The world of translation can be a confusing place, especially if
you’re the one doing the buying on behalf of your company. Many
purchasers of translation services feel like you might when you take
your car to the mechanic. How do you really know what’s going on
underneath the hood? After all, if you don’t speak the language into
which you’re having something translated, how can you measure quality
and hold your vendors accountable?
As a result of this phenomenon, many translation consumers resort to
tactics that might seem logical to them, but can actually get in the way
of ensuring the best quality. Here are ten widespread misconceptions
related to translation that can actually do more harm than good:
• Myth #1: Bigger is always better. Sometimes,
people think that buying translation from a large agency will get them a
better quality of service. After all, if a translation company has
thousands of translators and handles hundreds of languages, this has to
be a sign of quality, right? Not necessarily. Generalists are not always
better than specialists. If you are seeking translation for just one
language or in a specialized industry, you might be better off working
with a small agency or a professional freelance translator. Large
agencies have their role – usually in supporting large customers that
spend hundreds of thousands of dollars in translation. Just as a
mini-van might not be the ideal car for a single person with no
children, large providers are definitely not the best solution for every
single type of project.
• Myth #2: All I need is a translator. Even the best
writers rely on editors, proofreaders, and others to make their work
pop off the page. Likewise, a professional translation process often
involves various parties too. Not only do you need a professional to
translate content, but as with monolingual writing tasks, there usually
needs to be an editor who can review it. You might even need to have a
separate proofreader and someone to ensure proper formatting. Working
directly with freelance translators is a good strategy for certain types
of projects, and many freelancers can recommend reviewers to ensure
that a second set of eyes checks their work. However, when projects are
more complex – involving multiple languages, content types, or file
formats – an agency is often a better solution.
• Myth #3: More translators will result in better quality.
Over time, translators become intimately familiar with the writing
styles, tone, and messaging of their clients. Think of them as drivers
who become increasingly familiar with the same route, and therefore can
drive it more adeptly and quickly. Translators are not interchangeable.
Generally, if the same translator – or the same small group of
translators – is not used repeatedly for projects, consistency begins to
slip, and the translations actually sound like they have different
voices and styles. If you have recurring projects, you’ll want to make
sure to work with a dedicated team of people who become highly familiar
with your source content, whether you’re working with individual
translators or an agency that assigns them on your behalf.
• Myth #4: Pitting one provider against another keeps quality in check. Many
buyers of translation think they are being savvy by paying one agency
to translate their content, and paying a separate agency to check their
work for errors. There are several reasons why this approach is a recipe
for failure. First, the focus of the reviewing party becomes „error
detection.“ In order to prove they are doing a good job, they will often
flag as many „errors“ as they can find, even if in fact, many of the
changes they are suggesting are preferential. Indeed, some providers
might be hoping that if they catch enough mistakes, they will be
rewarded with the translation work, which is generally more highly paid
than the quality control work. Second, the customer ends up spending a
lot of time mediating between the two parties, and many „errors“ boil
down to one person’s opinion versus another’s. Third, the entire focus
of the process becomes combative instead of collaborative in nature.
• Myth #5: Getting a „back translation“ will ensure quality. Often,
translation consumers think that they can measure quality by doing a
„blind test.“ They send a project to one vendor for translation. Then,
they send the completed translation to a separate vendor, asking them to
translate it back into the original language. Last, they compare the
two versions to see how similar they are. Their assumption is that they
can spot errors by comparing the versions. In reality, this process is
doomed to fail. Why? Because errors can be introduced at any point in
the process. If the provider producing the „back translation“ makes a
mistake, there will indeed be a difference between the source and the
back-translated version, but the customer will have no ability to
ascertain the source of the error. As with backseat drivers, back
translations are generally a nuisance to be avoided.
• Myth #6: Bilingual employees will provide me with helpful quality feedback. Many
translation purchasers think they have a shortcut to measuring quality –
simply ask a bilingual co-worker or employee to take a look. In
reality, this can be a little like asking your uncle, who tinkers with
cars in his spare time, to check to see if your mechanic made your
automobile repairs properly. Your uncle knows just enough to be
dangerous, but his feedback might not always be relevant or helpful. He
also is unlikely to be an expert in every single area of auto repair.
Similarly, translators are professionals, while bilinguals are
laypeople. The only way bilingual employees can provide helpful feedback
on translation quality is if they’re given explicit and focused
guidance on what types of things to look for. If they’re just asked,
„Can you read this and tell me what you think?“ they will not be in a
position to offer feedback of much value.
• Myth #7: Translation quality control works well. For translation quality, the focus needs to be not
on quality control (checking for mistakes) but rather, on quality
improvement (producing a better translation from the start). Would you
like to drive a car off the lot and then have to return it a week later
due to manufacturer’s defects? Or, would you prefer to have a great car
from the very start? There are many ways to ensure a good translation
from the beginning, but chief among them are providing the translators
and editors with the necessary resources so that they can understand as
much context as possible to uncover the true goal of the communication.
Translation teams who are armed with glossaries, style guides, support
materials, and contextual information can produce a translation of much
higher quality than those who are just handed a text with no background.
• Myth #8: My source content has no impact on quality. A
large percentage of „translation errors“ are actually due to source
text that is poorly written or unclear. Consider translation the „paint
job“ – it can only do so much to hide the scratches and flaws of the car
underneath it. When a sentence can be understood in more than one way,
the translator has to make an educated guess about what the original
author intended. Usually, translators do not even have the opportunity
to clarify with the source text author to find out what the intention
was behind an ambiguous term. They rely on their research skills and
professional experience to try to figure out the intended meaning, but
this is not desirable, and can obviously lead to a translation that does
not measure up – but not necessarily due to any fault on the
translator’s part. Communication is a two-way street. If the source
message isn’t clear, the translation often won’t be either.
• Myth #9: Technology should be avoided. Many
newbies to the world of translation mistakenly think that „translation
technology“ refers to computer-generated translation, such as Google
Translate. In actual fact, most professional translators use software
tools that incorporate „translation memory,“ a database of previous
translations. Much like auto mechanics today use high-tech software,
translators also use tools in order to ensure consistency, and to speed
up their work. Translation memory also offers another advantage – it
usually ends up saving some money for the buyer, because it means they
do not have to pay to translate the same sentence or phrase over and
over again. In any text with a lot of repetition, translation tools are
extremely helpful for ensuring quality and consistency. Not only that,
but these tools are widespread among translation professionals, and have
been in use for many decades.
• Myth #10: When you ask for a „translation“ you’ll get the same thing from everyone.
If you see a sign that says „car wash,“ does it mean that you will
drive through an automatic car wash, for only the outside of your car to
be cleaned? Is a coat of wax included? Will the interior be vacuumed?
Will the seats be wiped down? A „car wash“ can include many different
things, depending on who is providing it. Likewise, with „translation,“ a
variety of things may or may not be included. Some providers include a
professional editor and proofreader directly in the price of
translation, while others do not. Some companies will re-format your
source document as part of the standard rate, while others will charge
extra for that. Most providers will charge you more if your project has a
fast turn-around time or contains specialized content. And, the rates
will usually vary from one language to another, and even from one
direction to another (French into English might be priced differently
from English into French) even with the same provider.
The takeaway? Like measuring the quality of someone’s writing,
translation quality isn’t a simple topic. Often, it’s a highly
subjective one. Who is the „best writer“? The answer varies, depending
on the genre of writing and even who the reader is. And who is the „best
mechanic?“ It’s hard for a layperson to judge that, but what they can
judge are other performance metrics – how the car runs, how many trips
to the mechanic it requires, how often it breaks down, how fast they can
get the car in for service, and how they are treated as a customer.
It’s much more challenging for the average driver to understand
complicated technical and mechanical diagnostics. The same is true of
translation – understanding quality at a deep level takes far more than
just proficiency in two languages.
In fact, for non-linguists, sometimes the best indicator of
translation quality has nothing to do with things like typos and
misspellings. From the buyer’s perspective, translation quality often
has more to do with the real proof of a good translation — the results
that it enables — in the form of greater brand awareness, more
customers, more page views, more downloads, and more sales.