The need and the demand for translation services are greater than ever before. As the world economy becomes more integrated, the importance of top-quality translations will only continue to grow. And as industries and cultures continue to move closer together, market forces will require that translations be complete, accurate and culturally appropriate.
Consider this simple fact, as reported in the 2004 edition of National Geographic's World Atlas: in terms of sheer numbers, there are more than twice as many native speakers of Chinese worldwide than English speakers (874 million people versus 341 million). If only one-third of those people were to speak English as a second language, there would be more English speakers in China than there are in the US. Yet, even if they were to speak some English, they would likely prefer to read in their native language.
What many fail to appreciate is that the US is the only place in the world where you can go almost 3,000 miles in one direction without having to change language, currency or culture. Virtually everywhere else in the world, anyone covering such a distance would encounter up to a dozen or more international borders, with significant differences in language, culture and tradition.
For the 95% of people who don't live in the US, the presence of multiple languages is just a fact of life, and most people tend to speak more than one language.
What to Consider
Translation is a specialized skill that seems very mysterious to many people. If you don't speak the "target" language, how can you be sure what you're getting? Among the factors to consider in selecting a translator or agency is experience in the target language—such as having lived in the country where the language is spoken, special skills relevant to the topic, and an established methodology that makes use of best practices.
The best and most reliable way to find a good translator is to use the reference of a trusted colleague—someone who has experience with your business and has worked with the translator in the past. Since this is not always possible, there are other ways to evaluate prospective agencies or individuals.
The approach should be similar to the selection of a valued employee, since the translators can have a big influence on how you are perceived in the target languages. In the US, the American Translators Association can provide valuable information and references for companies and individuals in your area.
Other factors to consider include the following:
What is the best way to make sure that your translation will sound right to your target audience? Go native. Find a native speaker of the target language. Native speakers have the advantage of linguistic intuition that makes it possible to say things so that they sound right to the target audience.
However, those who speak the target language may not always understand the source language, in this case English. Ideally, your translator will have as much fluency in English as in his or her native language. That includes experience living and working in the US, England, or another English-speaking country.
References are perhaps the most important way to ensure a quality job. Clients typically don't speak the target language and cannot make a first-hand assessment of the finished product. For this reason, agencies and individuals in the translation industry place a lot of importance on their reputation.
A good agency would be happy to provide solid references. Companies that bid on large translation contracts are often required to provide resumes for translators with specific qualifications. A review of individual translators' resumes is an effective way to predict how your project will turn out.
Match Between Skills and Topic
A translator with background in your subject matter will be easier to work with. Many translators have strong backgrounds in particular specialties. The more specialized your translator, the better the quality of the translation.
Always ask for samples of previous work. Additionally, small, specialized translation agencies can often provide better service: their translator recruiting can be more focused than that of general-purpose agencies; and they often enjoy better and more up-to-date training and experience, as they operate in a more finely tuned market.
Ensuring a Job Well Done
Since translation is very labor intensive, poorly designed translation projects can be very expensive to fix. Big savings result by getting it right the first time. There are several things you can do to ensure a quality job:
- Keep information flowing. Make certain that your translator has clear lines of communication, and preferably a single point of contact within your organization. Make it possible to get questions answered quickly, since this information must often be filtered through three to four individuals before it can be incorporated into the final product.
- Establish glossaries. The best translators create project-specific glossaries and agree upon them in advance. Dictionaries lag behind language evolution, especially in technical fields. Inappropriate or outdated terminology can make the translator's task much more difficult. Create and agree on glossaries in advance.
- Factor in review time. Often overlooked, but an essential part of making sure the job is done right, is the review. An experienced translator/agency will understand and appreciate the need for an internal review and should welcome the process. The difficulty here is to understand the need for review, in advance, and to set up a feedback loop that does not lead to analysis paralysis.
In addition, here are some tips to help you get the most out of your project:
- Build translation time requirements into your project deadlines.
- Give your translator plenty of advance notice.
- Avoid tight turnaround times. (Rush fees are expensive!)
- Agree on a glossary of technical terms before starting the project.
- Be sure that acronyms are clearly spelled out for the translator.
- Verify facts before the document goes to translation.
- Provide complete documents, not bits and pieces, for translation.
- Submit final, approved texts for translation. Avoid last minute changes (see #3).
- Ensure that the translator understands both the context and the intended audience.
- Provide reference materials and samples of previously translated texts.
Following these guidelines will allow you to minimize or eliminate many of the potential negative outcomes that can result from poor execution, and save the embarrassment of inaccurate or inappropriate translations.
The result of good translation is often silence, or at least the absence of negative comments. When everything goes smoothly, people don't even realize that the translation has taken place! This underlines the importance of a review process.
In the final analysis, the best translations are those that are so good that you don't have to talk about it, and you can get on with making sure your client is satisfied.
Bargaining Across Borders: How to negotiate business successfully anywhere in the world, by Dean Allen Foster, 1992, McGraw Hill, Inc.
The Lexus and the Olive Tree, 1999, 2000, Thomas L. Friedman.
National Geographic Atlas of the World, Eighth Edition, 2004, National Geographic.
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