Some tips and advice for professionals who are thinking of setting up their own translation business, or have already done so.
Various market studies carried out in recent years have revealed that quality is one of the two principal criteria clients use to determine whether to place repeat orders with translation agencies – the other main criterion being speed of delivery. It is evidently important, therefore, to think very carefully about how to ensure the sustained quality of your translations without compromising your ability to meet tight delivery deadlines.
Firstly, we will try to define what exactly ‘quality’ means in a commercial translation context. In translation, as in any business environment, quality is determined principally by the client. Clients expect translations to be suitable for their intended purpose, which means that alignment with the target readership is an important concern. This is something your translators should always bear in mind.
Of course quality can also be measured against a number of objective linguistic criteria, irrespective of the client’s preferences or audience. A translation will have obviously have to comply with the basic rules of grammar and spelling for it to be acceptable, but the linguistic quality of your text is also determined by style – although this criterion is far less strictly codified. In addition to grammar and style, terminology is a crucial factor. In fact, many clients will judge the quality of the translation first and foremost by its consistency with their own terminology and jargon.
So what quality controls should be in place in your translation business to ensure optimum performance on these success factors?
Your principal concern should obviously be to hire good translators. This may sound self-evident, but it is not necessarily so. The point is that the quality of translators often – though not always – relates proportionately to their rates, and in any business there will naturally be a temptation to engage the most cost-effective suppliers. As a general rule, high-quality and experienced translators will charge relatively high rates because they tend to have a continuous supply of work and can afford to refuse orders at lower rates. However, this rule only applies when the free-lancer operates in the same economic area as your agency. Things can be very different when you decide to hire translators who work from their own language area. Take Chinese, for example. As business contacts between Europe and China have increased, so has the number of translation services based in China. Local Chinese rates are considerably lower than European rates, but in this case this does not say very much about the quality of the translators – in fact, that quality may be very high indeed. The same applies, mutatis mutandis, to hiring Spanish translators in Argentina or Arabic translators in, say, Egypt or Saudi Arabia.
Another important tool in the attempt to maintain high levels of quality is the provision of professional reference materials. This includes paper and online dictionaries as well as online terminological databases, whose variety and availability in recent years has expanded tremendously. This is not the place to deal extensively with specific reference materials; suffice it to say that excellent tools are available in virtually any field – especially law, finance, insurance, banking, technology & engineering, medicine, architecture, construction, real estate and IT. It is also worth mentioning that many large, supranational organisations offer their own specific terminology databases (usually for a fee), including IATE (jointly maintained by the major EU institutions).
One practical online tool that may prove invaluable in large translation projects is not a database in itself, but merely offers a framework for one: Google Docs & Spreadsheets. This free service (provided by Google) enables a lead translator to maintain, develop and monitor contributions to a wordlist for a specific project, drawn up organically by all the translators who are engaged for the project. All the translators have online access to the database in Google Docs to benefit from existing entries or add their own. The principal benefit for you as the project leader is that all translators essentially tap from the same terminological source, which means that inconsistencies in their eventual output will be minimized.
Revision, or screening, is another important quality assurance tool. The translation process is very error-sensitive, because translators are only human and can make mistakes in all sorts of categories (spelling, grammar, style, terminology, consistency, etc.). All production processes are, of course, inherently prone to error, but translation agencies have to cope with the additional problem that these risks cannot usually be eliminated by mechanical or electronic controls (even the spell-check system is far from infallible). This is why you will have to rely on “manual” screening of all the work you receive from your translators. This does not mean that you will necessarily have to check each translation sentence by sentence by comparing it with the source text (whether you decide to do so would depend on your confidence in the translator, the time available and your knowledge of what the client intends to do with the translation), but even so all texts will have to undergo some form of screening before they can be sent to the client – if only in the form of a visual inspection to ensure that all paragraphs have actually been translated.
We began this article by pointing out that quality as perceived by business clients is determined essentially by two things: quality and speed of delivery. Logically speaking, the two do not go together. In this sense, translation agencies (and indeed many other businesses) face the challenge of reconciling to requirements that are not only incompatible, but effectively rule each other out. In practice, this paradox can be resolved by the deployment of the most effective tools, which will help to reduce the process time required. Effective tools in the translation business include those described above – excellent, efficient and experienced translators, high-quality practical (online) reference material, terminology aids and a differentiated screening phase.