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The Importance of Effective Communication in the Translation Business

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Judy A. Abrahams photoStart with good people, lay out the rules, communicate with your employees, motivate them and reward them. If you do all those things effectively, you can't miss." So said Lee Iacocca, American industrialist, most commonly known for his revival of the Chrysler brand in the 1980s when he was the company's CEO.

Day-to-day, the importance of communication cannot be overemphasized. Most people will agree that communication is the lifeline in any relationship. What could possibly be more important than communication? The answer is effective communication.

Consider for a moment three salient points made in the Iacocca quote which we can easily apply to the translation business. He urges "start with good people," meaning that we should be certain that the right vendors are selected for the job. Then, "lay out the rules" and "communicate with your employees." This sage counsel is particularly applicable for communication with clients and vendors.

Surely, whenever one deals with clients or vendors, it is critically important to maintain effective communication. Consequently, let us focus first on communication with the client.

As soon as contact is made by a client, it is vital to open lines of communication which will help assure clear understanding and assessment of the client's needs. In an effort to do so and determine what services are being requested, the appropriate questions should be asked. The following are some among the many potential questions:

  • What are the client's objectives?
  • Are there any technical or other special knowledge requirements?
  • Is localization a factor, or is a general, universal language appropriate?
  • Is there a deadline?
  • Are there any special formatting or graphic design considerations?
  • Will there be client review?

Clearly, having the answers to these and other relevant questions will contribute to the creation of an understanding--agreement--between translation vendor, which we will here assume to be a translation agency, and client and an effective workflow that will be an essential factor in the project's eventual success.

Effective communication is particularly crucial in cases of major clients with large projects that must be translated into multiple languages, or smaller projects into a single target language. It is important to recognize that sometimes an agency may actually receive contradictory information from the different contacts involved in the project. Be it as it may, it would be most helpful if the agency could have the client identify the primary contact. That contact must be fully empowered to speak for the client. There cannot be multiple voices for the agency to deal with. All doubts, requests for clarifications, technical and localization issues must be addressed to this person.

At the start of any project it is imperative to confirm to the client in writing the specifications (language, deadline, etc.) as soon as possible. If there are areas that are unclear, these should be delineated. For example, if a client submits a request to have a translation done into French, it must be clarified whether it is for France, Canada, Africa, or other nations or regions--or all of the above (the localization issue). The same would apply if the client requests a translation into Chinese. One cannot assume that the client needs the document using simplified characters, adopted in the PRC, because the client may need the document for Taiwan, where the traditional script is used. In other words, be sure to clarify any area that is unclear.

Communication with the client should be concise and clear. In addition, whenever questions or issues arise, suggestions on how to resolve them should be provided for the client. The agency should also be available to respond to any queries or concerns that the client may have. Similarly, it may also be necessary for the Project Manager (PM) to provide guidance to the client when handling client reviews. Yes, in "communicating," the PM should agree with the client how or in what format client revisions are to be done, whether they should track their changes electronically either using Microsoft Word's Track Changes feature or via an annotated PDF file.

Communication between the client and the PM should not be a one-sided affair. Both parties need to effectively convey what they expect and need from each other to ensure the success of the project.

Undoubtedly, communication is a critical feature of vendor management.

The agency should provide its vendors such as individual translators, editors, or DTP persons with all the relevant project instructions and details, in writing, via email.

From the onset, vendors should be given a concise description of the project with the word count and the precise task that they are being asked to perform, given the fact that some vendors may offer multiple services.

As obvious as it may seem, it is also vital to include the target language, since some vendors work with different languages. Nothing should be assumed.

Finally, vendors must be informed of the deadline. Be sure to include the date, hour and corresponding time zone (eastern, central, or country-specific time zone, etc.). By giving the detailed deadline, the agency will avoid confusion. Avoiding confusion saves valuable time, energy, and money. Remember the expression, "time is money."

Surprisingly, capturing all of the aforementioned points in an email to the vendor need not be lengthy or complicated. It can be as simple and concise as indicated in the following example:

Dear Translator X:

I have a new technical document (a technical report) to translate into Simplified Chinese. It contains 3,700 English words and I need to have the translation returned by noon, Eastern Standard Time, on Monday, July 9, 2007.

The edited file will be due at 9 a.m. EST on Wednesday, July 11, 2007 after which I will require that you finalize the file by accepting/rejecting the tracked changes, as appropriate. I must have the final file by 2:00 p.m. EST.

I have already contacted Editor Y and hope that he will be able to edit the translation, but I am awaiting his confirmation. Please feel free to confer with Editor Y; but kindly copy me in on all correspondence. I will confirm the editor as soon as I can.

Please let me know if you are available at your earliest convenience. Once you confirm your availability I will issue the Purchase Order.

Kind regards,


Once a vendor has confirmed his or her availability for the project, having received written communication outlining the aforementioned points, the vendor should be provided with the source file(s), project specifications, any reference materials or glossaries and the corresponding Purchase Order.

Not to be overlooked is the fact that each vendor has its own rates. Therefore, it is important to find out the vendor's rates for various kinds of translation work. This too is a part of "communication."

In conclusion, effective communication with clients and vendors is paramount. Even if you are fortunate enough to have the very best vendors and the most important clients available, lack of effective communication will inevitably cause confusion and frustration.

"Start with good people, lay out the rules, communicate with your employees... If you do all those things effectively, you can't miss."

We certainly do not want to miss, so let us do our utmost and be effective communicators to ensure the success of our projects.


Lee Iacocca Quote:

Author's notes for the Project Management for Translation course, New York University

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