Selecting a Translator

I was tasked with finding an English-Swahili translator yesterday, for some sales/marcom material that needs to be ready for mailing on Monday. So, a bit of urgency around this one. Luckily, I spent almost two years in Boston working with translators, I am in a Swahili-speaking country right now, so how hard could it be? Not so fast…

(But first, a disclaimer: not that I am trying to poke fun at anyone. There are cultural differences. And there are Africa-specific problems with the level of education and expertise. They can be amusing at a first glance, but mostly they are actually sad. But my main intention here is to observe and notice things as they look to the customer’s eye. What works, and why? What doesn’t, and why?)

It was very interesting being, for a change, on the client side of the “choosing the localization vendor dance”, and it provided a cool perspective and some things to meditate upon later.

Appropriate subject line

One of the responses I received had a subject line “I AM TANZANIAN TRANSLATOR”. Let’s start from the second when this email popped up in my inbox. What is going on with this message?

  • It is in CAPS. For an email, I cannot think of a situation when CAPS could make a message better or more effective. CAPS=SCREAMING. As a client, I don’t want to be screamed at. DON’T USE CAPS!
  • The subject is about the translator, not the client. As a client, I want to have my need (find a quality translator who is quick and has a professional attitude, and more or less fits my budget) addressed. The subject should be related to my need – having some documents translated. When in doubt, just hit reply and re-use my subject line (“English-Swahili translation – request for estimation” – totally don’t have to customize this one).
  • English is not perfect (even to my non-native eye). Which is sort of fine, because this is a very common situation. But, for a short line like this, and for sales pitch texts – definitely helpful to have your standard communication proofread.

By the way, the email and the CV were in mostly in capital letters, too. The translator apparently had a degree in Mass Communication (or, to be more specific, MASS COMMUNICATION).

Relevant message

Again, there were so many messages with translators talking about themselves. I know that writing a “cover letter” or a “motivational letter” is a pain. It was a pain for me when I was still in college, and it remains a pain for me. Writing pitches is awkward because it is so easy to get confused and write an “I am X and I can do Y” message, when what clients really need is a “This is what I can bring to the table” message.

A surprisingly high number of people did not actually address my request (which boiled down to “send your rates and samples of your work”). They talked about their educational experience and work background, and provided their rates, but they did not send samples – and did not say why.

One of the best messages did not include samples, either. But it acknowledged my request (“I cannot send samples right now”), provided a reason (“I am away from my desk”), and a solution (“I can translate a paragraph from your source documents and send it to you tomorrow morning”). That translator demonstrated that she was actually able to need my need – have a chance to evaluate the quality of her work, and in doing that, she scored extra points for professionalism.

So what?

The thing is, I actually recognized bits of myself in these translators, and I specifically wanted to look at the bits that I want to improve in the future. All of the above applies to me before I ask other people to follow it. And I ever forget that being a client can be just as frustrating as being a vendor, I hope that I will at least remember to re-read my own advice.

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