Finding translations

Wil Shipley wrote about how coders can organize their software projects for localization. But what happens on the other end—once those files of strings to be localized get handed off to those “errrr… whatchacallums. ‘Polyglots!'”

I’m a translator. I’ve done a small amount of coding, so I can appreciate the issues involved on that side, but it’s not my strength. I’ve done a little software localizing, and a lot of translations of software manuals.

Suppose you’ve got an application that you want to make available in other languages in addition to your native language. You’ve got the technical aspects of the problem solved. How do you get it translated? I will assume that you want every localized version to produce the same delight and satisfaction in speakers of other languages that you are trying to create with your own-language version, and that you are willing to go to some trouble to do so.

Your first decision, from which many other tradeoffs will follow, is whether to give the project to a translation agency or to act as your own translation coordinator. There are pros and cons to each approach.

When you hand a job off to an agency, they will act as a buffer between you and the translators. In fact, they will insist on it. If the translators have any questions in the course of the work, they’ll footnote it and the agency will try to resolve the question either on their own or by contacting you.

Most large agencies will claim to handle any language combination; for any relatively common language combination, they probably have access to dozens or hundreds of translators. The coordinators at these agencies often have no ability to evaluate the quality of translation work themselves. Some of these large agencies farm work out on a first-come, first-serve basis, some farm them out to whichever translator is in their database as handling that subject matter at the lowest rate. Large jobs on tight deadlines will likely be split up among multiple translators, perhaps with some effort at harmonization after the fact. Editing work is also usually farmed out using the same methods.

One point that Shipley makes is not to use pictures of words, since they are so much more work to localize. While this is unquestionably good advice, bigger agencies may have tools for stripping text out of Photoshop/Illustrator files to be translated, and substituting the translated text back in (if it’s styled text, this could obviously get sticky).

There are smaller agencies that specialize in only one language, or only a few. These typically have bilingual people on staff, do the editing in-house, have some kind of personal relationship with the freelance translators they work with, and have a pretty clear understanding of each translator’s strengths and weaknesses. These agencies will also act as buffers between you and the translator.

Finally, there is dealing with individual translators. This will allow (or require) you to work more closely with the translator, which should in theory permit them to do higher quality work. Dealing directly with the translator will expose you to a wider range of rates: on the one hand, you’re not paying the agency’s vig (which can be anything from 15% to 200% in my experience). On the other, you may be dealing with translators who have priced themselves out of agency work. Dealing with individuals does place you at risk if one of them flakes out (rare but possible), and will take some work just to find suitable candidates. You should also arrange for someone to edit the work. You should be able to ask the translator to do this, although some translators might be reluctant to let their colleagues see their work. Any freelancer worth his salt who is working for a direct client will do a meticulous editing job, but the more eyes that look at it the better. Mistakes can always slip by.

Let’s assume that, one way or the other, your localizable strings file has reached the translator. I’ve seen agencies send these as Excel files, with each text chunk in its own row, the source in one column and the target to be translated in another. I hate doing extended typing in Excel, but this at least has the virtue of clarity. I usually wind up moving the table into Word, which is a friendlier place to type.

The problem with these chunks of text is that they are disembodied. Out of context. And context matters. Knowing that a chunk of text is going to appear as a menu item, as opposed to a dialog box, tooltip, or whatever, will influence how the translator expresses that idea. For that matter, knowing that several menu items are all clustered in the same menu, between separator bars, would also influence how each of them was translated. A keen-eyed translator will often be able to figure out some context based on hints the text provides, but there are limits. The result of this lack of context is that the localized version will be prone to seem a little disjointed to native speakers. Screenshots of the most common interface elements would be one way to ameliorate this. Actually giving the translator the software to play around with (in addition to the strings file) would be even better, but this restricts you to working with translators who use the same platform as you (which wouldn’t be a bad idea, since they are more likely to be conversant with platform-specific lingo), and probably rules out working through an agency.

Let’s jump ahead and assume that you’ve received the translated strings file. Now what?

Well, you could blindly assume that the work has been done to your satisfaction, and you might get lucky. Or not. Regardless of whether you are working with a big agency, small agency, or individual translators, you should line up native speakers of the target language to critique the translation and make sure that if you incorporate it into your product, you’ll be happy with the way it appears in that language.

It would be prudent, regardless of who you’re working with, to request an early delivery of a fraction of the work, and have that go past your native informants to make sure the work is up to snuff. Sometimes, prospective translation clients will ask an agency to have a sample translation done on spec. In cases like this, some sleazier agencies have had a known-good translator do the sample (or many translators do a sample so they can pick and choose), and then pass the job on to the cheapest translator. Many reputable translators resent being asked to do spec work at all, so the use of spec work as a selection method is clearly fraught with problems. Better to suck it up and gamble on 10% of the project.

You should also provide as much information up front about the job as possible. Make a list of special terminology that needs to be handled consistently, and give a glossary if possible. Explain your expectations regarding style and voice.

Update: See also the response by Ryan Ginstrom, a real-live programmer and translator.

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