done a complete draft. I mark potential questions in the text as I draft, like Christopher, then I come back and review them thoroughly before querying anything I'm still unsure of.

If there are just a handful of queries, I raise them in an email. But if there are quite a few (I often edit texts written directly in English by native Italian speakers), then I find it helps to document them 'in context', i.e. by sending back a copy of the text with my annotations as Word comments.

Buon lavoro!

Judy Jenner and Dagmar Jenner on November 13, 2012 at 8:45 AM said...

@Oliver: Excellent input -- thanks for sharing your thoughts. We completely agree about the importance of timing, and sharing the questions with some context (in the document) is the way to go so the client doesn't have to do any extra work. To your point about timing: one of our favorite client's used to get really upset with other translators when they turned in their final translation WITH questions on the very last day.

Anonymous said...

This is a really interesting topic and something which I frequently encounter in daily work!
I tend to follow Oliver's style of work and do a draft of the translation before raising any queries.
I try to raise as few queries as possible, but when I do have a question as to how a particular term might be rendered, I tend to suggest at least one translation which I think gives the client something to work with when answering my queries.
Also, if there is a very tight deadline for the translation and there is no time for the client to answer queries before it needs to be delivered, I make sure to emphasise that I am ready and willing to make any changes post delivery.
Hannah (French and Spanish into English)

Judy Jenner and Dagmar Jenner on November 13, 2012 at 4:04 PM said...

@Hannah: thanks for reading and for commenting -- great stuff! Excellent idea about making sure the client knows that you are willing to make changes post-delivery if the deadline is tight. We might have to steal that idea. :)

Elisa said...

Very interesting post as usual! My answer to the title is definitely "Yes, we should ask!". I am convinced that a thorough communication with the client is key to an excellent result and shows our commitment to high quality. Of course, as professional translators, we must be able to distinguish between which researches are entirely our own task and what is subject to discussion with the client.
I also agree with the other comments here: good timing, a cooperation clause, and offering to make changes after a tight deadline are great points.
I would also like to point out the importance of some diplomacy sometimes ;-) We as translators must be excellent writers at any cost, but sometimes the authors of the source text may be not! I recently happened to find a badly written sentence in a text I was translating, and we all know that when you can't understand correctly, you can't deliver an accurate, smooth translation either. So before bothering the client, I first made sure the sentence was actually obscure by re-reading it in full context and asking for a couple of colleagues' opinion (although I was pretty sure myself, sometimes you just get that helpful insight from a colleague!), then I politely pointed it out to the client, suggesting that in my opinion a rewording of the whole sentence would improve their text, as well as allow a more accurate translation. They were glad to see I was taking good care of their text, and I didn't have to just "guess a translation".
Both parties (translators and clients) benefit from a clear communication, so I'm all for it!

blackheart on February 25, 2013 at 11:01 AM said...

I think it's great to have an exchange on challenges we face as translators. When I come across terms or acronyms that are simply nowhere on the Web; I first try to finish the document (sometimes the answer is within the document). Other times, I have to go back to the source and ask them for clarification. Asking other translators for suggestions is a great idea. Thanks for the info.
Clarissa L.

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