Quality Translation

A Collaborative Approach

Michael R. Cárdenas

Michael R. Cardenas is the president of Local Concept.

Michael R. Cardenas

I think we can all agree that when you contract for a service, you want to receive quality. When you go to a hairdresser, you expect to have your hair look its best once you leave the salon. Likewise, when you take your car in for servicing, you expect your car to be tuned and in good condition when you pick it up.

When contracting a translation job, shouldn’t we also expect the quality to be good, if not perfect? We can agree then that clients who purchase translation services expect quality — but defining quality translation is not so easy.

To try to define quality, I turned first to ISO 9001. This standard defines quality as the degree which a commodity meets the requirements of the customer. This definition doesn’t really help, though, since translations are far from a commodity. ISO 17100, as well as other similar standardization rules, on the other hand, provide processes that need to be followed in order to assure quality translations from the supplier’s perspective.
So now we have a process that a language service provider needs to adhere to in order to produce quality. Is that all? There have to be more ingredients required for a quality translation than making sure the supplier follows a process. I decided to Google “quality translation.” Most of the results led me to suppliers’ websites, boasting about how seriously they take quality.

In order to provide quality we need to include all three players: the client, the supplier and the translators, who in most cases are freelancers.

There is a critical role that clients should play in the translation mix. Clients don’t typically get much involved in the translation process or client reviews. I sent out a questionnaire to clients who work on a routine basis with LSPs — 800 in total. We wanted to know how involved they were in assuring quality deliverables. The first question we asked was: “what is quality?” We received more definitions than ice cream flavors at Baskin Robbins — or if that’s too culturally specific, more definitions than flavors of beer.

Here are some of the answers: it does not sound like a translation; conveys the intended meaning in the target language; is grammatically correct and follows style guide and terminology; and is correct according to the end user. The best and most encompassing answer: it meets its purpose and expectations in relation to end user purpose, time, cost, shelf life and intended audience.

In short, each client defines quality in their own way. The truth is it doesn’t matter how you define it, what’s important is to define it at the beginning of the client-supplier relationship.

Then we asked whether they even had a quality assurance plan in place. Drumroll, please… 8% said that they had one. Interestingly, the majority of the 8% are seasoned purchasers of translation, meaning they have translated a substantial amount of content for at least ten years. Perhaps experience led them to implementing a quality process.

For those clients who said they don’t have an internal quality measuring stick, we asked why not? 37% said they expected their suppliers would assure a quality deliverable. 18% said they don’t have anyone in-house that can review translations. 9% said the translation process doesn’t allow enough time for internal review. 11% responded that their budget doesn’t allow for internal review. The remaining clients either did not answer the question, or their response was one of a kind (i.e. this is not my responsibility).

Next, we asked the respondents who had an internal review process to tell us whether they (or their supplier) have a written quality assurance (QA) report system in place that defines the types of errors and severity. One-third of the respondents indicated yes, they have a QA report that they fill out when reviewing their supplier’s work. 7% of the respondents said their reviewers review translations and provide feedback, but they do not have a standard written report. 12% said that their suppliers have QA procedures, but they have never seen it. 13% said that they don’t know what a QA report is, and 10% said that their suppliers are ISO certified, so they must be following some QA protocol.

Then, we turned to the importance of quality. The majority of the respondents said cost and time to market were both important. The second set of respondents said cost and quality. And the lonely third set of respondents said quality alone — the least voted answer. Perhaps the fact that quality does not seem to be on the minds of most clients is the reason why so few clients have an internal QA measure.

Interestingly, I conducted a study 20 years ago asking clients what was the most important thing they looked for in a supplier and the answer was quality. Nowadays, time is money and translations need to be performed at mach speed. Quality is of second (or third) level of importance.

Assume for a minute that I have convinced you that client reviews should be an integral part of the translation process in order to assure clients are receiving good work. There is a secondary benefit of client reviews. Translators do not often receive feedback on their work and they thirst for feedback.

Again, I sent out a questionnaire, this time to 200 translators, and asked what percentage of clients provided feedback. 8% of clients provide feedback. Half of the respondents said they receive feedback only when the feedback is negative. When asked whether they felt client feedback was important, 100% said that it was important. I then asked whether the translators performed better when they knew their work was being reviewed. 72% said they paid more attention when their work was being reviewed. Yes, yes… I did try harder on this article because I know someone is going to read and edit it.

It’s a detriment to all to overlook the importance of getting the right client reviewer in place. First, they must have excellent editing skills — not just command of the language and grammar. Having visited the country or eaten at an international restaurant is not enough. Second, they must leave their ego at the door when collaborating with the suppliers. Remember, this is a team effort. Third, they must be a candidate for political office — in other words, know how to be diplomatic. The goal of the reviewer is to make sure the final product is excellent, and not to put down the linguists. They must also be familiar with translation memory as well as different file formats, and should have experience in glossary management and style guide creation.

Too often reviewers shout out obscenities like “Either these ****** linguists don’t even speak the language they are translating into or they never learned grammar at school,” or “I Google Translated the same text and the quality was better.” These sorts of statements are unhelpful to the process — reviewers should win over the linguists. Yes, we want excellent quality, but time and cost need to be considered in play. Is the suggested change of a subjective nature requiring 12 hours to redo a nice to have, or is it a show stopper?

After reading the benefits of client review, perhaps a few clients will move to an in-house review model. To clients who continue to abstain from performing quality, I can only advise: be wary of the quality of translations you are currently accepting.