What Every Client Wants?

How do you keep your clients happy? Just what is it that makes a client choose one translator or interpreter over another? Do clients even know what “good” translation and interpreting are? These are questions that freelancers grapple with every time that look for new work, return projects or have arguments with their clients over things like “quality” and “accuracy.” Oddly enough, they are also questions that researchers have been thinking about and writing about for years.

Like most things in the world of research, there are no straight answers. Early on in Translation Studies, it could be taken for granted that what clients really wanted was “accurate” translation and interpreting. That was until the point when some German and Scandinavian scholars pointed out that not only did we not really know what “accurate translation” was but that clients commission translations to fulfil a certain purpose. This purpose (labelled the “skopos” by a few German scholars) could trump strict linguistic accuracy in some cases.

Take advertising. Here, the emphasis will naturally be on coming up with text that is appealing and works in the culture the advert will appear in. No one particularly cares about whether the translated version is particularly “accurate” to the original. As longs as products get sold, why worry?

What about translated audio guide texts? Once again, things like readability, sentence length and even the time it would take to read become far more important than doing some kind of sentence by sentence content analysis to check all the “meaning” is still there.

Fair enough, conceded the majority of scholars (no doubt while most translators and interpreters sighed at how long it had taken researchers to cotton on), that still doesn’t completely answer the question. How do clients decide when translators and interpreters have gone too far? What about conference interpreting where time is tight and the “purpose” of a speech might be unclear?

Well, researchers have attempted to answer those questions; especially the second one and the answers have been somewhat surprising. Firstly, let’s deal with the least surprising result: in most cases, most clients seem to put a high priority on accurate interpreting. (Still, we might ask what they think “accurate” interpreting is, especially if they are monolingual…) Clients also want interpreters to use the right terminology and speak in a way that is easy to understand. So far, no real surprises.

When life got more interesting was when researchers decided to do a bit of digging to see if different clients wanted different things. It turns out that those working in the media prized clear and pleasant speaking even over accuracy. On the other hand, diplomats prized terminological accuracy. Even more surprising was that few, if any, clients seemed to lay stress on that great marker of professionalism: interpreter neutrality.

There are still a few issues with this work, however: almost all of the studies done so far have been relatively small scale, with the number of respondents rarely getting over 50. More to the point, those with statistical expertise have pointed out that clients seem to see lots of things as being equally important. Either they can’t decide between them or, much worse, the questions they have been set are not measuring what they think with any real degree of accuracy.

And so, we’d like to turn the whole issue and ask translators and interpreters what they think their clients want. So, over to you. Tell us what you think clients are after and, while you are at it, definitions of “accuracy” would be nice too. 😉