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EN 15038 Can Help You Assess Translation Service Providers

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ClientSide News Magazine pictureMany clients struggle to find a good way to rate the many translation agencies that come knocking on their door. It can also be a challenge to assess current providers. Companies have longed for an objective means by which to carry out their assessments. Some help has arrived in the form of European Standard EN 15038:2006, "Translation Services - Service Requirements." EN 15038 was originally released as a British Standard and was made a European Standard in 2006. Despite its European origins, it can be applied universally to assess providers, both new and existing.

The standard provides guidance on such topics as human resources, linguist competency, technical resources, project management, client relationships and quality management. In short, it covers all the important areas that will determine the level of service and quality a company can expect from its translation provider. In regulated industries, where metrics and standards are vital, EN 15038 is a welcome tool. Many translation agencies are flocking to get EN 15038-certified or claim compliance. While certification is great, it is also helpful for client-side companies to understand the guts of the standard. Though it's not perfect, the finer points of EN 15038 give companies a good starting point from which they can assess their current or prospective translation service providers.

This article will summarize the key points in the standard, and describe how it can be used as an assessment tool for translation providers. It will pull out the key points and make suggestions for how the standard can be turned into a useful assessment tool and distill some good questions that you can ask your current or prospective translation providers.

EN 15038 is broken up into three main sections: Basic Requirements, Client-Translation Service Provider (TSP) Relationship and Procedures in Translation Services.

Basic Requirements

The Basic Requirements section of EN 15038 covers five areas: human resources, technical resources, quality management system and project management.

The human resources section of EN 15038 focuses primarily on the competencies of the linguists who work on projects. The standard breaks down these competencies into five categories:

  • Translating competence. Linguists can translate to an appropriate level in terms of terminology, grammar, phraseology, style, locale and target audience. Equally emphasized is that the translation is done in relation to client expectations and requirements.
  • Linguistic and technical competence in source and target language. Linguists should have full comprehension of the source language and a mastery of the target language.
  • Research competence, information acquisition and processing. A linguist should be proficient in using tools available to learn more about the subject matter in which they are translating.
  • Cultural competence. Translations should be done with the target audience in mind with respect to value systems, behavioral standards and locale.
  • Technical competence. Proficiency in hardware and software tools necessary to carry out the translations.
  • The above competencies should come as the result of a recognized higher education degree, equivalent qualification in other areas plus two years of documented experience translating and/or at least five years of professional translation experience. Additionally, EN 15038 stipulates that editors should have adequate experience in the competencies above as well and reviewers should be specialists in the subject matter in which they are working (e.g., medical device, finance, consumer electronics).

    A key takeaway of this Human Resources section of EN 15038 is that, while it would be nearly impossible for a client to be able to screen linguists for these competencies, they can ensure that the TSP has processes in place for the selection and qualification of linguists. By asking to see a TSP's selection criteria and perhaps random linguist records, a client can have a pretty good idea of a TSP's adherence to this requirement.

    EN 15038 does not go into a lot of detail regarding technical resources. But the high level requirements it does list are important:

  • The TSP should have the equipment necessary to carry out projects and provide for safe and confidential handling of client documents and electronic media and data.
  • The TSP should also have adequate communications equipment and hardware and software.
  • Access to relevant information sources and media.
  • Technology changes so quickly now, that the writers of the standard were wise to not go into too much detail in this section. Faster processors, upgrading operating systems and storage methods, as well as advances in content management, translation memory and the advent of machine translation would render any more specific directives obsolete almost annually.

    It would be a good idea to ask your TSP for their archiving and disaster recovery protocols. Also, a list of their software capabilities will help determine how current they are, especially vis à vis your specific project needs.

    Though not cited specifically in EN 15038, Translation Memory would fall under this section. Translation Memory, or "TM," is the widely used means by which previously translated phrases can be leveraged in later projects to maximize consistency and cost-effectiveness and reduce turnaround times. There is an ever-growing list of options in TM technology. It helps to read trade journals and industry Websites to keep on top of the state of the art, as well as industry trends and standards. What is important is not how much a TM system can do, but how it pertains to your specific needs.

    EN 15038 states that a TSP should have a quality system suited to its size and structure but should include a statement of quality system objectives, a process for monitoring quality, a robust corrective action program and a process for handling information and material received from clients.

    The simplest approach to assessing an agency's quality management system is to check their certifications and compliance to recognized standards, most notably ISO 9000. Since many companies that use translations have their own ISO-certified quality systems, it is easy to relate these to that of the TSP. Check your agency's certification status and any compliance to other standards, such as ISO 14971 (Risk Management). It might also be helpful to have your own company's internal quality auditor perform an audit on the TSP to check on key points as they might relate to your business.

    Quite simply, EN 15038 states that each translation project should be overseen by a project manager and be carried out according to the TSP's procedures, and in accordance with the project expectations and requirements agreed upon.

    Client-TSP Relationship

    The second main section of EN 15038, which covers the client-TSP relationship, is actually quite short. The focus is on how projects are assessed, quoted, agreed upon and concluded.

    With regard to human and technical resources, an agency should not be so eager to "win" a project that it is not being honest about their bandwidth and capabilities. So a forthright discussion about their human and technical resources, backed by documented proof, will tease out any issues of scalability.

    Barring other client-TSP agreements, projects should be quoted with, at the least, price and delivery details. One could assume that project schedule is included in "delivery details" and is often an equal, if not more vital, concern to clients than price.

    EN 15038 briefly touches on agreements that an agency establishes with its clients. This point is somewhat open but basically states that there should be a contract between TSP and client that covers commercial and legal terms such as copyright, liability, confidentiality and settlement of disputes. These are typically assumptions contained within a Master Services Agreement, Statement of Work or individual project proposal.

    It is the responsibility of the TSP to attempt to eliminate ambiguity by approaching the client for supplementary information related to a project. This point actually speaks to the larger need for good client-TSP communication, which is often intangible but vital to a good relationship.

    All information received from the client should be handled in accordance with the TSP's quality management system. This point relates to confidentiality, version control and archiving which should be covered in the TSP's quality management system, which was discussed above.

    A TSP should have procedures in place for wrapping up a project. This covers post-delivery aspects, such as archiving, follow-up and assessment of client satisfaction. Again, this points to the larger need for good communication. Project "postmortems" are effectives means by which clients and TSP's can discuss the good and bad aspects of a project, which will lead to future improvements. The way a TSP finishes a project is as important as how they start one.

    Procedures in Translation Services

    The final main section in EN 15038 breaks down how projects are carried out. First off, a TSP must have documented procedures in place for project management, including:

  • Monitoring and supervising preparations - kickoff meetings, review of proposal and requirements, etc.
  • Assigning translators
  • Assigning editors - EN 15038 calls these "revisers"
  • Issuing instructions
  • Enabling and monitoring consistency - this could be facilitated through the use of glossaries, style guides and Translation Memories
  • Monitoring and supervising the schedule
  • Staying in contact with all parties, including the client
  • Delivery
  • It should be noted that, while most TSPs have the position "project manager" within their ranks, the tasks above are often carried out by several functions, such as linguistic leads, publishing leads, account managers, etc. An effective assessment might be to talk to a TSP about how each of the above tasks is carried out and by whom.

    The attention to detail EN 15038 gives to Preparation highlights the importance of this area. The standard goes into some detail about each preparation step, breaking them down into administrative, technical and linguistic aspects.

  • Administrative - Two points are highlighted here: projects should be recorded and activities during projects logged. This allows projects to be traced and status to be determined at all times. Also, appropriate internal and external resources are to be assigned and documented, again for traceability.
  • Technical - Appropriate technical resources (e.g., software versions) should be used and any pre-translation technical processing should be carried out. This might include preparation or extraction of text, Translation Memory leveraging or post-alignment of text.
  • Linguistic Preparation in this area focuses on recording any specific linguistic requirements a project and/or client might have. This could include style guides, specs for adaptation to a specific target audience or glossaries. Source text should be analyzed in order to head off any possible translation problems, such as colloquialisms or industry or company-specific terminology.
  • For assessment of a TSP's adherence to the above Preparation points, it might be helpful to obtain any pre-project procedures and checklists, as well as style guides specific to your company or your company's industry.

    "Translation process" covers how text is translated, checked, edited and reviewed. Assuming that the human resources involved in this process are in accordance with the basic requirements discussed earlier, the important points about the process are as follows:

  • Translation is carried out according not only to the basic linguistic rules of the target language but also to the specific requirements of the project and client.
  • There should be quality assurance checks through out the process, after each step.
  • Editing - EN 15038 refers to editing as "revising". This refers to having a second person review the translation for its suitability for purpose, as well as quality of its style and voice and its consistent use of terminology. Editing is often overlooked and not understood but is a vital piece of a quality translation.
  • Review - if it is contained in the project require ments that a review is carried out, it should be done by an appropriate person. Often client in-country representatives do these reviews. But many TSPs provide this service as well.
  • Final verification - the TSP should do a final check of the translation against the project specifications to ensure that expectation will be met.
  • EN 15038 succinctly describes an effective translation process. It is based on having appropriate staff, conducting an edit step to verify the translation quality and to perform quality checks throughout the process. Ask for a thorough description of how a project is carried out, step-by-step. Is editing done? If so, is it by a separate person? Ask to see quality checklists that linguists use.


    EN 15038:2006 provides an objective set of criteria by which translation service providers can be assessed, which previously was missing from the translation industry. While many of its points may seem obvious, taken as a whole, the standard can be effectively used to make decisions about potential translation vendors and review existing ones. Its contents could also be adapted or augmented for use in specific industries. And it provides justifications for decisions that are often difficult to make in a service industry like translation.

    While this article should not be relied on as a substitute for EN 15038:2006, hopefully you have a better understanding of the finer points of the standard. These points could be woven into a company's vendor selection or RFP process, or into an annual supplier review. With the industry's increased focus on supplier quality and compliance to standards, a bulletproof method of assessing translation agencies will surely become more important in the future.

    About the author

    Jason Heaton is a ten-year veteran of the localization and life sciences industries. Having come up through the ranks as a Technical Writer, Jason also worked for a large medical device manufacturer in their Technical Communications and Regulatory Affairs departments. Jason was an Account Manager with ForeignExchange Translations for his first three years with the company and is currently the Marketing Manager. Jason is based in Minneapolis and can be reached at jheaton@fxtrans.com

    Published - January 2009

    ClientSide News Magazine - www.clientsidenews.com

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