"I have a document that urgently requires translation into English. Can you do it?"
"Good question. Your guess is as good as mine. What's it about? Why don't you send me the text and I'll let you know."A few minutes later the text arrives. Several small documents on automotive technology. Easy stuff, unless...
"What variant of English did you have in mind?"
"Uh... I don't know. British English I suppose. The customer didn't say."And you didn't ask, either, you git, I thought. Ooops, scratch that. I'm American. Make it "you idiot".
One would think that language service providers would be aware of the important differences between language variants in English, Spanish, Portuguese and a host of other languages about which I know very little, because I don't pretend to provide service for all the world's languages, just from German German and occasionally from the Swiss variant into US English. San Gabriel Valley English to be more precise, with occasional bits of Oregon country thrown in for rustic flavor. We don't use no spanners. Boots are for wearing on feet, preferably with spurs, and bonnets are mostly out of fashion, except with the occasional surviving grandmother. So we don't do no steenkeen British automotive texts, because we pity the technicians in the UK who wouldn't understand a lot of it. Just like my auto mechanic in California wouldn't get far with a British repair manual most likely.
Now there are some fields and situations where I'm not too uncomfortable trying to follow British conventions for spelling, though I won't even pretend to know much about the peculiarities of insular punctuation or the rich British vocabulary one absorbs between floggings in school. What I find more disturbing is that the project manager never thought to ask the customer about the intended use of the translation and the preferences for usage. I recently did a certified legal translation for a client and sent it off for checking by a few pairs of eyes at the agency before producing the final stamped and sealed official version. The corrections came back - lots of them. One was legitimate, a typo I had missed I think. The rest was my beautiful American legalese defaced with British spelling. I went a bit nuts over that, in part because I don't know a thing about contract language and legal conventions in the UK, and the use of British spelling in this case might imply that I do. My choice of contract language in English is governed by my linguistic and cultural background as well as the guidelines for clear language in contracts taught in California law schools like USC in the late 1980s. This time the decision to mess with the text was based on an internal agency style guide that used British conventions. Once again, no one ever thought to ask the customer what was really needed.
Perhaps I'm old fashioned to believe that knowing the intended use of a translation and the variant of the target language to satisfy that intent is a fundamental requirement for professional service in most cases. If there's even a chance that British English is called for, I'll probably fend off the query and send it elsewhere. And I do admit to a certain secret delight in sending the prospects trotting off on a pilgrimage to find a competent British translator, armed perhaps with a few e-mail addresses and telephone numbers from me. Everyone wins: the prospect will probably get a translation, someone I know and like might get an interesting bit of work and make a new business acquaintance and I don't have to give another English lesson when I'd rather be burying fish heads in a meadow to bait the foxes.