When Bad Translations Happen to Good People

I received an assignment from a long-standing client last week that made my Spidey-sense tingle as soon as I read the instructions. It was billed as a super easy review of a translation done in-house at a hospital which should take no more than half an hour. Uh-huh. A quick glance at the translation told me that this was going to take a lot more than thirty minutes, especially since they also wanted me to explain every change I made and check the terminology against a reference document. I explained I’d only be able to scratch the surface in that time, so the agency agreed to pay me for an hour and asked me to do what I could within that time frame.

It was a textbook case of You Get What You Pay for and Why the #&!! Did You Not Hire a Professional in the First Place.

The Dutch text, an informational document intended to guide patients through various decisions, had obviously been translated into English by a non-native speaker, so predictably I found the following mistakes:

  • Unidiomatic expressions
  • Dutch sentence structure
  • Dutch rules of punctuation
  • Incorrect terminology

On top of that, here were problems that had nothing to do with native fluency but were simply the result of the additional fact that the person was not a professional translator:

  • Inconsistent terminology
  • Going back and forth between US and UK English
  • Lack of conformity with the source (missing/added words, and in one case a whole paragraph that only loosely corresponded to the source, perhaps copied & pasted from a similar document under the motto of “close enough”?)
  • Whole sentences skipped and left untranslated

The good news is that this hospital apparently suspected the quality of this translation might be a bit sketchy and decided to subject it to a professional review. A more cynical person might believe that they were confident everything was just fine and figured they could save money on the translation and just pay for a review to satisfy their own QA requirements, but we are going to give them the benefit of the doubt.

Whatever the case may be, though, this experience underscores the need to refrain from stamping I TOLD YOU SO all over the offending document and, instead, figure out how to become more effective in communicating the importance of hiring a professional translator.

Why is this so hard? Our basic message is simple enough:

  1. Poor translations cause damage that will cost you money/damage your reputation
  2. Expert translations add value that will bring in more money/enhance your reputation

I believe in meI would love to just be able to print this on the back of a business card, hand them out and watch the clients roll in. Avoid pain and reap benefits, what’s not to love, right? Unfortunately, as advertisers already know, facts alone don’t move merchandise (or services).

Clients don’t just want to hear that your service makes a difference; they want to know specifically what difference your service will make to their bottom line. In order to do that we have to know what they deal with and what their concerns are, which is yet another reason why it is important to keep up with the developments in our chosen field.

For example, I specialize in medical/pharmaceutical translations. A major paradigm shift that is taking place in the healthcare industry right now is a shift from a procedure-based system to an outcomes-based system. What this means is that more and more, physicians and hospitals are no longer reimbursed per test or per procedure, but rather on the basis of the quality or outcome of the care they provide, and they are held accountable via penalties for poor outcomes (like excessive readmissions, for instance) and incentives for good outcomes. In other words, hospitals and doctors are ranked and reimbursed on the basis of the quality of the care they provide, and this quality is assessed by means of quantifiable, objective metrics like patient satisfaction or number of readmissions.

Now let’s go back to this translation I reviewed and consider it in the light of an outcomes-based system. Poorly translated patient materials do not just lead to frustration and extra work for hospital staff dealing with the inevitable confusion, but to patients expressing their dissatisfaction in surveys or, worse, to misunderstandings with horrible consequences like overdosing or the need for readmission. Either way, the poor translation will eventually be reflected in the hospital’s ranking, their reputation and their pocket book.

Hospital administrators will not be fascinated by some all-purpose claim that expert translations “add value”, but they might be interested to find out how a well-written, engaging patient brochure in English can effectively improve their hospital’s metrics.

This is just one approach in one field, of course, and there are many ways to make this message relevant to potential clients. Have any of you, dear colleagues, taken advantage of current developments in your field of expertise to communicate the value of what we do? I’d love to hear from you.

4 thoughts on “When Bad Translations Happen to Good People

  1. Great post, as per the usual! I work for direct clients and other interpreters & translators and I think it’s crucial to keep them in the loop about things you’re up to or other jobs related to translation, language and their industry. I work in the tequila sector and went to Expo Agave and then made conversation about that to clients. When there is something really technical and industry specific, I like to chat with clients about those techniques or processes and this is doubly good as you can learn what they know about the subject.

    Something lately I’ve found that works well is asking potential clients about what they do, finding a cultural or related similarity or a way you can connect with them and then let them know what you can do to solve any problems or miscommunication they may have. I’ve found that almost everyone is looking for a good translator/interpreter/communicator/person who solves problems.

    One specific thing that I’ve driven home to two different clients is that although they have bilingual staff who have in-depth expert knowledge in their fields, the role and job of communicator is a very difficult one. For one person to be responsible for explaining something in an audit, for example, and then to have to be in charge of communication, this is too much. The good things is that once you convince people and show them how you make communication flow, they never go back to not using you.

    • Hi Jesse, thanks for stopping by and sharing from your experience! I like your approach of starting by simply listening to a potential client and looking for common ground and then moving on to ways you might be able to solve a problem for them. It definitely beats “Hey, do you guys need anything translated?” 🙂
      Good point also about translation not being something you can just tack onto a totally different job description. Your approach is very natural and organic, so no wonder people respond to that. No one likes a hard sell. I’m going to try it out next time I’m at an event.

    • “I’ve found that almost everyone is looking for a good translator/interpreter/communicator/person who solves problems” – I couldn’t agree with you more Jesse! Clients appreciate it when you can go an extra mile and your willingness to learn and understand their problems says a lot about you as a professional. Obviously your clients love what they do and if you’re able to show the same passion and interest they’ll be happy with your work and misunderstandings will be kept to a minimum.

      • To follow up: I was reading a book that I have come to rely on for bedtime musings, it’s called “101 Things a Translator Needs to Know” and the quote that stuck with me from a couple of nights ago is “It’s never crowded along the extra mile”. What a sweet place to be.

        Regarding clients and what they do—I think a lot of people in very technical fields often think, “Who else will be as interested in this minutia as I am” Answer: Your Translator! So that’s again, a great way to connect. 🙂

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