Assessing translation quality without being knowledgeable in the concerned foreign language


published on 12 November 2021 | reading time approx. 3 minutes

by Olga Khvastunova

Translation is a service, which quality the customer is often unable to assess independently; as a result, customers frequently have to rely solely on the translation service provider’s fair practices. Translation services provided by a reputable company or translation agency usually do not lead to any problems: the translation service providers (‘TSP’) of that type have properly verified their translators’ skills in advance and make use of some cutting-edge tools with automatic quality assurance, which is followed by at least one proofreading step. Many independent translators practice a similar approach in their work. But what if you are not sure whether the TSP or the translator contracted by you is responsible about their quality assurance? Let us examine some options available in such cases.



Where you are a native speaker of the target language

If the text has been translated into your mother tongue, the task may seem easy enough: you (or another recipient of the translation) should understand the rendered content without a problem. But how can you make sure that the content of the source text has been rendered correctly? The first and foremost step is visual comparison of the two texts. Do not try to compare their volume, since it can vary significantly in view of the lexical and grammatical features specific to each language. You should focus on the text structure instead, the subdivision into paragraphs, and the presence and location of key words such as numbers, names, dates, mentioned companies, countries, cities, etc. If the texts have the same number of paragraphs and the key words are located in approximately similar fragments of the text, you can conclude that the translation is complete and the translator has not omitted any important information.
Only after you have made sure that the deliverable is a complete translation, you can check it for translation adequacy. It should be emphasized here that the deliverables of even the best translators always depend on the quality of the source text and understanding of the relevant context. A professional translator will certainly inform the customer about any significant deficiencies or ambiguities detected in the source text and possibly affecting the translation quality. However, the translator can overlook something or the TSP may be unaware of or simply misunderstand the broader context. Thus, if you cannot understand some phrases in the translation or if their meaning does not meet your expectations in the light of certain background circumstances known to you, you should direct your questions to the translator and provide the required additional information. A professional translator will always be able to explain why your text had to be translated in a certain way, or the translation will be adjusted in accordance with your comments.
Such adjustments are possible, however, where you have questions solely regarding individual phrases and the translator is prepared to cooperate with the customer. If the text contains many sentences which are difficult to understand, and the translator cannot explain convincingly why they have been translated this way, the customer has good reasons to suspect machine translation. Use of machine translation (‘MT’) is not a problem - in and of itself - but it is important to understand that MT can only be an effective support tool in certain situations and always requires a comprehensive bilingual review by a professional knowledgeable in both the source and the target language. If you enter a part of the source text in Google Translator or a similar online tool and see the same mistakes as in the translation deliverable submitted to you, the only correct approach would be to give the translation assignment to a different TSP/translator.

Where you are a native speaker of the source language

The approach to translations into your mother tongue is clear: first you should visually compare the structure of the two texts and then assess the translation adequacy. However, if the text has been translated into a foreign language you cannot understand, you will not be able to perform the second step by yourself. In such situations the best approach would be to give the translation to another translator for a bilingual review. However, if this option is not feasible for whatever reason, some tools are still available for a preliminary assessment of the translation quality.
For example, you can make use of any known online tool checking grammar and spelling of texts in the target language. It should be kept in mind that such tools are not perfect and sometimes they highlight possible errors where everything is all right with account of the context. However, if the tool highlights a lot of errors, this is a good reason to request explanations from the translator: a knowledgeable professional will always be able to explain why the tool sees an error in a given fragment and whether it has to be adjusted.
MT tools can also come in useful. In such situations you should back-translate - i.e. take a fragment of the translated text and translate it back into the source language you can understand. If the resultant content corresponds in meaning to the source content, the translation is most likely adequate.


A good translation product is always a result of productive interaction between the translator (and ideally the revisor/reviewer) and the customer. If you have any concerns regarding the translation, a professional translator will always be able to answer your questions and adjust the translation if need be. If you have happened upon an unreliable TSP/translator that cannot give reasonable explanations in response to your questions, you now have information at hand about some uncomplicated tools available to you to assess the quality of translation by yourself. Such assessment will help understand whether the translation fits your needs or if other professionals have to be involved additionally.

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