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Are you in the process of choosing a language service partner (LSP) for your ongoing translation needs?  It may seem like a good idea to request samples or test translations from several candidates, then choose based on who did the best job. However, this approach only a reliable means of gauging translation quality if you invest some time working with each of the candidates to ensure success. Here are some reasons why this is so.

Good translations require collaboration.

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.” If you are testing a number of LSPs, you should take the time to have an in-depth conversation with each of them, because you are buying a service rather than a product.  All of the following are elements that require discussion between yourself and your language services partner:

  • What is the purpose of the translation?
  • Who is the audience? Teenage gamers? Engineers? Lawyers?
  • What subject-matter expertise is required? Mechanical engineering? Health care?
  • What is the regional variation of the target language and how much does it matter? (Mexicans in Monterrey speak a different “Spanish” than Spaniards in Madrid.)
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A glossary or termbase is an essential ingredient for excellent translations.

Developing a glossary is usually the first step in translating specialized documents, and agreeing upon vocabulary ahead of time is one way to ensure that the translation team has all the information they need to do a good job. Termbases (and translation memories) are developed and maintained by LSPs as they gain more experience with the client’s needs. In a first-time testing situation, information about terminology is usually missing.

The first job requires the most communication between LSP and client. 

Good translation teams ask questions in order to be sure they are meeting your needs. Unless the text is very general, the team will have queries for you, the client. If a potential client hasn’t worked with an LSP before, they may regard queries negatively, asking “why do they need so much hand-holding? It’s only a translation!” Ironically, as with a lack of questions before accepting the job, a lack of questions during the very first job (in this case a test translation) should raise a red flag. Certainly, as time goes by and the relationship with a client matures, an LSP will need to ask fewer questions.

Who will review the test translations?

Do you have a bilingual subject matter expert on staff who can evaluate test translations? As with any internal translation review, unless the reviewer has a high level of writing ability in both languages, you can run into a lot of disagreements over “preferential” changes.  It is absolutely a mistake to 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 know whether they are identifying “errors” or whether they are making “preferential changes.”  “It sounds better this way” is a very subjective measure. Will the reviewer want to demonstrate dedication to the task or show off their writing skills? If so, you can expect the test to be heavily edited no matter what its quality. When evaluating a translation, it’s helpful to use a tool like this one in order to provide an objective analysis of the type and severity of errors.

So how do I evaluate a language service partner?

Good 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?

For more information on how to assess an LSP, 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.”

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