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.
to the Wikipedia,
the term "best practice" was popularized
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 labeled a "best practice."
Most of us would agree
that what's best for the buyer is best for
the provider in the long run.
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.
Organizations 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
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
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
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."
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
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
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
What is your self-editing routine? Surely it includes
a spell-check. But when do you run itas 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
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.
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
But then you probably knew that all along.
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.
as defined in Webster's New World College Dictionary,
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