Translation Brief: The Starting Point to Great Translations

The quality of a translation largely depends on the ability to collect and write an effective translation brief – the first part of any translation process.

Micael Pinto • February 28, 2020
Micael Pinto • February 28, 2020
Notepad with a checklist

The translation brief first appeared within the framework of skopos theory, which is a functionalist approach to translation. This type of approach consists of a “methodological approach where the translator’s decisions are governed by the intended function of the target text or any of its parts” (Nord, 1997).

The translation brief is a set of instructions and specifications that the requester (direct client or translation agency) compiles and sends to the translator. Collecting a translation brief is particularly important when you are working for the first time with a certain requester in order to understand what they intend to do with the target text.

However, the truth is that often the requester doesn’t provide a translation brief or provides a poor one, which impacts the translator’s performance and the translation’s quality. Given that, it is in the interest of both to come up with a proper translation brief.

Also, I would like to stress that the translation brief doesn’t replace a contract. Always work under proper contracts in order to avoid scams, non-compliances and other similar issues.

Why Write a Translation Brief?

The short answer: both the requester and the translator want a high-quality translation that fulfills the requester’s needs.

The not-much-longer answer: the more information the translator has regarding the source text and what the requester wants to do with the target text, the easier it will be for the translator to produce a translation that meets their expectations.

But what type of information should a translation brief include?

How to Write a Translation Brief?

If you don’t have the opportunity to create a translation brief together with your requester, the best solution is to send them a document they can fill and send you back. The translation brief may vary from requester to requester. Moreover, once you are familiar with that requester it may be no longer needed to ask for a translation brief, or at least not one as detailed because you already know their overall needs.

Of course, your list may also vary according the specialties/text types you work with. You can have a translation brief model and then personalize it depending on the situation or requester.

Below there’s a list of what you should include in your translation brief in order to make the most of it – whether you are a translator or a requester. I am going to write it from the translator’s perspective (the questions side).

Short and Sweet

The translation brief should be straight to the point. Don’t waste your requester’s time nor your own. Only ask relevant questions.

Language Pairs

Which language pairs and variants does the requester want the source text to be translated into?

Target Audience

Who are the intended readers of the target text? Ask the requester to include the target audience’s characteristics such as age, profession, interests, literacy level, subject knowledge level and other information that you or the requester might find relevant.

Text Type

Which is the text type? Different text types require different approaches regarding, for example, discourse and structure level.

Purpose

What is expected to be achieved with the translation? It can be to inform, sell or simply entertain. The options are endless and it’s important to know what the requester intends to do.

Source Files

Ask for all the source files that include the content to be translated. Make sure you can handle the provided files format and layouts.

Glossaries

Ask the requester if they have any glossaries available. They should also include which terms must be left in the source language.

Translation Memory

Can the requester provide a relevant translation memory for this project? Great! On the other side, if there isn’t any translation memory available, it is a good idea to create one for this requester/project.

Style Guide

The requester should include here everything regarding the tone, style, standards and best practices.

Reference Material

Here goes any type of reference material such as parallel texts, which may be helpful for the translator during the translation process.

Deadlines

It’s important to know when the requester expects to receive the translation in order for you to price the job and organize your work.

Comments

In this section the requester can make any type of comments or add information that didn’t fit other sections.

The Thirty-Nine Steps

The Institute of Translation & Interpreting has published a single-page document called The thirty-nine steps, which gathers 39 questions you need to ask yourself when undertaking a translation. It is a good idea to have this document around when creating your translation brief model and before delivering your translation.

Must the translator Strictly Follow the Translation Brief?

According to Nord (1997), “the translation brief does not tell the translator how to go about their translating job, what translation strategy to use or what translation type to choose. These decisions depend entirely on the translator’s responsibility and competence” (p. 30).

Naturally, the requester may not be a translator and be unaware of what the translation process actually is. In this case, it is important to not take the brief as an “absolute truth” to follow. A good translator knows how and when to get the most out the translation brief and match it with the translator’s needs.

As “translation is still a service that depends on a high degree of trust between the translator and the client” (Biau Gil & Pym, 2006), it’s important and convenient that the requester gives the translator the freedom to use the translation brief how they feel best to use.

In the end, that’s why the requester is contacting a professional to get the work done.

What If the client Provides a Poor Translation Brief?

Creating a translation brief is not an exact science. Even if you have a good translation brief model, the requester may not be so helpful or have little information available.

In fact, it is absolutely normal that someone who is for the first time looking for translation services has no idea of what a translation brief is and why it is required. Most of the times, they don’t even know what the translation process consists of, which is completely normal.

You can also divide the translation brief into two parts. First you ask the more general and relevant questions. Then you check the content to be translated and, based on the answers and on that content, you make more specific questions. This will help you to not overcharge the requester’s mind.

In the end it’s up to you to decide which way to go. I am sure that your professional experiences will also help you find out what is better for you and your clients.

Concluding

Everyone loves a good translation brief. It always comes in handy by saving you time and helping you enhance quality.  However, only an educated client will take the time to talk with you and provide a good translation brief.

I also believe that it is part of the translator’s job to educate their clients. But what does it take to educate a client?

  • Briefly explain to the client what the translation process consists of.
  • Explain why a translation brief is important.
  • Create a good relationship with the client.

Naturally, everyone wants to have good clients. Educating them is part of the journey.

References

Biau Gil, J. R., & Pym, A. (2006). Technology and translation (a pedagogical overview).

Nord, C. (1997). Translation as a Purposeful Activity. Manchester, England: St. Jerome Publishing

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Micael Pinto
Micael Pinto

English and French to Portuguese translator and co-founder of Alumiar Elísio. Currently attending a master's degree in Specialized Translation.

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