LanguageLine Blog

When Personal Preference Affects Language Translation

Written by Zac Westbrook | July 30, 2015

In Spanish there’s a saying “sobre gustos no hay nada escrito.”  Literally it means “about tastes nothing is written,” and while that’s about to change with this blog post, the sentiment of this Spanish idiom underscores a fundamental aspect of the translation experience.

If it isn’t clear already from the literal translation, the saying in Spanish conveys the idea that it’s hard to account for preference.  Whether it’s the color of the accent tile in a bathroom remodel project or how to phrase something during translation, what’s “best” is always going to be subject to someone’s opinion.  In the course of the translation process, this reality can sometimes give rise to awkward, tense situations where the topic of “quality” is unduly and unnecessarily thrust under the microscope. 

How personal taste enters the equation

If you are a language services buyer, it’s possible you have found yourself in a position where, after receiving a delivery from your provider, an internal language resource at your organization looks at it and sends you back a copy of the deliverable doused in red ink. You don’t read the language, but you trust your coworker and this looks bad... What do you do?  As with any transaction, confronting your vendor and raising concerns about the thing you’ve just purchased can be uncomfortable.  And, on the vendor side, it’s easy for translators to get defensive if the feedback they receive is taken out of context or otherwise misconstrued.

Process trumps preference

That said, feedback is an indispensable component of best practices in the translation process, and having a vendor who accepts and appreciates your feedback is critical to the long term success for your translation and localization program.  In order to facilitate this exchange between you and your vendor and maximize its effectiveness, it’s important to have a process established for sharing feedback and for understanding the nature of each round of feedback to be discussed.  In other words, before anyone reacts to the feedback, it’s important to understand what’s going on. 

  • Are the comments your coworker shared addressing bona fide translation errors or typos?
  • Are the changes your colleague is suggesting adding or subtracting information from the translation (compared to the English)?  
  • Are the changes simply re-phrasing something that is already perfectly fine on its own?
  • Is it possible that your co-worker may have inadvertently introduced a new error in their attempt to make revisions?

The answers to these questions will dictate how you and your vendor should proceed.  For example, although a good vendor will take every step possible to eliminate typos and other errors in their work, translation is nonetheless a human endeavor and subject to human error.  In such cases, a good vendor will graciously acknowledge their mistakes and make the necessary corrections quickly and for free. Other times, though, the issue(s) raised by your reviewer may not be so clear cut, and it’s not simply a matter of the language being “right” or “wrong.”  Most of the time, feedback about translation tends to be a matter of preference about style, form, or even substance.  

So what does it mean exactly if your vendor tells you that your coworker’s “corrections” are stylistic or preferential? 

Here’s an example to illustrate the crux of the matter.  Let’s say the message you want to convey is “Friends come and friends go, but a true friend sticks by you like family.”  Which of the following verses from different versions of the Bible best conveys this idea? (Note that these are themselves translations of the original Greek and Hebrew texts.)


King James

 New American Standard Bible

English Standard Version

New Living Translation

Proverbs 18:24

A man that hath friends must shew himself friendly: and there is a friend that sticketh closer than a brother.

A man of many friends comes to ruin, But there is a friend who sticks closer than a brother.

A man of many companions may come to ruin, but there is a friend who sticks closer than a brother.

There are "friends" who destroy each other, but a real friend sticks closer than a brother.

 As strange as some of these might sound, they are all proper English and all seem to be saying essentially the same thing.  So how do you decide which constitutes the best way to convey your message?  And, if two people disagree about that, who is “right”?  Hopefully it’s clear by now this is not necessarily a simple question.  Whether comparing these Bible verses or weighing your internal reviewer’s feedback against your translator’s word, determining the “right” way to say something depends on a whole array of variables and considerations.

How to make a balanced decision

In order to make good decisions in situations where there’s some difference in opinion about how to say something, you should be asking the following questions about both your target audience and whoever is offering an opinion about what’s “best.” 

  • Where do they live?
  • How old are they?
  • Where are they from?
  • What is their education level?  

Also, you should take into account the purpose of the content itself.  

  • Is it for marketing purposes or comprehension only?
  • Does the content have a short shelf life or will be circulated widely for time to come? 

Ideally, you and your team have already considered a lot of these questions when drafting your content in the first place.  If so, you’ll likely recall similar discussions during this phase when your team was constantly revising the English and “debating” how best to phrase something.  If not, you’ll find that feedback about translation often reveals more about the source content than anything else, and if some of these questions are being asked for the first time only after translation, it can be difficult to decide on the fly which direction to take with your translations.  Even the most organized and thorough content producers, though, can’t foresee all of the challenges posed by converting their text from one language to another.

Before you can consider the big picture and put the feedback you get about translations into perspective, you will likely need some help understanding the nature of the specific changes your reviewer has suggested, especially if you don’t speak the language.  Your vendor should be willing and able to help you analyze each comment from your reviewer and clarify whether or not there’s an error to be fixed, or if it’s just a matter of re-working the text stylistically. With this kind of information, you’ll be in a much better position to decide if a change is actually needed. 

In the short term, sharing and processing feedback will enable you and your translation vendor to get specific files ready for distribution.  In the long term, feedback promotes a collaborative working relationship and helps translators understand how they can better align their editorial choices with your needs and preferences.   Most importantly, having a framework in place that encourages this cooperation and fosters mutual understanding will prevent a lot of unnecessary tension and suspicion that can easily overtake discussions surrounding feedback.