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The New ASTM Translation Guide

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ASTM International is one of the largest voluntary standards development organizations in the world, known for its best-in-class practices for standards development and delivery.1 And in June 2006, it finally published a translation standard, F 2575-06, entitled “Standard Guide for Quality Assurance in Translation.” This guide has been many years in development, an effort supported by the American Translators Association (ATA), and is an important new resource for the translation industry and its clients.

Why should we bother with a standard? Beatriz Bonnet, president of Syntes Language Group and the ATA’s representative to the ASTM committee that developed this standard, says that the main reasons are (1) greater transparency in the marketplace, (2) better quality, (3) market differentiation, (4) education, (5) leveling the playing field, and (6) potential for certification to the standard, which equals a seal of approval.2

According to Beatriz, a standard—this standard—can help us “talk to [our] clients, find a common vocabulary with which to communicate, find ways to improve [our] practice, or even come up with new ideas to try or areas in which to expand [our] knowledge and expertise.”3 Jiri Stejskal, president of language services company CETRA and current president of the ATA, states that the ASTM standard “lists translation-specific parameters that, when given project-specific values, provide a set of specifications against which the quality of a translation can be evaluated.”4

The ASTM standard guide “identifies factors relevant to the quality of language translation services for each phase of a translation project.”5 While it is not the most exciting reading material any of us will ever have on our bedside tables, it is chock-full of valuable definitions and information for anyone involved in translation, on both the client and vendor sides. I certainly wish I had had such a document when I began in the industry eight years ago!

In discussing its significance, the guide points out that “The requester, who can be an individual or hold nearly any position within an organization, may not know the target language or even the source language and thus may not be able to evaluate the translation personally…. Thus it is important to have a standard guide for relationships between the requester and the translation service provider so that certain questions are answered before starting a translation project—questions for which answers are critical to the successful delivery of a quality translation through the translation supply chain to the end user.”6 Yes, indeed!

Like most standards, this one begins with a terminology section that defines and discusses vocabulary commonly used in the translation industry. If you ever wondered about, or need to agree on, the difference between translation, localization, internationalization, and globalization, for example, this guide can help you. Other items that benefit from clear definition are the roles of editor versus proofreader versus reviewer, and terms such as back translation, locale, and translation memory.

Quality in translation is often debated, and at McElroy, we’ve always considered quality to be a translation’s “fitness for use.” In other words, we strive to determine and supply exactly what our client needs, whether that is summarization of the text, a literal rendering of a patent, or a desktop-published brochure with localized graphics. The ASTM guide supports our approach, defining quality as “the degree to which the characteristics of a translation fulfill the requirements of the agreed-upon specifications.”7

Another particularly useful feature of the guide is its itemization of the steps required to produce a high-quality result. These steps include selecting a translation service provider, defining project specifications, production (terminology management, translation, editing, formatting, proofreading, and quality control), and post-project review. Each step is defined and discussed in clear, concise, understandable language.

It’s interesting that the guide challenges two commonly held beliefs in the translation industry. The first is the validity of the back translation as an effective quality control step. According to the ASTM guide, “A back translation will not result in a text that is identical to the source text, and furthermore, a back translation is not necessarily a good indicator of the quality of the translation.”8 We at McElroy certainly agree, although we recognize the role that back translations play in our clients’ needs to meet regulatory requirements. The guide further stipulates that “…it should be decided in advance whether a back translation is requested.”9

The second challenged belief is the recommendation that translators translate into their native language. The guide points out that people who have studied, mastered, and immersed themselves in another language can be very good translators despite being nonnative speakers. The point is to instead qualify a translation service provider’s competencies, and not simply make a decision based on where the translator may have been born and raised.

A final significant contribution of the guide is to define the roles of the requester and the translation service provider: “Effective communication between the requester and the project manager is imperative to the success of a project. The more complex the project and the more people involved, the more critical communication becomes.” (Seems obvious, doesn’t it?!) “The project manager is responsible for ensuring that the specifications are met. The requester, in turn, is also responsible for providing assistance in a prompt and reliable manner to the project manager as required, so that specifications can be met.”10

I strongly encourage all of our clients to obtain the ASTM’s “Standard Guide for Quality Assurance in Translation.” It’s a ground-breaking document in the translation industry that sets out great definitions and explanations for terms and issues that arise in conversations we have with our clients and translators every day. The guide can be downloaded in PDF format from for $41. Just type “translation” in the website search box and it will pop right up.

And as valuable as it is, it will certainly also mitigate your need for Ambien!

2-3The ATA Chronicle, July 2006, “So…Is There a Good Thing About Standards?”

4The ATA Chronicle, October 2006, “Quality Assessment in Translation.”

5-10 ASTM International, F 2575-06 “Standard Guide for Quality Assurance in Translation,” June 2006.

© McElroy Translation 2007

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