Why you shouldn’t be afraid to ask questions and how asking questions actually adds to your credibility

Last week I was contacted by one of my mentees who had landed herself a proofreading job to ask what proofreading actually entails. She specifically wanted to know whether she should just read the text through and correct grammatical and stylistic mistakes or whether she should go through the text phrase by phrase, sentence by sentence checking the translation against the source text document. More specifically she wanted to know what I would do. Here is an edited version of my response:

Every customer, project manager and translator instructing someone to “proof read” a text will naturally mean something different depending on the circumstances, how they work and the purpose of the final product. We’re all familiar with the phrase “the customer is always right” and here too it is actually completely irrelevant what I would understand by the instruction “proof read this text” because the only way you will be able to satisfy your customer is by finding out what it is your customer actually wants and expects you to do.

Don’t be afraid to ask questions

Many beginning translators are very wary about asking their customers questions – they don’t want to let on that they aren’t 100% sure about what they are doing and are scared that by asking questions they are shouting their lack of experience from the rooftops. However, in my experience asking (the right) questions actually adds to your credibility. By asking questions you are demonstrating to your customer that his/her needs are important to you, that you are a conscientious professional and that you want to find out as much information as you can to ensure that you can provide your customer with the best possible final product.

Your customer’s perspective

Now some may argue that your customer should provide all of the relevant information from the outset but that is idealistic. Translation and proofreading issues are omnipresent for us as translators but they are not so for people from other industries – even if they do have regular contact with translators and commission a lot of translations. As translators it is our job to consider each assignment from the customer’s perspective and to ask the right questions so that the customer feels confident that his/her text is in good hands.

What if the customer is a translation agency?

Many beginning translators start off working for translation agencies. Indeed some freelance translators continue to work (exclusively) for agencies throughout their freelance careers. I too have past experience working for agencies. Now it would be unfair to say that all agencies are the same but many of the large agencies (or LSPs as they like to call themselves these days) employ inexperienced project managers who are the point of contact for the freelance translator. In many cases these project managers will not have asked the right questions of the customer in the first place or will not think to pass on any information they have received. This leaves you, the translator, in a difficult position. You should definitely send any questions you have to the project manager but it is unlikely that you will always get the helpful answers and additional Information you need. This is an extremely frustrating situation for conscientious translators because, while trying to provide a good service, at the back of your mind you are never really sure that what you are doing is what the customer really wants you to do. Personally I do not cope well with these kinds of situations and find working for direct clients and smaller translation agencies, which are usually run by one or two other translators who really know what they are doing, much more rewarding.

Questions to ask

Whether you have been contacted about a proofreading or a translation assignment, here are some suggested questions which you could and perhaps should ask your customer to obtain the information which will help you produce the best possible final product for your customer:

1. Which language variety would you like me to use?
(Don’t assume that your customer wants one language variety over another, ask!)
2. What is the purpose of the translation/final text?
(If the translation is needed for an important publication, the customer is not going to thank you for whizzing through the text only correcting the worst mistakes and leaving what seem to you to be minor stylistic errors. On the other hand, if the text is required as a draft version of a document to be used as the basis for important negotiations to take place in two hours’ time, your customer is not going to be very happy if you are doing such a thorough job of proofreading, that you are still only on the first page of a five page document when the negotiations are due to commence)
3. Who is the target reader and what background knowledge does he/she have?
(This will help you to decide how much additional information it is necessary to provide)
4 Would you like me to only correct actual grammatical and lexical errors or would you like me to improve the document stylistically?
5. Would you like me to use track changes?
6. Do you have any past translations or reference materials?
7. Could you please clarify this ambiguity?/This sentence doesn’t seem to make sense. Is there something missing?
(Nobody reads a text as closely as a good translator. In my experience customers are always very pleased to receive feedback on the original text. I translate a lot of documents to be filed with German courts. My translations are for information purposes – for the information of the client who doesn’t speak German – so it is the original version which is actually going to be filed with the court. It is not unusual for the author of the original text to have accidentally inverted the parties (claimant and defendant). Pointing out mistakes and typos in the original text, particularly when you know that the original text is going to be used in its own right (rather than simply as the basis for a translation), also demonstrates to your customer that you actually understand what you are translating and this definitely adds to your credibility.

Don’t be scared to ask questions. Asking questions adds to your credibility. Guessing is a very risky business.