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An informed customer is a happy customer


published on 14 January 2022 | reading time approx. 5 minutes

by Marina Kreajeva

Uniform criteria are still lacking for accurate assessment of the quality of translations although the translator profession emerged millennia ago with the emergence of different languages and writing systems. There are many different translators and translation service providers at the market, often rendering also some other auxiliary linguistic and non-linguistic services, with a differing understanding of what the scope of translation services includes and with different professional skills and responsibility levels.



No uniform criteria for translation quality

The mandatory standards developed in the Russian Federation so far (for example, GOST 7.79-2000: “Rules of Transliteration of Cyrillic Script by Latin Alphabet”) extend to translation services only indirectly. The Union of Translators of Russia (UTR) has developed and made publicly available1 the guideline “Translation: The Translator’s, the Customer’s and the Reviewer’s Best Practices (Version 3, Moscow, 2015)”. They have been officially approved by the boards of the UTR and the National League of Translators (NLT) (Russia) and supported by Translation Forum Russia, but are nevertheless only in the nature of best practice suggestions to translation market players.

The flagship standard in the field of quality standards for translation services is currently the European standard ISO 17100-2015, which defines the scope of and terminology for translation services and establishes the main requirements for translation activities – in particular regarding the competence of translators, technical support tools, translation quality control, and the procedure for the provision of translation services.

This standard permits translators to use CATs (computer-aided translation engines), i.e. translation memory tools and databases which enable translators to review, modify and/or supplement, accept or reject CAT-suggested translation, while comparing its content to that of the original text. The standard explicitly excludes from its scope the raw output from a machine translation tool plus post-editing (i.e. the process of identifying and eliminating errors and obvious gaffes in the automatically generated machine translation product without verifying it against the original text).

Furthermore, the ISO standard explicitly specifies the requirements for interaction between the customer and the translation service provider as a key element of translation quality assurance. Why is this interaction so important? According to the ISO standard, a translation is deemed to be of adequate quality where it is suitable for the purposes stated in the contract between the customer and the translation service provider and complies with the requirements stated in the customer’s specifications/terms of reference. In other words, translation quality directly depends on how precisely and comprehensively the customer’s needs have been stated, communicated to the translator and reflected in the translation deliverable.

Customer requirements vs. actual needs

But does compliance with the customer’s requirements automatically mean that the customer will be satisfied with the translation deliverable? By far not always. The customer’s requirements sometimes do not correspond to their actual needs; moreover, the customer’s requirements and expectations might be stated vaguely and misunderstood as a result. In addition, some customers do not always understand the scope of the translator’s duties and sometimes hold them responsible for the customer’s own omissions and blunders. For instance, a translated marketing text has not come through in line with the customer’s expectations. Who is to blame for this - the translator who has translated the received original text comprehensively and accurately but who is not a marketing expert, or the marketing expert who has incorrectly identified their target audience or who lacks sufficiently clear understanding of its needs and demands or who has not taken due account of differences in the cultural context (so-called “locale”) when developing the original text?

The customer is not a linguist in many cases and has a very vague idea of the translation process specifics, which fact exacerbates the problem. This paper examines some common (alas!) misconceptions about translations.

Common misconceptions

“Proficiency in the foreign language in question is sufficient of itself to translate from/to that language.” This is absolutely not true. Not everyone who has good command of a foreign language (even a native-level one!) can translate from that language to their mother-tongue - let alone translate from their mother-tongue to that foreign language - at an adequate level of quality. Not all professional translators accept assignments to translate in both directions because they are aware of their limitations in terms of the deliverable quality. In a more common scenario, the translator translates from the source foreign language into their mother-tongue. This makes sense. Just think how long it takes to learn a foreign language in order to become proficient in it at a level of an educated native speaker. On top of good command of the foreign language, the ability to express one’s thoughts accurately, competently, and clearly - orally as well as in writing - and to think in two languages in parallel is essential to produce good translations. I usually suggest to persons with an engineering mentality that they compare the skills of a driver with those of a motor-vehicle mechanic. You must admit that not every driver is able to independently detect and repair a car breakdown without special additional training.

And here we come to another misconception. There is an opinion that “a good translator can translate anything.” This is also fundamentally wrong. Try reading a scientific paper in your native language, for example something on molecular biology or nuclear physics. How much will you understand from what you have read unless you are an expert in that field? And how much of its content will you be able to render and explain clearly to others? After all, the translation should correctly render the content of the original text rather than mindlessly substitute words and phrases of the source language with those of the target language. It is often impossible to find the right word for such substitution without understanding the meaning of the statement. This is an obstacle machine translation typically stumbles over, relying only on word/phrase usage frequency statistics and not understanding the meaning. Some translation schools strictly forbid their students to accept translation assignments from specialist fields in which the translator is not sufficiently knowledgeable. An inaccuracy seemingly insignificant in the layperson’s view can lead to serious errors, considerable moral and material damage and risk to life, limb and health, if made in the translation of an operation manual to an expensive appliance, a leaflet to a new medicine for humans or animals, a patient’s medical history, safety regulations, or witness statements. In some countries, the problem of translator liability has been partly addressed through sector-specific accreditation of interpreters by means of a special exam to be taken at the relevant ministry. For example, in some countries courts and notaries may only use for their official purposes services of the translators accredited by the Ministry of Justice.

The most unfortunate misconception is underestimation of the translator’s role and responsibility arising from translations. This leads to unrealistic deadlines and translation volume requirements. Unfortunately, there are still those who believe that any translator can translate in a couple of days and for a tiny fraction of its cost a document which took a professional team weeks or even months to develop and cost a major international corporation or state agency many thousands of dollars/Euros.

Proper value is not attached to translator time either - especially in case of own corporate translators. There are situations where the customer is actually interested only in the translation of three or four paragraphs with prices and delivery terms in a hundred-plus-page draft contract. A reasonable approach that could save lots of time would be to start with the translation of the table of contents or section headings, get an idea of the content structure and to select the relevant fragments for further translation rather than send the entire document for translation, but not all internal customers care to think about this.

Some individuals still persist in believing in the existence of a mythical creature (aka “but-you-are-a-translator-aren’t-you”): A person who will be happy, ready, able and finally just obliged, in the opinion of such customers, to quit all other customers and whatever that person is currently doing, to come racing along and to translate on the spot and without asking questions any text of any size, from/to any language, within any term and for any fee (preferably even for free), be it day or night, a weekday, a holiday or a weekend, because this is the only purpose and reason for the translator’s existence.

Interaction is the key 

Customers should understand that satisfying quality of the translation and/or the translation service is a product of mutual adjustments; close interaction between the customer and the translator; explanations - even if simplistic and intended for a clueless dummy, even if in response to stupid questions because the translator is under no obligation to be a nuclear physicist; joint analysis of your requirements, sometimes with account of the translator’s comments because the translator is the most attentive reader of your text – able to point out formal and logical flaws and errors; and, if necessary, a substantiated argumentation of your dissatisfaction with the translation deliverable. Such interaction and mutual respect will give rise to a long-term business relationship most satisfactory for both parties.
 1 For example, at http://www.russian-translators.ru/perevodchesky-opit/practika/01/

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