Getting it right

Getting it right

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Don’t forget clients are human too

There are so many bad translations about these days. All you have to do is go almost anywhere on holiday and you find the English language being murdered in all kinds of despicable ways. But have you ever been tempted to ask the perpetrators of these linguistic crimes whether they might pay you to clean up the mess?

It’s an approach I’ve often thought about trying. An e-mail along the lines of “I recently visited xxxxxx and was horrified to find your tourist information in English full of mistakes. As it happens I’m an English translator specialising in tourism and I’d be very happy to put these texts right for you. Please contact me to discuss my rates.” However, for various reasons I’ve never actually got round to using the strategy. And now, after a recent experience, I’m much less likely to.

It came in the form of yet another message from a fellow translator of a type I receive increasingly, usually from people who have recently started in the profession, asking me for work. I have some sympathy with these newbie translators. We’ve all been beginners at one time or another and when you’re starting off mass messaging has its appeal because it feels as if it’s something you can do quickly and easily. After all, who could possibly consider your humble message to be spam?


At the same time, if these translators took the trouble just to read the home page of my website, they would soon see that they’re looking in the wrong place, as I make it very clear that I don’t outsource translations, something I explained in this blog post from last year. That kind of short-sightedness or laziness, whichever it is, begins to erode my sympathy a little.

The message that started me thinking about the “you’ve got your translations all wrong and I can help you” approach began badly. “Dear Sir”, it said. Here was someone writing to me for work who couldn’t even be bothered to find out my name, which is hardly a secret, appearing all over the Internet and even in my e-mail address. But worse was to come. The writer ended his mail “the French translation of your home page is not that great. It looks like a translation which means it’s not a great translation” – a reasonable equivalent of the approach I’d often thought about using.

What I hadn’t thought about, though, was the impact it has on potential customers to be told their translations aren’t up to standard. And I can tell you, it isn’t a good one. I felt offended and insulted and very uninclined to offer my colleague any editing work. Because what you do when you call into question the quality of someone’s website translation is to pass comment on their own professionalism and judgment. It’s like saying “This can’t be a professional job” or “You did this yourself into a language that isn’t your own, didn’t you?” And the honest truth is, I didn’t. As I told my French friend in my reply to his e-mail, the French version of my website was translated by a trusted colleague and I have no reason to doubt its quality. What I didn’t tell him was that if I did have any doubts or if I decided to get it edited I certainly wouldn’t ask him to do it now.


So what should be your approach then if you see an opportunity in some appalling piece of machine translated rubbish? Well, having been on the receiving end, I’d say that in my particular case I’d be difficult to persuade. That’s partly because I have every confidence in my colleague’s translation of my website. But if I didn’t, the only approach that just might bring a reward would be something along the lines of “Please don’t hesitate to contact me to discuss your translation needs” with no reference to the quality of the existing translation, however bad it might be. That gives the person involved a chance to realise that perhaps a professional like you should have been used instead of Google Translate.

Certainly, a bad translation should be corrected, and you are almost certainly superbly qualified for the job, but I can tell you from experience that bluntly pointing it out is more likely to cause offence than win you any favours. Because we are only human, after all.



  1. Alison Hughes

    I’m with you on that one, Simon. No matter how polite or tactful we are, we can easily upset the client.

    I was in a long exchange with a potential client in Reims about writing wine articles in English for them.

    I had carefully nurtured my contact and was about to submit a proposal. I happened to look on their website and it was awful so I added a rewrite of their website as the first service I could offer them. I extremely tactful.

    It turned out my contact was away from the office and a colleague answered on her behalf with a ‘thanks for all your trouble but we don’t need your services just now’.


      Thanks for your comment, Alison. I was surprised at how annoying I found having my website translation criticised, especially as I knew I’d had it done properly, and that’s what started me thinking about what it must feel like from the other side.

  2. Oliver Lawrence

    Hi Simon, I think there are two separate issues here: whether the translation is actually poor or not (presumably yours isn’t) and how to bring this to the client’s attention productively.

    As you say, it can be a fraught business, especially if the translation was done by a friend or relative of the client. So tact is of the essence, of course. But business is business, so if we can help the prospect to understand the benefits of a better translation – and what the existing translation might be costing them – then we should be able to get the message through. It’s all about self-interest. Theirs, that is. Sticking with an ineffective translation would be like throwing money down the drain.

    I suspect that these kinds of approach are more effective if done in person or over the telephone. I’ve had one or two warm reactions that way, although admittedly not much additional work. I suspect that there is a way to refine the approach to make it work, although blunt throwaway lines at the fag end of an email, like the one you received, surely aren’t it.


      You’re quite right, Oliver. Clients should understand the benefits of a better translation. What I hadn’t realised is how strong my reaction would be (and presumably the client’s would be too). The problem, I think, is that we just don’t know the background. But by criticising the translation we’re implicitly criticising the client and that is very dangerous ground, added to the fact that if they’ve paid for one translation they’re unlikely to want to pay for another one merely on the say-so of a translator who’s obviously prospecting for the work. I just really don’t know whether it’s worth the effort using that approach.


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