Sunday, May 30, 2021

A Guide for the Perplexed – Posing questions on professional translator forums


[The four children of Pesach*]

Professional forums are a vital resource connecting people  with questions to experts. In translation, they serve as an important tool in locating translators, ascertaining the translation of difficult terms and confirming specific translations. Unfortunately, due to phrasing issues, many posers of these legitimate queries only receive answers after a long series of follow-up questions if at all. For the forum poster that does not know how to ask, I propose some tips for improving the post in order to receive quick, relevant answers.

Both the posting party and translators are happy to see available jobs posted on forums but these notices often suffer from insufficient information regarding the language combination, subject area, length, deadline and purpose. Clearly, if the post mentions only one language, e.g., English, without clearly designated the source and target language, responders will keep on asking even if the same issue was clarified later in the comments. Interested translators also need to know the subject area as nobody is proficient in all matters. In terms of length, if the document is in Word, it is best to provide the word count specified on the bottom of the page. If the document is in PDF, an approximate count provided by any PDF converter is sufficient. Only if neither of these are available or the document is a standard official document should the number of pages be referenced only as the number of words on a page can greatly vary depending on the font and spacing. Providing the actual deadline saves time and energy for both the poster and translator as only those available for the task will respond. Finally, an additional element immediately appreciated by translator and later by customers is the actual purpose of the document, which influences the required level of expertise, time required and price proposal. A request for translation with all these elements generally receives timely and relevant responses.

Translators use these forums to receive suggestions for translating difficult terms or phrases. This practice is legitimate on condition that the posting translator protects confidentiality, provides sufficient context, exercises due diligence and applies moderation. As a standard procedure, most translation customers formally or informally insist on the confidentiality of their material. When providing the term or its context, it is vital to redact all identifying or commercially sensitive information from the text. While failing to do so generally does not result in legal action, it may create a highly unpleasant and avoidable situation. Of vital importance is the providing of the total context of the term, as much as possible, including the subject area, document type and accompanying text. Otherwise, those translators willing to help can only guess. Regarding due diligence, the inability to translate a specific term generally results from forgetting or not knowing. In the first case, professional translators should find a colleague with whom it is possible to pose “stupid” questions after conducting a proper Internet search. The use of a trusted, non-judgmental partner saves embarrassment and avoids creating a poor impression on the forum. As for those terms beyond a translator’s area of knowledge, translators are expected to invest some time and effort in a directed, thorough search as it is quite probable that a reliable answer is available online. In other words, a query to a forum should be the last, not the first option. Finally, forum help should not be a replacement for subject knowledge. If a translator posts a list of multiple terms, many of them basic to the field, the intuitive reaction is that the translator should not have taken on the translation, not a positive impression. In practice, the length of the document and difficulty of the terms will influence whether the request is exaggerated or not but, as Oscar Wilde said, moderation in all things, including moderation.

A third, quite legitimate use of translator forums is to confirm the choice of translation. All of the elements above apply here but the motivation and dialogue are different. To explain, professional translators ideally strive to be 100% certain of their choices, especially in regards to  key terms and phrases. In many cases, only subject  field experts have the knowledge to confirm the translation. The best approach is to provide the term, context and the proposed solution or solutions. Often no exact translation exists, only close approximates, which leads to interesting dialogues regarding the relative merits of each option. Since the poster seeks a definitive answer, responders should avoid posting educated guesses. Discretion is the better part of valor.

During the Passover sedar, Jews read about four types of Torah scholars: the wise, the wicked, the simple and the one that does not know how to ask questions. When posing questions in professional forums, including translation forums, people posing notices in a forum should aim to be the first, applying due diligence and providing all the required information so that they receive the effective and efficient enlightenment regarding their perplexing matter.

* Picture captions help the blind access the Internet. Picture from Boulder Jewish News.


  1. Excellent suggestions. Sadly, the ones who most need to read them will probably not do so, or if they do ignore them.
    Thanks for your sagacity.

  2. Any improvement is welcome. Thank you.

  3. Illuminating. Concur with Ruchie.