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Why ISO Certification (still) matters

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ClientSide News Magazine pictureThe age-old question of “translation quality” tends to run in cycles in the language services industry. Regardless if it is at a peak or a trough, it is always lurking below the waterline. The approaches used by service providers to “guarantee” quality are myriad, which is a direct result of the enigmatic nature of the issue. The only true standard, involving translation quality, is that the claim of “excellent translation,” which is the standard bullet item used by a language service provider (LSP) marketing its services. The fact is that translation quality is in the eye of the reader. In the corporate context it is more apt to say, “Translation quality is in the eye of the one who writes the check.” When starting in the field of corporate translation over 15 years ago, I would have considered such a statement to be vulgar! The passage of time, however, has a way of imposing a pragmatic point of view. Translation quality as defined by the business context and the end-user’s requirements is a perspective which I have come to appreciate, since it is consistent with both the needs of our clients and the marketplace as a whole. This is a critical point to understanding the importance of ISO 9001:2000 certification for LSP’s.

If you are not familiar with the ISO 9001:2000 standard, it is designed to assist organizations in maintaining a Quality Management System 1. The emphasis here is on management. It is this aspect of the standard that is of primary importance to the buyers of language services, and, although it makes no objective assertions as to the resulting quality of deliverables, it does position customer satisfaction as one of its basic tenets.


As a provider of translation and localization services, I wanted my company to have an overt way to communicate the inherent integrity that I have fostered in our corporate culture. That was my motivation for attaining ISO certification. For educated buyers of language services, integrity is an important characteristic. It addresses far more than just the quality of the translation being provided; it is a measure of the total quality of your chosen vendor. In today’s technology and business climate, simply providing well-translated content is barely a minimum standard for delivering high quality translation and localization services.

The total quality of your LSP consists of, but is not limited to:

  • Excellent linguistic capabilities
  • Efficient, accurate, and rapid project assess ment
  • Timely, accurate, and transparent quoting
  • Thorough contract review
  • Excellent and efficient administrative processes
  • Requisite technical abilities
  • Consistent and reliable customer support
  • Clear policies for client review process, if it is required
  • Transparent and repeatable production processes
  • Robust employee and vendor management
  • Focus on customer satisfaction and success

When dealing with an ISO-certified LSP, you are reassured that the company’s management takes the issue of integrity seriously. Since attaining ISO-certification is so labor intensive, it is rare to find managers or owners who are willing to throw it away because it might be cost-effective to cut corners for short term gain. Most company owners who have made the effort to attain ISO certification for their companies report that despite the fact that certification may have not guaranteed increased revenue; it was worth it nonetheless because it made their companies better 2.

WHY ISO 9001:2000?

LSP’s have had an interest in ISO 9001:2000 certification since the mid-1990’s. This is a period when the language industry began to expand due to globalization and the development of world markets for software, à la Microsoft and the Internet. Also, since industrial markets have always been a vital source of customers for the language industry two influences from this sector began to have an impact on the language industry:

1. Industrial manufacturing practices began to be applied to translation, causing an attitudinal shift in the thinking of LSP’s. Translation was no longer being strictly viewed as a creative service carried out by artisans, rather practitioners began to perceive themselves more like technical communicators, since the vast majority of the information being translated was of a technical/ industrial nature. Increasing focus was also directed to process automation and efficiency through the creation of “translation workflows”, the language industry’s version of an assembly line.

2. The management of LSP’s was being exposed more and more to the quality standards of the manufacturers themselves. Since manufacturers were the primary customers that had the power to effect change, they began to expect and require LSP’s to have quality management systems in place. One of the most influential sectors was the automotive industry 3.

These influences from the manufacturing sector ushered LSP’s from the level of cottage industry artisans to that of maturing professional service companies. However, the language services industry remains an extremely diverse and volatile marketplace. Given the low cost of entry (although this is slowly changing due to the rapidly increasing cost of technology—software, training, hardware—LSP’s have to support), there are literally thousands of service providers scattered worldwide. They range in size from single-person operations to multinationals with thousands of employees. From the buyer’s perspective, this makes the issue of integrity a critical factor.

LSP’s seeking to gain more attention in a crowded market and needing to differentiate themselves from competitors, began looking for ways to build credibility that their potential customers would readily recognize. ISO 9001:2000 fit the bill. Adoption of ISO 9000 certification began in Europe, where ISO standards have always gotten more attention. Through the late 1990’s within the translation industry anyone following market trends would hear about one or two new certifications a year. That has increased somewhat since the Millennium to maybe a half dozen. It is difficult to know precisely how many ISO-certified LSP’s are currently active worldwide, but one report puts the figure at “one in 10.” 4

The standard enables companies to demonstrate their ability to manage quality systems. In other words, ISO 9001:2000-certified companies are able to demonstrate that they have established processes for delivering their products and/or services. They must be able to show that these processes have been documented in order to train and instruct staff and as a means to manage continuous improvement. The standard also requires that there be metrics in place to track performance of the underlying processes of the business. The LSP must also commit to management review of these metrics and the processes they measure.


At this point you must be asking yourself, “Yeah, but what about translation quality?” Most critics of ISO 9001: 2000 certification within the language industry will generally respond, “ISO does nothing for translation quality.” The fact of the matter is that ISO 9001:2000 was never designed to ensure an objective level of quality in a specific deliverable—be it a machine tool, an automobile, or a translated document. The standard has neither the ability, nor the intention to define quality in this way; rather it is a statement of organizational and managerial integrity; the focus of which is to deliver quality products and services “according to the customer’s requirements.”

Since language services are not required by all businesses in order for them to perform in their local markets (with a few exceptions), they are not perceived as vital services by most business owners. Financial services, insurance, office equipment and furniture, marketing, and advertising are usually considered vital to all businesses. As a service used only by companies either engaging in international sales or actively marketing to ethnic markets domestically, language service providers are not as well known in the U.S domestic market. Due to this fact and the increasingly technical nature of translation and localization work, there is a growing asymmetry in knowledge between LSP’s and their existing and potential customers. This disconnect between service buyers and sellers is strong justification for LSP’s to attain certification. Since, to this day, there is no single standard that addresses translation quality, ISO 9000 certification serves as the best alternative 5.

Of course, if you look at the results of a translation project, for example, the Japanese, Chinese, German, and French translations delivered by your LSP in their finished states (as documents, websites, software, etc.), you can assess if the work looks complete, professional, and was delivered on time. However, you still have no way of assessing the linguistic quality of the work. To do so, you will need to rely on someone in your organization such as an overseas sales office, distributor or even your customers. This process, known as client review, is common and necessary, since most buyers of translation services are not comfortable assuming that their LSP can provide quality work.

However, anyone working inside an LSP will tell you that even if the distributor/customer does not provide positive feedback, it does not necessarily mean that the translation is of poor quality. Why? Well, its language is always preferential and subjective. There is no way to objectively measure the quality of translation in its abstract meaning. Even if there was, the reviewers would have to be trained in that assessment process, which likely will not happen, since review—at best—will be a secondary task for the chosen reviewer. He or she will likely have primary duties that generate revenue directly for your company. So, that brings us back to the definition of quality as perceived by the buyer. That’s where the integrity comes in: being able to work with the buyer to establish those ever-elusive quality criteria as the basis for reasonable and realistic quality requirements. Such collaboration takes time and effort on both sides, but mainly on the provider’s side. This type of partnership is impossible without commitment and integrity and requires robust and detailed processes for which ISO certification can provide a solid framework.

From the buyer’s perspective purchasing language services is a daunting task. Unless you have knowledge of the languages into which your service provider is translating, you do not have any direct way of assessing the quality of the translation work. If you think about it, virtually any other product or service you and your company purchase can be evaluated and experienced directly. Purchasing technical services, such as software development,- lends itself to direct assessment, even if you have no knowledge of programming, since the end result can be assessed for functional quality.

Regardless of your LSP’s certification status, there must still be a process in place that allows for proper inspection. Below is a matrix which suggests an “evolution of trust” between you and your LSP: (see table below)

Status of relationship
Level of review
Level of feedback
New relationship--first
through third substantial
Detailed client review; translated
content is thoroughly
checked by an in-country expert
who knows the subject matter
and who has the requisite linguistic
skills in both the source
and the target language.
Detailed feedback, especially in the area of terminology
specific to the subject matter, should be
expected. However, a complete re-write signifies
either weak performance on the part of the LSP, an
over-zealous reviewer, or deficient source material.
Emerging relationship--
more than a half-dozen
substantial projects successfully
completed. The
LSP should be able to demonstrate
their incorporation
of reviewer feedback
Thorough client review; new
languages should have a detailed
review. Languages which the
vendor has already done before
should only require review of
new, challenging content.
Limited feedback required. The reviewer is moving
towards inspecting the LSP’s work. Comments on
new terminology should be expected. The reviewer’s
job is to confirm that the LSP is incorporating feedback
and maintaining standards set by the client or
expected by the client’s customers.
Established relationship-
-in excess of one year in
which the LSP has completed
a dozen or more
substantial projects or is
working on a continual
Inspection. The reviewer no
longer needs to do detailed,
line-by-line review. Focus is on
only 10% of the project content.
The only exception being brand
new material and/or languages.
Feedback is limited to any minor changes or about
new terminology. The reviewer limits the review to
areas where known issues may reoccur and to new

It should be noted that this approach can be used with any LSP. For ISO-certified LSP’s it will be an easy process to implement, since this approach mimics the continuous improvement cycle that is fostered by the ISO 9001:2000 standard with its emphasis on inspection and auditing.

One critical point that cannot be overlooked is that the reviewer must be qualified to carry out the review. It makes little sense investing time and effort finding the right LSP and then having their work assessed by an individual within your organization who is lesser qualified than the LSP itself. The reviewer must be a subject matter expert; be highly proficient in the source language, and have native fluency in the target language, minimally at the same educational level as the target audience for material being reviewed; as well as have direct market knowledge of the products, services and users of such. The most common objection to finding such an individual is, “Well, if I could find somebody like that, I’d have them do the translation!” The truth of the matter is that individuals with that level of subject matter and market knowledge are far more valuable to you in creating value for your customers. And outside of your company, such individuals do not exist, since they will not possess the level of subject matter expertise necessary. In the end, it is a matter of efficiency in the terms of direct costs, opportunity costs, and time. Your experts should be busy building, marketing, selling, and distributing your products and services in your target markets. There is far too much to know about the tools, processes, strategies, and linguistics related to translation and localization for an individual to become proficient on a part-time basis. Leave it to the professionals! The long-term rewards will far outweigh the short-term costs.


Scott Bass is president and founder of Advanced Language Translation, Inc., a provider of translation and localization services. Advanced Language achieved ISO 9001:2000 certification in 2004. He can be reached at sbass@advancedlanguage.com


1 Wikipedia has a great article about the history and substance of the ISO 9000 standard. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/ ISO_9000#History_of_ISO_9000

2 According to localization industry consultants, Common Sense Advisory’s report, “Language Services 2006: Supply-Side Outlook”

3 The SAE J2450 Translation Quality Metric Task Force began work in 1997. http://www.sae.org/technicalcommittees/ j2450p1.htm

4 As per the Common Sense Advisory report

5 A translation quality standard is currently being created under the auspices of European Committee for Standardization (CEN). http://www.lisa.org/globalizationinsider/2005/04/the_ en15038_eur.html

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