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Translation services: Insider secrets for making an informed purchase

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Andrei Gerasimov If your company is involved in international business, one thing is certain – sooner or later you’ll need to hire a translation services provider (TSP). Naturally, you want a high quality translation at the lowest possible cost.


High quality is essential to:

  • correctly convey your information and your message
  • demonstrate your company’s high standards to your target market
  • preserve and improve your brand image.

The quality of translation and target texts reflects your company’s QA system, and above all, the translation should also be of premium quality.

A quality translation is accurate, reads smoothly, and consistently uses correct industry-specific terminology. Furthermore, a quality translation is meaning-based, showing the translator understands not only the source words, but also knows how to convey the core message to the target audience, adapting it to fit that particular audience.

On the other hand, a poor – or even a simply “good enough” – translation can make a negative first impression on your new target audience. It could be the one thing that makes the difference between success and a flop.

There are some common challenges in choosing the right TSP. While you are clearly an expert in your area of business, it’s likely that the process, business and technology of translation is complete Greek to you. How to find a TSP that suits your particular needs and ensures the best quality/cost ratio?

This article is designed to help you:

  • make an informed choice of TSP
  • understand the basics of co-operation with a TSP
  • minimize translation costs without compromising quality.

Choosing a TSP

Your choices boil down to the following: use a translation agency or a freelancer – either of which may be located in your country or in the target language country. How to decide?

An agency is preferable when you need to translate into multiple target languages, in addition to printing the finished product to save you time. An agency will charge you 2-3 times more than a freelancer for translation per language. Obviously, agencies pay higher taxes and administrative expenses, plus furnishing plush office space and generating profit at your expense. The actual translation is completed by either freelancers or in-house translators. Some agencies have rigorous QA procedures, some not. The same applies to freelancers.

If you have a limited number of target languages, the obvious choice is to eliminate the middle men and go straight to freelancers. How do you know a good freelancer when you see one? Look for:

  • memberships in well-known translation associations such as the American Translators Association (USA), the Institute of Translation and Interpreting (UK), or similar associations in target language countries (i.e. the Union of Translators of Russia)
  • solid references (with contact details) from well-known transnational companies
  • sample translations in your area of knowledge
  • willingness to make a small test translation – not necessarily free-of-charge, since established translators rarely make free tests
  • proven specialization/experience in your area of knowledge.

While it may seem easier to contact an agency or a freelancer located in your country, in most cases this isn’t recommended. Translators living abroad have difficulty keeping up with their dynamic changing native languages, daily losing some linguistic skills. Another point – translators living in the target language country can easily contact a local specialist or terminologist. To determine precise terminology and ensure an accurate translation, reference materials cannot replace such “live” consultations. Living in a target language environment is a prerequisite for a translator when smooth style and up-to-date vocabulary are critically important – especially in the case of advertising and marketing texts.

Note that all good translators translate only into their target language. True bilinguals are very few. For example, Russian translators living in the USA lose command of their native language faster than they can improve their English. Also, costs in the target language country may be much more attractive than in your country.

Working with your TSP

Close co-operation between a client and TSP is critically important for a high quality translation. That means providing reference materials (previous translations or original documents which you have edited and/or approved), corporate/project-specific glossaries, necessary explanations of technology described in the source text, and sometimes clarifying sloppily-written parts. When you get a call for any of the above, take it as a sign that your translator cares about quality. Actually, the closer the co-operation, the better the results.

Take, for example, one classic case from my translation practice. When a Moscow-based yacht dealership asked me to translate some advertising brochures from English into Russian, I requested to meet a company expert with sound knowledge of yachting terminology. I was introduced to a marine engineer with many years of experience in operating these yachts. He gave me all the necessary terminology. Afterwards, however, the company’s marketing manager edited my translation heavily. Next, the company’s director made lots of changes to the marketing manager’s version. We discovered that three experts working in the same Russian dealership used different Russian terminology. Only after making a corporate glossary was the problem solved and my job duly appreciated by the client.

Minimizing charges

Psst! What I’m about to tell you is considered an industry secret by many translation agencies and freelancers. Source documents and series of documents (usually called translations projects) often contain repetitions – either internal (within one document) or external (within a series of source documents). Example – an automotive catalogue for 2005 may contain 75% of the sentences found in the 2004 catalogue. The same is true when you compare user manuals for various mobile phones of the same manufacturer. No secret there.

What you probably didn’t know is that professional translators use special software (called Translation Memory) enabling them to translate a repetitive sentence or phrase only one time. The software compares each subsequent sentence with the database and automatically offers a translation made previously. Sometimes this technology considerably decreases time and effort while improving the quality and consistency of translation. Note: don’t confuse TM with MT (Machine Translation) which is notorious for producing extremely poor-quality translation. Translation Memory, on the other hand, is simply an aid to improving the efficiency of human translators.

So, where is the cost-savings opportunity for you? Ask your TSP to analyze the source text (Trados or Wordfast are the most popular TM software with an analysis function) to determine the percentage of exact and fuzzy matches, then request an appropriate discount. Typical discounts are as follows: new words – 100%, 99-85% matches – 70%, 84-0% – 100%, repetitions and exact matches – 30% (these should be checked and sometimes edited in a new context). Depending on what the analysis shows, you may be able to cut your translation expenses significantly.

I’m pleased to offer the tips in this article based on my 25 years of experience in translation (as a freelancer) in the Russian market, as well as seven years in the international market. My clients include Volvo Cars, Philips, Ericsson and UNESCO, in addition to dozens of translation agencies from the USA, UK, Japan, Belgium, Sweden and France. Other articles designed to improve understanding between translation clients and translation services providers are published on my website


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