THE BLOG

Ten Common Myths About Translation Quality

07/18/2013 05:30 pm ET | Updated Sep 17, 2013
  • Nataly Kelly VP, Marketing at Smartling and Co-Author, 'Found in Translation'

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.