After much pushing and prodding from various colleagues (thank you, I needed it), I decided to get back to blogging. I’ve been periodically sharing thoughts as they occur to me in Standing Up on Facebook, but I realise this is a somewhat limited audience for ideas I’d like to spread. Seeing as I’ve gone to the trouble of ensuring this site is completely GDPR-compliant (did you like the cookie notice?), I should at least deign to write here a little more often.

This particular blog post is an expansion of something I shared earlier in Standing Up. Do take a closer look if you’re in the group (or willing to join), as the discussion below was very fruitful. Today I was in a writing mood, so decided to expand it and turn it into a blog post.


No reviewer = no referral

A few weeks ago, I was considering referring a very talented translator, but decided against it because I know they don’t have a regular reviewer.

The problem is, this is not especially unusual. In fact, the lack of a trusted reviewer as part of the colleague’s standard workflow is frequently a reason I find it hard to refer colleagues. And yes, this comes up quite often – not just because I am in high demand as a translator in my own language combination, and people often come to me regarding fields I don’t cover, but also because I work both into English and as a copywriter, and my work is often used as a basis for translation into other languages.

Why do translators not use reviewers?

Don’t get me wrong: I know why people don’t use reviewers, because I didn’t when I obtained my first direct clients. Instead, I preferred to set longer deadlines and review my own work after a few days, enlisting the support of German- and English-native colleagues on certain sections. I’d also enlist a monolingual native English speaker to review the text.

Part of my problem was that I had not found a good reviewer. With the right reviewer, you’ll have different but compatible skills, styles, and approaches. You’ll also have a certain amount of interpersonal chemistry, too – you have to be happy with them seeing you without your makeup on – or, er, with your trousers down, in the case of those who don’t wear make-up.

For a long time, I resisted using a reviewer, because I found the people I’d worked with would miss obvious mistakes and insert others. This is partly because I took the misguided agency approach of assuming a reviewer doesn’t need to be as qualified, skilled, or experienced as the original translator. But for truly effective revision, your reviewer should instead be equally or even more experienced and skilled than you.

Kevin Hendzel (do read his valuable post on collaboration) in particular pushed me to keep exploring collaboration and keep searching for the right person. Part of my fear, I admit, was the risk of paying more for a job I could do better myself.

A fortuitous pairing

Then a client paired me with the person who has since become my regular reviewer, and I’ve never really looked back.

For the first time, I saw genuine improvements every time something came back from review:

  • Intelligent comments in the margin.
  • Stylistic adjustments to improve the flow.
  • Ideas or considerations I’d not had.
  • Thoughts on what the client might also have meant.
  • Just better work.

After that fortuitous matchmaking on the part of our client, I began regularly hiring this same colleague for all my client work.

Over time, we became more and more comfortable, learning from each other, and becoming more open about other ideas on the texts. We became less concerned with being (or appearing) perfect in our individual roles and more concerned with producing optimal results. Neither of us is afraid of a sea of red, nor of expressing our uncertainty. For the collaboration to work, we have to put our sensitivities to one side. Ego does nothing for the quality of a translation.

We take more time when needed. We discuss issues openly. I then discuss things that really can’t be resolved between us (or with the insights of German-native colleagues and my German husband) with the client.

Contrary to some rather misguided advice you may see from a number of translators serving the bulk market, quality-driven translation buyers appreciate well-founded questions – and this process ensures none of these queries or comments are a waste of time. The result is clients who are reassured rather than worried by the questions I ask, and who consistently praise the rare quality of my (our) work. And my (our) diligence, of course.

Real revision means real interaction

These wonderful outcomes described above are hard (impossible?) to achieve when you’re both freelancers hired by an agency, or a colleague acting as a one-man-band agency. That is also why many of us (however harshly) emphasise how much we prefer working with direct clients, in the hope of pushing others to do the same.

Working for direct clients but not charging enough to afford to take your time and hire very competent reviewers (or any at all) has the same effect. That is why many of us (however harshly) emphasise the importance of charging professional rates, in the hope of pushing others to do the same.

Unfortunately, the reality is that most translations delivered to clients fall into one of the following categories:

  • Translator translates, reviewer reviews, translation is delivered.
  • Translator translates, translation is delivered.

Of course, sometimes there are some small but ineffective steps in between. For example, a non-native PM might have a quick look for obvious mistakes (or insert some of their own). But the key point here is that there is little or no dialogue.

To produce our best work, even the best translators require the support of other excellent or even better translators.

They also require the source language skills and tact to be able to properly articulate any queries they may have to their client, and ensure the translation and/or source text are adapted accordingly.

Real revision is collaborative. If you’re doing it alone, or not engaging in twenty-minute discussions on anything from syntax to an ambiguous idiom, you’re not doing it right.

It worked for me

I will try put this in concrete terms for those who work with (or intend to work with) direct clients and are in a position to implement best practices to secure their long-term success right now.

I already spoke about my reticence to hire a reviewer, and the reasons for this. I was also pretty clueless when I first went after direct clients, and started off charging around 14 cents per word. For relatively demanding work, that was far too little – even without external revision. As my confidence, skills, and client base grew, I soon started charging closer to 20-25 cents per word. Many people would say that was good, but that would involve extensive internal or native English revision, albeit no external German-English revision.

The first few times I experimented with quality revision by this skilled colleague, I gulped a bit at the cost. But I felt so humbled by what came back – mistakes I could never have spotted or improvements I could never have made without the help of the reviewer – that I felt I had to continue working this way, even if it cost me more…

I upped my rates to compensate, and found most clients were fine with closer to 30-33 cents, which is where my rates also stayed for a long time.

Nowadays, I’m at around 40-47 cents per word on average, and I don’t think I’d have got there without the reviewer – or the engaged approach to discussing all potential issues with the reviewer, my husband (the German-native), colleagues (English-natives, German-natives, and translators in both directions), educated non-linguist users of English who are based in the target country (my parents and certain friends – not all!), and – naturally – the client.

My work at 14 cents was good. My work at 20-25 cents was a bit better. But my work today, at around 40-47 cents per word, is the best it’s ever been. The key difference? I stopped translating alone.

TL;DR:

Long story short, someone would have received a referral. They didn’t, because I couldn’t be sure that the translation they’d deliver would be properly reviewed. They are a very good translator, but still charging rates to direct clients that are too low to afford a good reviewer. Without that, they may never realise their full and impressive potential.

  1. Charge more.
  2. Hire a reviewer with complementary skills, who is just as good as you or better.
  3. Profit.

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