Friday, 24 August 2012

Translation (style) guides – guides to nowhere

In the translation industry, it is common practice for the clients to issue style guides that aim to provide a translator with specific instructions to follow when working on a project. These guidelines identify the purpose and the target audience of the translation; they may also enlist the terms that must stay in the source language, e.g. trade names. In essence, the purpose of style guides is to instruct the translator on the issues specific to this particular project.

Unfortunately, more often than not, this is just theory. Experience shows that clients misunderstand the role of translation guidelines making the following mistakes:

1.      They are written as if for beginners/amateurs.

Some of the style guides I received read like a study book for aspiring translators. It seemed as if the client wanted to educate the contractor on how to do the job. For example, they explained general rules of translating technical texts, giving examples of bad translations and comparing them with the good ones. This is basic knowledge that you could include in the first chapter of a book entitled “Introduction to Translation”. If you hire a professional to do a particular job, trust them. They should know their craft and be able to provide a high quality product. And if they don’t, teaching them the basics won’t help, neither will providing examples.

2.      They are too lengthy.

Mostly for the reason mentioned above. Extensive guidelines of let’s say over 20 pages with general instructions are a waste of time both for their writer and the reader. Unless there are special reasons behind such a lengthy guide, clients should limit themselves to a minimum. The bottom line is the shorter the better. Remember the KISS rule? Use it whenever you draft a style guide for translators.

The drawback of long guidelines is that reading them takes up too much precious time that could be otherwise spend on translation. Moreover, with so much information to digest, a translator may miss some of the important points.

3.      They do not take into consideration intricacies of the target language.

Each language is governed by its own rules. Take for example Polish - the language I translate into. It hates repetitions, whereas style guides repeatedly (pun intended!) instruct to use the same terms in one sentence or paragraph. In Polish, it sounds particularly artificial and simply horrible. Except for technical terms, almost every word has a few synonyms that very often have the same meaning and can easily be used as a substitution making the target text a much more pleasant read. The same can be said about pronouns, which are excellent to limit the number of repetitions. Still, clients insist that if a given term is used in the source text, it must appear in the target one the same number of times. I understand that consistency is key when it comes to terminology but the mental health of the reader is equally important.

Now a bit of a guidance to those drafting the style guides:

1.      Be brief. Lengthy guidelines take up too much time to read and are much more difficult to adhere to. Simple and concise instructions will do a much better job.

2.      Focus on specific instructions, avoid general advice. Professional translators know their craft.

3.      Don’t tell the translator how to translate. You’re in a client – contractor relation not a teacher – student one. If you are afraid that the project will be done by an inexperienced translator because they accepted a 0.02 USD per word rate, your ‘study book’ will not help at this stage.

4.      Be flexible. Bear in mind that some of your guidelines may not work in a particular language. In this case, you might want to listen to translator’s instructions especially if it’s their mother tongue and you are not particularly familiar with this language. Not saying that translators are always right, but they are aware of the intricacies and rules that govern the language they translate into.

5.      Respect translator’s work. By providing decent style guidelines, you’ll show that you value their work. In return, you will receive a top-notch translation exactly according to your instructions.


  1. I quite agree, Ewa. My heart sinks when I get a 20-page style guide for a one-hour job.

    One of my best client sends out a single-page guide attached to all its projects for medical regulatory affairs with very specific information:
    - how to translate names of institutions,
    - whether to translate fax headings,
    - how closely to follow a PDF layout,
    - which font and font size to use,
    - how to localise certain units and measurements.
    That's exactly what I need to know when I do a translation so it's a great help for me, and ensures consistency across all translations for the client. A win-win situation.

  2. Your client knows how to work with translators. A short and brief guide saves time for both of you. I agree with you; it's a win-win situation!

  3. I also think that some style guides are too lengthy. They are thick as books and impossible to read through completely if you still want to make the deadline. That said, I was asked by one client to participate in creating the style guide. The client asked the translators (we were a group of translators and editors for Swedish) to fill in the blanks after some structured and general headings. In my opinion this created a very useful and short style guide for this particular project, which is ongoing and has already lasted several years.

  4. How surprising! A client asking translators to participate in creating a style guide - this doesn't happen very often. You must have done a great job with the team, if it's all working well. Thanks for sharing your experience, Tess.