Going with the Flow

Understanding the Workflow of Translation Projects

When I was in 7th grade, my small town in Germany celebrated its 750th anniversary, and for this special occasion, our school performed a massive play illustrating the different eras that had come and gone since the town was first founded. To represent the industrial revolution, about 40 of us lined up on stage executing a series of strictly coordinated, repetitive movements in flashing strobe lights (yes, it was the 80s). To this day, that’s the image my mind conjures up when I think of production and workflow.
While translations might not be made on the assembly line, there is nonetheless a specific process involved that needs to be followed in order to create high quality products. In addition thereto, we have the individual workflow of each translator, typically handling multiple projects for different end clients at once.
Phoning it in
Clients will usually contact their language services provider of choice via phone or email and submit their electronic file(s) for a quote, or contact several providers for a bid. What happens behind the scenes—and for this article, we ask that you do pay attention to the man usually hidden by the curtain—is not so much wizardry but a rather technical process of assessing volume, industry, exact language pair (Spanish, yes, but is it Castilian or Latin American?) and type of the document to be translated. If the source file is in English, the project manager will be able to handle most aspects, but if the project is to be translated from another language into English, he or she may contact one of the agency’s linguists specializing in the respective language pair to assist. Any translation cost estimate will be based on these factors, since the prices are contingent upon word count, language, and area of expertise plus turnaround (rush or regular).
Onto the conveyor belt
Once the quote has been presented to the client and the project is green-lighted, the bands get rolling. The raw material, so to speak, goes to the linguist(s) in the corresponding language pair(s) selected by the project manager based on their project-relevant expertise and experience. This first group of translators performs the actual translation into the target languages. But that is by far not the end of the line. The next step, usually referred to as editing, involves a second group of linguists with an excellent command and a keen sense of style in the target language. Since the original translation process requires a constant back and forth between two languages, it is crucial to have another pair of eyes solely concentrating on the target document to ensure fluency and readability. And the belt keeps going after that—to yet another set of linguists who now will go back to the original document and compare it to the translation, checking for missing lines, confirming all figures, and generally making sure that all the pieces fit. It’s quality control—in the world of language also referred to as proofreading.
Door-to-door service
Any questions that come up in the process of translation as outlined above will always go back to the original translator, since he or she has the fullest grasp of the source text. The client, however, gets turnkey service—placing the order and submitting the material, then receiving the final top of the line product in all requested languages on the agreed delivery date. Only if there are company-specific terminology issues or document errors (missing pages, illegible text), the client may be contacted for clarification during the process, but in most cases, such issues are clarified beforehand. Translators accepting assignments from their agency clients need to carefully manage their time to ensure they are not only able to perform the translation in a timely fashion but also available to promptly respond to inquiries from editors and proofreaders. If they are serving in one of the latter functions on a different project within a similar timeframe, they have to tend to each of these assembly lines so that nothing gets backed up.
Modern times
Just like in Chaplin’s classic, the whole elaborate scheme can fall apart if only one little wheel fails to turn or unexpected elements are introduced, or if the entire machinery becomes too large or too fast for its own good. One of the precautions the client can take is to ensure that the project is complete before placing the translation order or, if he or she knows that changes to the source document might still be made but needs to get started on the process, alert the project manager to the fact. All reference materials should be submitted together with the source file(s), such as glossaries, illustrations, etc. Turnaround times should be established reasonably—in case of an extreme rush, there is always the option of splitting a project up among several translators, but the workload for editors and proofreaders will be greater in such a scenario, since they will have to create continuity in terms of style and vocabulary throughout the document(s).
We didn’t have a Little Tramp in our anniversary show (might have been a little too dark for the famously neon-lit decade), but something to take away from the film and maybe from above description of the translation process is that no matter how automated we make our processes, the major part of the work is still done by humans, for humans. And for me personally as a translator, it’s always a labor of love.
Nannette Gobel, MA
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