Finding positives in the negative: How to deal with translation feedback

This month, we launched our own internal Linguistic Quality Assurance (LQA) process, which involves reviewing the work of a number of translators each week. Even though we already have a tight handle on translation quality by employing in-house translators, and also project managers who are native speakers of the languages they manage, we still felt that with the growing number of words we translate each month, it would be prudent to regularly check our work to maintain the high-quality standard of translation we promise our customers. At the same time, we also wanted to provide more regular structured feedback to our translators.

Often, when working for translation agencies or even direct clients, freelance translators don’t receive any feedback. If the work wasn’t quite up to scratch, the translator simply won’t be offered any more work. Which is unfortunate, because it doesn’t give the translator the opportunity to learn from mistakes and improve over time. Feedback is part and parcel of the professional working life. In our office, for example, our in-house translators receive training when they first start, followed by quarterly reviews and annual appraisals to discuss their progress, performance and personal development. Freelancers rarely get the same amount of feedback.

Not receiving any feedback can often leave translators assuming that ‘no news is good news’. As the translator, you might think everything is fine since you didn’t hear anything to the contrary. But that’s not necessarily true, because an agency or a client might just not give you any more work because they weren’t happy with the quality you delivered, and simply don’t tell you because it’s less hassle for them (collating feedback and dealing with the response to the feedback takes time). Receiving feedback, positive and negative, is therefore crucial for you as the translator so that you can be certain you are on the right track with your translations and can continue to secure work from that client or agency. Receiving positive feedback is the easy part, but dealing with negative feedback can be a little daunting.

Receiving negative feedback

Research has actually shown that people who are better at handling negative feedback tend to be more successful – and those that can’t are less so. Regarding negative feedback not as a bad omen or something to be scared of, but rather as fuel for personal growth, can help us become better translators.

Management Coach Wendy Birks says: “Receiving negative feedback on your work, a piece that you have put your heart and soul into is always tough, but you shouldn’t see it from the point of view that you are being criticised. Feedback is an essential part of any working relationship whether that is manager to employee or customer to translator. People see negative feedback as a ‘bad’ thing but a small adjustment to your mindset can change that.”

I remember when I first started out as a translator and received a negative feedback. I was absolutely mortified and immediately questioned myself, my ability to translate and pretty much my whole universe in general. But after about ten minutes, with the knot in my stomach slowly starting to dissolve, I started to look at the feedback again, this time a bit more objectively, and looked at the actual criticisms that were made. And it wasn’t so bad. Some points were justified and the reviewer made some good suggestions, others were more preferential changes. In hindsight, I learned so much from that one piece of negative feedback, it really helped me to become a better translator.

Even though it’s easier said than done, the first thing to do when receiving negative feedback is to take a deep breath, try not to worry and remember these things:

  1. Negative feedback is not a judgement of you as a person or your overall work as a translator – feedback tends to be about a specific piece of work you delivered.
  2. The fact that someone has taken the time to collate this feedback and send it to you means that they value your work overall and most likely want to continue to work with you.
  3. Receiving negative feedback is an opportunity to learn and improve.
  4. Remember that the feedback came from another person, who also has feelings and job responsibilities.

Analysing negative feedback

The next step is to analyse the feedback. It’s really important to look at the feedback objectively, leaving out any emotions. And I don’t just mean your own emotions. Sometimes the negative feedback itself can include emotions, for example if the customer/project manager was angry or upset when writing the feedback. In such a case, you have to ‘strip back’ any of the emotional comments and focus on the actual feedback that was provided. In the cold light of day, was the feedback justified? Can you see the reviewer’s point of view? Work your way through the list of comments and make a note for each one. Do you agree or disagree? And why?

Wendy says: “In my experience, people do not enjoy giving negative feedback and it is not given to be malicious. Negative feedback or constructive criticism is given so the individual involved can grow and learn. If a client felt you did a superb piece of work you would want to know about it and the same rules apply if you did a piece of work that was mediocre – you would want to know about it.”

Responding to negative feedback

How you react to negative feedback is a crucial part of the process, both for your own personal development but also in order to maintain healthy, long-term relationships with your clients. Hopefully, the feedback will have provided you with some constructive input on your translation. Whether or not you personally agree with all the changes, you have to acknowledge the feedback in a professional manner, and demonstrate that you will take it on board. Here are my tips on how to write a good feedback response email.

1) Take your time

Don’t respond immediately. I’ve seen it time and time again that our project managers send a feedback email and get a response within two minutes, the response often being very emotional and defensive. It’s natural to be upset or defensive as your first emotional response to criticism. But the point is, it really is only the first response. At that moment, you haven’t allowed yourself to look at the feedback objectively yet. So, hold off pressing the Reply button and let the feedback sink in before you respond.

2) Think of the bigger picture

Before you start writing your response, try to think of the bigger picture, i.e. your relationship with that customer or agency. Do you value the relationship and would like to continue working for them? This will help you to put this one piece of feedback into the context of your overall working relationship and help you to formulate a response that is measured and respectful.

3) Put yourself in the shoes of the feedback-giver

I always find it useful to think about the person who sent the feedback when formulating my response. If it’s a direct client, they might be an in-country marketing manager who has very specific requirements about the company’s tone of voice – and it is their responsibility to make sure that tone of voice is cohesive across all marketing assets. They might have to report to another senior manager, or might get judged on their localisation efforts based on that one translation. How can I respond to the feedback that explains my choices in an objective way but that also helps them do a great job? Or if I am responding to a translation project manager, they are most likely forwarding feedback from an unhappy customer – how can I formulate a response that they can pretty much copy/paste and send to the customer, saving them time, while putting their mind at ease that we are taking the feedback seriously? In the end, you want the person at the other end of the email to feel you are a team, and that you are working together to solve this problem.

Wendy says: “Being the ‘giver’ of the negative feedback is never a desirable position to be in so the understanding that it isn’t personal will make everyone’s job a little easier. Feedback is about being honest and coming to an understanding. It is a two-way street. If you feel that certain feedback was unfair then say so, have the conversation. Remain professional and find the lesson. From every negative comes a positive, you just have to find it and use it as an opportunity to grow.”

4) Acknowledge the feedback

As your first step when composing your email, it’s best to acknowledge the feedback and thank the customer/project manager/reviewer for taking the time to put it together. It’s a really small thing to do, but it speaks volumes about your professionalism.

5) Address the feedback

The next step is to validate the feedback. Remember to strip the feedback of any ‘emotional baggage’ and focus on the actual points that were raised. Do you agree or disagree? If you disagree, give an explanation why. When writing your explanation, remain objective and courteous, just the way you would like to be addressed too.

6) Learn from the feedback

If there were elements to the feedback that you deem justified, say in your email that you will take this into account for future translations.

Receiving feedback, positive and negative, is an opportunity for all of us to learn new things, adjust to our client’s preferences and fine-tune our skills. If you’d like to read some more on this topic, I found these two articles very useful:

Negative translation feedback – what an opportunity

Thick Skin Thinking: How To Use Negative Feedback To Your Advantage At Work

And if you’d like to find out more about Management Coach Wendy, check out her website.