7 questions you must ask before starting a translation project

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Every professional is a stand-alone world. Some need teamwork like fresh air, others are more productive when working on their own; there are morning persons and night owls; people who love challenges, and people who are creatures of habit.

But if I think of points in common that we all share as translators, three things pop in my head: the unconditional love for languages and their nuances, being curious, and feeling a strong sense of responsibility.

Why am I talking about responsibility here? Well, because we all want to make sure our translation keeps the meaning and intentions of the original text, we don’t want to distort its essence. We want it to be just as effective and clear as the original, sometimes we also make it better.

We often dive right into a new project, overly enthusiastic to take part, and looking forward to traveling between. But what should we consider before begin translating? Here are 7 questions you must ask your client before starting a translation project.

  1. Which tone of voice should I use?
    This may sound the most trivial question ever, but actually, it is not. Each brand has its way of communicating that makes it stand from the crowd (e.g. cheeky or sophisticated). What happens when this brand needs to speak to a different market and therefore to a different culture? You may consider a unique approach according to the different needs of the target culture, you may switch from the use of an impersonal form to a second person singular form, or the other way round. Never take this matter for granted.

  2. Which are the goals?
    Each text has a specific goal, even notes taken on your phone at 2 a.m. They can’t have the same goal as a package leaflet–your notes are the answer to an emotional need, whereas package leaflets are used to inform people. It may sound obvious that the goal of a text is to inform, but there are cases where you need to prioritize effectiveness over accuracy (e.g. advertising and marketing texts). That’s why clarifying goals it’s crucial.

  3. Which is the target audience?
    Beyond having a specific goal, a text has a specific target audience as well. Otherwise, it would be a secret diary page. Why is this question so important? For instance, the age range of people interested in a product may vary from one country to another. This may cause a shift in word usage, or it may be necessary to focus more on some products rather than others to cater to the audience's needs. This is not a casual choice, it is based on market research. It’s important to bear it in mind.

  4. Is the job REALLY urgent?
    This question is core to establish immediately your workload. Often clients underestimate the time needed to perform a translation task for one of these two reasons: either they see translation as an automatic and extremely quick process or they don’t realize what’s behind the entire process. I’m not saying you should give your client a lecture about it, but you can explain to them that there are different stages, as I wrote in this article. Maybe this won’t change the fact that your client needs the job by yesterday, but it could help to raise awareness of your professionalism.

  5. Is there a glossary?
    Keeping the text consistent by using terminology is crucial even in more commercial and less technical texts–everything should be clear and you need to avoid ambiguity. It is quite common for companies to create a glossary with recurring terms and if you’re lucky, complete with some explanation. No glossary was mentioned? Ask for it, and if there isn’t one available, you can offer to help create it. This will both help your client and you.

  6. Do you have a style guide?
    A style guide should go hand in hand with a glossary and help you out when you are in doubt on which tone you should use, on formatting, and things to avoid. Not all companies have one and even though it can make a difference in terms of the quality of the work you will deliver, drawing one up it’s not your responsibility. When you can’t rely on a style guide, gather all your questions and ask your client. Most of all, don’t be afraid to ask.

  7. Which software is needed?
    Software pop up like mushrooms. This allows working on almost any existing file type, but also means that you need to find a solution that suits your needs. Here’s why you should ask your client which file extensions are you going to work on straight away. Can you process them or is the client able to give you access to the software required?

Once you have all this sorted out, you can start working on your translation. I use this checklist as a sort of template each time I need to know better the client's intentions, especially when it's a new one. Always remember that nothing is obvious and that customer satisfaction is key. Adding your knowledge and expertise to their preferences is the perfect blend to get great results. 

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