Reply
cancel
Showing results for 
Search instead for 
Did you mean: 
Reply

Overcoming language barriers

Moderator
Valeria K Moderator Member Since: Mar 6, 2014
1 of 16

Freelancers and clients will often tell us one of the things they love about Upwork is the ability to work with people all over the world.

Through Upwork, you can communicate with clients/freelancers as though they are in the building next door. Your talents and hard work extend across the world.

 

However, there is a challenge many of us must overcome, (myself included) so that we can maximize the opportunities available to us on Upwork: How do you ensure you will communicate effectively enough to a) establish rapport/confidence with a client and b) understand and anticipate important spoken/written communications.

 

Some jobs require complex instructions and constant communication with the client, freelancer, or within a team, in a language that is not native for all the parties involved. This challenge doesn’t seem to stop successful freelancers and clients who are motivated to improve their language and communication skills and work together across borders. We’re hoping to learn from some of you here in this discussion.

 

If you ever found that important instructions or information were lost in translation, how would you approach and address the misunderstanding?

To avoid such situations, do you find yourself seeking out freelancers or clients who speak your native language?

What advice do you have for freelancers who are starting out and may not be as confident in their language proficiency?

~ Valeria
Untitled
Community Guru
Douglas Michael M Member Since: May 22, 2015
2 of 16
Thanks for raising these interesting questions, Valeria!

 

If you ever found that important instructions or information were lost in translation, how would you approach and address the misunderstanding?

 

I would briefly acknowledge the communication breakdown and assume responsibility for it before moving quickly back to the substance of the conversation or process, and how to move the work forward. (The same practice would apply whether the breakdown were specifically due to language issues or to some other misunderstanding.)

 

To avoid such situations, do you find yourself seeking out freelancers or clients who speak your native language?

 

No. I have a subspecialty of working with scholars and researchers whose native language is not English. Though I can claim no more than conversational level in a couple of Romance languages, I have a good sense of the kind of errors made by non-native speakers, which is useful both in the actual editing work and in communication about it.

I avoid native speakers of English whose deficiencies of expression suggest deficiencies of general communication skills, professionalism, and/or thought—in short, nightmare clients.

 

What advice do you have for freelancers who are starting out and may not be as confident in their language proficiency?

 

Most importantly, know what your proficiency level is, and don't overestimate or oversell your skills. English is a devilishly difficult language for a complex of reasons; it owes its domination of the worlds of business and science largely to the historical accident of British Empire.

Choose fields wherein your given language skills are adequate, and learn as much more and better English as you need to avoid job-crippling misunderstandings and advance your career.

When in doubt, ask.

 

Best to all,

Michael

Moderator
Valeria K Moderator Member Since: Mar 6, 2014
3 of 16

Thank you for sharing your perspective and some great advice, Michael. I've always admired the way you can express yourself in writing. 

 

If you don't mind me asking, did you intentionally choose not to add other languages you speak on conversational level to your Upwork profile?

~ Valeria
Untitled
Community Guru
Douglas Michael M Member Since: May 22, 2015
4 of 16

Don't mind at all, Valeria.

My conversational Spanish and French have no business use. Spanish and French speakers who might be my clients would be giving me English manuscripts to work on, and our conversations about them would be conducted in English. Opportunities for explaining a nuance or making a joke based on my limited knowledge would be rare.

I once accompanied the late Gloria Anzaldúa to a summer gig she had at the Universidad Nacional Autónoma de México. Though she was bicultural and bilingual, and her students were predominantly hispanophones, she explained apologetically that parts of her lectures would be delivered in English because that was the language in which she had originally learned, and subsequently wrote, thought, and taught critical theory.

Best,
Michael

Moderator
Valeria K Moderator Member Since: Mar 6, 2014
5 of 16

Thanks for explaining, Michael. It's interesting to observe that successful freelancers like yourself choose to have more focused, specialised profiles that only contain information relevant to jobs they apply for, even when it comes to languages.

~ Valeria
Untitled
Community Guru
Jennifer D Member Since: Feb 15, 2016
6 of 16

Great question, Valeria! Michael has, as usual, given a fantastic, eloquent answer.

 

As a translation client, I'm actively looking for freelancers who are native in a language that's *not* English. However, to translate English text adequately, a translator also needs to be fluent in English. But I definitely understand that not all nuances and idioms of English are clear to non-native English speakers, so I always try to give as much context as possible.

 

My primary way of dealing with any communication breakdown is very similar to Michael's - I *always* take responsibility. When I provide more detail or explanation for something that wasn't understood, I always ask "Is that clear now?" rather than "Do you understand now?" - it's a very subtle difference, but it's putting the onus on me to explain myself, and not making the freelancer feel bad for not understanding. With new freelancers, I always make it clear that they should ask me if they are uncertain of anything. They quickly learn that I am always happy to provide more detail and that I will never get frustrated with them for asking questions.

 

After managing translators for 6 years, I have a fairly good general understanding of what types of things are problematic for speakers of certain languages (again, similar to Michael!). I also try to develop long-term relationships with all my freelancers, so that I can get to know the types of things they may need more explanation for.

 

As for advice...Once again, I have to echo Michael here! Freelancers need to understand their real proficiency in English and not oversell themselves. There are plenty of jobs here where Native or even Fluent English is not a requirement, and Conversational level is perfectly adequate to get the job done. At the same time, Freelancers should take special care with both their profile and their proposals and try to express themselves in the best possible way. A proposal or profile full of basic errors is probably going to be passed over. There is a definite difference between the proposal and profile of a freelancer who is only conversational but has taken care to communicate clearly, and a freelancer who says they're fluent but whose profile and proposal are full of spelling mistakes, bad capitalisation, and basic grammar errors.

 

(Edited to correct an ironic typo)

Community Guru
Douglas Michael M Member Since: May 22, 2015
7 of 16

Ironic typos are the best! (Well, maybe not in a deliverable.)

Community Guru
Nichola L Member Since: Mar 13, 2015
8 of 16

I think when translating, it is extremely important for translators to recognize the nuances of the language they are translating from - particularly with academic and literary texts. It is essential to recognize regional idiosyncrasies - a turn of phrase (which could take hours to translate in an acceptable equivalent in English), and to know when to research the meaning of a locution  in the source language if it is not fully understood by the translator.

 

I agree with Michael that, even if one is not remotely conversant with a particular language, one starts to recognize certain language charateristics when editing texts not written by native English speakers. I have noticed, for example, that Polish and a few  other North European writers (no matter how well they write English) often leave out  the defiinite/indefinite article  or add it when it is not necessary. 

 

But while on the subject of language . . . I am climbing on a small soapbox (again) . . . I do think that it would be enormously beneficial to both Upwork and Upwork's potential freelancers and clients for that matter, if at least the ToS and some of the main newbie freelancer help pages were to be translated into various languages - particularly the main languages in India. I know, I know - I have been told - it is on nobody's road map. However, all the major players on the internet have their websites translated into at least 5 languages - just sayin'.  Smiley Wink

 

 

Community Guru
Wendy C Member Since: Aug 24, 2015
9 of 16

What a pleasure to read an interesting thread!!!! Kudos all around - esp. to Valeria for starting it.

 

I'm not a translator but work with a number of English as second language clients.  Yes, you learn to read between the lines to infer what is meant at times ... but asking and even using examples if needed works wonders.

Community Guru
Jennifer D Member Since: Feb 15, 2016
10 of 16

Nichola, RE: the ToS and help pages - while I definitely understand your soapbox, and agree with it to an extent, I also understand why Upwork are not budging on not doing that. They're effectively saying that English is the Lingua Franca for doing business on the site, and that you must have at least a conversational proficiency in order to do business here. This makes it simpler for them to maintain the site, and also in cases of disputes. As someone who maintains 30+ websites in 20+ languages as part of my job, I know it is in no way an easy task.

 

I''m certain that they could make more money by opening up the site to more markets where English is not commonly known. But I assume they have done a cost/benefit analysis and decided that, at least for now, the costs outweigh the benefits.