Translation Matters - Helpful Tips for Translation Service Buyers

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A number of rather comical translation faux pas have been brought to my attention over the past days.  It is true that not all translations are created equal.  Equally true is that translators are not all created equal.  Of course, I use the term "created" in a very loose sense here as I believe a translator is a product of his or her effort, training and attention to detail.  If you are seeking an excellent translation or must oversee a translation in any capacity, I have a few useful tips for you.


To achieve an excellent translation of important material, I highly recommend retaining a translation service provider with a good reputation.  My wife works with a number of extremely high quality translation service providers.  But sometimes you can play a very important role in assuring an outstanding translation.


First of all, what gives with good translation?  How do you know, if you do not have command of both source and target languages, whether or not you have achieved an optimal translation?  As a person responsible for procuring the retention of language expertise for proper pharmaceutical labeling of medicines in another language or any other imaginable position requiring translation oversight, how do you know when you have achieved success?


I have experience from three distinct vantage points.  The first perspective, from which I can speak, is as an executive responsible for translation of very technical language within advertisements.  In a later article, I will speak from the perspective of one married to a Professional Translator, which has given me tremendous insights on issues of quality.


As a rule, it helps to be detail-oriented or perhaps even nit-picky to ensure proper rendering into another language. It also helps to be hands-on, that is, a grab-the-bull-by-the-horns type of person to take responsibility for the translation process and the ‘end-product’. By “nit-picky”, I am not saying that you should by any means be frivolous in your pursuit of perfection. But only nit-picky in the sense of working vigorously in order to catch what could be a stumbling block to your target audience. It takes great diligence to ferret out translation problems when you are not a native speaker. In fact, a corollary truth to the axiom introduced at the beginning of my diatribe (ahem article) is that not all native-speakers are created equal either.


Assess the resources within your organization, such as people that have specialized knowledge of the subject.  Someone may have either limited or excellent command of the target language.  Use that person (in the good sense).  You can ask them what they perceive as likely problematic language in the source text. That is, text that is likely to be difficult to render in another language.  Further, you can consider translation options for problem text and the tradeoffs in choosing one option over another.  During the edit and proofing stages, you can use the same person (or people).  This feedback can all be rolled into your review process with the translation agency.


In one case of a very difficult translation of English to Chinese (Mandarin), I was fortunate that I had a technical expert in the field of Global Positioning Systems with significant target language knowledge (a native speaker) to assist in the review process.


For many languages, neither the specific idea nor a given word needing translation even exists, such that it can be a real challenge to translate certain words.


For instance, the English word ‘triage’ has been transliterated into several languages, because the idea as a specific word does not exist in many languages.


Use (with great fear and trembling) a free online language translator, such as found at  As a reality check on the quality of the translation you are obtaining, translate some text and then translate the translation back into your source language.  That will give you a rough idea of what your target readers would see should you make the potentially terminal mistake of using such a translation for a text of any importance (or public consumption).


If you need something more precise, try a forum where you can ask an expert.  Translators Cafe is such a resource ( As an example, you can click on to see my wife’s profile at Translators Cafe.


If you choose this option, you should be mindful that there is a limit to what Professional Translators will do for free on these forums.  You might, judging from the quality of the responses you obtain, decide to hire one of the freelance translators as an editor or proofreader to perform a quality check for you.  As a rule, review the profiles of the potential translators, editors or proofreaders.  Ask them questions and compare the responses. In some cases, a simple check of their responses will give you some indication as to how good they really are.  That is, if their response is careless or contains errors, you really need to cross them off your short list.


For translation, the rate is sometimes hourly, but is usually by the word.  A typical Professional Translator will charge between $0.10-$0.15 US/word on average.  The relative difficulty of the source language will be a determining factor in the per-word rate you will likely be offered.  Typical editing rates average between $30 and $35/hour.


Of course, if the company budget allows and you have absolutely no time, you are well advised to retain a top-notch translation service provider.  Even in doing so, you should not assume that you can then close your eyes, receive the translation and be done with it. In fact, with respect to the English-Chinese translation for which I was responsible, I did hire an agency with a sterling reputation and they performed with excellence.  However, because of my diligence in checking with my in-house experts and my foreign country representatives, I was able to obtain a much, much finer translation product.  I managed to do so without upsetting the translators or the translation manager.


When you do actually begin your translation review/feedback process, be sure that you present your questions in an orderly manner, so as not to annoy the person performing or coordinating the work.  Be mindful of their time.  Try to minimize the number of times you go back and forth over the text.


Are you drawing a blank as to where you should start with respect to evaluating target language text or even evaluating the service provider?  You can see some of the items we check for when editing a translation, at Albanian Editing.  Ask your potential translation service provider what they look for in providing a quality translation.  If they seem clueless or give you a look, pass them by, as you deserve better.


As an executive, even though I did not know the target languages of the translations for which I was responsible, I was able to spot some potential problems and needed improvements that were addressed during the review process.  My diligence paid off and my on-site language expert played a critical role in winnowing out the finest of details.  The bottom line is that you need to assess and utilize all the potential resources that you have available to you to ensure a well-done translation product.


With respect to the other two vantage points from which I can speak, I will have to leave something to your imagination for now.  I will write another article on these two subjects at another time.  For the next article, I will share significant ‘insider’ insights, gleaned from a professional translator.  The title however, will be “Translation Matters - Insider Insights gleaned from a Professional Translator.”


Copyright 2005 Thomas Mayhew

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