Over the years we’ve seen companies both large and small take a variety of approaches to obtaining translation. While some practices may be understandable for companies that have infrequent and small translation requirements, we’ve run into four practices that often hang on long after some businesses’ translation needs have become regular and extensive, costing money and/or impacting quality.

One: Using bilingual employees to do translations

Some businesses tell us they don’t have any translation needs because they have employees who take care of it for them. Bilingual employees speak with the occasional Spanish-speaking customer or translate brief emails. But sometimes company leaders, even leaders of large companies, believe they can continue to rely on their employees for more extensive translation jobs such as marketing materials, websites, manuals, etc. One thing that can be said for employees as translators is that they are well acquainted with the industry terminology. But this possible advantage is usually greatly outweighed by these drawbacks:

Opportunity costs: Bilingual employees generally have other jobs at the company. The time they spend on translation takes away from their main job. Using employees is often seen as a cost-saving measure, but the use of these employees – often highly skilled and well-paid – represents an opportunity cost since it takes them away from their primary job. Using professional translators can actually cost less than the value of the work lost by using employees.

Delays: Because employees have other work that can’t always wait while they concentrate on translation, translation projects are often long and drawn out processes. I spoke with one international marketing person who had been trying to translate his company’s website into Spanish – his first language – for a number of years. He had never been able to either finish the translation or talk the company leaders into paying the relatively modest costs of hiring professionals.

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Poor quality: Companies that wouldn’t think of letting non-professionals write their marketing and customer support materials see no problem with simply handing these materials over to any bilingual employee for translation. A good translator has to know both the source and the target language extremely well, and also has to be a good writer in the target language. This is why we require a minimum of 5 years of translation experience, subject matter expertise, and references as to quality, communication skills and professionalism before we work with a translator. Generally, translators should only translate into their native language. If an employee’s only qualification as a translator is the ability to speak a second language, asking them to translate invites quality problems.

Two: Using Google Translate

Neural machine translation has arrived on the scene, and Google’s free tool has improved quite a bit in the past few years. Google translations read more fluently than they used to, which is good. However, the fluidity of the translation can be its downfall. Mis-translations and omissions still occur, but they become harder to catch. Even if a bilingual employee is carefully comparing source and output, errors can still slip by. And, a full bilingual check of the output from machine translation can be about as labor-intensive as actually creating a translation from scratch, which triggers the problems outlined in the first section of this post. Also, Google Translate provides no security for sensitive information and does not guarantee the accuracy of its output.

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If a translation just needs to be “good enough,” there are better options, for example, machine translation with engines that have been “trained” for specific language domains. Your language partner can help you find affordable machine translation solutions. But when accuracy is crucial — for example in translations of medical, industrial, and legal documents — machine translation can fail. A recent narcotics case was thrown out by a federal judge because the police tried to use Google Translate to ask a Spanish-speaking suspect for permission to search his car. The translation only asked for permission to search FOR the car, and the defense successfully argued that the defendant had never agreed to a search OF the car.

Three: “Throwing it over the wall”

Purchasing translation is a learning process. It’s frustrating for both of us when a buyer has been told “find out how much it will cost” but doesn’t have any details about how the content will be used, the level of specialization required, the turnaround time, or where it will be published. There needs to be some consultation to make sure the client’s needs are met. Is it for publication or internal use only? If it’s to be translated into Spanish, for example, will it be for Spain, Argentina, or the US? If it’s medical, is it for an audience of specialists or patients? If it includes graphics, can you provide the native design files? Asking questions is sometimes perceived as an attempt to “up-sell” but actually it’s the opposite: we are getting the information in order to quote the project at the lowest competitive price, according to the client’s needs.

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Another problem comes when the translation needs of a business are not coordinated, and services are purchased by each office or department on an as-needed basis. This leads to a lot of wasted time as buyers duplicate each other’s work. It also leads to inconsistent quality and unpredictable costs. Sharing knowledge of vendors and the translation process within an organization ensures that the buyers will develop the knowledge to ask the right questions of their internal corporate clients and can work efficiently with their language partners. In particular, the company should ensure that a translation memory is maintained and is added to with each project to avoid paying full price for re-translating updates, and to increase quality and consistency.

Four: Failing to plan for translation

When a company knows that materials will regularly need to be translated for particular markets, it’s time to start planning for translation from the beginning of the content development process. We can offer many suggestions for creating content that will smooth the translation process later, saving time and money. For examples, see some of our own Localization Quick Guides on writing and designing for translation.

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At a minimum, make sure that the English version of the material is clearly written and that the material is thoroughly proofread before it is sent out for translation. Changes made to the source during the translation process will increase costs. Also try to submit all of the materials that you want translated into a particular language at the same time. This may result in volume discounts and avoid minimum charges for small documents, and will certainly add to the consistency of the translation across materials.

Business translation is an investment, and the ROI of translation will be maximized by controlling costs without sacrificing quality. MTM LinguaSoft can help your company develop a process that flows as smoothly and cost-effectively as possible.

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