In translation, as indeed in any business, the obvious and only key to retaining your clients is to provide them with high-quality products and services, but this is far more complicated than it sounds. You will first need to have a very clear picture of exactly what determines the quality of translation services, and then map the procedures you need to safeguard the quality thus defined. These two steps are the subject of a different publication by the same author (‘Quality Assurance in the Translation Business’). In the present article, we will discover that the fundamental quality factor for customer retention in the translation business is long-term consistency in translation choices.
In a commercial context, there are essentially three factors that determine the quality of a translation. First, the translation must be available within the deadline by which the client needs its. Second, the translation must reflect the client’s professionalism. This means it must be completely authentic, written in a suitable style and register and entirely free from language errors. Third, the text must be suitable for the client’s needs. Generally speaking, this means your translation must serve to promote the client’s market reputation, help him attract business and be oriented towards his envisaged readership, by which we mean that the audience should be able to understand the text and to relate it to other, previous texts as part of the client’s uniform communication approach.
One aspect that sets translation services apart from many other lines of business is that every next order for the same client is a sequel to the previous one. What your client buys from you is not so much a series of individual products, but sections of a single, huge product – a convincing and coherent expression of himself in a different language – that is built up in the course of time. So to retain a new client for your company, the second time he places a translation order you will have to incorporate the first translation into your procedures for processing the second. In the third order you will have to integrate both the first and the second, etcetera. This is because more than anything else, professional clients value and indeed demand consistency in style and terminology. If this sounds rather abstract, the following example will illustrate our point. If, in a translation for a tax consultancy, you use the term ‘Tax Office’ in one translation and ‘National Revenue’ in the next – for example because you needed two different translators for the two orders – your client and his audience will be confused and will rate your performance on the second order lower than on the first, which may well be a reason for them to look for a different agency with a better eye for consistency – even though both Tax Office and National Revenue are perfectly acceptable in English. Of course this need for consistency and uniformity applies not only to individual words or phrases, but to your client’s overall multilingual communication strategy. This goes to show that to build up a long-term relationship with a particular client it is essential from a quality perspective to realise that you are not providing a series of separate products, but a single cumulative product over time, and that for each new order you will have to draw upon the entire body of knowledge – the corpus if you like – amassed in all your previous translations for that client.
There are various tools available that will help you achieve this degree of consistency. The most important of these is modern translation software. By this we do not mean translation programs – which are entirely worthless – but tools that help translators identify similarities between different source texts over time and supply existing translations from a translation memory. These tools work on the level of both separate terms and longer text passages or indeed entire document files. Another great thing about this software is that it recognises identical or similar sections in source texts even if the client himself is not aware of any similarities. For any self-respecting translator or translation agency, working without this type of translation software has become almost inconceivable.
Another quite useful, supplementary tool is the use of shared online terminology databases such as those based on the framework offered by Google on Google Documents & Spreadsheets. This extremely user-friendly facility enables you to build up wordlists for individual clients that grow ‘organically’ through contributions from multiple translators, revisers and client staff. Aside from its huge practical benefits, this technique also actively involves your client in the translation process and enables you to benefit from his expertise in the course of a project.
The use of multiple translators is unavoidable, especially in the case of large clients, but it jeopardises your ability to provide consistent translations. To overcome this problem, flexible translation memories, organic online databases and other instruments of this kind have become part and parcel of modern-day translating and are essential for any translation agency that aims to build long-term relationships with its clients. Those clients expect your business to help them ensure a uniform and recognisable approach in all of their communications, and they will increasingly assess your performance on consistency as a crucial prerequisite for continued cooperation. Combined with the speed and pressure of modern translation, this really makes it crucial for any translation agency to abandon fragmented, manually created personal wordlists and to merge its translation corpus in a shared memory that automatically presents previous translation choices and opens up the client archive for reference purposes to benefit all parties involved – your business, your translators and your client.