Translation Without Tears

By: Peter Bennett

Kadin Hastaliklari Ltd, the Turkish import/export medical devise company has suffered in the past as a result of poor translations.

A few years ago the company attempted to import from the Czech Republic but had trouble reaching anyone through the details listed on the Czech company's web site.

With no contacts in the Czech Republic and no knowledge of the language, it was impossible to know whether the company even existed.

Meral Goksel, a sales manager for Kadin Hastaliklari has subsequently learned how to source, purchase and verify professional translations services. This in turn has opened up new global sales opportunities.

What had previously been an impediment to trade is now a competitive advantage as Meral buys in translators as part of her team.

What is it that Meral learned, and why is the purchasing of translation services so misunderstood UK firms? The following 10 steps will help you plan for your next translations project.

1. Buy translation services professionally

If your firm needs the services of a translations firm on a regular basis, it makes sense to negotiate volume discounts for higher levels of commitment. Too many firms leave the decision to the last minute and buy one-offs from whichever translations company they can find at the time.

I recommend you agree a central purchasing arrangement across your organisation and nominate a lead buyer to do the negotiation. This also allows you to put in place a quality control system to ensure accuracy and timeliness.

2. 'Mother-tongue' translators avoid gaffs

Forget the notion that English is the international language of business. It is rarely spoken in the rapidly expanding markets of South-East Asia, East Asia, Latin America and Russia.

I was struck by the low numbers of English-speaking Chinese in Beijing when I visited this year. To avoid embarrassing and costly mistakes in any translations, use a native speaker of the country concerned, someone familiar with custom, idioms and current trends. If you want to be taken seriously this is crucial.

As I walked around Beijing I come across monuments etched in quaint English, translated by competent professionals but inaccurate in style and meaning. There is simply no substitute for using a mother-tongue translator.

For example, Real Madrid aspires to be the greatest football club in the world but it cannot be taken seriously in England, the home of football, when its website declares of David Beckham:

"His speciality are the central shots from the wing, called 'bananas', and free kicks, two types of plays where he displays a shooting technique which is unique in the world of football". Really?

Some examples of bad translation by marketing giants are now so familiar that it is hard to know whether they are apocryphal or not.

Kentucky Fried Chicken may sell "finger-lickin' good" chicken in the west, but the story has it that the Chinese were told to "eat their fingers off."

Pepsi allegedly didn't do much better. You may "come alive with the Pepsi Generation," but in Taiwan the slogan was translated as "Pepsi Brings Your Ancestors Back From The Dead." Crickey!

3. You get what you pay for

As a customer buying translation services, by definition, you can't understand what you are buying otherwise there would be no need to buy it in the first place.

Your document could have been translated into Japanese by an eminent professor of Tokyo University or one of their first year undergraduates; would you be able to tell the difference?

Don't be tempted to buy the cheapest service on offer. If you assume that, given a particular document, translator 'A' will translate the document in exactly the same way as translator 'B' and the only difference between A and B will be the price you are asked to pay for it, you will be wrong.

The internet hasn't helped either. There are people offering translations who frankly shouldn't be doing so. They have no qualifications and no experience. Would you rather have someone that's "trained as a doctor" or someone who has been "on a train with a doctor" to help you during a crisis?

The difference in the phrases is small but can have a huge impact on results. When it comes to any translation work, it is important that things get done right the first time.

4. Chose professionals

Translators who hold a Diploma in Translation (DipTrans) or a Languages Degree with substantial translation components are likely to produce better results than those who do not. However, don't rule out those with many years experience, especially if they come highly recommended.

Translators can join several well-respected industry bodies and will be vetted before entry. Ask your translator whether they have a professional membership:

  • Institute of Translation and Interpreting (ITI)
  • Institute of Linguistics (IoL)
  • Societe francaise des traducteurs (SFT)
  • Institute of Linguistics American Translators Associations (ATA)
  • US National Association of Judiciary Interpreters and Translators (AIIC)

My own firm in the UK is a member of the Association of Translation Companies (ATC) and adheres to its professional code of conduct. Look out for the ATC logo when doing your research.

5. Shop around.

Prices vary, and so does quality. Get several quotations and make sure you specify parameters such as number of words in the source document, the deadline, the complexity and document format and the language 'pair'.

It is much cheaper to translate a French document into English than a Japanese document into English; even more expensive to translate from Korean into Dutch as the number of people capable of doing this is much smaller.

6. Garbage in, Garbage out

If you submit a badly structured document which does not make sense for translation, you will get a piece of work back which is less than excellent.

Most translation firms will point out if the quality of the original document is not great and will attempt to work out what the author intended to say. But at the end of the day, as the barber said to the balding man in his chair: "Sir, I can only do my best with what little you have given me to work with". So, try to make sure your text is of a high enough standard to warrant translation.

7. Machine translations have their place.

Just because machines can't compete on quality does not, in my opinion, mean they don't have a place. For example, imagine you are sent a 100 page document which must be translated from Chinese to English, today, in order to assess the threat from a competitor.

Assuming there are 500 Chinese characters per page, this means the document is around 50,000 characters in length. It would take a single translator approximately 1 month to translate it and could cost over 10,000 USD.

Even a team of translators working together would not be able to complete the work today. A machine would tackle the text by lunchtime at a fraction of the price. The quality wouldn't be great but it may be good enough for your immediate purposes.

We only use machine translation software under extreme circumstances such as the above and after prior consultation with clients. The important thing to remember when placing an order is to check that you know what you are paying for. Be careful you are not paying good money for a professional translation only to receive a translation undertaken by an unqualified amateur, or worse still, a machine translation passed off as the work of an expert.

8. Get a recommendation

As in all purchases of professional services, use a translations company recommended by others in business. People like to be asked for their opinion and are often prepared to supply the name and contact number of a trusted firm. You probably have something
you can help them with in future!

9. Plan ahead

I can't stress enough how commercially beneficial it is to coordinate and purchase these services centrally. So get together with senior management, consider your future needs and enter into a longer term arrangement with a reputable translations firm.


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