Asking Questions: A Client's Perspective

Last year, we wrote a blog post about the sometimes challenging issue of knowing when it is appropriate to ask the client for clarification regarding any issue that arises during a translation project. Many new translators are quite afraid of asking the client, and prefer to ask questions on industry forums and listservs, which can be helpful. 

Ask and you might get the answer.
However, many times, the client might very well be the only one who has insight into something like, for instance, a company-internal acronym that no colleague in the world could possibly know. We think it's important to go straight to the source (read: client) in order to make the translation process efficient, but can certainly understand that translators -- both newcomers and experienced -- don't want to bug their clients too much. However, we do think that one fear is unfounded: that the client might think you don't know what you are doing if you ask a question. Quite the contrary. Asking questions (relevant ones, that is) can show the client that you really care about this project and that you are putting great thought and care into the translation. Here's what a dear client of ours told us a few days ago about this very issue. This client also happens to be a friend, and she mentioned what she likes about working with us, which made us very happy. Here's summary of what she said. We think it's quite important to hear the client perspective, so we are sharing it here: 

  • I like the fact that you sent me a few questions grouped in one e-mail that I could answer on my smartphone. I knew the answers right away and didn't have to do any research.
  • I was pleased that you identified some areas that were company-internal, and that you reached out to me for clarification. There was no way you could have known these terms, as we created them, and it showed me that you cared.
  • In terms of level of communication, I was happy because you didn't bombard me with e-mails but you didn't go completely silent either. I heard from you during the translation process and was able to keep my boss updated.
  • You made me look good, as the translation was spot-on and I felt involved in the process. After all, I am the one who convinced my boss to have this text translated.
Of course, for every great experience like the one we have described above, there might be others where you ask questions and the client simply doesn't answer, doesn't have the answer, or says she will research it, but you never hear back. 

What about you, dear friends and colleagues? Have you had good/bad experiences when reaching out to the client with any questions you had? We've love to hear your thoughts on this topic. 


Lisa Del Papa on September 24, 2013 at 8:30 AM said...

Great post! Your client comments were very useful and confirmed what I've always thought is a critical part of the translation activity. I've been on both the client side and vendor side of translation, and I can say that many of the “translation errors” that the client perceives are actually due to lack of clarity in the source text. When translators asks for clarification, they ensure that they are doing a proper job and they protect both themselves and their clients from accusations of poor quality.

Martine Yeo on September 24, 2013 at 11:58 AM said...

Personally, I think that when you have questions or doubts, it's always better to go directly to the source, i.e., the client. I've never been afraid to approach my clients to ask for clarifications about a source document. I've always had very positive feedback by doing so. It shows them that I care about their reputation as well as mine, that I am conscientious and take my job seriously.

Judy Jenner and Dagmar Jenner on September 24, 2013 at 12:35 PM said...

@Lisa del Papa: Thanks for reading and for commenting. It's very refreshing to hear from someone on the client side of the business who confirms our thoughts. And we agree: many challenges could indeed be avoided if translators reached out to ask for clarification. We are getting there....

@Martine: Thanks for your comment, Martine! We are happy to hear that you have had positive experiences, just like we have had.

Kari Koonin on September 25, 2013 at 1:18 AM said...

Communication with the client is key. I recently won a direct client who had been working with a translation agency and was not happy with the relationship. When I saw the previous translation, I could see why: nothing had been queried, localised, thought through. I had so many questions and suggestions about how the content should be localised, I couldn't understand how anyone could have translated the document without checking these points. And my new client was delighted that I was getting so involved in her text and taking the trouble to think of these aspects.

Conversely, I have another direct client who never communicates with me. Emails are minimalist (although they are happy to answer queries), and I never even receive an acknowledgement of jobs I deliver to them! But at least they keep coming back ;-)

Oliver Lawrence on September 25, 2013 at 7:08 AM said...

It's definitely a good idea to batch your questions up and to allow plenty of time (within the context of the project timescales) before you need the answers.

Sometimes, you need to phrase your question to make it clear why you are asking - e.g. if a SL word can mean more than one thing, and it isn't clear from the context which one is intended. Otherwise, some clients may simply assume that you are a bit ignorant.

Another thing that some clients love (but others are quite indifferent to) is when you point out ambiguities, typos or infelicities in the source text. It is quite satisfying when they let you know that they've improved their original because of your input; that way, the SL readers can benefit, too :).

Judy Jenner and Dagmar Jenner on October 1, 2013 at 11:58 PM said...

@Kari: Thanks for that great example -- this is very much proof that asking questions can be lucrative and lead to fantastic business relationships. The second client you mention seems to have a difference approach, but it works! Many thanks for reading and for commenting.

Judy Jenner and Dagmar Jenner on October 1, 2013 at 11:59 PM said...

@Oliver: Thanks for your comment. Yes, batching questions seems to be a simple, yet quite effective strategy. And yes, some clients don't like to get any feedback on their source text, but if done with tact, we think it can indeed be beneficial for everyone.

Unknown on October 7, 2013 at 12:42 PM said...

It's wonderful to see an actual client discussing this. All too often, I feel clients don't provide much feedback regarding this issue. I concur completely, asking for clarification within reason, is absolutely necessary to ensure you are providing an accurate rendition of the source.
As many commented, arranging the inquiries in one, well-organized communication is key. While our work is VERY important, many times for our clients, it is just one step in a very long laundry list. If we can make the process any easier, they will be grateful!

Judy Jenner and Dagmar Jenner on October 8, 2013 at 1:29 AM said...

@Mary: Thanks for your insightful comment. It is indeed quite important to remember that our clients have many, many things on their plate and that translation is just one of them. And yes, making it easy on the client is key!

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