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Why Sample Translations Break All the Rules

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After more than thirteen years in the localization industry with three different language service providers, I continue to be amazed that we still receive RFPs with requests for sample translations.

Kathleen Bostickra photoI have to admit that most of the requests come from customers that are new to translation. They no doubt feel this is an obvious way to test the quality of our work.
We all know that sample translations are not the best way to evaluate quality; typically, they don’t follow standard translation processes and, in many ways, they break all best practices. As an industry, it’s time we work together to educate our customers. In the end, it will benefit everyone, saving time and money.
So what do I mean by breaking all the rules? There are best practices that we all follow to give our customers the highest quality translations. Most sample translations don’t allow us to follow best practices. Here’s why:
  • Terminology.  Best practice is to obtain a current glossary (if it exists) or develop one from scratch and submit it for the customer’s review and approval before beginning the actual translation. For sample translations, a glossary is not normally provided, nor is there time to create and receive feedback and approval.
  • Style Guide.  Our customers typically provide us with style guides as part of best practice. Even if they only have the English style guide, it’s a place to start and we can help develop the style guides for each additional language. A style guide is rarely, if ever, provided for a sample translation.
  • Training.  Product training is very important to translators, especially if it’s software, hardware, or a medical device that’s being translated. The companies that receive the highest quality translations from their language service providers invest in training. Sample translations never have associated training.
  • Questions.  Over the course of a normal translation process, translators ask questions about content. Customers provide answers by clarifying terms, meaning, intent, etc., and translators then implement the answers. They don’t guess about intended meaning, but they take the feedback and implement it. During the sample translation process, Q&A is rare; therefore, translators are left to guess, hoping that they guess right.
  • SMEs/Resources. To provide the highest quality translations, we all work to find translators who are SMEs in certain areas, whether it’s medical, financial, or IT. These expert resources are in high demand and booked well in advance of projects to insure the right resources are working with the right customers. Sample translations assume that the best resources are available “on-demand.” The idea that these resources can be removed from other paid projects to address a sample that requires quick turnaround breaks all best practice rules.
  • Scale.  A 1000-word sample gives absolutely no indication of an LSP’s ability to perform under real-life conditions.  Most projects are orders of magnitude greater than 1000 words and require far more than one translator to complete the project.  In addition, scope changes and volume fluctuations are a daily occurrence.

    Under sample translation conditions there is no way to extrapolate how the LSP would perform if the volume increased by an order of 100, if three more languages were added to the mix, if two projects had to be executed in parallel, etc.  And, of course, there is no measure of the value that professional project management brings to a project, especially to the large multilingual projects.
  • Cost.  The cost of providing sample translations can be high, depending on the amount of content and the number of languages. The translation industry already operates on thin margins, and adding this component to the RFP process can really escalate the cost in acquiring new business.
So what’s the solution? We need to go back and understand why customers are asking for sample translations in the first place. Chances are, they are asking because they think that’s the logical thing to do when evaluating a translation supplier, and they just don’t know any better. No one has educated them otherwise. If we assume that their real goal is to judge a translation supplier’s quality in a particular domain, then why not offer samples of our work from similar customers (with the customer’s permission of course)?
By using materials already translated in our customer’s domain that comply with our company’s best practices, we can meet the customer’s goal in reviewing a sample of our work. The customer can then decide if our translation quality is up to par. By educating our customers on sample translations, we can still meet their needs by providing true representations of our work, without incurring unnecessary costs.

This article was originally published in GALAxy newsletter:

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