Choosing a translation agency: Should I request sample translations?

Choosing a translation agency: Should I request sample translations?

When choosing a translation agency, you should take several factors into account. Quality matters a lot, but many other considerations also come into play. Response time, flexibility, subject-matter expertise, capacity, and technical savvy will all impact the overall quality of the service as well as the deliverable. When comparing agencies, it may seem like a good idea to simply request samples or test translations. However, if you take this route, plan to evaluate more than just the linguistic quality of the deliverable. The process matters just as much, and possibly even more. Your experience with this sample or test project will help you decide on the best language service partner for your business needs.

Good translations require collaboration

A high-quality sample translation requires an investment of some of the client’s time – your time! According to the American Translators Association, “the quality of a translation is the degree to which it follows agreed-upon specifications… If you don’t identify what you want up front, you are unlikely to get a good translation.” When choosing between translation agencies, have a conversation with each candidate when you request a sample.  At the very least, the agency should ask you these questions:

  • What is the purpose of the translation?
  • What subject-matter expertise is required? Mechanical engineering? Health care?
  • Who is the audience? Engineers? Lawyers? Patients?
  • What is the locale of the audience? This will help assess the possible regional variation of the target language. Combined with an audience profile, it will determine how much the specific locale matters. For example, Mexicans in Monterrey speak a different “Spanish” than Spaniards in Madrid. This matters less for technical translations than it does for marketing content, but it’s still essential information.

A glossary or term base is an essential ingredient for excellent translations.

The translation team may not need a glossary to translate your sample. However, if similar business materials have already been translated by another agency, share them. These will help translation team to do a good job. In a first-time testing situation, a translation agency should ask to see prior content, to get a feel for your style and preferred terminology. Ultimately, if the agency wins your business, they’ll maintain term bases and translation memories for you to ensure consistency across projects.

The first job requires the most communication between the translation agency and the client. 

Professional translation teams ask questions to be sure they are meeting your needs. Unless the text is very general, the team may have queries for you, the client. If it’s your first time buying translation, you may wonder, “Why do they need so much hand-holding? It’s only a translation!” However, if they ask no questions during the very first job (or test translation) you might consider this a red flag. Both client and agency should expect that as the relationship matures, projects will require less back-and-forth. To that end, look for a translation agency with long-term employees and an experienced team. High employee turnover will impact the quality of service over time.

Who will review the test translations?

Do you have someone on staff who can evaluate test translations? Do not choose a reviewer simply because they are bilingual. If a reviewer is not an experienced writer and editor, they may not have the judgement to distinguish between true “errors” and “preferential changes.”  Furthermore, will the reviewer want to take the opportunity to demonstrate their own writing skills? If so, you can expect the test to be heavily edited regardless of quality. Ask your reviewer to provide an objective tally of the type and severity of errors. If their explanation for a change is “it sounds better this way,” it’s probably not a “true” error. Read more about internal translation review here.

So how do I evaluate a translation agency?

The test translation process will help you decide whether the service as well as the product will meet the quality of service you need.  Additional questions to ask a language service partner include:

  • How do you recruit and evaluate linguists?
  • Do you have internal quality assessment tools and processes in place?
  • Is your staff engaged in continuous learning about translation technology?
  • Can you provide references from satisfied clients?
  • Are you ISO 17100-certified?

For more information on how to assess a language service partner, download the American Translators Association (ATA) guide, “Translation: Buying a Non-Commodity”  and the Globalization and Localization Association (GALA) white paper “Understanding Key Factors to Assess Globalization and Localization Providers.”