What is a “quality” translation?

It’s safe to say that all translation companies promise quality translations. Most  clients understand that at the most basic level, a translation must be accurate—it has to say the same thing as the original.

But is an accurate translation necessarily a high quality one? And higher quality often comes at a price–when is it worth it to pay more?

Two constructs of quality

In one sense, quality refers to whether the translation is acceptable. In general terms, a translation of acceptable quality is:

  • accurate (reflects the meaning correctly)
  • effective (has the intended effect on the reader)
  • appropriate (meets project parameters)

In another sense, there are different quality levels that could be needed for a given translation. A document that will serve as evidence in a trial or that will represent a company to its clients requires a perfectly polished translation–sometimes known as “publication quality.” Other translations may only be needed to get the gist of the content for internal use–sometimes known as “informational quality.”

Understanding the translation process

To conceptualize translation quality, it’s important to understand the process a translation should go through before it goes to the client. For publication-quality translations, most translators and translation companies have a process that looks more or less like this:

  1. Project Receipt: Receive the document and ask appropriate questions to understand the client’s needs for the project.
  2. Reading: Read the original document to get an understanding of its content, context, purpose, and intended audience.
  3. Research: Note any areas that may be ambiguous or unfamiliar, then clarify these sections by researching and liaising with the client or document author.
  4. Drafting: Write a draft translation.
  5. Revision: Perform additional research and clarification to tighten up the content of the translation and ensure it matches the content of the original.
  6. Standalone Editing: Look at the translation from the perspective of the reader, who usually will not be comparing the translation to the original, and make adjustments to ensure the translation will stand on its own—it makes sense, communicates the message appropriately, and sounds natural.
  7. Proofreading: Read through the translation to ensure there are no typographical errors.
  8. Third-party review: Double check the translation for any inadvertent omissions or overlooked errors.

Each step has its nuances and requires many professional decisions to reach a correct result.  But a breakdown in any of the above areas can compromise the final product.

What’s the difference between high quality and low quality in translation?

To demonstrate the distance between a more or less accurate translation and a high quality one, let’s look at some quality issues from a translation a client recently sent me for editing.* This translation was to be submitted as evidence, so it was extremely important not to add or omit from the original message.

Before: “This situation at work just makes me feel so impotent.”

After: “This situation at work just makes me feel so helpless.”

Explanation: While impotent is technically a correct translation of the commonly used Spanish word impotente, normally in English we would use a synonym such as powerless or helpless. An average English speaker would likely scratch their head at impotence issues arising from workplace drama.

Quality issue: Non-idiomatic usage

Before: “Robert when really commits into something that he is interested, he he does it, specially with them.”

After: “When Robert really commits to something that interests him, he does it, especially when it comes to them.”

Explanation: The first translation manages to get the point across, albeit inelegantly. Apart from obvious typographical errors, however, this sentence mirrors the Spanish syntax too closely and uses the wrong preposition with “commits.”

Quality issue: Word order, Non-idiomatic usage, Word choice, Typos

Before: “So you will have the ability to continue.”

After: “So [ambiguous: you (plural) or they] will have the ability to continue.”

Explanation: This may be the most sinister type of translation error—the one that is not immediately apparent without comparison to the original text. Here, the original document used the verb “tendrán” without a subject to indicate whether the writer was referring to ustedes (you guys) or ellos (them). At any rate, it definitely does not refer only to a singular “you,” the recipient of the letter. Sometimes there are contextual clues that make it obvious enough that the translator can resolve the ambiguity. But in this case it was not evident, and it was not appropriate to tie the translation to one meaning (you/you guys) that excluded the other (they).

Quality issue: Ambiguity not preserved

What went wrong?

The biggest breakdown happened at step 0: choosing a translator. The translation appears to be written by someone who is not a native English speaker or, at minimum, did not achieve university-level composition skills in English. It’s easy to forget that just because someone speaks a language doesn’t mean they are adept at analyzing a source text, skilled in reliable research methods, or dexterous in writing for a given purpose in that language. Ironically, the first translator is actually highly credentialed in a Spanish-speaking country; he or she may create excellent translations when writing in the native language, but clearly, for a translation into English, this translator was simply the wrong choice for anything above informational quality.

When is it worth it to pay more for a higher quality translation?

This brings us to our second question–when should one invest in higher quality? Like with any important writing, it depends on the purpose. An appellate brief deserves a bigger investment of time and talent than an email for an upcoming picnic; only one of these can be delegated to a non-expert with little oversight. Similarly, an informational translation (when errors have little potential for harm) may be a good candidate for Google Translate or a low-cost translation provider, while critical documents should be entrusted to qualified professionals.

In the translation we analyzed above, the client identified the issue and brought me on board to shore up the quality. I was glad to do it, but for important documents it is almost always more cost-effective to hire a trusted professional from the outset than to pay a lower cost vendor and an expert to clean up the translation.

Questions? Email Holly at holly@precisolanguage.com

*These examples are based on excerpts altered to preserve confidentiality.


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“Information courtesy of Preciso Language Services and www.PrecisoLanguage.com, a translation and interpreting firm owned by Certified Translator and Master Licensed Court Interpreter Holly Behl.”


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