Ten myths about translation quality

Nataly Kelly, a co-author of the book Found in Translation, wrote an article well known in the localization industry titled “Ten Common Myths about Translation Quality.” In it, she describes ten ways that inexperienced translation service buyers might try to ensure translation quality. In the end, these may actually harm quality and waste money. Her main points are worth repeating.

Myth #1: Working with a bigger language partner is better

Unless you work for a very large business, a big translation agency may not value your business as much as a smaller or mid-sized one will. Don’t just go with the global agency at the top of the search engine results page. Find one that can take the time to investigate your needs and fulfill your specific requirements. Experience, testimonials, documented quality assurance methods, the capacity and specializations to translate your content, and a willingness to work with your business are what really matter.

Myth #2: I just need one translator

You use editors and proofreaders for your important English material. Translated documents need review as well. Even the best translators make typos. For best quality, make sure that your translation price includes independent bilingual review. Choose an ISO 17100-certified language partner that provides translation and review by separate qualified linguists plus in-house quality assurance.

Myth #3: Working with several different language partners will result in better quality 

It’s better to centralize your localization program with one language service partner. Your partner will become more efficient as time goes by. They come to know your particular style preferences. They will also maintain a client-specific translation memory to ensure consistency and to cut costs on repeated content. If you have recurring translation needs, use the same provider consistently to get all of these advantages.

Myth #4: Pitting one provider against another keeps quality in check 

If you don’t speak the source or target language, how do you assess quality? Some clients might have a second, independent translation partner review a translation. But if you don’t speak the language, you can’t assess their review, either. How will you know that the reviewer has identified true linguistic mistakes?  They may be just “preferential” or stylistic changes. More importantly, is the second provider honestly pointing out mistakes or are they just trying to get you to switch your translation work to them? If you do suspect problems, work with a carefully chosen internal reviewer to gauge quality.

Myth #5: Getting a “back translation” from a second vendor will ensure quality 

A back translation is a translation of the translation “back” to the original language. We then compare the two documents, source and back translation, and the two translators work to reconcile the discrepancies. Back translation should be a painstaking process. If you are not familiar with judging a back translation, you may find “errors” that don’t really exist. Differences may stem from ambiguities in the source, not errors in the translation. As with #4, above, if you get a back translation done by a second provider, how do you know that mistakes were not introduced during the back translation?

If your project does require back translation, use the same partner for both parts of the process to ensure a smooth reconciliation process. And for goodness’ sake, do not run the translation through Google Translate and compare it to the source. We’ve had clients do that, generating controversies that wasted their time and ours.

Myth #6: Ask bilingual employees for feedback 

Whether or not you should do this depends on which employee you ask. Bilingualism alone does not qualify a person to judge a translation. Not everyone who speaks a language has strong language skills. If you ask employees to review a translation, provide strict guidelines about what type of corrections they should make. Before choosing a reviewer, take a look at our guidelines for in-country review.

Myth #7: *Translation* quality control is all you need

To do their best work, translators need reference materials like style guides and glossaries. Providing references provides context and prevents misunderstandings.  Creating a bilingual glossary or term base at the start of the project prevents misuse of specialized terminology. Supply your translator with helpful references at the beginning of the process to ensure best results.

Myth #8: The quality of the source will not impact the quality of the translation 

Source quality matters a lot. Translators need a clearly written source with as little ambiguity as possible. Lack of clarity in the source text can easily cause many “errors” in the translation. For technical materials, follow best practices and use technical writing tools to create the source.  For creative advertising, provide background information on brand identity, audience personas, and campaign concepts.

Myth #9: Translation technologies are no different than Google Translate

Professional translators use computer-assisted translation (CAT) tools for efficiency, quality and consistency. These include glossaries, country-specific spellcheck, and automated quality assurance. Learn more about CAT tools here. Your language service partner should use the latest CAT tools. As for “machine” or automated translation technology, it is improving. Automated translation may prove a useful solution for some projects, under the right conditions.  If automated translation is an option for you, always work with a translation partner who keeps human linguists in the loop.

Myth #10: When you solicit quotes for “translation,” you’ll get the same services from every provider 

If your business is price-sensitive, you may focus immediately on the price. However, when you get quotes from two providers that seem equally dependable, make sure you understand what is included in each quote. Does the quote include bilingual review? Does it include localizing graphics in the text? What about re-formatting or multilingual desktop publishing? Unless you know these answers, you may be comparing apples and oranges.

So, how do you ensure translation quality?

The true test of translation quality is whether it accomplishes its purpose. For marketing materials, you want compelling content that reads as smoothly as possible. For technical and specialized materials, you need accuracy, precision, and consistency of terminology and knowledge of your industry sector. The more information you give your language service partner up front, the better positioned they’ll be to provide you with translations that help you grow your business.