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How should customers assess translation quality?


Sonja Kirschstein

Operations Director

Ian Gilchrist

PureFluent Roving Reporter

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December 20, 2019

A perennial worry for customers is how to assess translation quality. How do you know you’re getting high quality professional human translation rather than Google Translate? How should you assess the performance of your Translation Services partner? What role does the customer have in ensuring translations serve their objectives?

Ian:Sonja, how should customers assess translation quality? I’m not a linguist and I can imagine that people like me buying translation services must face some challenges!

Sonja:This is a really difficult problem for customers. In most instances people are having their content translated into languages that they don’t speak, so when a translation is delivered to them they need to figure out how to determine whether the translation is a good one. In a sense the situation is analogous to buying a second hand car – how do you know if that car has been well looked after or is a lemon? Most of us can only base this on the service history provided by the seller, but most of us aren’t engineers so we don’t really know. In the same way if you don’t understand the language of the translation that’s been provided, you can’t start to judge its quality.

The first time most people find out that there is a problem with a translation is that they have a customer or a reseller in their target market who looks at it and says “this is a load of rubbish”. When this verdict is delivered it also isn’t usually phrased in a more nuanced or polite way either – you’re told it’s terrible, and that’s that. I feel real empathy for people who’ve had a really negative assessment of a translation from someone because they in turn say “I feel like an idiot because I’ve learned one of our translations is awful but it’s already out there as we’ve published it!”

Ian:Talk me through the ways and means used to assess the quality of a translation, in order to avoid the embarrassment you just outlined.

Sonja:Our company, and any other reputable translation company, has a really robust quality process. Every translation is put through a three-stage process: translation, proof-reading, and rating. This means that there are two people involved in each translation, the person who does the translation itself and the person who proof-reads it and also rates the translation. If the proof-reader rates a translation poorly we will consider having the translation completely redone by a second translator if it’s determined the first translator can’t correct it.

In another scenario, the translation has gone through our three-step process and been sent to the customer and the customer complains that it’s not a good translation. We don’t get these very often but it does happen, and I think every translation services agency on the planet has been in this situation at some time. When we receive a customer complaint of this sort we put the translation through another proof-reading process and have it re-rated, with the proof-reader giving her opinion as to whether she thinks the translation is a good, terrible, or somewhere in between.

Ian:So what you’re saying in effect is that, unlike a lot of freelance outsourced roles, you actually apply two people to do the same job, which can only help to ensure translation quality.

Sonja:Exactly, so think about the copywriting process by way of a comparison. One person will come up with a first draft and then a second person will edit or revise it. Similar issues will arise with translation as they do with copywriting. A person can be too wrapped up in content and garble the syntax or miss nuances of meaning or get the terminology wrong, so it’s always incredibly useful to have a second pair of eyes assessing whether the copy is correct.

Ian:And then of course because there’s a possibility someone assessing the translation on the client side, one of their associates at a distributor in a target market for example, who will receive the copy after it has been vigorously proofed and vetted and will come back and say “ah, sorry, this copy isn’t correct” – a third possible participant in the QA process.

Sonja:Absolutely. While all of our projects go through the three-step process I outlined, many of them also go through a fourth step of Client Review. The translation is sent to a native speaker who works in some capacity with the commissioning client who will review and rate the translated content – so as you say, this brings a third pair of eyes in to the translating process, so in these instances you should never have a quality complaint. A lot of clients however don’t have access to the resource to put translated content through a client review stage.

As part of the proof-reading process we have a QA process which allows us to automatically check things like spelling, compliance with pre-approved terminology, double spaces and other glitches.

Ian:What are the main complaints about translations that you receive?

Sonja:There are a number of reasons why someone makes a complaint about translation quality, and probably the single most common type of complaint made about a translation has to do with style. We all have our own writing styles and styles that we react to more positively than others. We all read things at times that we find jarring or hard to engage with, so an issue with style can be that it’s either wrong or is rooted in a reader’s preferences. A proof-reader might deem that a translation has a stylistic problem and needs tweaking.

A second cause for complaint lies with terminology. Again, this can be a straightforward case of it being wrong, or it can be a preferential choice, and this is an easier problem to avoid with good terminology management. Customers often don’t have the time to collaborate with their translation services provider to establish what all the key terminology is for their translated languages, but despite that this is a relatively simple fix.

A surprisingly common third issue in quite a few cases is that the person reading the translation has issues with the content in its original language. The translator’s job is to translate the content as supplied, but it’s not to decide that he or she doesn’t like the original version and needs to re-write it before doing the translation. Quite often complaints actually relate to the original content and not to the translation. A translation agency can often help with this, and one thing that we regularly do is identify errors in the original content including simple typos and spelling mistakes as well as sentences that have been garbled in the editing process and terminology that’s inappropriate in the original content.

If original content is coherent and has nothing wrong with it but the person supplying it simply doesn’t like it there’s nothing the translation company can do but affirm that the translation is appropriate and refer the complaining party back to the original content that was supplied.

Ian:It seems to me that issues to do with style are a murkier area for translation companies, and it’s perhaps a somewhat more delicate area when it comes to supporting and defending a translator’s work.

Sonja:It’s important for us to not take a defensive stance about the work of our translators, which doesn’t mean that we throw people under the bus when we receive complaints. The corner that we’re always defending is our customers’ to ensure that we get the right result for them. The more we can approach complaints and issues in a spirit of striving to make things better the more likely it is that we’ll come out of disputes with a constructive result, so this is how we always approach them. In a lot of instances when customers raise a complaint about translation quality with an agency they find themselves met with defensiveness, which we feel strongly is absolutely the wrong way to handle complaints. There’s always a germ of truth in a translation quality complaint, and whatever the reason there’s always scope for improvement.

A fourth area of complaint originates in the more technical end of content and involves content that is damaged during the import process. People often do manual cutting and pasting when creating original content, and accents and special characters can be lost during the import process. In some instances, html content can get mixed up and make translated pages appear wrong.

We’ve had a number of complaints about translations which when investigated have been found to originate with import errors; French readers of French translations have pointed out missing accents, which were messed up during the import process.

Ian:What are some of the key steps that a translation company can undertake to ensure that these reasons for complaint don’t happen?

Sonja:A robust quality control process is obviously essential, and we follow the gold standard that I’ve outlined, the two-step process (translate and proofread) followed by rating. The second key element is our selection of the translation team. Our process for hiring translators is as equally robust as our QC process, and we put people through a gated process. First, we check that a translator’s qualifications and experience meets our minimum requirements, and we then ask him to do a test translation which is then reviewed by an experienced proof-reader. This enables us to get an initial sense of whether a translator is good enough to work with us.

The first jobs a new translator are tasked with are small ones so we can get some real-life experience of him working with us and being rated by experienced translators. Overall the translator selection process is very useful in ensuring that the people we hire are quite simply good enough to be part of our team.

Beyond this it’s not just about whether a person is a good translator or not. We want to know that a translator is a good fit for the type of content and customer that he’ll be working with. We’ve talked previously about creative translations, which you need a particular type of translator for, and of course a technical translator is of a different sort again. We go through a quite extensive series of steps when we’re taking new people on.

Ian:Is there anything additional that you utilise to reduce the chances of mistakes?

Sonja:Terminology management is an additional way in which we work to improve translation quality, something which we’ve discussed previously. This is a very important part of the process as it is used to ensure that terminology associated with your brand is correct as well as the terminology of your industry. If a company sells writing instruments and not pens, then this has also to be consistently reflected in the target languages. Or if they want to leave some terminology untranslated, then this decision also has to be saved in the termbase. For German, this happens quite often – software translations are a good example. You can even store words that mustn’t be used because they are associated with the competition for example or the company considers them inappropriate for other reasons. This termbase is connected to all projects and any existing terms are shown automatically with their corresponding translation as soon as the term appears in the source text.

We also create a style guide for all of our customers. A style guide gives a translation team indications and guidelines as to the sort of content we’re aiming for, including style, syntax, and levels of formality versus informality. Generally the more creative a customer’s content is the more crucial a style guide will be, but it can touch on more technical things like character limits for certain content like web content that has to fit a template.

A final thing that we do that really helps to avoid the technical problems I mentioned is integration between your content management system (CMS) and our translation management system (TMS). This automates the process of bringing your translations in so you don’t introduce errors as you do when manually moving content across.

Overall, assessing translation quality is often a tricky problem for customers because they don’t know whether a translation is right or not so the key is working with a translation services provider who’s going to approach things in the right spirit, meaning a non-defensive one, and is prepared to assess whether there are genuine problems and is prepared to put things right. We always take the position that until our customers are happy, we’re not happy, and we’re prepared to put the work in on the front end of the process with terminology management and the creation and employment of style guides and potentially client review. These are all opportunities for the client to participate in the translation process in order to get a better result.

About the authors

Sonja Kirschstein

In her role as Operations Director at Purefluent, Sonja looks after project quality, customized workflow solutions as well as our relationship with our suppliers.

Coming from a professional translator’s background, with a short diversion into teaching, she looks back to over 25 years of experience in the language industry. Her grasp of international business and cultural identity has been built up through her time working and living in the UK, Spain, France and Germany.

See all posts by Sonja Kirschstein
Ian Gilchrist

Ian has worked in music and home entertainment product development, marketing, and journalism in the U.S., Canada and the UK, where he currently lives, for over 30 years.

In that time he's has aided and abetted an eclectic array of artists including Alison Krauss, Talking Heads, Madeleine Peyroux and Slade, and has worked for a diverse range of labels and companies including Universal Music (Canada), Pioneer LDC (Europe), Milan Records (France), the British Film Institute (BFI), Rounder Records Group (Canada) and BMG (UK). In his guise as a film journalist Ian's interviewed many renowned and influential people, including director John Carpenter (Halloween), actors Jesse Eisenberg (The Social Network) and Tom Hardy (Venom), director Roman Polanski (Chinatown), and many more.

See all posts by Ian Gilchrist

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