Preface: I'm still a rather inexperienced junior software developer working at a German start-up company for about 2 months gathering my first experiences of "the real world".

I am currently dealing with a foreign contact about implementing an API of theirs. Only problem is that unlike the last time I had to do something like this, it now is all in a language foreign to me. I have to implement an API where everything is in Italian: the data being sent from the API as well as the documentation of said API. I got a 3 page "description" on how to get certain data but this description document explains Italian variable names and values with yet more Italian words, which makes it almost impossible for me to work on implementing it into our own systems (more specifically mapping the values correctly so we get usable data into our databases and the correct places).

I went back and forth with this guy and today I asked him to translate a few things of the original Italian documentation that are relevant to me and my work (not the entire 28 page thing) and he's either unresponsive or sends me back the full 3 page description I already had when I was assigned to the job. It seems like there is either a language barrier or he just doesn't care and will keep copy-pasting the same 3 page document into every inquiry I ask for help.

My superior expects me to implement the API on the basis of "Well, we have to make do with what we have" (he's the senior developer and IT lead) yet I'm having serious second thoughts if this is even going to turn out at all. Although there is a colleague who speaks fluent Italian she's caught up in her own work and can't be spared at the moment which she made perfectly clear to me the first time I asked for her help in translation. However, she has said that she cannot make sense of it. I also don't fault her for being unavailable.

Trying to translate the documentation via a translation service like Google Translate or the integrated MS Word translator (probably Bing) turned out to yield unusable or incomprehensible results. So that is not an option.

So the main question for me at this point is: How am I supposed to respond in a professional manner to either the unhelpful responses from my contact person as well as the lax views of my superior towards me implementing an API I can't even begin to make sense of its data or usage?

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    Could you clarity what country you are in? The answer if say you are living in Italy but don't speak Italian is different to that if you were say, living in England.
    – Vality
    Dec 13, 2016 at 0:03
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    You have my empathy! We have all experienced something like this. For you it is Italian, for others it is medical terms, financial terms, etc. Just e-mailing the same ol' junk you already have is lazy. This is very typical. Sometimes, these barriers are impossible to get around, however, I have found that a person to person chat often helps. One example, the person to person chats did not help until there was a personal visit from across the Atlantic. While this may not be possible, keep trying and letting your boss know what problems you are having. You may have to underscore the difficulty.
    – closetnoc
    Dec 13, 2016 at 3:53
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    Amazon Mechanical Turk...? (...Mechanical Italian?)
    – user541686
    Dec 13, 2016 at 8:02
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    Have you tried using (google translations or) using an online dictionary ? While this may slow down your work, I don't see it beeing a unresolvable problem. Also keep in mind that a perfect translation of the 28 page document won't magically solve all problems if the specs are written badly or things are not 100% thought out. Dec 13, 2016 at 15:21
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    @PeterA.Schneider While I agree that it is unprofessional (only someone who speaks the source code as mother language should do the work), your claim is much too general. Many, many old systems are still running and used and have their source in a foreign language. Translating them is not an option until a rewrite. It is also not correct that everything should be or must be in English, e.g. law and finance are so localized and specific in countries that using English is foolhardy (A German Körperschaft is not identical to a corporation). Dec 14, 2016 at 2:19

8 Answers 8


Refer this back to your supervisor. Explain that you need this document in English to complete the task. Your supervisor can then decide whether to a) pull the Italian-speaking colleague into the project, b) hire a translator, or c) take another approach.

Essentially, as senior dev, your superior should be able to get this resolved if you cannot.

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    Definitively the good answer, if they won't listen OP when he said he needed english documents, escalate.
    – Walfrat
    Dec 12, 2016 at 13:04
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    This is the most logical and professional course of action in general. However, not applicable to this question because the OP stated he tried this and failed, "Well, we have to make do with what we have" (he's the senior developer and IT lead). That means he can skip level or find a new job. IMO, software developers are in too strong demand to put up with such complete nonsense. The hardest lesson for me as a Jr. Dev is how much politics suck. He's probably getting dumped on as the low man on the totem. Dec 12, 2016 at 17:08
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    If the superior says that, the correct response is to try and make an estimate of how much time that would take. "Well, if I have to make do with what we have, I will expect this job to take about 3 months instead of 1 week, is that okay?"
    – Erik
    Dec 12, 2016 at 20:43
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    Learn a beautiful foreign language on company's time? Where do I sign up for this? :) Dec 13, 2016 at 9:31
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    @Erik: "if the superior says 'okay, go learn ...', then probably it's time to start looking for a new job" - that may be your opinion, but I think one can have vastly different opinions on how to perceive that situation ;) Dec 13, 2016 at 10:52

This is unprofessional of your company. Assuming you're not working in Italy and you don't speak Italian, all the resources for the project have to be provided in English as well. Or at least with some explanation in English.

How are you supposed to do your job if you can't understand the descriptions? Explain your needs to the Italian contact person one more time. If they don't help you, it's up to your project manager/superior to provide you the information you need. If they give you a task and won't provide for you, they're ruining their own project.


Escalate to your team lead and your PM and tell them that your not being able to translate this 28-page doc written exclusively written in Italian is a show stopper for you. And suggest that your Italian-speaking colleague be directed to do the translation - the sooner she starts with the translation work, the sooner she finishes.

Tell them that at this point, you're decisively slowed down. Your Italian contact is slowed down and definitely pissed with you because you are constantly interrupting him. Needless to say, your ability to cooperate with him is suffering some penalty points. And nobody is happy.

They've got to resolve this show stopper for you. That's all there is to it. Nobody should be giving anybody tasks without also allocating the resources needed to do the tasks.

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    @whrrgarbl - I don't care what level of seniority a professional has, the only thing that matters that the professional recognizes their responsibility as a professional, and ACTS like a professional by requesting the resources they need. You are worried about acting presumptuous, what's wrong with you? The only thing that you care about is that this Italian doc gets translated so that you can complete your task. If it turns out that you are the one who is holding up the team because you didn't ask for support when you needed it, guess who's the one who will be cracked down on? Dec 12, 2016 at 16:56
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    @whrrrgarbl - I don't care what the team lead and the PM have to do to support you - pulling in the Italian-speaking colleague was simply a suggestion. They get to decide how they are to assist you. They have access to resources you don't have including getting the partner firm to do the translation. Bottom line is that you need this doc translated so that you can do your job and back the team by doing your job. At that moment, that's the only thing that matters to you. How busy the Italian speaking colleague is, that's not in your scope of work. The priority on your task is what matters. Dec 12, 2016 at 17:04
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    @whrrgarbl - How did I become a senior professional? By acting like one, of course. Dec 12, 2016 at 17:08
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    I have had exactly this problem. So we did: "Boss, we can't do this Italian stuff. We need an Italian". Boss: "Find me an Italian." Us: We want Enzo from the 2nd floor but he's tied up in big project Z. Boss goes to Enzo's boss and does boss-stuff. We get Enzo part-time till it's done. We needed Enzo himself because he knows our project and its buzzwords, and has clearance.
    – RedSonja
    Dec 13, 2016 at 14:50
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    @RedSonja - I worked at an outfit where every time I tried to get away from the team, my former manager would have a lunch talk with my current manager and my old team would pull me back in. They told me that I was happy to be with them and they told me that I was lucky to work with them. So I was happy because I was told I was happy and I was lucky because I was told I was lucky :) They never solicited my opinion because they were never interested in it or concerned with it :) As a key member of the team, I was never able to escape from my team. Dec 13, 2016 at 15:02

Let's take a different angle... English speaking organisations hire non-English speaking organisations and then expect that they should be able to send specs and docs in English. Why can't it work the other way round?

Your organisation did not have to accept work from an Italian organisation, but you did, and you're going to have to spend some time with an Italian-English dictionary. Or hire a translator.

The only other possibility is that there was an agreement that all communication and documentation would be in English. In which case, get your boss to elevate it to their boss that this guy is not helping.

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    How does this answer help? OP is not working for the Italian company. What OP's company would do is irrelevant to this discussion. It could be that they'll bend over backwards for anyone who wants to use it, or they could take the same "not my problem" approach. It is on OP's company to either assist in working with the API, or to find a new API.
    – krillgar
    Dec 12, 2016 at 13:57
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    @krilgar the answer is that the OP could do the translation himself or arrange for a translator, but instead he keeps pushing back to the other guy even though it keeps ending in the same result. Yes, the Italian is a blocker, but so it's the OP.
    – HorusKol
    Dec 12, 2016 at 21:26
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    I don't think it's possible for someone who doesn't speak the language to be able to properly translate a technical document. That's hard even for real translators. And the OP is likely not authorized to hire a translator himself.
    – Erik
    Dec 13, 2016 at 8:35
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    @Erik: On the one hand, yes. On the other hand, there is a significant difference between creating a good translation of a document and just understanding what is said in it. Just as an example: I have never learned Portuguese, and so I would probably be totally unable to produce anything resembling a translated document based puon a Portuguese text. However, I speak Spanish and French as foreign languages, and with that knowledge, I am usually able to understand quite well what is said in Portuguese documents - be it news articles for common audiences, or also technical documents in my field. Dec 13, 2016 at 10:57
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    I can't agree - English is the language of IT. In some languages there is not relevant terminology for some concepts. In Polish we have some loan translation, that are meaningless.
    – DDT
    Dec 13, 2016 at 15:31

So your superior said "Well, we have to make do with what we have". Maybe that is factually true. It could be because these Italians are such a pain to work with, and they caused your superior some gray hair already, he doesn't want anything to do with them (which sounds not unlikely with your experience). Maybe they entered a contract to deliver software to you at a rock bottom price, have been losing money already, and the guy on the other side has been told by his boss to not spend one minute on helping you if it can be avoided. Things like that happen.

So you have 28 pages of documentation. Make a document with Italian on the left and English on the right hand side, by feeding everything into Google. Which is a pain in the **** and takes time, and the quality of the results is very, very mixed, but your boss knows that. Find someone in the company who speaks Italian and can check it (especially things that make no sense to you). Or get a budget to hire a translator for one day to check it.

Keep telling your boss how challenging this is and that you are up to the challenge (you need to get this right so when you are done he really, really appreciates your hard work, but you don't want to get on his nerves or look like a permanent moaner, get it just right).

The important thing is: Don't say that you can't do this. Say that you can do this, even though it is extremely hard. If you say you can't do this, then someone will do it, and you will look very bad. If you persevere, you will look very good when you get through it.


This question already has very good answers - as JohnHC said above, this is your boss's responsibility and he should either arrange a translation or take some other action (possibly escalate to the management of the Italian company and demand better support, depending on the case).

But I want to give you a more cynical perspective, since you mentioned that you are a new hire and your boss seems to be very dismissive about your difficulties.

You should consider the possibility that you are being deliberately set up to fail. Sometimes, the people involved in a project don't actually want it to succeed. This happens for a number of reasons: because of personal (ego) conflicts, because the person who sponsored the project is involved in some kind of political dispute, or maybe the project is losing money and someone needs an excuse to pull the plug. It sucks, but it happens. Unfortunately, one of the most convenient ways to do it is make it fail and then blame it on the "new guy".

If that is the case (I don't know if it is) then you might be in a hard place. You will get no love if you succeed but you will be blamed if you fail.


Since you already went to your lead about this, it sounds like you need more detail for the leadership to understand the issue.

I would gather specific details as to what you are having issue with: specific examples of the API calls you're trying to use, the documentation you have available, the response or lack thereof from the partner, and the specific issue this is causing with your code.

Then, it depends on how your team works how to proceed. If you have a scrum, consider bringing this up in the scrum. Maybe some of the other team members have ideas or have hit this problem before - or know how to work around it.

If not, and also if the scrum doesn't help you any, bring the examples and details to your team lead. Instead of asking "how do I deal with this Italian whatnot", give the specific examples and ask for suggestions for how to deal with the specific issues. Either your team lead will give you advice for dealing with the specific problems, which you can then either generalize for the other problems or continue to bring issues on this basis to him/her, or he/she will understand the level of problem you are facing and help escalate it.

Ultimately it sounds like the partner is not being helpful, and so the true solution will be someone higher up (probably in some other role, such as vendor relations or sales or whatnot) will need to interface for you. But getting leadership to understand this is key first, and it's important to go forward with lots of details and documentation so they have the most complete understanding possible.


Why not just plug the whole document (or maybe the parts you don't understand) into Google Translate!? OK it's not perfect but you should end up understanding it a whole lot better...

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    That's what my lead dev expected me to do and it did not yield any useful results because apparently Italian is such a diverse language that Google Translate does not get most of the meanings right and the translation itself as a whole is nonsensical. This has also been suggested multiple times already. Dec 13, 2016 at 9:23

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