How-to-Deal

How to Deal with Questions During a Translation Project

You should never be shy when it comes to asking questions about a job.

It’s never easy to ask questions. As professionals, we might fear that people reading our questions will think we should have known, or found, the answers ourselves. Many of us have also experienced translation project managers or clients who have ignored the questions we asked, or at least not paid attention to all of them. It also takes time to write questions, check the answers, and discuss some of the options and/or implement any subsequent changes.

Clients are sometimes swamped with work, don’t have time to reply to questions, are not able to provide answers themselves, or simply underestimate the value of this exchange process.

When translation projects go through translation agencies, project managers are sometimes completely inundated by the mountain of jobs they must oversee simultaneously and could get annoyed if they receive a lot of questions to sort out. They might overlook some or simply not invest enough time in dealing with them, or perhaps not relay them to the various project stakeholders.

Here I’ll explain what I believe are some best practices when dealing with questions, not only as a project participant (translator, reviser, desktop publishing expert, tester, etc.), but also as a project manager and client. These practices are based primarily on what we do in my company, so they might not be applicable to every situation.

Dealing with Questions as a Project Participant

Pay attention to templates. When the client or the translation agency provides you with a question template, always use it properly and follow the instructions. For instance, you might be requested to include the entry date in a specific format, like DD/MM/YY, or to insert the pertinent file name next to each question. These templates, whether online or off (e.g., an MS Excel sheet), usually contain lines or cells where you can insert your questions. Make sure you only enter one question per line/cell. Grouping two questions in a single line/cell can confuse the client, who might only answer one of them.

If the query file is shared among all project participants, examine it first before asking questions that may have already been raised. You’ll gain time and save the client and the project manager the trouble of having to deal with the same question twice (or more).

Regroup several questions under a single topic when they can be generalized. For instance, avoid creating an entry for every product name asking if they should be translated. Instead, ask: “Can you confirm that product names remain in English, but we should translate ‘for’ before ‘Windows’ and ‘Mac’ in occurrences like ‘COMPANY PRODUCT for Windows’?”

If the project is multilingual, unless otherwise specified, write your questions in the main communication language. For instance, since most projects within my company involve a dozen languages, people usually write their questions in English, which makes them easier to share among the teams. My clients are also located primarily in English-speaking countries, so we can easily share questions that are already written in their language. Nonetheless, as French-speakers, my team will accept questions in French for a French-only project, provided that the client speaks the language. However, we would not be able to do the same for Japanese, since we don’t have a project manager on staff who is fluent in the language.

Adapt all questions to the recipient’s language level. If the end client is a non-native speaker, it might be preferable to phrase the questions with simplified wording to be 100% sure that they grasp the meaning immediately and answer quickly. People might get frustrated if they need to invest time trying to understand highly technical questions written in a language in which they are not fluent. Conversely, if the client is particularly sensitive to your style of writing, it might be equally important to polish your communication style.

Make all questions complete and explicit so the client can answer promptly. Sending only closed questions that can be answered with either “Yes” or “No” is probably the best option. Proposing your own solution gains your client time and increases the probability that they will confirm immediately rather than postpone (or forget) to write down long explanations. For example, don’t ask “What does ‘user network’ mean?” Instead, make your own interpretation of the term clear (“Can you confirm that in this specific context, ‘user network’ means ‘a network of users’?”). Avoid suggesting two options for the same question (e.g., “Does ‘user network’ mean ‘a network of users’ or ‘the network of a user’?”). When reading too quickly, some clients might simply answer “Yes,” which will then force you to guess what the correct option is or request clarification.

If a language reviewer is answering your questions, you can suggest translations for problematic terms. But if someone speaking only the source language is answering them, add an explanation describing what you understand or propose in this language.

Always add context with your questions, even if it’s not planned in the template. Don’t hesitate to insert context relevant to your question, such as the full paragraph from the text or even a screen capture, when you feel this will help your client grasp the point immediately. Clients usually have no time to open the source files to look for context. It’s handier for them to have pertinent context provided next to your question or proposed translation. Please be aware that when you copy context directly from tagged files, internal tags or code displayed within the query file might confuse the client. In this case, remove any tags or code and format the copied content so that only the text is visible. For example, don’t leave the context like this:

Assuming that the word “<strong>Quotation</strong>” is inserted in cell <strong>A1</strong>, the result appearing in cell&nbsp;<strong>E27</strong>, in the <strong>Price/task</strong> column, corresponds to the formula “<strong>=B27*D27</strong>.”

Instead, clean it up as follows:

Assuming that the word “Quotation” is inserted in cell A1, the result appearing in cell E27, in the Price/task column, corresponds to the formula “=B27*D27.”

You can combine comments as well (e.g., to explain why you chose one option over another, or where you found specific information). Obviously, verify that your comments are very clear and make sense to the reader.

Review your questions before sending them. Imagine you’re the one receiving the questions. Would you be able to answer them easily and quickly if you didn’t have a background in translation or didn’t have 100% mastery of the source language and subject area? If you think you could, then go ahead and send your questions!

Dealing with Questions as a Translation Project Manager

Most of the advice covered in the previous section also applies to translation project managers. However, as middlemen, translation project managers should follow a few more management practices specific to their task. Indeed, one of their roles is to ease communication. Sorting questions, informing translators about the end client’s expectations, and managing both the project team and the client’s comments efficiently will increase the chances of achieving a successful project.

If the end client doesn’t provide you with a question template, use the translation agency’s or create a new one yourself. You should tell your subcontractors the kind of information to provide with their questions and any presentation to follow. If not, you might end up spending hours extracting data presented in various formats. Typical template categories to include would be “Date,” “File Name,” “Source Term,” “Target Term,” “Context,” “Comments,” and “Client’s Answer.” However, depending on your projects, you could always add more categories.

When teams send you questions, read each one carefully before sending them to the client. Make sure all questions are 100% clear and understandable. If you don’t understand some of the wording, the client might also be puzzled. In these cases, don’t hesitate to rewrite problematic questions yourself or ask the team/freelancer to do it. Occasionally, you might even have to soften the tone used for certain questions. For example, some people are very straightforward and use imperative forms, such as “Confirm this term.” You could make this sound a bit more polite by saying, “Can you please confirm that this term is correct?” In addition, double-check that all the appropriate categories provided in a template are filled in properly. If not, correct any mistakes and supply any missing information yourself (e.g., include context or correct the referenced file names).

While reviewing the questions, try to answer some yourself instead of sending them all directly to the client. Project managers gain experience from one job to the other. After managing several projects in the same sector or for the same client, you might already know a lot about the subject and be able to assist your team. Alternatively, you can turn to your colleagues or company staff (linguists or members of the technical team) to see if they can provide you with more information. On multilingual projects, it could make sense to first send the question file to all team members, asking if anyone can share explanations that could be helpful to others.

If the schedule allows, avoid sending questions every day or, worse, multiple times a day. Instead, gather questions together and send them in batches once or twice a week, or even once or twice a month for very long projects. Of course, it’s preferable to send questions as soon as possible, but take the time to group them to avoid flooding the end client with too many e-mails.

Delete any duplicate questions before sending the question file to your client. Similarly, make certain that some of those “new” questions have not already been clarified in previous batches or even during an earlier project. Remember, the fewer questions the client receives, the more chances you’ll have of obtaining answers. Why not create a reference folder for each client containing all the questions that have already been solved?

Depending on the client’s profile, it might be worthwhile to separate questions related to content from questions related to language. For instance, the client’s job coordinator might decide to transfer queries on product features to engineers who are able to supply detailed technical explanations. They could then send the proposed translated terms in Korean to their local manager in Seoul and the Dutch ones to the sales team in Amsterdam. Receiving three different files will definitely make this contact person’s work easier.

Once the client has dealt with the questions and returned the answers, check carefully to ensure that they are all clear and none are missing. Clarify any issue with the client first instead of sending the file to several translators or linguistic teams who will then face the same problems. In the event of an emergency or time differences, you could first ask your teams to confirm that everything has been addressed properly, as they might be better experts in the field than you. To avoid involving several teams in what might turn out to be a waste of time, you could instead ask for one team’s opinion.

Decide if the responses need to be communicated only to those asking the questions or if they might be useful for everyone working on the project. For instance, getting confirmation that the client’s Italian validator prefers firma instead of signature for the English term “signature” will only be useful to the Italian team. Whereas if the German team wanted to know whether proper names appearing in examples needed to be localized (e.g., replacing “John Smith” with “Max Meier” in the target text), the client’s answer will be valuable to all the project’s teams. Unless otherwise instructed, all the linguistic teams working on the translation project should definitely be notified of these decisions.

If a team member disagrees with some of the client’s answers, verify that any comments to the client are written in a respectful way. Whenever needed, rewrite comments yourself to avoid offending the client. Obviously, check that the justification for rejecting a client’s response is correct and well argued and will result in the client either confirming the initial choice or validating your team’s comment. To be on the safe side, before delivering the final files to the client, you could perhaps double-check that all teams have properly implemented the answers the client has provided across the entire project.

Finally, let’s point out that for some projects, when the schedule allows, it could be extremely beneficial if the translation project manager takes the time to review the source text to spot any potential issues and solve those with the client. This will allow the project manager to either supply the necessary information or communicate issues that have already been solved when launching the project into production.

Dealing with Questions as a Client

Depending on the reason they order translation jobs, end clients might have a mastery of both the content and the requested target language. They might also be experts in the field, but only speak the source language. They could also be fluent in the target language, but have no clue about the translated subject. You might also encounter clients who have to request a translation in a language they can’t read for a domain they have never dealt with before. Whatever the case, clients have to be conscious that translation teams sometimes need extra information or validation of their choices to deliver quality work. This is why it’s very important for clients to spend time handling questions properly. Here are a few guidelines to pass on to clients to help them do just that.

Clients should read all the questions they receive closely to make sure they fully understand what’s needed. Clients should not hesitate to point out any ambiguity in the questions to the project manager or to the translator/reviser, since trying to guess the meaning of a question might lead to foolish answers that could lower the quality of the final target text. Questions can occasionally reveal errors or inconsistencies in the source files to clients, and consequently help them improve these documents.

Clients should pass on any issues they can’t resolve to people who have the required skills. They should then follow up with their own internal team if they have not received a response in due time. Whenever possible, instead of simply transferring the answers to the translation agency or translator, the client should inspect each response carefully to ensure they are all meaningful and that no questions were left unanswered.

Clients should not hesitate to let the translation project manager or the translation team know if there seems to be too many questions or if they think some are not really justified. Translators and translation project managers should realize that searching for information is certainly part of their job. If reference material exists and is easily available to everyone, they should refrain from sending the client every single question that might come to mind.

When appropriate, the client should consider providing additional data when answering certain questions. For instance, if people’s job titles in a document need to be translated, the client should try to find a list of the local job titles in use and distribute it to the translation team. It’s far too dangerous to let people make assumptions. Translators are professionals, not wizards who are able to guess some internal terminology or undisclosed data.

Dealing with Questions the Right Way Pays Off

Dealing with questions is time consuming. It can be frustrating. And at times, you might even consider that it’s not worth the extra effort. Nevertheless, asking the right questions, transferring them to a qualified person, answering willingly, and making sure everyone involved gets relevant answers is crucial for a good end result.

As with everything, professionalism and moderation always prove to be a good recipe every step of the way. This will ensure that everyone gets the right information without wasting too much time and can meet the expected quality level.


Nancy Matis has been involved in the translation business for almost 20 years, working as a translator, reviser, technical specialist, project manager, and teacher, among other roles. After obtaining degrees in translation and social and economic sciences, she worked for an international translation firm for several years. She currently manages her own company based in Belgium, specializing in localization, translation project management, consulting, and training (www.translation-project-management.com). She also teaches translation project management at Université Lille 3 (France), KU Leuven (Belgium), Université Libre de Bruxelles (Belgium), and through webinars. Besides publishing articles on project management and the importance of teaching this subject to future translators, she has also written about terminology management in projects and quality assurance in translation. She is the author of How to Manage Your Translation Projects. She has also published articles on LinkedIn Pulse, ProZ, and several blogs, including Translators Family. Contact: nancy@nmatis.be.

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