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Why buying translation and proofreading services is hard

This week, I had a rather incredible conversation with a client. A non-native speaker of English, she is writing her PhD thesis at a British university and had been searching for a proofreader for some time when, by a stroke of luck, I was recommended to her by a colleague. After we had each seen a sample of each other’s work and had discussed the services required and a price, she told me how relieved she was to have found someone she could trust her work with: “Margaret, you are a blessing!”

Most of us translators and proofreaders don’t expect to be called a blessing. A lot of the time, we focus on how to do an excellent job working on a client’s language, and on the client’s primary need, which is to have their text translated from language A into language B, or turned from a linguistic rough diamond into a sparkling gem. What we don’t necessarily consider is the great relief our services may be bringing them on both a professional and a personal level. Considering the reasons for that degree of relief can help us to gain a better understanding of the barriers that a potential client faces when buying a language service, which in turn can help us to produce better work. In the following, I will be referring mainly to academics and artists as they form my main body of clients, but I think the issues discussed hold for any field where clients have a high level of personal investment in their texts.

This text is on a subject they are completely passionate about. Whether it’s Gothic literature, Gregorian chant, the archaeology of Imperial Rome, or migrant women workers – this is something your client lives and breathes. For them, it is one of the most fascinating topics there is. They care about it deeply.

They have spent months, if not years, of their life producing this text. A PhD thesis is the result of years of study. Likewise, the author of an academic paper will have spent years researching the field, even if writing the actual article only took a few weeks (which is still a long time!). A photography volume may have taken years to compile. Work on this kind of project will have formed a significant chapter in the author’s life.

They have invested significant financial resources in this text. Whether it’s the university fees for a postgraduate programme (and the loss of income that could potentially have been earned at this time), hard-won funding that needs to be accounted for carefully, or the cost of the field trips discussed in the paper, you can be sure that it’s not just time the client has invested: it’s serious money, too.

Their future careers may hinge on the success of this text. We all know the saying “publish or perish!” As a former academic myself, I know that it’s true. Work contracts are made dependent on how many articles in high-profile journals an scholar can get published. Breaking into the much larger English-language market from the significantly smaller German-language one is of key importance to many of my clients, be they academics, artists or writers.

Now, with this in mind, imagine how it feels to know that in order to achieve what you want with your text, you will have to give it to someone else. You have to hand this text over to someone who will change it. And as you are not a native speaker of the language involved, you will not be able to fully understand or follow those changes. In short, giving your text to a translator or proofreader means giving up control over it.

No wonder finding the right translator or proofreader is hard. You need to find a person who not only has the necessary language skills and specialist subject knowledge; you need to find someone who is able to show you they understand just how much you have invested in this text and reassure you that they will be able to do your work justice. In short, you have to be able to trust them with potentially some of the most significant documents you will produce in the course of your entire life.

I believe very strongly that we, as translators and proofreaders, need to acknowledge not just the financial commitment a client makes when hiring us; we need to acknowledge the personal commitment that is made at the same time. We need to think thoroughly about what clients have invested in their texts, and honour the trust a client places in us when they give us their work. When we do this, we ourselves become deeply committed and this in turn enables us to produce our best work, meaning we can truly be a “blessing” for our clients.

Illustration © C. A. Hiley

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