A client approaches you to translate something "just to understand the meaning." Such orders are a great way to build your relationship with the client, but there are also hidden rocks in them that you'd better be aware of.


There were times when most orders were coming from someone who needed "just to understand" a text in an unknown language. Now the advances in machine translation technology have made them much rarer. But MT involves unexpected errors that sometimes render a meaning opposite to the one intended, so some clients are still looking for a "real person" to cater to their needs. And if you happened to be that real person, it's important to know how to approach such jobs, because they are more challenging that they seem at first glance.

First of all, let's list some pros and cons of working with this type of orders.


An obvious plus of "just to understand" orders is that you can complete them faster, as they require a lesser degree of quality assurance (but not when it comes to the meaning — see Tips 1 and 2). A couple of typos here and there, a sentence that doesn't sound natural, an idiom left untranslated — all these are forgivable sins in this case.

A less obvious advantage is that in such orders you are not only a translator, but also a consultant. You consult your customer on how to approach whatever area they are looking into. This is an excellent chance to show off your non-translation skills, such as the knowledge of your local market, if you are translating for a foreign customer (see Tip 6).


Doing something with knowingly laxer quality requirements is not always good for your fitness as a professional. Too many orders of that kind may get you thinking that all jobs can be treated this way, leading to many an unlucky outcome.

The same relates to your customer's perspective. Once you do something at a lower rate (and you do have to discount your rate for such orders — see Tip 5), it will take some effort going back to a higher one for more complex projects.

Also, even though it was the client who asked you that they need a translation "just to understand" the meaning, they may still come back with criticism when they find typos or stylistic flaws. So make sure you have all the trade-offs agreed in advance and in writing (see Tip 6).


Now, if you are looking for ready solutions, here are some quick tips on working with "just to understand" orders:

1. Never miss a meaning

That's a no-brainer in most cases, but worth reiterating specifically for "just to understand" orders. Although typos and stylistic inconsistencies are forgivable (see Tip 2), factual mistranslations are not. Moreover, they are even more unforgivable here, as making a correct translation was de facto the only thing that was expected and requested from you. Not complying with this request means failing the client big time.

Sometimes you are unsure of the meaning of a sentence. This happens more often if you are translating from a foreign language, but can work the other way, too, especially if you are working with bureaucratese-heavy documents. Don't be guessing. Add a comment (see Tip 3) explaining the situation and do your best to outline the possible meanings. Always ask the client to come back to you if they need further effort from you to decipher it.

2. Don't overwork the style

If some sentences don't sound natural in the target language, don't go too far fixing them. It is much more important to bring home the exact meaning the text has than to make it sound like a marketing copy. Moreover, in some cases the latter is unadvisable, as you might add or omit something that was crucial for the client (remember — your thinking that something is not important doesn't make it unimportant for everyone).

For the same reason, don't "transcreate" idioms or puns. If you meet one, and an analog in the target language doesn't readily come to mind, just give a literal translation in quotation marks and add your own comments (see Tip 3) explaining the meaning/word play.

Don't waste too much time translating proper names that are not commonly known. First, it takes an additional effort it takes from you — finding accurate and grammatical translations of proper names can take much more time than expected. Second, it might actually be bad for the client's purposes. What happens if they want to look up that person or thing in the Internet later? With you meticulously translated proper name, they will have to translate it back to the original language or find it in the original text — and they won't enjoy either option.

If you do translate proper names, make sure to include the original spelling in parentheses or comments. Speaking of which,

3. Do add comments

Not every text has a translation that conveys the whole meaning of the source. Examples include the already mentioned puns and idioms, as well as cultural references specific to a certain location. Finally, the original writing can be ambiguous (e.g. bureaucratese again), and you will be struggling to understand the meaning yourself, let alone bring it to the client.

Don't hesitate to add comments in this case. Sometimes it will be enough to write something like "Here goes a long quote from a local politician that brings no additional meaning to the text; I'm not translating and won't be charging for it, but let me know if you need otherwise." Thus you can save a lot of time for yourself and money for the client (and clients do love saved money — see also Tip 5).

Depending on your agreement with the client and the software you use for translation, you can either put your comments inline in brackets or use the platform's commenting features. In Smartcat, for instance, you can add your own comments to each segment you work on and invite the customer to your account to see them*.

*You'll need a corporate account to do this, but it comes at no cost. Just write to our support team at support@smartcat.ai, and we'll create one for you. You will be able to use this and other interesting features that are not available in freelance accounts.

4. Consider post-editing

Post-editing (aka PEMT and MTPE) refers to editing a translation made automatically by a machine translation (MT) engine. Although PEMT is a sensitive topic for many, "just to understand" orders are an excellent example of when it can be used to everyone's benefit. As flawless style is not your goal here, the client will be quite satisfied if you just correct a machine translation, eliminating all that is plainly ungrammatical or factually incorrect, and saving save their money at the same time (see Tip 5).

If you go for this option, I strongly suggest that you use a CAT tool capable of handling machine translation natively. In Smartcat, for instance, MT is built into the user experience. You can either pre-translate the whole document (the system will insert the MT output into each segment), or do it yourself segment-by-segment, "taking" the MT suggestions from the CAT panel.

5. Do discount your rates

Although it might be tempting to charge the same rate for easy orders to secure a higher hourly rate, I suggest not to do this. The client knows you will spend less time on this job, and they don't want to spend tons of money just to be able to understand a text. That's why even if they agree to your higher rate in this particular instance, this will turn them away from you as a partner in future.

When figuring out which rate to use, start with something 1.5 to 2 times lower than your usual rate. This is how slower you will usually translate "just to understand" orders — though, of course, it depends on the actual job. A good advice is to always measure the time it takes and the resulting hourly rate for future reference.

6. Be a consultant

As already mentioned above, try to go beyond the "mere" translation assignment at hand and understand the client's ultimate goals. Whether you are translating for a foreign company entering your local market or a local company studying the global experience, think of additional information or sources that might be useful to them.

One of the amazing things about being a translator is that you get so much new knowledge. If you translate in a more or less specific domain, at some point you will become almost a subject matter expert in it. Feel free to share this expertise with your clients, they'll appreciate this (but do this humbly — no one likes know-it-alls). (Warning: do not share sensitive data about your other customers or information learned under an NDA — this is not only illegal but also unethical.)

7. Have everything agreed in writing

Finally, just because the client told you they don't need any rigorous translation, it doesn't mean they won't come back to you with "friendly comments" about unnaturally sounding phrases or typos in your translation. That's why it's important that you both are on the same page when it comes to the quality standards taken.

Here's the usual wording I use when accepting such orders — feel free to adapt it to your own needs:

"Just to make sure we're on the same page, I won't:

  • Make purely stylistic improvements.
  • Translate idioms, word plays, etc. (but I will leave comments to explain them where needed).
  • Translate proper names, unless they are commonly known.

Also, the translation may:

  • Have minor typos not affecting the meaning of the text.
  • Sound unnatural at times (e.g. have an unusual word order).
  • Be made by editing a machine translation (so-called post-editing).

If you are willing to accept these terms, I will make sure to give you my best rate and the best value for your money.

As a complimentary service, I will also provide you with my know-how and expertise in the subject matter by leaving links and/or advice that you might find useful for your goals."

From my experience, a sincere and congenial commentary can not only win the specific order, but also the trust and affinity of the customer.

That's it for my tips. Know more? Let me know in the comments!

About the author

Hi, I’m Vladimir “Vova” Zakharov, the Head of Community at Smartcat. Translation is my profession and my passion, and I’m excited to be able to share it with the amazing Smartcat community! Questions? Suggestions? Just tweet us, write to our Facebook page — or just leave a comment below!