5 things to ask yourself before buying translation services


While attending a few local networking events I’ve noticed that, while people find the notion of translation and other languages very interesting, when it comes down to it they have no idea what translation services actually entail.

Therefore, this is a quick guide for anyone who might ever need something in another language, and want to avoid as many pitfalls along the way as possible. If you can answer these questions, not only will the needs for your project become clearer to you, but it will hugely help the translator that you end up working with, and they will love you for your clear instructions! Let’s start off with…

  1. What translation service do I actually need?

It happens all too often that I’m talking about my job to another person, and they say “That’s great! You could work with the police!” or “I could call you up if a foreign customer walks into my shop!” and I have to explain that, no, that’s not what I do – you are confusing translation with interpreting.

To recap: while both involve a transfer from one language to another, translating concerns written text only (and the translator would only translate into their native language, rarely away from it), while interpreting is conveying spoken words, both ways, between the two languages.

Under the translation umbrella there are lots of sub-categories, including transcreation, which is often used for marketing and creative texts. Transcreation is less about translating the words and more about creating a whole new text in the target language that focuses on conveying the same message as the original, rather than the exact words. You would want a transcreator for creating a new advertising slogan in a different language, as translating slogans word for word are rarely as catchy.

Transcribing is converting an audio or video clip into a written format, either in the same or a different language. Subtitling is overlaying an audio or video clip with the dialogue written in a different language. Localisation involves adapting the entire product to a new culture – as well as the text, that might include changing pictures and colours to ones that are more meaningful and appropriate to the new audience.

Knowing the difference between these language services, and understanding that speaking another language does not automatically make you qualified to be able to do them all, is a great step in the right direction!

  1. Do I have the budget?

Source: Elingual

The biggest and most common mistake that translation buyers do is making it an afterthought – thinking that translations can be tagged onto the end of a project, it will only take a day or two, and they can buy one with whatever spare change they have. I put it to you: if you have spent hundreds, maybe even thousands, on professional developers, marketers, content creators, writers and/or editors to make this amazing original written content…it makes no sense to scrimp on having all of that effort put into another language, where it will be seen by hundreds, thousands or millions of extra people.

Sure – in the interests of neutrality, there are cheap translation services available. You want a translation into Spanish? You could risk running it through Google Translate, or you could ask your friend’s daughter to do it, who studies Spanish at school. But do you know who could potentially see your shoddy translation? All of Spain. And all of South America. That’s 400 million people. You don’t want to look silly in front of 400 million people!

But, er, I digress (and exaggerate, of course). Translation services don’t cost the earth – but they are still a professional service. You, as a buyer, need to consider the cost of a translator, and possibly a proofreader. And of course, that text being put into another language may affect any pre-existing formatting and layout, so the time taken to reshuffle it and do any other desktop publishing should be taken into account too. If you do it right, though, it will be totally worth it!

  1. Can I give the translator enough time to make a great job of it?

Here’s another phrase that translators hear too often: “It won’t take long, it’s only a page.” or “I need these 6,000 words translated by tomorrow.” Just because the text is already written in one language, it doesn’t mean that it can be put it into another language in a snap.

On average, a translator can translate around 2,000 words a day, if the text is of a general subject with no specialised vocabulary. However, a translator (or transcreator) could easily spend 4 hours translating a 6-word slogan, because you wouldn’t just pick the first thing that came into your head – you would write down a bunch of possibilities – maybe even sleep on it – to make the coolest, catchiest slogan for your client. In fact, check out this translation competition to see how one text has been translated 6 different ways.

Equally, legal documents and certificates may have very few words on a page, but the correct translation of those words makes a huge amount of difference. I, for one, would not want to rush through something so important. Besides, the magic of language means that sometimes the smallest word can set you back. I’ve had situations where I’ve breezed through translating 300 words in an hour and then spent the next hour looking up the correct translation – and background – and context – for ONE word. Hey, sometimes things are unavoidably urgent. But, both the buyer and the translator need to have realistic expectations on what can physically be achieved in a certain amount of time.

  1. Where do I find a good translator?

The tricky part of buying any professional service is knowing who to go to – after all, you are essentially putting your trust (and your money) in a complete stranger, and you don’t want to be mugged off or have your time wasted. The difficulty in finding a good language service provider is that the quality criteria vary from country to country. In France and Spain, you can take government exams that would make you a “sworn” translator – but we have no such standards in the UK. However, we do have professional associations, such as the Institute of Translation and Interpreting, the Chartered Institute of Linguists, and the Association of Translation Companies. As these associations have certain entry requirements and Professional Codes of Conduct, their directories are a good place to start to find professional linguists. Aside from that, take a look at the translator’s qualifications and experience: most will have a diploma from one of the above associations, or a degree or master’s degree in translation or their specialist subject. They may also have testimonials from past clients, or examples or samples from past projects – so you can match this up with the type of translation/specialisation you need to see if you’d be a good fit together.

  1. What am I actually expecting?

Now you know that translation is so much more than just swapping word A for word B, you will be in a better position to understand exactly what you want. Are you expecting your text to be translated in a plain Word document, with no extra formatting? Or do you want the translator to recreate everything with exactly the same layout, with new culturally adapted images, ready to be released to the public? Does your translator know this? So many disputes are caused by a simple lack of communication – either because people don’t ask the right questions, or they don’t give clear answers. Guys. It’s okay to ask questions. Let’s not be scared of each other.

So, there you have it. I hope this was helpful! I’d like to hear from you if you have any questions about translation. And also, my fellow translators – are there any tips that I’ve missed? Feel free to share!

This post is now available in German over at CSS Translations. Many thanks to Caterina Saccani and Christina Boi for making that happen!

4 thoughts on “5 things to ask yourself before buying translation services

  1. Pingback: My New Year’s Resolutions (after my first year of business) | Bellingua Translations

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