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Tricks of the Trade: Tips for Finding a Translator

Tricks of the Trade: Tips for Finding a Translator

BISNIS Bulletin, U.S. Department of Commerce, June 2002

Author: Natalie Shahova

How much does one letter of the alphabet cost? As much as $10,000, a Russian forest products executive learned to his chagrin. He lost twice that sum as a result of a translator's error in the contract for a delivery of wood chips to an overseas customer. Because the translator ignored the letters "BD" in the abbreviation BDMT (bone-dry metric tons), the supplier delivered several tons of wet wood chips, and the money he received for the reduced tonnage-after the chips were dried out-didn't even cover his shipping costs.

That is just one example of how costly miscommunication with foreign partners can be. Americans entering the Russian market must be attuned to problems associated with the language barrier.

When Do You Need a Translator?
Operating on the Russian market, American companies have various translation needs. Among the types of documents they work with are letters, product manuals, advertising materials, contracts, and market surveys. Some of these need to be translated from English into Russian and some from Russian into English. And while letters are just working tools and don't have to be perfect, translations of contracts must be very accurate, while ads need to be translated with some flair. These differences determine which translator is needed for a given job.

There are several options. Most working documents (letters, reports) can be written in either English or Russian-whichever you require-by Russian employees who know English. However, to create documents that are accurate and consistent in two languages (such as contracts), or to translate texts that have to sound absolutely native (such as ads), you need the help of professional translators. And, as the example of the wet wood chips shows, the ones you hire must also be familiar with your type of business in order to handle standard terms and abbreviations. So, rule number one for translation jobs: Hire a professional translator, preferably one who specializes in your area.

Contrary to a common belief that any translator can translate in either direction between two languages, most translators are good only at translating into their native language. That's why rule number two reads: Hire Americans to translate into English and Russians to translate into Russian. Russian companies often break this rule and engage Russians to translate into English. You can see the results on many Russian websites, where, for example, visitors are urged, "Right us please!" You wouldn't want to risk ending up with an equivalent Russian mistake in your ad.

Finding a Translator
Choosing among Russians, you have two options: Russian expats living in the United States or Russia-based translators. The former usually have a better knowledge of English and of the American environment, so they can better understand the nuances of your English original. The latter, however, are more fluent in contemporary Russian. They can produce more idiomatic translations, as well as help with another dimension of a translated text-localization. Will your advertisement say what you intend it to say in the social and cultural setting of your audience? For instance, a local Russian translator would surely have warned a Swiss sewing-machine manufacturer against promoting its product in Moscow with the slogan it used at home: Dependable as a bank! In Switzerland, the comparison would evoke that country's famously rock-solid financial institutions, but it sounds a bit dubious to Russian citizens after the 1998 financial crisis.

It is often assumed that Russia-based translators are cheaper than others, but nowadays that is true only to a certain extent. The cost of translation services in the Russian market varies more widely than in the United States. It's true that, especially outside Moscow, you can find translators who charge five or even 10 times less than Americans, but most of them-with rare exceptions-are either novices (are you ready to take a risk?) or produce poor quality of work. The recent wide and rapid spread of the Internet in Russia has given Russian translators access to the international market, so highly qualified professionals usually can offer their services worldwide and thus price them at standard international rates. Rule number three: If you pay peanuts, you get monkeys.

Having established these criteria, the next question is where to find reliable, qualified translators. The short answer is through reliable organizations like the American Translators Association, or from friends and acquaintances with experience. There are also two other approaches that may be helpful, though time-consuming. First, you can use Internet search engines to collect information about freelancers and/or agencies, and then contact the ones you select. Secondly, you can publish an ad-either online or in print-inviting translators to send you short samples of their work in the relevant area (usually one or two pages of an original, with its translation, will suffice). However, these methods take a lot of time and effort. Whichever method you choose, keep in mind that you need a person who combines a good knowledge of both English and Russian with extensive experience in your area of business.

All this legwork will give you a generous payback. First of all, the Russian Consumer Rights Law requires that any product sold in the country come with instructions in Russian. And the need for Russian documentation is especially great, because knowledge of foreign languages in general, and English in particular, is not widespread in Russia. That's why comprehensive and well-worded Russian announcements, descriptions, and manuals will give you a significant competitive advantage in the Russian market.

Natalie Shahova is managing director of EnRus Translation Agency (www.enrus.ru) in Moscow.