What standards should businesses expect from professional translators?

There are a few magic words that everyone in the translation industry loves. Words like “professionalism”, like “standards” and “experience”. They’re a shorthand for quality and reliability – which is why customers demand them, translators promise them, and agencies test for them (and rigorously, if they in turn are professional about what they do). But as any writer will tell you – and a translator is a very specialised type of writer, among other things – if you don’t occasionally stop to examine a buzzword and really think about what it means, it can turn into a cliché. Soon after that, it can stop meaning anything at all. So what do these terms really mean? What, in concrete terms, are the professional standards that a business should look for when sourcing translation services? That’s what we’ll be looking at in this article.

Let’s start with professionalism. It’s not some nebulous, indefinable quality: it can be quantified and held to specific criteria, and you can get a sense of whether a translator is a professional from your very first contact with them. If you initially make contact by email, ask yourself if they’re responding promptly enough to your messages, and what the quality of their writing is like. Are they asking the right questions about your project? There absolutely are good questions to be asked in most cases, by the way: you can see some of them in our article “What to ask your client before starting a translation”. Professionalism is also about what happens during and after a translation project. Translators often work on sensitive business documents, for example, so confidentiality is essential. And on-time delivery is the sine qua non of professionalism: a truly professional translator won’t let a project go overdue without a very good reason.

Some translators choose to publicly commit to professional standards by signing up to one or more professional codes of conduct. These are not always binding, but they provide an extra set of objective standards by which you can measure a translator’s professionalism. Among other things, they may stipulate that a translator must only take on jobs which they have the necessary expertise to complete, and that they will only translate into their native language. Some of these codes of conduct are even tied to membership of professional organisations – something nobody wants to be stripped of for bad behaviour. In other words, membership of an organisation like the Chartered Institute of Linguists or the Institute of Translators and Interpreters can be a strong hint that you’re dealing with someone who is serious about their work.

And what about quality standards? Obviously a translation should be delivered free of spelling or grammatical errors, that goes without saying. It should also read well, of course, and be faithful to the meaning and style of the original text. But a critical part of quality control standards is recognising that everyone makes mistakes sometimes – and having a plan to catch those mistakes when they happen. This is one of the reasons why working with a translation agency can be very helpful: they can provide proofreading and other QA services to ensure that multiple people see a translation before it is approved. The more eyes on a document, the more likely someone is to see a way to improve it.

Then there are the sections that aren’t wrong, as such, but that you might prefer to see written differently for one reason or another. Once you’ve got a translation back, don’t be afraid to ask questions about it. A good translator will be able to explain and justify why they decided to translate a passage one way or another, and if you want to make changes, they’ll usually be happy to discuss them with you to help you find the perfect way of expressing yourself in the target language.

Then there’s experience. How experienced should a translator be, and what qualifies as experience? There’s no hard and fast rule here, but as you might imagine, more experience is always better. Some agencies require their translators to have been working full-time for at least one whole year before adding them to their books; others demand three years, or even five. Some vary their standards depending on the type of service required. This sounds like it should create a catch-22 situation – if you don’t already have the experience, how can you acquire it? – but, in fact, there are plenty of ways for new translators to learn what they need to know to do their jobs. They might start off working in-house somewhere as a full-time employee, for example. They can also start getting some translation work from the word go: some agencies argue that it doesn’t matter how long you’ve been in the job if you’re naturally talented at it.

Professional qualifications can help, as well. Many translators have at least a bachelor’s degree, perhaps in translation studies, in their source language or in a specialist subject like law or medicine. Some also have a master’s degree, which can provide particularly valuable experience translating very large specialist texts. And the professional associations that we mentioned before will often have an entry test or a qualification which they themselves issue to those who earn it.

Sounds like a pretty rigorous set of requirements, doesn’t it? As a translation customer, the great news for you is that if you don’t want to check all of this for yourself when sourcing a translation partner, you don’t have to! A professional agency will vet their translators before taking them on board – and when we said they test rigorously, we meant it. A translator applying to work with an agency will be asked to prove themselves in some way, possibly by showing their qualifications or discussing their past experience. They may be asked to provide references (as long as past customers are willing to provide them – confidentiality remains essential, after all). Very often, they’ll be asked to complete a short translation test for free. By tailoring the test to the applicant’s field of expertise, it can be used to assess their skills and specialist knowledge.

Whatever methods they choose, an agency won’t be satisfied until they’re certain that a translator is a qualified, competent, skilled professional. So when they promise you all of these things, you can rest assured you’re not just getting empty catchphrases. You’re getting the real deal: a reliable, trusted service. Accept no substitutes.

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