Five Tips for a Successful Translation Project
Updated: Jun 30
Having your text translated into another language that you're not familiar with can be a daunting endeavor, especially if it's your first time booking a translation project. How can you tell if everything is done right? How exactly does the process work? What can you do to make sure the translation achieves the intended goal? Here are some tips for success from a professional translator.
Tip #1: Find the right professional for the job
Like many other professions, the translator community is not a monolith. No one translator can translate everything. The right translator for your project must have the right language pair and direction, the right subject matter specialization, and the right style and approach.
Take Chinese, for example. You would need different linguists to translate your document into Simplified Chinese and Traditional Chinese. And there could be further subcategories depending on whether you're specifically targeting Mainland China, Hong Kong, Taiwan, or Singapore and Malaysia. (This post provides a deep dive into Simplified vs. Traditional Chinese and how they relate to Mandarin and Cantonese.)
By direction, I mean the language of your document (source language) and the language you need it in (target language). While there are certainly exceptions, the convention here in the US is that linguists translate into their native languages only.
Specialization is another crucial factor to consider. We each have our unique interests, strengths, and backgrounds, ranging from broader categories like medical, legal, or financial to niches like patent law, robotics, or ancient scrolls!
Different content types also call for different styles and approaches. Yes, accuracy is always the priority, but what that entails differs from context to context. An official document requires an exact albeit stiff rendition, while a localized creative ad campaign might not look like the original copy at all on a word-to-word level.
Due diligence is important every time you bring a new person to your team, and hiring a translator is no different. Click here to download my complimentary handbook How to Vet Translators, and you'll understand exactly what goes into translation and how to navigate the translation market.
Tip #2: Set clear objectives and guidelines
Every creative undertaking has a client brief, and translation projects are no different. A translator is not a word converter, but a crafter of language who's here to serve you as a member of your team. The translation of your materials is an extension of your purpose and creative intent in another language. The more information you can provide us regarding the background, context, purpose, and target audience for the content, the better we can situate ourselves in your project and nail the messaging.
There are also different levels of expectation for the deliverable. Are you looking for a rough translation that helps you grasp the general idea, something that’s just for the team and doesn’t need to be super polished, or an expertly written piece you can share with the world as an extension of your brand? These are all valid requests, and it's completely acceptable to go for serviceable for some texts and require less of the translator’s creative effort and craft. As long as the expectations are communicated clearly, your translator can adjust their priority, time, and fee accordingly.
Tip #3: Know that translation is a multistep process and takes time
Human translators do not work like machines. A translation project involves so much more than “converting” the source text and calling it a day. What you receive when the project wraps up is the end product of a multi-stage workflow.
I approach translation in different stages with different priorities in mind. The drafting stage centers on research, preliminary translation, and checking against the original to ensure completeness and accuracy. I wouldn’t mind it too much if my draft reads a little stiff because my number one goal is to make sure all the terms are thoroughly researched and that all the necessary information is there.
The editing stage is where adjustments are made to optimize reading experience. It’s only after making sure I have laid a solid foundation of complete and accurate rendition that I start to switch into the writer mode, tweaking things and smoothing wrinkles out within the purview of my draft.
This is also when I go back to my client to discuss any questions I've noted down. I then leave my translation be to create some temporal and cognitive distance so that I can come back with a fresh set of eyes for a final check while incorporating the client's feedback. You might notice what I describe here is very similar to the writing process. That’s because we translators are writers. And good writing takes time.
Tip #4: Expect questions
Translators are often taught not to change or improve on the source text.
Yes, there are definitely cases where this must be held true. If it’s a court transcript, even minute details like pauses or slips of the tongue should be kept in because these can all be telling and up to interpretation. When it comes to literary masterpieces, all the little quirks of the author should be reflected as accurately as possible. For academic credentials, there is certain wording that accreditation officers are looking for, so it needs to be exact albeit “foreign” at times.
But in the real world, meaning where text is used for practical communication purposes—whether it is to inform, inspire, or entertain—I strongly believe translators need to be more active collaborators with the client. Mistakes and confusion should not be uncritically transferred to another language, and I prioritize serving the readers and working with my client as a team—together, we advance the mission through the art, craft, and science of words.
Translators don't skim. Gregory Rabassa, who famously translated Marquez's One Hundred Years of Solitude into English, noted that “translation is essentially the closest reading one can possibly give a text.” Every word has a reason to be, and unpacking that takes in-depth reading and analysis.
To do our job properly, we give your text an ultra-close reading, and as a result, we spot easy-to-miss errors and inconsistencies that might hinder the reader’s experience. To deliver your message effectively, we serve as the reader’s surrogate in gauging the clarity of your text in the first place. While we're not hired to fact-check, we inevitably notice incongruities when researching unfamiliar or technical terms and concepts.
Tip #5: Do a post-publication check
Formatting is also a deliverable in a translation project.
The word count and page number shift post-translation is an important factor to consider, especially for documents with formatting that ties to the original text blocks. Some examples would be a paragraph paired with a picture of the same height or an information sheet that’s exactly two whole pages long. In these types of situations, we need to make creative adjustments both in terms of the translated text and the layout.
It's always possible that things might get shifted during transfer to another medium, say, from a Word document to an online post. It's good practice to contact your translator for a follow-up review just to make sure nothing looks odd after publication.
There you have it! With these five tips in mind, you are well equipped to be an informed buyer of quality translation service.
Looking to have a successful Chinese translation project?
Hi, I'm Sijin, and I'm a Simplified Chinese translator certified by the American Translators Association with seven years of professional experience. Born and raised in Mainland China, I would love to help you with your Simplified Chinese needs. I can also partner up with or refer you to my colleagues from various backgrounds to fulfill your other Chinese translation requests. Get in touch today, and I look forward to amplifying your message.