Aug 11, 2010

Sometimes a great customer

I think that sometimes we get so caught up in the often nutso routines of the translation business that we don't recognize a big gold nugget in our own pans. Someone has to take it out and hit us over the head with it first.

Communication is important in most businesses, and translation is about communication really, so I would suppose you could say this applies even more so to translators. But there are many forms of communication and each exchange is unique. Maintaining the alertness to recognize that uniqueness and to respond in the best way to each individual situation is not easy at all, even for some people who are considered "good communicators".

I had an interesting project several months ago that was a bit of a nightmare in several ways. The source document was in MS Word format, but heavy footnoting and commentary as well as a huge number of hefty graphics caused most of my various translation environment tools to choke. After two days of trying to get the project set up, I finally discovered a complex conversion workflow involving several tools that enabled me to translate. Then the real nightmare began. The source text was a disaster. Written by Germans living abroad for many years, some of whom had no access to a German keyboard and showed obvious signs of having forgotten the proper use of their native language, it also showed signed of having been slapped together in a big hurry. Whole paragraphs were repeated, sometimes consecutively. Sentences ended like staircases into the ceiling at the Winchester Mystery House.

The rational thing to do in such circumstances is to have a chat with the customer about the state of things, perhaps suggest a bit of editing if possible before the actual translation begins. But I think more than a few of us have dealt with customers who become irate at the suggestion that a source text could be less than perfect, and too often I've received responses that essentially mean "shut up and translate what's in front of you". In one case there was a mushroom cloud seen over a small city in North Rhine-Westphalia as an end customer responded to ten pages of corrections for bad grammar, typographical errors and mislabeled diagrams in a source text. So gradually I've begun to give less feedback on the problems I see with source texts unless I see them as precursors to inevitable death or lawsuits. Simply looking stupid doesn't always count any more.

Well, as luck would have it, there were complaints about the aforementioned project. The exchange dragged out for more than a month (largely my fault as I tried in vain to get someone else to review the text and identify serious translation errors that were not apparent to me and I simply didn't feel like engaging in a conversation that seemed a bit Kafkaesque in the clarity of its issues). The customer asked repeatedly that I look at the edited text (which had been subjected to extensive, necessary editing of its content, the faults of which were the legacy of the source text) and make a "proposal" (for some sort of discount, obviously). I had told the customer that I was quite willing to reduce the invoice for the tardiness that resulted from the difficulties involved, but that I couldn't see anything in the translation to fault beyond a few typographical errors my proofreader had missed. In fact, the editor engaged by the customer had introduced serious errors into the text while making a few good suggestions for alternative terminology. That answer wasn't satisfactory.

Finally, after weeks of stress over the matter, I had largely ceased to care at all about the rather large invoice. I decided to put the ball back in the customer's court, accept whatever suggestion was made and if I didn't like it, then I was unavailable for further work. End of story. So in a relaxed state of mind, I called up the customer and we resumed our chat. I asked for a "wish", saying I simply wanted the matter resolved to their satisfaction, and they know better than I do what they might consider "satisfying". I was surprised (though I shouldn't have been) that the requested invoice reduction was less than what I would have considered acceptable. So that point was resolved immediately, and I could feel the muscles in my back loosen a bit. Then the interesting part of the discussion began.

My understanding at the end was that the real issue was not quality of the translation per se, but the quality of communication. The person with whom I had dealt with for years was rightfully upset at not being informed that she had passed on garbage to me for translation. And I was so caught up in various matters that I didn't stop and consider the particular nature of that specific customer relationship and the fact that this was a customer who is open to criticism and wants to see the best result in the end. A customer who understands that things can go wrong when people work under pressure and who tries to make intelligent decisions if the information to do so is available. In other words, for many of us the ideal customer! Gold in my pan, and I was too blind to notice. My other half, who had been very irritated about the whole matter, nearly broke out the champagne to celebrate when she realized how reasonable our customer really is. This is the kind who is really worth extra effort.

I'm sure this won't be the last such mistake in what I hope will be further busy decades of translation. But I hope that the lesson will stick for a while, and I'll ask myself more often if I am really responding to the situation now confronting me or to a completely different one with a different customer last week.


  1. Kevin
    This is Jose Montero from Spain, technical translator. My man, you said the right thing with plain language..but as gold nuggets these customers are quite rare, the usual attitude is to blame on the last part of the chain, probably because they do not dare to blame on their own customers.
    Thanks for this interesting blog. Best regards from Spain

  2. To be honest, I think a good number of my direct customers think this way. And a lot of the agency PMs I deal with are great at playing human shield. In that "mushroom cloud" incident, there were actually two levels of agency involved, and both backed me up 100%, but I was still deeply shocked by the nastiness of the customer's reactions to corrections that involved matters of safety in several cases (more than just typos).

    Most of the people I deal with are very reasonable and honest. But the few who aren't are like a cumulative poison, and I have to work hard to get rid of its effects, not go into auto-action mode and forget that every individual and every situation really deserve a well-considered specific response. Damned hard to pull off sometimes in a busy routine. (Re-posted, typo fixed... I wish Google Blogger software allowed real comment editing.)

  3. Eloquently and wonderfully written, dear Kevin. Of course, we are in full agreement, but can certainly understand your hesitation on pointing out the low quality of the source text. It is wonderful to see that your customer is so fab, and you are right on target with the message: clear communication, even if it's about unpleasant things, is certainly key.
    Make it some really good celebratory champagne, perhaps a drop or two for the four-legged family members? They could probably tell you were stressed, too. :) And get a massage since you are at it.

  4. I enjoyed the frankness of this post Kevin, thanks. The "cumulative poison" effect you mention is no doubt heightened if you work in relative isolation. This post is a welcome reminder that we need to take a deep breath before dealing with any criticism, but then nip it in the bud asap, remembering every client and every case is different.


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