The Definitive Guide to Measured Translation Quality

Already a complex process, perhaps the most complicated — and most elusive — aspect of translation is defining and then measuring quality.

However, define and measure we must in order to ensure that the final product meets demanding client and end-user expectations. Despite the best intentions of translation services providers and despite clients’ desires to market an optimal product, finding the best and most cost-effective way to get a handle on such a slippery concept of quality remains a daunting challenge.

In The Definitive Guide to Measured Translation Quality, Sonia Monahan and Jason Arnsparger at ForeignExchange Translations have drawn on their combined and extensive experience to shed some light on the topic. The result, at 92 pages: a slender but information-packed and highly readable little volume.

Received wisdom has it that three elements factor into a client’s choice of a translation services vendor: quality, price and speed of delivery. Monahan and Arnsparger note that, for translation services buyers, while price and speed do come into play, quality might simply, and too often, be assumed. The authors suggest that what actually constitutes quality is often overlooked until a great deal of time and money has already been invested. They also note that, while a majority of that investment goes toward back-loaded quality control (QC), meaning reactive measures and, as in the case of in-country client review, subjective measures tacked on at the end of a very long process, developing a clear and comprehensive quality assurance (QA) strategy gets short shrift. The result is a multiplication of errors that need to be fixed under a looming deadline.

Monahan and Arnsparger do not assume anything. They start off by defining their terms, then clearly explain the benefits of a proactive production process informed from start to finish and beyond by a rigorous strategy based on QA. They also introduce the importance of being able to accurately measure quality, a key concept that returns throughout the book: “And measuring quality is important because it quantifies the level of risk to safety and compliance. It helps the customer go from assuming quality is good to knowing quality is good.”

The standard QC-based process is described in detail as well as ways to tweak that process in order to keep costs down and improve results. One important step in the QC process, in-country review (ICR), receives special attention.

The authors reveal how ICR, a mainstay of the translation process, can add unnecessary costs to a project without markedly improving the end result. A lack of continuity and collaboration, as well as weak or nonexistent linguistic skills and training are all identified as factors that impact cost. Another factor, the subjectivity of reviewer feedback, brings the reader back to the essential problem: defining, objectifying and measuring quality expectations. In the context of large, multilingual projects, these factors — and the associated costs — can add up.

The book devotes two sections to an overview of existing standards and to a range of quality measurement systems, some developed by standards organizations, some private initiatives. The latter section takes a look at METRiQ, a proprietary tool developed by ForeignExchange. The tool, released in 2009, is “a statistical method used to classify linguistic errors for medical translations.” Sandwiched in between the section on standards, the authors address the selection process for linguistic resources.

Throughout the book, surveys, statistics and case studies graphically and vividly support the information presented. The last section pulls everything together, describing the practical application of theory in broad strokes.

When I was first tasked with reviewing The Definitive Guide to Measured Translation Quality, I hesitated. Although the subject is important, experience had convinced me that it can be a bit of a grind. Honestly, I feared that much of the content would just soar over my head or, worse, put me to sleep. I also worried that the entire book would be an over-long advertisement for ForeignExchange Translations. Happily, I had nothing to fear. Monahan and Arnsparger should be congratulated for succinctly demystifying a difficult but critical topic, and making it accessible to a wide audience.