How to choose a translation vendor

The thought of purchasing a new product or service can seem overwhelming at times. I know that when I need a high-quality product, I tend to research the item or service I’m looking to buy for some time before I buy it. Note that “high-quality product” doesn’t necessarily equate to “expensive.” For first-time car buyers, for example, the process of researching efficiency and safety, test driving and closing the deal can be stressful. There are so many people involved and things can seem unsure for a while before a deal is finally reached, but finding the right car that fits your needs and taste is the goal.
In this way, first-time translation buyers are a little like first-time car buyers. If you don’t know much about languages, there can be a sense of uncertainty at first about what dialect of a language is needed or how much is a good price for a translation project — but if you can find a high-quality, professional agency, then the process can actually be quite smooth.
Here are some tips for choosing a translation vendor. The majority of the tips are based on the idea of selecting a translation agency; however, some clients prefer to stick with individual freelancers. This is often a personal choice, but the process is quite similar. An agency will most likely provide multiple services and quality assurance (QA) processes that many individuals do not have set in place, so take this into consideration when deciding what will work best for you. These tips are meant to guide you through the selection process, although there may be more steps to the process or fewer, depending on your translation needs.    
Tip 1: Remember that translation is a service provided by professionals who should produce a professional (read: quality) product. Choosing someone who is bilingual to translate your documents is not enough! It may seem like an easy solution to a language access need to simply call your coworker’s cousin who “speaks fluent Spanish” to translate your company’s marketing brochure, but what are this individual’s qualifications? What level of education in the foreign language does she or he have? Does she or he have knowledge of industry-specific terminology? Remember, what’s easy is not always what’s best. The American Translators Association publishes a brochure called “Translation: Getting it Right” in which Chris Durban states, “Bilingualism on its own is not a guarantee of written fluency or skill in translation.” Durban points out that translators are good writers and are able to transmit ideas from one language to another — a skill not possessed by all who are bilingual. I’ll take this a step further and note that most translators specialize in certain areas, as they feel more comfortable with their skills in transmitting the words from one language to another in their own fields of study. For example, a Japanese translator who works with automotive texts may not feel comfortable translating a document from English to Japanese that is chock-full of medical jargon.   
Tip 2: Figure out your translation needs. First, determine exactly what you need. Do you only need to have a brochure translated, or will you also need to have your company website translated in the future? In thinking about what you need, do think ahead to the future. However, don’t let an agency talk you into translating materials that you truly don’t need to have translated. Remember, you are the client. You may not need the website translated until a year from now because you need to change some text or add some information. Go ahead and let the agency know you are interested, but that you wish to wait to begin the site’s translation. This way, the agency (or individual) can start creating a glossary or translation memory (TM) for your projects and save it for your next translation need.   
Who is the ideal reader of the brochure and/or website? What language does this group speak? What dialect? These are all important questions to ask yourself before looking for the perfect translation vendor for you. I always find it interesting when I ask potential clients what dialect of a language they need for a translation and, many times, they’re unsure. Just as you would educate yourself about your English-speaking target audience, do the same with any other target audience. This can only work in your favor. Imagine picking up a brochure or coming across a website that is written in a variety of English that you feel to be awkward to your ears (or eyes, in this case). Would you finish reading it? Choosing the correct dialect of a language for your target audience is a key first step, and it is one that any vendor you approach should request.  
Another point to consider is how flexible you need the translation vendor to be. Will you need the translation back tomorrow? In three days? Next week, next month? This is important information to give any vendor before starting a project. Make sure to set these terms beforehand so that you don’t have to wait two weeks for a translation that might have been done in three days.
Tip 3: Decide what kind of vendor might fit your needs. Is it important to you to choose a local vendor? Do you prefer to work with an individual, a small business or a large corporation? No matter what your preferences, all of these options work a little differently, so consider this before you start the project. Many clients choose local companies to handle translation jobs, as they feel a sense of comfort in knowing that they can meet with the owner, project managers and in-house linguists fairly easily. Some prefer to use the services of a large company instead, while others prefer individual freelancers. Whatever you choose, find out what processes the vendor has in place and what kind of quality you should expect — there is more on this under Tip 6.
Tip 4: Research a few vendors before you select one if you’re feeling unsure.Think about how you would find out more about a service or product that is new to you. Most people these days would do an internet search. Besides simple word of mouth, this is probably the fastest way to get basic information quickly. Search for translation vendors and read about the company’s mission, values, success stories and so on. Does this vendor have accreditation by the Better Business Bureau or another accrediting agency? Look for details that prove the vendor’s dedication and professionalism.  
Does the vendor have a blog? If so, this is a great way to see what the company or individual thinks about industry-specific and sometimes other topics. Here is where you will be able to determine if the vendor seems knowledgeable. As the vendor is in the industry of connecting through language, the way the blog is written can often be a window into the quality of services you will receive. By this, I mean that if you find multiple typos, misspellings, errors and so on within the blog or on the vendor’s site, you may want to rethink contacting the individual or agency. Remember these words from Durban: “Professional translators are writers, producing texts that read well in the target language.” I can’t tell you how many times I have read an e-mail, newsletter or a blog post by a translation vendor and found numerous grammatical errors. To me, this is appalling for two reasons. The most obvious one is that we are in the business of words and language. If the vendor cannot proofread something before publishing it, what can you expect when it comes to how it will handle your texts?
Our faces are not just how we portray ourselves in person, but also how we portray ourselves in writing. I have not met all my clients in person, as I have many from other states and countries; however, if I were to write an e-mail full of grammatical errors, I wouldn’t expect them to respond to me. At the very least, I couldn’t expect to earn their business. So, expect excellence in writing, even in simple exchanges or online posts. Yes, we all have a day where we make typos or errors, but one might be wary of repeat offenders.  
In the same vein, ask if the vendor is involved in industry-related events and organizations. Does it have any certifications or special affiliations? These may seem like little extras that a vendor could or could not have, but showing involvement in industry-specific associations demonstrates a sense of dedication to the field that not all vendors possess. Look at the groups or organizations in which the vendor participates. Does it hold a specific office or is it involved with committees or area-specific groups? If so, this reveals leadership and commitment, as well as professionalism. If you choose to have an individual translate your text(s), find out if she or he has any certifications or specialized degrees in the field. If you prefer an agency, ask how it vets linguists and what it requires of them.    
Tip 5: Discuss your needs. Once you have decided on a vendor (or two or so) that you feel might fit your needs, ask to set up a meeting or phone call to discuss the specifics of your potential translation. Be sure to have the information ready on what language(s) you will need as the final translation, what type(s) of translation (technical, marketing and so on), the immediacy of the translation (your proposed deadline) and be prepared to inquire about any other services the vendor might offer that would complement the translation. More on complementary services is under Tip 9.  
When speaking with the vendor, be open to new suggestions or processes that you  might have overlooked. Sometimes there are details one might not have considered before taking the steps to purchase a service that could add value to the final product.   
Tip 6: Ask about processes in place that ensure quality. When meeting with the vendor (or several vendors if you’re comparing prices), it is perfectly fine to ask about the agency’s or individual’s niche areas or specializations. Not all vendors prefer to handle legal documents. Some may not specialize in medical texts, so having a set of medical charts translated via this vendor may not be the best option. However, small companies and larger corporations typically have the means of handling various specializations and can place your projects with the appropriate linguists. Nonetheless, you will find peace of mind in asking and knowing the answer to this question.  
Another tip that falls under QA is one that I find many clients do not request. Ask for samples of translations, references or testimonials. If you wish to hire someone for a new position, you would probably check references. If you hire a translation vendor, you can request references, or at the very least, you can read testimonials from the vendor’s previous clients. Also, if you’ve checked to see if the vendor is accredited by the Better Business Bureau or another accrediting agency, you might find this information without even having to ask for it.   
The next point I’d like to make is one with which many translation buyers tend to  be unfamiliar. However, it is a good way to find out what kind of software or programs the vendor utilizes in order to maintain consistency and quality in multiple translations from the same client and/or clients in similar industries. When speaking with the vendor to discuss your needs, ask about what computer-aided translation tools it uses for translation projects. Some vendors do not use any, while most professionals have a preferred tool or a variety of them. These tools help to provide a quicker turnover on future translations and can sometimes save you money, as the vendor will utilize a TM created from similar texts that have already been translated. So, it is always smart to ask about them, and in doing so, you’ll show the vendor you know a thing or two about the process.   
Tip 7: Now let the vendor ask you the questions. Another imperative step in selecting a translation vendor is to let the vendor ask you questions, too. A vital question that should come from any vendor you might choose is about the purpose of the translation. So many companies and freelancers can be quick to snatch up a project without asking questions about whether or not the text will be used for publication, for a website, for readers of various dialects and so on. This is always an important detail and one shouldn’t assume the answer to this question is obvious. Providing a vendor with more than enough information is definitely a safer approach, and it’s one that will ensure the best outcome for your translation project. So, if it seems like the vendor has a lot of questions, this is probably a good thing!  
Tip 8: Find out payment details before the project begins. One of the first things you might consider in selecting a vendor for your translation project is the price. Notice that I didn’t write about this first, but rather, I saved it for later in the process. The reason for this is that price shouldn’t be the sole deciding factor for what company or freelancer you choose. Yes, money plays an important part in your decision, but you don’t want to have to pay less now and end up with a poor product and then pay more later for the product you were really hoping to buy in the first place. After you have gathered all the information from the previous steps, it’s time to ask the potential vendor(s) for a quote on your project. Remember, in order to receive an accurate quote, you’ll need to give the vendor the source document to review. This is common practice in the translation industry, and it is the best way to know the exact cost of the work you’re requesting.  
Once you receive the quote from the vendor(s), it is up to you to decide if you feel the translation project is worth that amount. If so, there is little left to do. If not, don’t just walk away from the vendor’s price offer. Rather, let the vendor know that you were expecting a bit less or your reasons for not wanting to pay as much. I believe you’ll find most vendors to be game for some negotiation, but you should listen, too, to what the vendor has to say in regard to the reasons behind the original quote. Perhaps your document requires a certain set of specialized linguists to work on the project, and the terminology is such that it cannot be placed with just any translator and proofreader. Many times, this is the case for more focused areas. So, consider the translation an investment, as it will take multiple steps with highly skilled individuals to complete the project and ultimately give you the finished product you desire.  
As you take the quote into consideration, find out about payment terms. Will the vendor ask you to pay on NET 30 terms, pay the total beforehand or pay half before and half after the translation is delivered? Not all vendors have the same procedures, so it’s best not to assume when payment will be due. If you need the translation back in a very short amount of time, be prepared to have a rush fee tacked on.
Tip 9: Find out about other services offered and how they might work for you and your brand or purposes. As you wrap up the translation process, with any luck you’ll be thinking that you’ve found your vendor of choice. Consider other services the vendor might offer you that would complement the translation or future translation projects. Could the vendor localize your website to make sure the images and fonts, layout and other characteristics market your brand as you would like it to appear to your target audience? Maybe you need to rethink the images and layout used for the Spanish-language pages of the site in order to reach Latinos who might purchase your products or services. Perhaps the vendor offers voiceover services that would allow you to put the promotional video on your site into a second language.    
Another service you might need is on-site or telephonic interpretation. All of these things and more should be on your radar as you move forward into reaching out to the target audience via your translated materials. Some buyers prefer to consider this step earlier in the process, as they are already thinking ahead to how the translation might enhance their own brand, while others are able to stop at simply having their materials translated.  To finalizing the process, consider your research on how to obtain a high-quality translation as time well spent. By reading this, you have already taken the first step to ensuring receipt of a valuable service. Much like the first-time car buyer who finds a car that is reflective of his or her personality, the translation in which you invest should be a great reflection of you and your brand in the target language.