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Choosing a translation company: What you should ask and what you should hear

As a translation company, we are often asked whether we can do certain types of work or if we have done them in the past. Most times that is the beginning and end of the client’s due diligence.

We find that a little worrying, as it points to a lack of value around the translation industry and languages in general.

We don’t want to over complicate the process either, as we believe in making communication easier, not more difficult, but we do think there needs to be a ‘hygiene level’ of what to look for when choosing a translation company.

So, if you have decided to use a professional translator (if you’re not sure you need one, have a read of THIS), we recommend asking these 5 questions. We explain exactly why below, in more detail, but in case you’re in a hurry, here’s what to ask:

  1. Are they registered members of a reputable translation body? In the UK this should be either the ATC, CIOL, or ITI.
  2. Are they specialists in your sector? Can they prove it with case studies? Do they have translators with the right experience?
  3. Will they use those translators on your job? Will they share the experience and qualifications of the actual translator being used and guarantee to use them?
  4. Are the translators valued? Are they getting a fair wage and reasonable time in which to do the work?
  5. Do you get a standard delivery time? Have they got service level agreements for providing work so you can plan accordingly?

1. Is the translator (or translation company) registered?

Translation is an unregulated industry in the UK, so this is an important one. Many companies spring up to provide translations. Some are good, some are not. Checking their registration is a quick way to verify their quality.

The ATC, ITI and CIOL are British professional institutions for translation companies and freelance translators and interpreters and they have established guidelines for best practice. They vet their members to ensure they have qualifications, experience and references, and they encourage annual professional training (CPD) to keep knowledge and skills up-to-date.

By choosing a registered person or company, you get a professional who has gone through a vetting and testing process in their chosen language combinations. They have been deemed competent in their languages by language industry experts and able to translate text (in all its nuance) correctly. For companies, their finances and quality processes will also have been vetted and accredited. Each will be issued with a registration number and will be listed on the relevant websites.

Checking registration details is one way to ensure you are getting a qualified translator, and it is the first question you should be asking.

2. Are they qualified specialists in your sector?

You have checked they are a registered translator, or translation company, but do they actually know anything about your sector? Do they understand the context of your translation so they can deliver it accurately?

If your project is about financial projections, you need a finance expert. Likewise, if it’s about safety protocols for working at heights, sports equipment for scuba diving, or web copy for selling a software as a service, you need your translator to be experienced in those areas.

In actual fact, this is really a two-part question:

The person you speak to

Firstly, are you speaking to someone who knows your sector? Bear in mind it’s unlikely you’ll be speaking to the actual translator; more likely it’ll be an office administrator or a project manager (if you ARE speaking to the translator, that’s great, you can ask the next question and get some proper detail).

The Project Manager

It’s worth understanding that some translation companies – large and small – use relatively inexperienced people to act as go-betweens for the large volumes of projects they deal with (volume being their principle business model). The project managers’ role is to match jobs to the hundreds, and sometimes thousands, of translators listed on their books. They often have little or no experience in the language combinations they deal with, let alone the subject matter of the documents themselves.

Does this matter? You might think that if they match your job to a translator with the right language combination who can get it done, surely that’s fine?

Well, think of the project manager as doing the same type of job as the receptionist at a GP surgery. While they don’t need to be medically trained, they do need to know enough to refer you to the right medic for a problem, and understand the consequences of any delays or mistakes.

In the same way, the project manager at a translation company needs to know what languages are required and the type of experience the translator needs, to translate the text effectively. At the very least, they need some commercial skill to be able to understand the significance of the translation for your business. A good project manager will understand all this and shortlist a selection of translators who can do it well.

The Translator

Secondly, will they use a translator who actually understands the jargon and nuances of your sector? Are they appropriately qualified?

The translator needs to have the relevant translation ability and sector knowledge to accurately translate your text.

With specialist medical and scientific texts it can be quite obvious whether or not the translator is qualified, as these sorts of documents are jargon-heavy and fairly impenetrable to unqualified people. However, while texts for tenders, marketing or websites may appear simpler at first glance, in actual fact it is just as important that translators have the relevant qualifications to work on them.

Do they have copywriting credentials, or procurement qualifications, have they worked in your sector? If so, they can ensure they capture what has been carefully crafted by professional marketers and salespeople, who are fellow experts in their fields.

Ask the translation company if they have translators with the relevant experience to work on your project and ask for case studies and, if necessary, referrals. Next, make sure they will actually use them!

3. Will they actually use a qualified, experienced translator on your job?

It is important to check they will actually use a qualified, registered translator – with the right expertise – on your job.

Translation companies and agencies typically don’t share who their translators are, as they worry clients will cut them out and use the translator directly next time. Which is, of course, a reasonable concern. After all, they have recruited the translators and paid for the advertising and any staff salaries to find and win your business. It would be bad form to cut them out if they did a good job.

However, this ‘white labelling’ on translations can also hide a multitude of sins. Let’s assume the recruitment process they go through for hiring translators is good and everything seems above board. Now, what is their real process for actually matching a new job to a translator?

How does a translation job get assigned?

The reality of a strict deadline and a low price means that often, the project manager is just trying to match the job with a translator – any translator – as quickly and cheaply as possible. This means they ping a group email to tens if not hundreds of translators with the matching language combination. The first to respond wins, and away that project goes to the quickest. That’s it; no check on experience in the sector or suitability (other than being listed on their books in the first place). You, the client, will never know until it’s too late.

Any linguist with an ounce of integrity will not take on work they didn’t truly understand. Not only do they risk causing basic misunderstandings or poor communication, it’s also potentially dangerous. Imagine getting a prescription wrong for a heart attack patient or making a mistake on a witness statement in a murder case. Tragically, though, these types of mistakes happen every day.

There is a simple way around this, of course: Once the project manager has told you they have an available translator, you can ask to see their relevant qualifications and experience. Their name can be redacted, but they should be able to disclose how long they have been translating, what qualifications they have and the type of work they specialise in. Sign a non-poaching agreement, if necessary, and get it in writing that they are using the trained experienced translator whose details they have shared. If they refuse to disclose this type of information, when there is no risk to them, or breach of data confidentiality, then something is wrong. Walk away and find someone who will.

4. Are the translators valued?

We hope it goes without saying that people should be treated fairly and paid appropriately for their skills and talents, no matter what job or industry they work in. Sadly, some translation firms take advantage of the disparate, mainly freelance, community of translators and, in the pursuit of profit, squeeze them to unfair levels. How can you be sure you aren’t supporting such behaviour?

Fees

A good way to understand whether the company values their translators is by working out if they are paying them fairly. Here’s a simple formula (it doesn’t look simple but it is!) to help. This calculates a the very lowest fee you would expect to pay an agency, to ensure the translator receives fair pay:

(W/P) x L + M = C

W: Word count. How many words in the project that needs to be translated
P: Words per hour. The average number of words a competent translator can translate in an hour is 285 (using a basic scenario of solidly working for 7 hours a day with an average of 2,000 words per day)
L: Real living wage 2022. £9.90 per hour, if they are based in the UK, or £11.05 if they are in London.
M: Translation agency gross margin: 20%
C: Minimum translation cost

To put that into practise, let’s say you have a 4,000 word project. Roughly 10-13 pages. Using the formula, it means (W) 4,000 words divided by (P) 285 words per hour the translator will work for a total of 14 hours which multiplied by £9.90 (L) is £139. If you add on the agency’s 20% (M), a 4,000 word project needs to cost £167 (C) just to provide the translator with a living wage and the agency a small gross profit. This should be your bare minimum starting point.

(4000/285) x 9.90 + 28 = £167

The point of us providing this formula is not to show how low you can drive your costs, but quite the opposite. If we expect our translators to be qualified, registered and experienced, they should obviously be paid significantly more than the living wage. However, this is a very quick way of gauging how they might be paid by the translation company you are using and whether or not you think it is sensible, or indeed ethical, to work with them.

Putting this knowledge into context, if you search for translation companies right now on Google, you will see some companies advertise their per word charges as low as £0.03. This means that for the same 4,000 word project, the agency will charge you just £120. Once they have taken off their 20% (or more), this means the translator will work two solid days for £96 or less. That’s £6.80 per hour; 31% lower than the UK living wage.

Delivery Time

Also be wary of a company delivering back your project much quicker than you expect. Yes, some translators work fast and could do 2,500 words per day, even 3,000 at a stretch but if your 4,000 word project is back within a day this means your work is likely to have been rushed or the translator has put in a longer shift than a normal working day.

Those are all warning signs of a company that doesn’t value translators’ well-being and/or the quality of the translations they produce.

If you do have an urgent piece, it could be delivered more quickly by putting two or more translators on it. That is common practise and okay as long as they are all experienced and someone at the end is proofing it to make sure the piece sounds like it was written by the same person.

Again, if you need the work quickly, try to understand what process the agency is going through to make sure the work is as delivered to you in that time at the best quality it can be. They should volunteer this but if not, you now have some insight to ask the right questions.

5. Service level agreements

Last, but not least, will the company provide a set time-frame for a project to be completed?

Most people and businesses require a translation as part of a larger process. Whether that is a marketing campaign, a holiday visa or probate document, the translation – although vital – is not the end result. You will need to plan when to put a document in for translation and understand when to expect it back.

There are no hard and fast rules on this. In fact, if you google translation companies you’ll see claims about same-day services, one-hour turnaround times etc. (Often from the same people who offer it for £0.03 per word). One thing for certain is that you’ll get it fast and it will be cheap but it will probably not be good.

Putting these types of companies aside, you can ask your prospective translation company if they have set delivery times for translations and will they commit to them for you?

As an example, here at QL we offer certified translations of up to 5 x A4 pages in a standard delivery time of 3-5 working days. The work itself won’t necessarily take that long but this gives us enough time to schedule it with our translators and proof readers and allow them to manage other work alongside it. If we need it quicker, we charge an urgency surcharge to bump it to the top of list with a translator and we pay them extra for their trouble.

Collaboration

As with this and all the points above, a good translation company, like other good service providers, should look to have a dialogue with you from the beginning. Guided by people who know what they are doing and who are asking intelligent questions. They should not be afraid to say no, or challenge you if it means what they will deliver to you in the end won’t be good enough.

We hope you find our 5 questions useful and if you have any further questions please feel free to get in touch.

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