The road to good translations – 5 tips for companies

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Photo by „My Life Through A Lens“ via unsplash.com

How to get better translations and find good translators. Here’s what you need to know to get more creative and more effective marketing texts from translators.

Back when I worked as a translator of financial texts, my experience taught me that one thing matters more than anything else: unfailing accuracy.

Yet after joining a creative agency that focuses mainly on copywriting, but also on translation, I was able to step back and see a bigger picture, because there are so many other things that matter, too.

The financial reports I used to translate had to accurately convey facts and figures, but they didn’t have to be stylistic masterpieces. In my current job, I have learned that translating marketing texts is very different: it requires me to rely much more on my skills as a creative writer.

Isabel Bogdan – a German author and translator of literary texts from English to German – recently spoke about her experience as a translator in a local workshop. During a Q&A session, she was asked an important question:

How can you tell when a translation (or a translator) is good?

Isabel Bogdan’s answer was short, charming and spot-on: “If it’s well-written, it’s a good translation.” This is undeniably one of the most important characteristics of a good translation, whether for the world of literature or the world of business. But there’s more.

Don’t get lost in translation

Apart from copywriting, my colleagues and I at steelecht do a lot of translation between German and English, and so we quickly came up with some characteristics of a good translation – and a good translator. If you or your company wants high-quality results from skilled translators, be sure to remember these five essential points:

1.) Being a native speaker is not enough. Translators should also be good writers.

When new customers come to us, we’re often asked if the translator is a native speaker of the target language. This question is not wrong, but it it’s certainly incomplete. It would be much better to ask if the translator is a native speaker and a professional copywriter, journalist or writer. Many native speakers speak a second language well enough to translate, but that does not mean they write well in their own language. They need to have a good feeling for their own language, and to have the ability to create texts that generate the desired response within readers.

We at steelecht believe that in order to be a good translator, you must also be a skilled and creative writer who can deliver a well-structured and effective text with the proper tonality.

2.) A good translation doesn’t sound like a translation at all. It sounds like a good text.

This is only possible if you work together with a translator who knows how to write well (point 1). But you, as a customer, will also have to accept the fact that different languages work differently, and a 1-to-1 translation is almost never a good idea, especially when it comes to marketing texts.

Every language has its own special quirks, unique possibilities and even limitations. When going from one language to another, translators may have to sacrifice a play on words, although they might find other opportunities to add unique touches to the text in order to make it more of a “second original”.

The most important job for a translator is to transpose the overall message from one language to another while using the proper tonality.

Compared to that, individual words are inconsequential. Of course the details matter, but be careful not to get so focussed on the nitty gritty of a text that you miss the forest for the trees.

3.) Good translators use their heads and have the courage to make improvements.

One of the hallmarks of skilled writer-translators is that, whenever necessary, they also try to improve texts as they re-write them.

However, it takes courage to change a text, knowing that – occasionally – a client might think this represents a slight on the original. But, since styles often diverge from one language to another, it’s important for you as a client not only to accept these differences, but to expect them as a sign of quality. Texts can often be improved by, say, leaving something out, adding extra information, or re-arranging sentences and paragraphs.

Isabel Bogdan had a good example of this in her workshop. She said that a translator is much like an actor: his or her interpretation of a text can make it better or sometimes make it worse.

Here are a few examples of changes that make good sense:

  • It is better to leave out an idiom or some other play on words if there is no equivalent (or better) option in the target language.
  • Let’s face it: sometimes there are awkward sentences in the texts we translate. Here, it’s better to make sure you understand the meaning and say it more clearly using other words. This is the process we use for transcreation.
  • Translators should recognize passages that would be difficult to understand by target language readers. Let’s say the original language is German. The original text might assume certain knowledge, i.e. things that all Germans know. That “assumed knowledge” will have to be added to the translation. The translator can either research this information and add it, or call the client to talk about what needs to be added.
  • If they notice it, thoughtful translators will make notes of grammatical or factual errors in the original. NB: they might stop this practice for certain clients if they get the feeling it is not appreciated.
  • Good translators ask questions, without the fear of losing face. We can’t specialize in everything, so it’s important for us to ask when we don’t understand something technical or some unfamiliar jargon. This is not a sign of weakness, but rather a mark of quality and a sign that the translator cares.

4.) Excellent translations are the result of teamwork.

Experienced translators can deliver good work in isolation, but even the best translators can improve their results by working in a team. Working in a team gives you access to people who can help you with a difficult passage or find the perfect words to say exactly what you want, because two heads are always better than one.

It’s also important for translation teams to build proofreading into their workflow. A separate person should experience the translation in isolation, and give it any necessary final touches to make sure it sounds like an original. This peer-review process should be part of every translation.

5.) Clients also play a role in the creation of good translations – by providing good briefings.

You know what you want. So share your knowledge with your translator in concrete terms. No matter how good your translators are, they can’t read minds. It’s always better to share too much information than too little.

At least let your translators know the following information:

  • What type of text is it? This is normally something a translator can find out independently, but having this information in advance gives the translator a better impression of style before even starting (press release, blog article, e-mail, product description, etc.).
  • Who is the target group? You know the target group, but your translator might not be able to infer that knowledge from the text. Also consider how the target group can change according to language – sometimes this change can be significant.
  • What should the text’s tonality be? Formal or playful? For a specialist audience or laymen? Adsy or informative? There are many different options, so it’s important to clearly communicate what you want. You should also mention whether you want British, American or some other form of English.
  • Do you have a terminology? A terminology is a list of specialist and company-specific terms and phrases along with their official translations. This helps translators do their jobs more quickly and helps maintain consistent tonality. If you have one, make sure you always provide it to translators. If you don’t have one, you can let steelecht create and maintain a new translation terminology on your behalf. It is a great tool for translators, but also for your colleagues within the company.

So now that you know how to find good translators, and help them deliver excellent translations. We wish you all the best!

By the way, did this text strike you as a translation? Well it is. And at the same time it isn’t. It’s a transcreation of a blog article by Anette John, my colleague. I’ve personalized it by adding the story about my previous job and other tidbits, but I’ve never actually been to a workshop by Isabel Bogdan. That was Anette.

Contact steelecht to learn more about transcreation (creative translation). Write us an e-mail at info@steelecht.com.

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Transcreation: The right message for the right audience

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Photo  James G. Peterson

The above photograph illustrates the whole point of transcreation – to adapt a text so it speaks effectively to a new target audience. If the German text had simply been translated, international tourists would not get the information most relevant to them.

My daughter slept in her stroller as my wife was trying on new dresses at Good Kharma, a bohemian boutique in Heidelberg, Germany. Suddenly, my eye was caught by colorful, hand-painted kites, decorated to look like dragons and poised like gargoyles above the clothing racks in the store.

After admiring them for a while, I noticed a small sign which I immediately recognized as a really great example of transcreation.

Besides some subtle word play in the product design*, what really struck me was how effectively the sign speaks to the main painpoints of each target group (even if the English at the bottom of the sign is not perfect).

Target group Painpoints What the sign answers
(1-to-1 translation of German)
German shoppers 1. Sure it’s pretty, but does it actually fly? 1. *FULLY CAPABLE OF FLIGHT*
2. Is it an assembly line product? 2. All kites are hand-crafted and lovingly painted.
3. Will it survive more than one use? 3. The material used is waterproof and very sturdy!
Tourists/English speakers 1. Nice, but will it fit in my suitcase? 1. All kites are easy to fold and very good to store into a box or suitcase
(as written on the sign)

The beauty of the messaging on this sign is that it comes across so naturally. The shop owner simply knew the target groups, and therefore knew how to address them effectively (despite small grammatical mistakes).

So what can companies learn from this?

Companies that need multilingual communication will not get such effective results by simply sending an agency documents for translation. It is essential to provide a good briefing along with the text. After all, the English text on this sign is based on insider knowledge that is not even contained in the German text.

Sometimes transcreations are more faithful to the original, of course, but every now and then a text has to be completely re-written. It depends on the target audience’s needs and your communication goals.

Here are a few key points:

    1. Straight-up translation is often not effective, and marketing is one area where this is frequently the case.
    2. For transcreations, you need to provide a briefing. You can’t truly transcreate a text based on the source text alone. Try to provide all the information that would be needed to re-create the text from scratch, including target group painpoints and your main communication goals.
    3. Work with copywriters. Rather than working with a normal translator, take the time to find a copywriter who is fluent in the source language and a native speaker of the target language. Often, this is someone who may have some experience in translation, but is mostly specialized in copywriting and/or journalism.
    4. Never forget context. Think of how ineffective a “normal” translation would have been in the picture above. For your text, consider where it’s going to appear and how the target group will interact with the text. Either provide this information in your briefing or, for high-level campaigns, ask an agency to develop a customer journey. Smartling also provides some great information on transcreation.

No hard rules

Some companies who specialize in transcreation are very passionate at drawing lines and marking territory, distancing themselves from translation agencies. The reality, however, is that transcreation is just a big grey area between writing and translating.

Speaking for my company, steelecht in Offenbach, the majority of our customers generally come to us for English copywriting based on a briefing. A good proportion of our customers, on the other hand, come to us only for transcreation or something between that and “normal” translation.

Transcreation is nothing new

Whatever name you prefer (transcreation, localization, internationalization, freestyle translation, etc.), steelecht and agencies like us have actually been doing this kind of work for years. Our success is built on the collaboration of competent copywriters and translators, so it comes naturally to offer everything in between.

It has always been our practice to brief translators. Although we trust the stylistic instincts of our writers and that they won’t be too imaginative in their interpretation of a text, we understand the pitfalls of translation and how good briefings make great transcreations possible. We also implement a stringing four to six-eye review process involving creative and final editors.

*Interesting note: The German word for “kite” is “Drachen”, which also means “dragon”, so a dragon-kite has a special appeal for Germans.  Unfortunately, this play on words doesn’t translate, but the idea did “transcreate” into a new product. Good Kharma in Heidleberg also offers kites that look like the birds of prey commonly referred to as “kites” in English.

Want to learn more about transcreation or get a quote? Contact steelecht: info@steelecht.com

Why “pre-translating” is a waste of time and money

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Photo by Amador Loureiro via unsplash.com

Translation: Don’t try this at home

At a previous job, I occasionally received documents or presentations already translated into English by a non-native speaker. Every time, the customer would say something like: “It just needs a quick review by a native speaker.”

What is the result 90% of the time?

A lot of time wasted and a bigger bill than a comparable translation job.

Here’s why:

Translators can translate much faster than they can decipher imperfect English or, worse, machine-transmangled English.

And all that back-and-forth

In addition to the time required for puzzling over awkward sentences, the job will also require extra administrative efforts.

Perhaps several times, the translator will have to ask a colleague or two (if available) for help in deciphering a strange sentence. And in some cases, the translator will have to ask the project manager to ask the client for help, who may also have to ask someone else internally.

In the end, it may be necessary to give up and ask the client if they have the document in the original language, simply because translation is so much quicker and easier – for professionals, that is.

Personally, I feel I would need more time to decipher a strange English sentence than I would need to translate even a difficult term like “Rote Hand Brief” (which, at the moment, you cannot find a correct translation for on popular sites like linguee.de, leo.org or dict.cc).

If I were editing a pre-translated document about a “red hand letter”, I’d probably never be able to correct it. (In case you’re curious, a “Rote Hand Brief” is a Dear Doctor Letter / Dear Healthcare Provider Letter.)

A heart for learners

Although these kinds of jobs can be stressful, I’m definitely a bleeding heart for learners of English. If you want to practice your language skills by preparing English documents on your own, then by all means do so. I used to be an English teacher and, as a learner of German and Italian, I feel your pain.

Nevertheless, be prepared for a bill that’s a little bigger the first few times you send out a document in English for correction.

Please note:

At steelecht, we don’t do many technical translations as in the example above, which comes from my previous work experience. steelecht is more focused on marketing/PR, content marketing and transcreation (market-sensitive/creative translations).

Need help with a text, content marketing scheme or getting a translation that hits the mark? Get in touch: info@steelecht.com

10 ways to get better work from translators

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Photo by James G. Peterson

The translations in the picture above are offensive to pregnant women. But it’s not because of bad translators. The company most likely did not tell their translators (in any language) about the picture of the pregnant woman, so they all thought “disabled” or “handicapped” would be perfectly fine.

A great translation is not due to the translator’s work alone. Companies that prepare detailed briefings and establish a good working relationship get better quality work from their translator.

Here are 10 things you can do to see an immediate improvement in the quality of your outsourced translations.

1. Context, context, context

Let translators know about the world outside the text. Show them where the text will appear, who will read it and what kind of pictures it will accompany.

Rule of thumb: give them the same information you would give to someone writing the text from scratch.

2. Tell your translator about the target audience

Who is the target group for the translated text? How is it different to the original language target group? What changes, omissions or additions to the text could help it speak to the new target group most effectively?

When the two target groups are considerably different, “transcreation” is usually a better choice than straight translation. Learn out more about transcreation in the article “The right message for the right audience”.

3. If there are pictures, provide them

This falls under “context”, but I find it important enough to list it separately. Obviously, it should go without saying that you don’t want someone translating picture captions without providing the pictures. If you don’t, you put yourself at risk of blunders like the one in the picture above.

Apart from captions, pictures can also help to give translators a better understanding of the subject. Think about translating a description of a person without actually seeing what that person looks like.

4. Indicate level of freedom

Let a translator know if you expect the text to be a very precise, fact-driven translation, or a more creative translation (see transcreation article).

5. Provide your corporate style guide

Don’t have one for English? Give your translation provider a copy of your German style guide and ask for an English version. It might take a little back and forth, but in the end you’ll have set a good standard for future translations. Why is corporate language more important than corporate design? Read David’s article „Good design deserves the right tone„.

6. Offer help with subject knowledge and vocabulary

Translators are generalists. Even those translators that specialize are not “real” experts. How many translators of engineering texts have engineering degrees? Probably none. The reason for this should be obvious: you don’t study law, finance or dentistry to become a translator.

Let translators benefit from your expertise. Talk to them about the subject, and tell them some of most the common terms.

If you need a lot of translations, try to set up a glossary with preferred translations of common terms. You can also provide references of good translations and/or monolingual resources in the target language. If you work regularly with a particular translation agency, ask for their support in setting up a glossary.

At steelecht, we did this for Frankfurt Book Fair, and we’re happy to let them use the glossary with other translation partners. Sure, we’re helping the competition, but we’re also improving our relationship with the customer and establishing competence.

7. Create a positive working relationship

Try to establish a good working relationship and plenty of direct communication with translators (i.e. not just the project manager).

If you work with agencies, give preference to ones that permit direct contact between customers and translators (some don’t). Translators should not feel nervous to call or write to clients when they have a question. Be sure to welcome and encourage these questions, because they help make translations better. Read dubsat’s excellent article „Five Steps For Improving Agency Relationships With Service Providers“ for more on the importance of collaboration.

8. Move from “catching mistakes” to growing together

When working with a previous employer, we had a client who would get very upset at even the slightest mistake. She would raise a fuss anytime she found a single word that was in the German text but not in the English – even filler words that normally shouldn’t be translated. She even wanted to know exactly who it was in the company that made this “mistake”.

Ultimately, we grew nervous to communicate with her. In the end, we didn’t focus on delivering the best possible text, but on delivering one that made her happy. Style and tonality suffered greatly as a result.

Approach mistakes as opportunities to learn. They should be communicated, but try to balance that out with positive feedback.

9. Let an English copywriter review the final product

Many poor translations can be easily caught in a simple editing process. It’s best to find a professional writer/editor to do your final edit. Be careful about using some random “native speaker”: not every native speaker is also a good writer.

Note on German designers: we work with a lot of fantastic German web and graphic designers. Due to the fact that they are not native speakers of English, they sometimes make mistakes when copying our text into their design programs. When we’re given the opportunity to review the final product prior to publishing, we almost always find a few small errors.

10. Publish communications directly in English

If you operate internationally, it makes sense to do at least some PR and marketing work directly in English. When the international audience is more important than the local language market, that’s when you really need to consider producing texts directly in English.

This, in turn, can improve German-English translations by providing translators with solid, English-language reference material. Later, if you also get these English texts translated, you’ll have a much easier time judging the quality of translations into your language.

In a nutshell

This all boils down to one thing: communication. A briefing that communicates all your needs, and a good working relationship between you and your translator.

Interested in this approach? Then we’d love to work with you. Contact steelecht for more information: info@steelecht.com