The challenges of changing your source language

Many language service providers (LSPs) share a common history: the company started as a supplier of translations from English into their native language — meaning they were one of the different single language vendors (SLVs) serving a multilanguage vendor (MLV) — then gradually added more target languages to their portfolio either to become a regional vendor provider or, quite often, another MLV.

One of the current discussions in our industry is whether LSPs will still exist in a decade. As translation is charged by the word, freelancers and LSPs are direct competitors and margins keep decreasing — or as Richard Brooks, my friend and CEO of K International put it: “There are only 100 cents in a euro. No more. Lowering costs has a finite limit… innovation doesn’t.”

The strategy followed by our company is to add more languages and fields of specialization — not target languages but source ones, as we truly believe that the value we can add as a language company within this highly fragmented industry should be the ability to produce the appropriate translation into Spanish, using whatever technology is requested by the client and assigning the right specialist, delivering a translation with the correct grammar, terminology and style. Regardless of globalization, looking for real specialists (not just linguists with a good knowledge of a given field) for a certain language is easier when you are in-country, as you will know who the authorities are for specific verticals such as nuclear power or psychiatry. We must also partner with associations of professional proofers, who traditionally offered their services to publishing houses, in order to minimize the impact of the poor grammar and language usage that we unfortunately see in new graduates.

Last year, following the abovementioned strategy, we dramatically increased the volume of our translation jobs from German into Spanish. Before that, for a long time, our experience in terms of volume was mainly with English into Spanish and in the software localization field. The opportunity for this increase arose from the fact that our partner, JABA Translations, carried out a very brave move by no longer offering Spanish as a target language. This allowed them to focus only on their native language (Portuguese in their case) for some of the reasons I mentioned previously: the value of becoming a master in the target language that you can really control and the ability to manage smaller translation requests or checks faster without the hassle of having to outsource. Thus, we were introduced to their clients as a trusted provider for Spanish. This unique scenario with a sudden increase in the volume of jobs we handled, especially from German, brought up some issues, not all of them expected.

Since we also “inherited” their translators, we had to check their work as you would usually do with any new linguist who gets incorporated into your pool of translators. There is initial evaluation, testing and training on processes and tools. Apart from the typical issues of getting to know one another (both our new clients and our new providers), we soon realized that there were further aspects to be considered. LSPs face this every day when they enter a new market or language, but the amount of new accounts was significant and they were acquired in a short period of time. We soon realized that we needed to pay attention to aspects we had not considered during the intensive and careful preparation for this transition. Being a new provider when the previous one had a great reputation was a challenge for us but we decided to take the “there is always room for improvement” approach to overcome this.


Issues we faced

First, we faced a lack of translators who could translate from German. Every year, over 1400 students graduate from one of the 24 Spanish universities offering translation and interpreting. As English is the main language taught in schools in Spain, and the number of students of translation with English as a source language is extremely high compared to other languages, English is by far the one with the most graduates. In other countries immigration can create a pool of potential translators, but the ones we received in Spain for the last decade came chiefly from Latin America, so we do not have a mass group of speakers with a different mother tongue. As a result, there are fewer potential speakers of other languages. The positive thing is that most of the translators whose first working language is German have a better understanding of the source than many so-called professional English-Spanish translators.

Since the 1990s, with new university translation programs, any given student had to have two main source languages, but the reality is that the proficiency of the majority of the students is not at the same level. They are always better in one of the languages, typically English. For a long time, English was the most demanded language as well.

By the same token, we faced a lack of specialized translators, especially at affordable rates. One effect of having many translators of a given language combination such as English into Spanish is that in order to have a long-term income, they specialize in given areas that might reliably offer more work, such as IT, health care and automotive, just to name a few. The less frequent the language combination, the less specialized the translators become.

This especially affected technical terms, but even for an experienced translator of German, the terminology is much less intuitive when translating. Linguists needed to translate English television into Spanish televisión as opposed to the German Fernsehen. Doing a proper translation became more time-consuming as it now required terminology research. Thus, either the linguists did not have the luxury of looking for the right term or they were extremely expensive because they had developed expertise in their field.

There were also fewer linguistic resources. Since in translation and especially localization, English as source language is quite mature, there are plenty of reference materials, websites and dictionaries available to translators and reviewers. This is also the case for machine translation (MT), as any language other than English as a source does not offer the same output in terms of quality. As a matter of fact, because many engines use English as pivot language for MT, much can get lost in translation.

We noticed German translators were not used to asking questions, probably because there are fewer reviewers with the German-Spanish language combination either at the MLV or end client’s side. As a result, we pay a lot of attention to our translator’s queries as they usually refer to either misunderstandings or errors in the source or language issues on the terminology. We believe this part of the work done by any translation company is an asset to their clients, as this helps improve the quality of the source, a hot topic these days. This is where our role as LSP produces value: we act as a consultation body for language.

The country originating the request has an impact. We learned that the country source is an important piece of information for our translators, especially when it is Switzerland, and this was an added challenge. Maybe because US English is found everywhere due to the influence of American culture, films and the internet, any experienced linguist is aware of the differences between US English and the more official UK English taught at schools and universities. We were already familiar with the most typical mistakes English into Spanish translators make, like the use of passive voice. You could say that a good translation should be well written in Spanish regardless of the source language, but the source language has an influence in the way the translated text reads. Obviously, you can add an extra step, for example monolingual proofing. Here are some reoccurring issues when translating from English and German for a Spanish speaker.


From English

Verbs: avoid passive voice

Titles: avoid the gerund and capitalization in titles — only the first letter of the first word should be capitalized. As a title, Sending a File is translated as Envío de un archive in Spanish.

Colons: special attention should be paid to the use of lowercase/uppercase after a colon. The general rule states that a lowercase word should be used after the symbol for colon.

Figures and numbers format: US billions translates to 1000 millions in Spanish, and the decimal and thousand separators are different.


US format

Spanish format

1.23 cm

1,23 cm




11 111



Measurements: Imperial system versus Metric system.

Time format: 4:15 pm versus 16:15.

Possessives: often avoided. Compare your computer with el ordenador.


From German 

Capitalization: be careful with the capitalization of nouns.

Date format: Something like 08.12.14, although accepted in Spanish, is less standard than 08/12/15.

Redundancy: Do not overuse words such as und, da, aber, auch, in, vor, da, über, allein, neben and immer. Additionally, phrases such as Komm heraus, Komm herein and Geh hinaus can be translated as ¡Sal! since it might not be natural in Spanish to translate them in a different way.

Articles: not always as determinant as in Spanish; it depends on the context.

Grammatical structure: very different in German and Spanish. At the same time, literal translation sounds correct, although archaic, in Spanish. German tends to start sentences with the direct object while in Spanish this is not common.

Perhaps because the birth of localization back in the late 1980s gave the languages involved a new revamp of translation techniques and processes, in a world where the internet was not yet used commercially, translators flown to the newborn translation agencies had to work hard to create standards, guidelines and glossaries. If there were none, the delivery checklist would say “Glossary: follow Microsoft standards.” We decided to recover this practice because of the lack of glossaries and style guides for German into Spanish. So we created our own to improve overall quality and make our translators’ lives easier.


The positives

There are also good things about adding another language as a source. Translating directly from German, the quality of the source is usually better especially for technical texts, due to the long tradition of technical writers in Germany. One of the problems with the mass of nonnative speakers of English writing in this language is that their substandard English affects all levels of the translation work, from the output of MT engines to extra time needed to understand the meaning of the source when it originates in non-English countries, such as Japan, China or Germany. This is obviously a preferred way — translating from the original language — but sometimes the lack of translators makes this impossible.

Due to the nature of the German content to be translated, mainly industrial manufacturing, taking the time to find the right terminology will pay off, as there is a constant flow of work in the same type of component production. Another good thing is that nearly any term in German is extremely precise, as opposed to many English words, which can get many different translations in Spanish.

Working for an MLV is sometimes not very rewarding for a translator, especially for less frequently demanded language combinations. It is not true that they do not want to hear negative feedback, they just get used to not hearing any comments after they deliver their work. We are trying to improve this situation by providing more feedback to our translators; they appreciate having a language contact with whom they can discuss and learn from their mistakes.


Lessons learned

As we expand into other languages, we compile terminology lists per vertical around Spanish terms approved by specialists. We will use these terms as a pivot and we will add any new source term.

We are also preparing guidelines for our translators on the most important differences between the language pairs. This is usually included in the curriculum of translation studies, as are classical studies such as the study of Noam Chomsky’s theory of generative grammer, but these are not as practical as a specific guide for translators on real examples of requested jobs. Moreover, as the future of LSPs must include further specialization of the professional translators, more and more often we need to add resources with a degree other than translation, who might not be that good at grammar, spelling or finding the appropriate tone for a translation. Each of the good individuals you work with must be excellent in what they do: translation (transferring the meaning of the source text), proofers (polishing the text to be well written) and subject matter specialist (for inaccuracies and terminology). The final output should have the same quality standard in a less demanded language. Adding a monolingual specialist is a very good solution but it is costly and not all clients are ready to pay for this.