Appointing a translation company: What you need to ask and what you want to hear

As a translation company, we are often asked whether we can do certain types of work or if we have done them in the past. Most times that is the beginning and end of the client’s due diligence. We find that a little worrying, as it points to a lack of value around the translation industry and languages in general.

We don’t want to over complicate the process either, as we believe in making communication easier, not more difficult, but we do think there needs to be a ‘hygiene level’ of what to look for when appointing a translation company.

So, if you have decided to use a professional translator (if you’re not sure if you need one have a read of this), we recommend asking these questions. We have provided the ‘why’ below, in more detail, but in case you’re in a hurry, here’s what to ask:

  1. Are they registered members of a translation body? eg. CIOL, ITI.
  2. Are they specialists in your sector? Can they prove it with case studies? Do they have translators with the right experience ?
  3. Will they use those translators on your job? Will they share the experience and qualifications of the actual translator being used and guarantee to use them ?
  4. Are the translators valued? i.e. Are they getting a fair wage and reasonable time to do the work?
  5. Do you get a standard delivery time? i.e. Have they got set timescales for providing work so you can plan accordingly?
1. Are they registered?

As translation is an unregulated industry in the UK, this is an important one. There are many companies that spring up to provide translations. Some are good, some are not. Registration is a quick way to verify their quality.

The ITI and CIOL are professional agencies for translators and interpreters who have established guidelines for best practice. They vet their members to ensure they have qualifications, experience and references, and encourage annual training to keep knowledge up-to-date.

By choosing someone that is registered, you get someone who has gone through a testing process in their chosen language combination and been judged by language industry experts as competent in their language and able to translate text (in all its nuance) correctly. They will be issued with registration numbers and listed on the relevant websites.

This is one way to ensure you are getting a qualified translator, and the first question you should be asking.

2. Are they qualified specialists in your sector?

Do they actually know anything about your sector and therefore understand the context of your translation to be able to deliver it accurately? In actual fact, this is really a two-part question:

Firstly, are you speaking to someone that knows your sector? Bear in mind it’s unlikely you’ll be speaking to the actual translator, more likely an office administrator or project manager (if you are speaking to the translator that’s great, you can ask the next question and get some proper detail).

The second part is, will they use a translator who actually understands the jargon and nuances of your sector? Are they registered and appropriately qualified?

It’s worth understanding that some translation companies – large and small – use relatively inexperienced people to act as go-betweens for the large volumes of projects they win (volume being their principle business model). These project managers’ role is to match jobs to the hundreds, and sometimes thousands, of translators listed on their books. They often have little or no experience in the language combinations they deal with, let alone the subject matter of the documents themselves.

Does this matter? You might wonder, if they match your job to a translator with the right language combination who can get it done, surely that’s fine?

Well, think of the project manager as doing the same type of job as the receptionist at a GP surgery. While they don’t need to be medically trained, they do need to know enough to refer you to the right nurse or a doctor for a problem, and understand the consequences of any delays or mistakes.

In the same way, the project manager at a translation company, needs to know what languages are required and the type of experience the translator needs, to translate the text effectively. At the very least, they need some commercial acumen to be able to understand the significance of the translation for your business. A good project manager will understand all this and shortlist a group of translators that can do it well.

Moving onto the translator, they need to have the relevant translation ability and sector knowledge to accurately translate your text.

With specialist medical and scientific texts that can be quite obvious, as they are jargon heavy and can be quite impenetrable unless you have specifically studied them. However, while text for tenders, marketing or websites may appear simpler, it is just as important that translators are also good copywriters and have contextual knowledge of these sectors. That way they can ensure they capture what has been carefully crafted by professional marketers and salespeople, who are experts in their fields.

So, in summary, make sure to ask if they have translated for your sector before and ask for case studies and, if necessary, referrals. Secondly, do they have translator(s) with the relevant experience to work on your project. If the answers to both are yes, then great, but that isn’t quite the end of the process.

3. Will they actually use a qualified, experienced translator on your job?

It is important to check they will actually use a qualified, registered translator – with the right expertise – on your job.

Translation companies and agencies typically don’t share who their translators are, as they worry clients will cut them out and use the translator directly next time. Which is, of course, a reasonable concern. After all, they have found the translators, paid for the advertising and the staff salaries to find and win your business. It would be bad form to cut them out if they did a good job.

However, this ‘white labelling’ on translations can also hide a multitude of sins. Let’s assume the recruitment process they go through for bringing on translators is good and everything seems above board. Now, what is their real process for actually matching a new job to a translator?

The reality of a strict deadline and low price means that often, the project manager is just trying to match the job with a translator – any translator – as quickly and cheaply as possible, and they fling out a group email to tens if not hundreds of translators with the matching language combination. The first to respond wins, and away that project goes to that translator. That’s it, no check on experience in the sector or suitability (other than being listed on their books in the first place). You will never know until it’s too late.

Any linguist with an ounce of integrity wouldn’t take on work they didn’t truly understand. Not only that, it’s also potentially dangerous. Imagine getting a prescription wrong for a heart attack patient or making a mistake on a witness statement in a murder case. Tragically, though, these types of mistakes happen every day.

There is a simple way around this, of course: Once the project manager has found an available translator, you can ask to see their relevant qualifications and experience. Their name can be redacted, but they should have no issue disclosing how long they have been translating, what qualifications they have and the type of work they specialise in. Sign a non-poaching agreement, if necessary, and get it in writing that they are using the trained experienced translator they have shared with you. If they refuse to disclose this type of information, when there is literally no risk to them, or breach of data confidentiality, then something is wrong. Walk away and find someone who will.

Lastly, if you really want to make sure you are getting the best possible service, you should also pay for a proofreader; get a second pair of eyes on the translation to check it’s been done right. Maybe even go to another company for the proofreader. Follow the same process as above to check they are suitable as well. It may sound like a rigmarole, but if the text is important – your website, for example – the extra step is worth it compared to the chance it could be wrong.

4. Are the translators valued?

We hope it goes without saying that people should be treated fairly and paid appropriately for their skills and talents, no matter what job or industry they work in. Sadly, some translation firms take advantage of the disparate, mainly freelance, community of translators and, in the pursuit of profit, squeeze them to unfair levels. How can you be sure you aren’t supporting such practise?

A good way to understand whether the company values their translators is by working out if they are paying them fairly. Here’s a simple formula (doesn’t look simple but it is!) to help:

(W/P) x L + M = C

W: Project word count. How many words in the project that needs to be translated
P: Words per hour. The average number of words a competent translator can translate in an hour is 250 (8 hour working day with an average of 2,000 words per day)
L: Real living wage. (In the UK for 2020) £9.30 per hour.
M: Translation agency margin: 20%
C: Minimum translation cost

To put that into practise, let’s say you have a 4,000 word project. Using the formula it means (W) 4,000 words divided by (P) 250 words per hour the translator will work for a total of 16 hours which multiplied by £9.30 (L) is £149. If you then add on the agency’s 20% (M), a 4,000 word project needs to cost £179 (C) just to provide the translator with a living wage.

The point of us providing this formula is not to show how low you can drive your costs, but quite the opposite. If we expect our translators to be qualified, registered and experienced, they should obviously be paid significantly more than the living wage, but this is a very quick way of gauging whether or not they are being valued by the translation company you are using and whether or not you think it is sensible, or indeed ethical, to work with them.

Putting that into context, if you search for translation companies right now on Google, you will see some companies advertise their per word charges as low as £0.03. This means that for a 4,000 word project, the agency will charge you approximately £120 before they take their 20% off. This means the translator will work two days for a whopping £96. That’s £6 per hour, 35% less than the UK living wage.

Also be wary of a company delivering back your project significantly quicker than you expect. Yes, some translators work fast and could do 2,500 words per day, even 3,000 at a stretch but if your 4,000 word project is back within a day this means your work is likely to have been rushed or the translator has put in a longer shift than a normal working day. Those are all warning signs of a company that doesn’t value translators’ well-being and/or the quality of the translations they produce.

If you do have an urgent piece, it could be delivered quicker by putting two translators on it. That is common practise and okay as long as they are both experienced and someone at the end is proofing it to make sure the piece sounds like it was written by the same person. Again, if you need the work quickly, try to understand what process the agency is going through to make sure the work is as delivered to you in that time at the best quality it can be. They should volunteer this but if not, you now have some insight to ask the right questions.

5. Standard delivery time

Last but not least, will the company provide a set time-frame for a project to be completed? Most people and businesses require a translation as part of a larger process. Whether that is a marketing campaign, a holiday visa or probate, the translation – although vital – is not the end result. You will need to plan when to put a document in for translation and understand when to expect it back.

There are no hard and fast rules on this. In fact, if you google translation companies you’ll see claims about same-day services, one-hour turnaround times etc. (Often from the same people that offer it for £0.03 per word). One thing for certain is that you’ll get it fast and it will be cheap but it sure won’t be good.

Putting these types of companies aside, you can ask your prospective company if they has any set delivery times for translations and will they commit to them for you?

As an example, here at QST we offer certified translations of up to 5 A4 pages in a standard delivery time of 3 working days. The work itself won’t necessarily take 3 days but this gives us enough time to schedule it with our translators and allow them to manage other work alongside it. If we need it quicker, we charge an urgency surcharge to bump it to the top of list with a translator and we pay them extra for the trouble.

As with this and all the points above, a good translation company, like other good service providers, should look to have a dialogue with you from the beginning. Guided by people who know what they are doing and are asking intelligent questions. They should not be afraid to say no, or challenge you if it means what they will deliver to you in the end won’t be good enough.

We hope you find this approach useful and if you have any further questions please feel free to get in touch.


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