Translation Meltdown: How to Save Face When Things Go South

Translation Meltdown: How to Save Face When Things Go South

It has occurred to most of us and bound to happen to the lucky ones so far: You’re typing like mad on the keyboard, experiencing that trance-like state of translation nirvana where target words seem to magically appear onscreen, when all of a sudden your CAT (Computer-Assisted Translation) Tool or computer crashes and burns. You stop typing and stare at the screen for a while. Then, like a crescendo, it quickly sinks in and you go “Oh my God!” (or “OMG!” if you’re way younger than me.)

Now depending on the severity of the problem, you either (a) lost only a negligible amount of work, (b) lost a considerable amount of work, or (c) lost everything. If you have a type (a) problem then hey, stop slacking and finish the job already! If you’re out of luck and fall into type (b) or, even worse, type (c) then things get quite complicated and need to be dealt with in a special manner to avoid client relationship breakdown. This article’s purpose is to help you apply a kind of damage control for the last two problem types mentioned above, with the final objective being that of retaining your client and securing further translation projects coming your way.

But first, let me briefly outline the things you should not do in such situations, despite the urge of doing so:

  • Do not vanish
  • Do not underplay the situation
  • Do not provide cheap excuses
  • Do not promise unrealistic amendments

You should restrain from doing any of the above at all costs. Then, and only then, you’ll have a real chance of fixing the situation in the most professional way. Now we can proceed and see what it takes to make things good again.

Extra! Extra! Read All About It!

Yep, you’ve guessed correctly. You need to go full disclosure and let the client know immediately about the problem. Any delays doing so will lower your chances of correcting the situation, so make sure you contact them straightaway, especially if it’s business off-hours.

In such circumstances you should use the quickest contact route which, in most cases, is the telephone. In the event your client has called it a day and can’t be reached by landline or mobile phone, then you should immediately shoot out an email outlining the situation as clearly as possible, by which I mean stating the whole truth and nothing but the truth. Regardless of how bad the situation is, try and keep the tone of the communication as cool as possible; there’s no reason freaking out the client if this mess can be cleaned up within a reasonable timeframe. After you’ve explained the situation, make sure to end the phone call (or email) by saying that you’re looking into this and will update them shortly regarding the extent of the problem and whether it impacts or not the deadline.

Damage Assessment

With the client now in the loop, your next priority is to assess the situation. This process will give you a clear indication of the problem’s extent, allowing you to estimate the actual impact to the project and formulate the right follow-up response to the client. There are multiple angles in which you can approach this process, but none of these provide a 100% safe bet since they depend on prior user actions (i.e. keeping backups, having older translation files at hand etc.) Nonetheless, they’re your obvious starting points before you do anything else.

Checking for Recent Backups

Yeah, I know. Most probably you don’t have any recent backup, but any older backup that contains a trace of the project you were working on might help a lot. So before you throw this option out the window, be sure to check for such files in these suggested locations:

  • Your regular translation working folder
  • Your CAT Tool’s working folder (to locate this folder use the following search term in Google: “CAT Tool Name” project folder location)
  • Your Email application’s Inbox/Outbox folders
  • Your USB sticks or external hard disks

If you’re fortunate enough to find any part of your work regardless of the type—Translation Memory (aka TM), bilingual files, target files—you can move on to the next points which describe how to handle them.

Using an Older TM

If you have an older version of the project’s TM, then you also have the relevant translations that were inserted up to the date of its availability. Your mileage may vary, though, depending on how old this TM is. To get a quick idea of what this version of the TM has to offer to your current project, analyze your files using only this TM (make sure you’re using only this one by disconnecting/disabling any other TMs in your CAT Tool). If the analysis log shows any interesting results then you can pretranslate your files with it and continue your work (don’t forget to reconnect/enable the other TMs again).

Using Older Bilingual Files

Depending on these older bilingual files’ condition or your project’s setup, you have a few options to properly migrate the translations into your project. If you’re sure that these files are okay in terms of integrity and structure (i.e. they don’t differ in any way from the project’s original files other than containing translations) then you can work directly with them and continue the remaining work.

On the other hand, if you’re not sure about the files’ state or you can’t (or don’t know) how to bring them in your project’s CAT Tool environment, then you can apply a pre-translation process. This is possible by creating a blank TM or using your current working TM and importing the translations from these older bilingual files. After doing so, you can proceed and pre-translate your working files as described in Using an Older TM further above.

Though this abovementioned pre-translation process may seem suitable and simple, the circumstances (having older bilingual files) also allow the use of a more sophisticated approach that produces even better results. For example, in SDL Trados Studio you could use PerfectMatch and in memoQ the corresponding X-Translate feature (check your CAT Tool’s User Manual for more information on this topic). The procedure pre-translates the files using a specific set of criteria that guarantees that the resulting translations are accurate in terms of context. It then flags these segments as “Context Matches” (aka CMs) and locks them, moving them out of your way; in contrast, the simple pre-translation process flags them according to the match percent (i.e. 100% Match), and leaves them unlocked for you to review their context correctness.

In most cases, you could start with applying a PerfectMatch/X-Translate process and then proceed with a regular pre-translation; this way you can maximize your success rate and cover all possibilities as well.

Using Target Files

If you’ve found only older generated target files (non-bilingual files that contain only the translations in the original file layout and format), then you can use a CAT Tool’s alignment process to obtain a TM (or a TM export). Most modern CAT Tools have the alignment feature included in their environments so you should be able to apply the process right away (check your CAT Tool’s User Manual for more information on this topic). Be prepared, though, for some manual tweaking of the alignment results, something that’s usually required if you’d like to acquire the best possible outcome. The alignment process will generate a TM that you can use to complete the remainder of your translation work.

If in Doubt, Ask the Client

If the above described options seem too intimidating for you to perform, then seek the help of your client. Usually, they’ll know how to help you out when you provide them with any of the older files we mentioned previously. This is especially true when the client is a Translation or Localization company, in which case they’ll do all the heavy lifting and, at the end, provide you with the proper bilingual files to continue work on.

Mitigation Planning

To complete your assessment, and eventually make that follow-up contact with the client, you need to work out a presentable solution to the problem. In order to do this, you need to first calculate the actual impact this mishap has caused to the project’s deadline and, next, establish the best possible actions required to alleviate the situation.

Calculating Deadline Setback

With the help of the analysis log that was generated (see Damage Assessment further above), you can easily compute the remaining untranslated volume and, in turn, figure out the number of days the project has been delayed. For example, you could calculate the weighted word count to get that single magical number (see my post Word Counts, The Trados Discount Model & Weighted Words for details) and then divide it by your daily translation word count output:

Deadline Setback Calculation

The above equation will provide you with the day(s) required to finish the project. So, by adding this timeframe to your original deadline, you’ll come up with the extra number of days you’ll need to finish the project under your regular daily output.

Establishing Mitigation Actions

Having calculated the overall timeframe impact, your next move is to figure out the actions you can take to cover this ground as quickly as possible. Since these actions will be communicated to the client they should be reasonable and, most importantly, feasible.

The obvious starting point is to request an extension to the original project deadline. If you’re dealing with a true professional client then I’m sure they’ve included a buffer timeframe in their planning. They might not be able to give you the total amount of days you really need to complete the job, but any number of extra days will allow you to finish a good chunk of it.

Your next option, regardless whether you obtain a deadline extension or not, is to prepare physically and mentally for overtime work on the project. If you’re lucky and the damage is manageable, you could pull a few all-nighters and still make the original deadline. Otherwise, you’ll need to put that extra effort in overdrive mode until you reach the desired goal. Since you’ll be producing nearly double the amount of your daily output, be sure to make short and frequent breaks to keep weariness at bay.

Another appropriate action to consider is bringing in a trusted colleague with whom you can split the remaining translation work. And I really mean trusted; you don’t want to repeat twice the same fiasco. This will ease the burden of the task and help you move quickly towards the end goal of completing, at last, the project.

To complement the above actions, you should consider adding the option of partial (aka staggered) deliveries to the client. This will make your mitigation proposal seem more professional and allow the client to work on the delivered parts as they come in.

Last, it’s usually a good gesture to offer a discount to the client for all the trouble caused. Of course, the decision is yours to make, but keep in mind that they might apply a discount after all. So why not turn this into your advantage by providing a discount like a real professional, and look good at the same time?

Following-Up with the Client

With your mitigation plan all worked out, it’s time to contact the client and present the actual extent of the problem. As mentioned at the beginning of this article, be frank and explain exactly the degree of the issue at hand. Make sure you provide a clear overview of the situation.

Since you’ve covered the required steps in assessing the damage, provide the client with an outline of the process you followed so they can verify and acknowledge it. Inform them of the deadline setback too (as calculated based on the provided assessment). This approach will earn you additional points as a professional and, hopefully, help the client calm down a bit.

After presenting your assessment, your next move is to explain your mitigation plan. We already described this further above, so I’ll just outline the points here:

  • Request the best possible extension to the original deadline
  • Work overtime to cover the remaining work within the extended/current deadline
  • Share the remaining work with a trusted colleague
  • Provide partial deliveries
  • Consider applying a discount for the trouble caused

Most probably, after such a thorough presentation of the problem and its proposed resolution, the client will relent and allow you to proceed as you’ve suggested. In some cases, they might add a few pointers of their own on how to fix things, or even suggest taking some volume off of you to ease things even further.

In any case, by following the approach described in this article you’ll be acting as a true translation professional towards your clients. This quality will help distinguish your services from the competition and provide you with a steady translation workflow, regardless of that occasional work disaster.

Petro Dudi avatar
About Petro Dudi
Petro Dudi is an American expat residing the last two decades in Athens, Greece. His professional career revolves around the Translation & Localization Industry for more than 17 years, having translated or project managed numerous projects for tech giants such as Microsoft, IBM/Lotus, Adobe, Symantec, GE Energy, Caterpillar, Toshiba, LaCie, Canon, Sony, Nokia, Bosch, Siemens etc. Petro is also the author of "Translation 101: Starting Out As A Translator", and the creator of the "Translation101 Toolkit" software.
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