Tuesday, 25 March 2014

Self-Administered QA

Dull and boring QA is not the sharpest tool in a translator's shed, but it may very well be one of the most important for survival and a more fulfilling professional life.

For starters, let's point out the single most prominent fact about translation quality. This is also one fact that modern linguists frequently ignore or possibly even choose to ignore. Without further ado:

Clients are not normally capable of judging the quality of the translation they receive. Clients can evaluate their own experience with your translation, but that's not the same as evaluating your translation.

To use a familiar point of reference — everybody knows how the KudoZ system works on Proz.com. People ask their questions, other people reply, and then the asker or in some cases the community chooses one of the proposals as the best one, awarding a certain number of KudoZ points to the author of that answer.

But how many people stop to think that perhaps askers — with their professed lack of knowledge if not about the entire field then about that specific little thing which they are needing help with — are effectively by their own admission not the most qualified judges of the matter?

It's the same with your clients. Perhaps just like KudoZ askers, some of your clients will have a bit of a background with languages and the various fields of knowledge involved in your translations. They may even be fellow translators, current or retired. The chances of this are obvious higher when you work for agencies.

Normally, though, clients mostly see your CV and your testimonials, they listen to you talking or read your writing, they assess how credible you sound (this largely basing on how much confidence you project), they can try and judge the logical consistency of your reasoning, and its elegance. All of which are superficial aspects, even though they often turn out to be reliable guides.

So not only are your clients not equipped with the right tools to judge the quality of your translation, they will also focus and even overfocus on what they can actually see and judge, which includes any 'QA issues' their highschool French or German just might be enough to spot. This is why even a single isolated minor issue can rise to the rank of, if not really a serious problem, then certainly the primary object of your client's attention for a while. Even someone who will not make too much of a typo may still end up registering a suboptimal and disproportionately flawed translation experience compared to what experience would have been registered if there had been none such issue with the translation you gave him. Whether one will make or less of this depends in the individual personality or relationship.

Speaking of which, it's much worse in adversarial relationships. A direct client may be forgiving in the light of how common errors are in business writing without really affecting the business purpose, while a fellow linguist may sympathise with you, having walked a mile in your shoes. However, a potential competitor for full-rate translation jobs, or a reviewer from some agency the end client pits against yours, will possibly not be so lenient, especially in the absence of a strong sense of ethics. Don't hand such a 'someone' your own head on a golden plate with an opportunity to rant about how you 'didn't even' do this or that, made all the worse by how easy the purportedly missing step would have been.

Bottom line, QA issues are the translator's Achilles heel.

Yes, a stupid tip of a heel on an otherwise immortal hero impenetrable anywhere but for that particular spot where his mother's hand held him when bathing him in the river Styx to make him immune to damage. That was also the exact same spot where an enemy archer's poisoned arrow got him, leading to his death. And it was poison which did the job; taking an arrow to the heel doesn't kill a warrior.

Eliminate the Achilles heel. Eliminate it, and you won't die to cheap shots.

Do your QA even if you aren't paid for it, even where it's expressly excluded from your scope of responsibilities. Even where there is a dedicated proofreader, editor, reviser, or any or all of them, you're probably still better off being complimented rather than excused (or saved or reversed) by them.

Even where the absence of QA would be justifiable, it's easier to win an argument than it is to win a happy client. Or any client, for that matter, who keeps coming back for more of your services.

Even where you won't be paid more, your services will look better. That will give you more desirability and more leverage, and more trust, and less replaceability, leading to more jobs and better pay. You will also receive nicer referrals, and your referrals are the living blood of your marketing because word of mouth is still the best and most important.

Beyond the spell-checker

Learn and master the spelling and punctuation of your target language, and also read up on whatever aspects of grammar and syntax you find yourself less than comfortable with. Memorise any applicable conventions governing numbers, currencies, units of measurement and such like, or just print them and hang them on your wall or stick post-it notes to your monitor, whatever it takes. Use more advanced tools as you progress.

Also, read your text again. And again if you must. Preferably on another day, with a fresh eye. Ask another person to take a look if your confidentiality clauses and non-discolure agreements do not prevent you from doing so. If things are too confidential, you might be able to get your client's relevant input or decision before the deadline.

You don't have to enjoy it, just do it

QA isn't nearly as bad as some of the student jobs we've worked. Once you get used to it, it won't take up so much of your time and it can become your second nature, making it less of a bother perhaps as well. You might be surprised to discover what kind of life-savers your QA steps can be — for example you can spot actual errors or mistranslations while applying surface polish — and how much they can improve your clients' experience, and your own (more on this at the end).

Retaining existing clients is easier than finding new ones — pretty much every marketing consultant will tell you this, or even an experienced business person. Satisfied clients keep coming back to you even when they have other options. Plus, like I said just a moment ago, there is no better advertising than your happy clients talking to other people. Even high-octane TV ads which corporations pay big money for still tries to fake this natural word-of-mouth coming from plain satisfied customers. Well, you don't need to pay for enthusiastic testimonials. You can earn them while doing your job.

Damage control

If you're going to be giving your clients the time anyway — as you can't really leave complaints unaddressed nor should you — better give it up front and with a smile, make it core or even added value rather than... damage control. Plus, if you are targeted by a scammer for a bogus complaint it had better not contain any real issues. As you know, translation is subjective, and it's always easy for any reviewer to come up with a list of preferential changes and even a couple of genuine improvements and legitimate minor issues. What you spot on your own won't kick you back when someone else spots it.

More importantly, nobody will lose his life or limb or property or good name if nobody proofreads, edits or revises the translation after you at all or with sufficient attention and competence.

Profiles and CVs, and forums — not only your actual translation jobs count

Don't be the shoemaker's child who goes barefoot, even when you travel a country road. Translators and translation agency often have errors and poor writing right on their websites and in their most important marketing materials. In your case, unless you're a very established or marketing-savvy translators, those are still online profiles and CVs. Bad spelling, bad grammar, lousy syntax, uninspired or outright literal translations, even unnecessary spaces before punctuation marks, you name it, it's all there. The same goes for forum posts and Facebook comments.

So, how hard is it at least to run your documents — or even forum posts and comments on Facebook and blogs — through a spell-checker before sharing them with othes? I'd rather not presume that clients, PM's and agency owners will ignore the issues they spot when interacting with you even on Facebook or a blog or a professional forum. Where else to interact with you anyway?

Plus, it'll be easier for you to write well in general if you don't restrict your nice writing only to situations in which you absolutely can't avoid it. On the bright side, you will see it pays back when clients and agencies start contacting you precisely because of the quality of your writing they come across wherever they do, including forum posts.

When I was barely starting to be a professional translator, something as insignificant to some colleagues as keeping the standards while posting on forums is how I earned that loan of confidence from one of my best agency clients which led to some high-profile jobs pretty fast and for better rates than the usual. You can do the same.

Afterword — back to that more fulfilling life

You'll feel better. You'll hear less complaining. You'll face less misunderstanding. There will be more compliments and happy comments and perhaps even enthusiasm in some cases. This should be worth giving a little more of your time. Or so I tell myself.

Later, I will write about keeping deadlines, picking up calls, writing back and some other things which affect a client's perception of the quality of service.

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