Lessons in Translation

Translation is a uniquely demanding feature in that once it’s launched, you have to keep it alive or kill it off altogether. When your new feature is a language, you’re committing your entire company to the continuous task of creating copies of all future product launches. One page or product now requires several versions that will each need individual consideration and care. When you embark on a translation project, you need to understand what it will mean for every aspect of your business.

For the past few months I’ve had the opportunity to help manage Kickstarter’s translation project. It’s an admittedly peculiar challenge to orchestrate a project with content you don’t understand. If you are a monolingual Project Manager, like myself, you can utilize your communication skills to try to coordinate all the moving parts the best you can. But, ultimately, you need to trust the people that you employ to complete the project, ask the right questions, and keep a continual pulse on the status of how the project is progressing before it’s too late to change things up that aren’t working.

I’m proud to report that Kickstarter has become available in three new languages and opened up project creation to eight new countries over the past two months. Each new country launch brought particulars to address for each new market, but only a few teams were affected and only a few site pages needed to be updated. However, each language launch spanned multiple markets and affected each aspect of the site and every team at Kickstarter. Again, before you decide to localize, do your research so that you fully comprehend what you are committing to.

Here are some lessons I’ve learned from the whirlwind of translating Kickstarter into German, French and Spanish:

Translation Services

1. Sit down with all the necessary stakeholders and come to an agreement about how to conduct your translation project.

What is the scope of the project? What is your budget? Which people will work on it? Do you have enough content to warrant contracting a third party translation company or do you just need to hire a one time translator contractor?

At Kickstarter we had a good amount of site content (100,000 words or so) but we also wanted to ensure that the quality of our translated copy was on the same level as our English copy. We started out with a third party translation service which would supply a first round of translation as well as proofreading services. We also wanted an additional stage of review to be completed by a contracted freelancer. The hope was that this process could be both quick and thorough.

2. Invest the time to vet possible translation companies that will suit your product.

Your relationship with this company is paramount to your success! Do several rounds of testing to ensure that they understand your company’s style so that you don’t end up having to have translations redone after negative feedback from your community or internal reviewers.

After we hired freelancers to help with the review stage for each language, I consistently heard feedback from these contractors that the translations the company was providing were too stiff and formal for Kickstarter’s tone. The freelancers were spending more time editing the initial round of translations than they would have had they just done them themselves. This strongly suggested that the editing round was not resulting in higher quality translations and that we were paying for an unnecessary round of proofreading. I made a quick decision to have the company only do the first round of translation, removing the editing step altogether. It was too late to vet and contract another translation company so we made do with what we had.

When the new languages were live and it came time to think about who would complete ongoing translations, the company wanted to charge us a minimum to check in with our content daily. I argued that we had quicker and higher quality services from our freelancers and advocated that we extend their contracts for ongoing work. We wrapped up our work with the translation company, letting them know that we’d be in touch if we had a big project in the future.

I’m happy with my decision to rely on quality of translation and communication over a quantity of available translators. It’s been much easier to communicate with freelancers that I personally know and trust and a bonus that we’ve been able to ensure new content is translated daily at a lower cost.

3. Make sure you iron out all the specifics related to reporting before the project begins.

Ideally you should generate some test reports for the translation service before they start their paid work. Getting on the same page about how your translation tool factors in Translation Memory discounts and attributes translation to a particular translator is best worked out ahead of time. Clarify your finance team’s invoicing needs. Then make sure that all information regarding reporting and billing is comprehensive and clearly stated in your contract.

4. Really onboard your translators.

In addition to learning about your product from your website, try to think creatively about how translators can get a sense of your company culture and your mission statement. The teams and individuals that are working to translate your product should know as much as you can tell them on paper and ideally learn about your company in person. The more they feel acquainted with your product and the spirit of your office and team, the better!

Our freelancer translators worked in and out of our office during the pre-launch phase of the project. It was invaluable for them to be able to get to see the office, our faces, and to get acquainted with the spirit of Kickstarter. We utilized the translator’s time in office by setting up meetings with internal language specialists who would be communicating with our German, French and Spanish communities. Our translators helped give our specialists initial translation tips and the two parties were able to discuss particular translations for critical words to Kickstarter’s brand.

Being able to troubleshoot and discuss translation conundrums in person was more efficient than trying to communicate through a screen and resulted in the freelance translators feeling a part of a team and caring more about our product.

Internal practices

1. You are not just making a 1:1 copy of your product.

There’s a reason you’re not using Google Translate. Recognizing that there are subtle nuances in grammar and meaning in different languages is imperative for the complete success of any translation project. Encouraging translators to provide consistent feedback will help you gauge how strongly they feel about a certain issue and help direct how your team prioritizes its time. Make sure you’re asking for input and demonstrating your willingness to incorporate it into the product.

2. Create clear, concise documentation.

There are many different players that will work directly on the translation project or have questions about how the translation request process works. You will save yourself time and also help your company out by documenting everything related to translation.

If you vetted several translation companies at the beginning of the project, take and save intelligible notes about the feedback. Write down all the information about any freelance contractors you have. Create guides for how to use your translation tool so that any set of fresh eyes could figure out how to navigate the program. Map out the point people to know and who to talk to for what step of the translation process. Try to make sure as many translation requests go through your translation tool as possible so that you have a record of the content and you continue to contribute to the Translation Memory.

Create comprehensive documents with a new audience in mind so that someone could take over the project at anytime.

3. All teams that touch Product or Communications should have Translation on their checklist.

It’s one thing having the translation process and best practices documented; it’s another thing to make sure people follow these processes. Think of all the people at your company who will be in charge of releasing new features and products that will need to consider translation in their workflow. Schedule meetings with these people to give them an overview of how translation works and how it affects them.

You’ll probably find that people need to be taught how the translation process works several times and that most people won’t learn how to make translation requests until they actually have something to ship. Be patient and open to ensure that everyone feels comfortable asking questions. Be persistent with team leads that translation should be incorporated into their workflow so that it is never a last minute consideration or forgotten altogether.

4. Make sure language specialists roles are clearly defined

If your company decides to hire full time employees to communicate with your new markets, determine how translation affects their role. Is it 50% of their role? Is it something they will need to think about daily? Weekly? Make sure that when you hire language specialists (who might be more excited to do another function of their job over their translation work) that they are aware of the extent of their translation responsibilities.

Kickstarter hired a Support and Integrity language specialist for every language launch. These specialists were first trained to become skilled in Support and Integrity work in English before thinking about how they would need to interact with our user base in another language. Once it came time to learn how the translation project affected their work it was clear that some people were uncomfortable with the idea of being asked to translate copy that would be displayed prominently. They knew that part of their job was to write to people 1-to-1 but didn’t feel that they had been hired to be copywriters. We agreed and while language specialists help review translations daily, they are not responsible for producing copy for the site.

That said, it was helpful for the language specialists to be involved with the site core translation so that they were aware of the correct vocabulary and style that they should be echoing in their 1-to-1 interactions with the Kickstarter community. Hire specialists before your translation project begins to take advantage of early involvement.

In Closing:

Extending your reach and becoming more inclusive by investing in translation resources is a great thing! My hope is that these anecdotes will help you decide if you’re ready for this challenge and provide useful tips and best practices if you find you are. Best of luck!