To Translate or Not to Translate? 5 tips for knowing when you need professional translation

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November 28, 2016 by atacompass

“A little knowledge goes a long way.” That’s what Michael, the owner of a fast-growing company, said to his business partner when discussing the process of taking their U.S. success into international markets.

His partner couldn’t agree more. Sales were up, and they both knew why. Michael had decided to have his sales training materials translated and adapted for each market by professional translators who specialize in marketing and sales.

This was a brand new concept for Michael. He had never seen the value of translating internal documents. In fact, he’d never been involved in the translation process at all, leaving those types of tasks and decisions to his staff. Plus, his international sales teams communicate in English, and everybody understands one another. So why should he care?

Deciding what material to translate and whether you need professional translators with subject-matter expertise is not always easy. But taking the time to understand and make those decisions can pay off. Here are five tips that can help.

1. Does it really need to be translated?

This is the first and most important question decision-makers need to ask themselves. Pull your team together to decide what you actually need. You’d be surprised which parts you can cut right from the get-go. Companies have been known to trim hundreds of pages off their documentation by consulting translators, who can help flag the parts that don’t apply to foreign markets. Michael and his team agreed that the company’s sales training workshop was key to their success, so that’s what they focused on.

2. Is it “for-information” or “for-publication”?

Next, ask yourself this: how important is style, or is technical accuracy more important than a polished shine? Chances are if you are trying to sell or persuade, or if image is important to you, accuracy alone will not suffice. An inexperienced translator may deliver a translation that is accurate yet overly influenced by the original language, resulting in clunky sentences and awkward vocabulary. An experienced specialist can ensure your translations read like original content written by a native speaker. Be aware that some translation suppliers sell for-information quality at for-publication prices. So, be sure to clarify that point up front. Though Michael’s translation was for internal purposes, his sales training materials needed a for-publication level of quality.

3. How big is my audience?

One approach is to calculate how many people will be reading your content. Are you preparing a nationwide ad campaign or an in-house memo? Would an awkward or even flawed translation affect your corporate image and sales? Might it even lead to legal liability issues? It’s absolutely vital to have your glossy magazine ads and other widely read external communications professionally translated. For in-house documents with limited circulation, you may want to choose a less expensive option.

4. How technical or specialized is it?

You may think that technical content is easy to translate. It’s not poetry and the terms are in the dictionary, right? Think again. The more technical and specialized your subject matter, the more your translators need to know it inside and out. Poorly written technical content often means the translator was in over their head. And though your bilingual engineer may seem like the obvious choice, they likely lack the years of training and practice necessary to transfer information between the two languages in writing, especially if translating into their non-native language. But your bilingual employees are great assets! Have them work with the translator to create a bilingual glossaries of technical terms and/or put them in direct contact with the translator for questions. Michael took the time to talk to the translators selected for his job to double check whether they were at home in the sales world.

5. How important is it?

You may only have a target audience of one, but if that one person is vital to your business—or is the future of your business—then do-it-yourself or for-information translations simply won’t do. Imagine you’re a start-up looking to pitch your products or services in non-English-speaking markets. A sub-par translation would give a terrible impression of your company. And you might not even know how bad it is if it’s a language you do not understand. But your potential market will!

Michael discovered that a great translation—even for internal purposes—can have a huge impact on your bottom line. So, plan ahead and take charge from the start by studying your options. Look for translation talent with subject-matter expertise and involve them in the planning stages. Get your own people involved so you know what you need. And take control of the controllable: avoid ambiguous language and produce in-house glossaries.

Translation, like language itself, is a very nuanced business. Knowing what to translate and whether you need a professional translator is not always easy. Asking the right questions can make all the difference. Business owners, executives, and other decision makers ignore these questions at their own peril. Getting it right will determine the success or failure of what you’re doing—whether it’s a high-profile marketing campaign intended for millions or a highly nuanced message aimed at your internal sales team.

About the Author

Matt Baird is a professional German-to-English translator with over 15 years of experience. He also serves as a speaker for the American Translators Association, which represents over 10,000 translators and interpreters across 91 countries. Along with advancing the translation and interpreting professions, ATA promotes the education and development of language services providers and consumers alike.

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