by Deborah Wexler
According to Merriam-Webster, “Homeostasis is a relatively stable state of equilibrium or a tendency toward such a state between the different but interdependent elements or groups of elements of an organism, population, or group.”
In our field, the goal of translation agencies should be to grow and achieve maturity through homeostasis.
Let me explain. Any translation agency or language service provider― defined as an intermediary between clients and linguists― should want to reach maturity: to be able to have a long-lasting and stable relationship with both human components with a minimum amount of chaos.
Imagine an agency with a cohesive group of seasoned translators who work well as a team within a peer review system, with almost no linguist turnover, and deliver top-quality files on time with minimal management intervention. That should resonate with everybody, right? But how can this be achieved?
I think this homeostasis can be achieved by using an open-feedback loop that fosters collaboration and growth. Let’s analyze our feedback options first.
In double-blind systems― where the translator doesn’t know the reviewer’s name and vice versa― the translator is isolated within a closed cell, stuck with receiving and passing questions or comments through the manager’s hands, which end up being a trickle instead of a flow. On the other side, the reviewer constantly feels frustrated by the translation’s lack of evolution― not by an individual’s lack of improvement, but by the group as a mass, since the reviewer has no way of knowing whose work he or she is reviewing every day and which translator is learning from the feedback. And the situation only gets worse. The reviewer thinks, “this agency has terrible translators. They never learn. I keep writing the same comments month after month. Management
doesn’t care. They don’t give translators feedback. This is a nightmare. I’ve got to find better clients.”
In single-blind systems― where the reviewer knows the translator’s name but not the other way around― for the translator, things are the same as in the double-blind system: even when they absorb some of the feedback, there is no chance to collaborate with the reviewer, create a relationship with him or her, start feeling part of a team, or even ask frank follow-up questions (who wants a manager to be the go between them and a reviewer?). For the reviewer, the frustration is much higher because it’s targeted, and implicit bias is triggered. The reviewer thinks, “I know this translator. He produces drivel. He doesn’t listen. I keep writing the same notes for him month after month. The agency probably doesn’t give him my feedback. Writing comments to him is such a waste of time. I’ll request not to be paired with him ever again. They keep pairing me with the garbage translator. I’ve got to find better clients.”
In open systems, which do not mask the identities of the linguists, there can be a collaborative effort between translator and reviewer, and a relationship starts to form. The opportunity for mutual learning is present, and the situation only gets better. The reviewer thinks, chronologically, “this translator produces garbage. Wow, I wrote 10 notes for her last week and she learned all of the rules. It’s rewarding to review this translator’s work because she listens and learns. There were no mistakes in this file; therefore, I will spend a bit of time trying to polish the style so this translation truly shines for my partner. I hope they keep pairing me with her. Working with this company is a dream.”
The open-feedback system
Yes, I know it’s difficult to manage an open system due to conflicts and differences of opinion between linguists, but in my experience, the pros outweigh the cons.
In a perfect world, the reviewer would not have to send much feedback to the translator, but that’s not what happens. Often, the reviewer is dealing with inexperienced linguists, or linguists who are new to the end-client’s preferences, etc., and a certain amount of education needs to be passed along to them.
The main problem is the negative perception of feedback:
1. The translators feel stressed with notes and feedback. They think the manager will think badly of them. They feel compelled to fight every note, every suggestion.
2. The reviewers also feel stressed, and more so when the notes they send are called out as incorrect by the translator.
3. Both spend most of their time defending their decisions— and ego—instead of collaborating to create a better product.
A way to counteract that negative effect is to clearly define objectives and responsibilities and get everybody
on board with the concept of the open feedback loop:
1. The reviewer is responsible for writing notes in a respectful, formal, unemotional and structured way. The organized feedback has additional weight because it can become reference material.
2. The translator is responsible for reading the feedback, responding to it, maintaining it in one location, and referencing it before starting a new project.
3. The manager is responsible for tracking the learning curve of the translator and fostering a work environment geared towards learning. The manager can make a huge difference in helping the translator understand that feedback is a normal part of the process, and not always related to lack of quality or inexperience.
If these three objectives are achieved, the team will grow and stabilize not only thanks to the relationship created by the open loop between translator and reviewer, but because the mistakes will start to disappear and the rough edges will start to soften. When this happens, the reviewer won’t be spending half the reviewing time writing notes and will focus on polishing the text. When you only need to suggest style changes in the collaborative product created by the reviewer-translator partnership, the resulting translations are impeccable.
One quality that must be present is humility. The translators must accept all feedback with their heads and not their guts. No visceral reaction needs to occur when reading the feedback, which will not have been written viscerally. It is not the same experience to receive this comment, “your translation is garbage,” as opposed to simply stating, “the phrase ‘spill tea’ means ‘gossip.’” Ego should be secondary to learning.
If there was ever a place where the phrase, “you catch more flies with honey than vinegar” was more applicable, it’s in the translation feedback loop.
Summing up, these are some of the rules that will allow the open feedback loop to succeed:
1. Review should be objective.
2. Notes should not contain judgment or opinions, just clear statements.
3. Communications should be respectful.
4. Disagreement should be confined to the facts of the issue.
5. Notes should be kept and reread until they are learned and retained.
6. Openness and willingness to learn should be part of the work environment.
7. Tools should be implemented to help the retention of feedback, whenever possible.
Maturity through homeostasis is a great goal to pursue. It fosters an environment where linguists want to be better for their team. You should try it. It works. It has worked for me.