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  • Writer's pictureNikolaj Widenmann

Why Does the Translator Ask Questions?

You’ve agreed on a price and a delivery date. You’ve placed your translation order. It should be pretty straightforward: translate this contract from Danish to English. So why is the translator asking questions?

The fact is that competent, professional translators do and should ask questions when needed. Translators are writers; translation is not a word-swapping exercise. The same documents that you have spent hours, days, or weeks translating requires the same meticulous attention from the translator, if not more. The task of the translator is to recreate the same message in another language. In the case of legal translation, the translator must also juggle two different legal systems.

Several items exist that the translator may need to clarify with the translation client. These items include (but are certainly limited to) the following:

  • Dialect and geographical area

  • Preferred terminology

  • Purpose of the translation

  • Clarification of source text

Dialect and geographical area

Spanish for Spain, Mexico, Argentina, or anywhere in between – or for the entire Spanish-speaking world in general? Knowing this crucial information makes a big difference. Dialectal differences exist that affect grammar and word choice. While a discharge summary replete with medical terms would use a fairly universal language, marketing texts and legal texts will differ significantly. Marketing texts are closely tied to the culture of the target language and often need to be localized or even transcreated; legal texts are a reflection of the legal systems, which vary between the different countries.

A few examples: A jacket in English would be a chamarra in Mexico, a campera in Argentina, and a yaqueta elsewhere in South America. Likewise, a computer is a computadora (a feminine noun) in Mexico and most other Latin American countries, a computador in Colombia (a masculine noun), and an ordenador in Spain.

Similar issues arise in English. I still vividly recall the winter of 1992-93 when I was working at a ski resort in California. An elderly British tourist, fatigued from a flight from London and a subsequent grueling bus ride, asked me for the location of the lift. Failing to take into account the dialectal differences, I pointed toward the front door and told her that the chairlift was 50 years across the dark, snowy field. With a stern expression, she said, “I meant the elevator.”

Even when words have the same meaning, they are often spelled (or should I say "spelt"?) differently.

Some words are different depending on the country; even regional differences exist. Many accounting terms differ between American and British English. In addition, it is possible that the client might prefer IFRS terms. Even within American English, one accountant might prefer to refer to a document as an income statement while another calls it a P&L statement.

In the area of law, legal systems vary, and so do the associated terms. This holds true even within the different state jurisdictions in the United States. Choosing the right term often requires me to know not only in what country, but in what particular legal jurisdiction the translation will be used.

An example is the term “plea in abeyance” as used in Utah. It means that a defendant pleads guilty or no contest to a criminal offense. However, the conviction is not entered. Instead, the defendant agrees to comply with specific terms within a certain period of up to a year, after which the charges will be dismissed. If the defendant fails to comply, the conviction will be entered and the defendant will then be sentenced.

Outside Utah, however, similar concepts are referred to as “deferred judgment” (Colorado), “deferred adjudication” (Texas), or “probation before judgment” (Delaware and Maryland). In Mexico, a similar legal option in criminal courts suspension del proceso a prueba.

Preferred terminology

Some terminological differences can be a matter of preference. For a transportation provider, is the preferred term “passenger” or “rider”? Does HR deal with employees, associates, or team members? Knowing the company’s preference ensures consistency with previously translated text and increases coherence. If the client has an internal glossary or termbase, sharing it with the translation provider will greatly ensure that the translator uses the preferred terminology.

Purpose of the translation

When a translator inquires about the purpose of the translation, a gut reaction might be, “What do you care? I just need this translated.” However, awareness of the purpose of the translation will significantly influence the translator’s choices with regard to terminology, style, tone, layout, etc.

Let’s say a lawyer needs a contract translated. The attorney tells the paralegal, who calls a translation agency, who assigns a legal translator. Instructions: Translate the contract from Spanish to English by tomorrow.

While the translator can obviously surmise that it is for “legal purposes”, knowing the intended use will significantly affect the translation approach. Below are a few examples:

  • A contract for a pending business deal: Here, the translator will need to know where the translation will be used. The introductory paragraphs in Spanish-language contracts tend to significantly exceed the length of the introduction in a contract written in English. Whereas a contract from the U.S. might read “This Agreement, entered into on (date), by and between Company A, a Utah corporation, and Company B, a Mexico corporation”, a Latin American contract may include the addresses of the companies, the names of the representatives and their ID numbers and addresses, the legal basis for their representation of the company, etc.

Depending on choice of law and other matters, style changes may be necessary to reflect the preference of either the source or the target country.

  • Translation of contract for litigation purposes: Contract translation for litigation purposes requires much stricter adherence to the source language. If the translator testifies in court that the translation is accurate even though he decided not to translate the personal ID numbers in the introductory paragraph, opposing counsel might challenge the translation.

Clarification of source text

Sometimes, errors exist in the source text (misspellings, typos, missing words, improper grammar, ambiguities, etc.) that can make the source document difficult to comprehend. To translate the message, the translators must be able to understand the message.


The more information the client can provide up front, the greater the chances of a successful, accurate translation that serves the intended purposes. Usually, questions from the translator are a sign of professionalism and competence, not the contrary.


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