5 Tips for Hiring a Translator

Finding a professional translator who is truly skilled can be a daunting task. Here are five great tips to help you find a qualified linguist for the job.

Business is becoming more globalized every day, creating fantastic opportunities for growth, particularly in the emerging markets of Asia, Latin America, and Africa. But expanding globally can be one of the most significant challenges for a growing business. In addition to adapting your company to the challenges of conducting business overseas, and internationall, you must also confront the all-important issue of communication.

Even though English is the established language of business, those who don't speak English well—or at all—would understandably prefer to do business in their native tongues. By reaching out to current and prospective clients in their own languages, you are much more likely to secure and retain their business.

Whether you're expanding to global markets, or simply traveling for business, how can you cross the language barrier? There's one simple first step: Hire a professional translator. A translator will help you with key aspects of doing business abroad such as translating correspondence, contracts, invoices, catalogues, and other necessary documents. (If you're looking for help conversing with someone in another language, you'll need an interpreter, not a translator.)

The business of translation, however, is not necessarily limited to written materials. A highly skilled business translator can also localize your website and provide consulting services with respect to the preparation of your international marketing plans. He or she can even have a role in ensuring your business plan will work abroad. In other words, a translator can assist you in virtually all areas of your company's global expansion.

Before you set out to hire a translator, it's imperative to have a basic understanding of what translation is and how it works. Translation bridges the linguistic and cultural gaps that exist between the original and target languages, a process that involves translating concepts in addition to individual words. Because machine translation programs tend to operate on a literal, word-for-word basis, they are typically unable to accurately convey metaphors, figurative language and colloquial expressions—not to mention jargon and words that have multiple meanings—all of which are vital to effective communication. The problem is that inexperienced translators are often ill equipped to handle these types of language as well.

The German company AVUS Performance learned this lesson the hard way when its press agency mistranslated the original name of the 2009 Audi RS6 V10 Biturbo as the "White Power Audi RS6." To avoid a similar public relations disaster, it's critical to know what to look for when hiring a translator. Here are five tips that will help you choose a professional who is qualified for the task.

1) Determine your translation needs

With any translation project, you have to decide whether to work with a freelance translator, a translation company, or whether you need to bring someone onto staff full-time. Important considerations to keep in mind when making this decision are the type of project involved, the availability of translators in the language, the level of difficulty of the subject matter, the volume of work, and the turn-around time. If the project involves a legal document in English that needs to be translated into a widely spoken language such as Spanish or French, and there is some flexibility with respect to the completion date, then there are any number of qualified freelance translators who can handle the job. If, on the other hand, the project is a 200-page petroleum engineering document or a website localization into Pashto that needs to be completed within a few days, then you will probably be better off seeking the services of a company because the work will be assigned to multiple translators.

2) Establish the qualifications of the translator

Whether you want to hire a freelance translator or a translation company, it's critical to check the credentials of the translator who will work on your project. Unfortunately, translator skill levels vary considerably, so you need to know what to look for when hiring a translator.

First, it's necessary to clarify one of the most misunderstood aspects of translation: the difference between being bilingual and being a qualified translator. A bilingual speaker is an individual who speaks two languages fluently. A qualified translator is a bilingual (or trilingual, etc.) linguist who knows the languages in question and understands the complex linguistic and cultural disparities between them. An analogy that's often used to make the distinction between a bilingual and a translator is that of a cook and a chef: you may know how to cook, but that doesn't make you a chef.

It's also important to understand that true bilinguals are few and far between even among translators. Inevitably, an individual who knows two languages is more proficient in one than the other. Because translators work in language pairs, for instance, they translate from Italian into English, or from English into Italian or both, it's crucial to choose a translator who is a native speaker of the target language. If the translator is a native speaker of both languages, then you need to make sure that he or she is most proficient in the target language. Believe it or not, the translator's proficiency level in the source language is actually of lesser importance, because he or she will have access to resources for answering any questions about the source text.

Other key areas to consider with respect to the competency of the translator are the educational level, the number of years of experience, and the area of specialization. If you have a legal document that needs to be translated, you would be much safer hiring a translator who has graduated from law school and has been translating legal materials for five or more years, as opposed to a pre-law student who is trying to make some extra money to pay for school.

Probably the most important credential to look for in a translator is professional certification. At present, the American Translators Association (ATA) is the only organization in the United States or abroad that offers certification to translation professionals.  ATA spokesman Kevin Hendzel says: "ATA certification is important as it constitutes validation of a translator's skills by other top translators working in the same language pair." One of the easiest ways to find a certified professional translator is via the ATA's online database of translators.

When discussing certification with a translator, be sure not to confuse professional certification with certified translation. Certification is the rigorous examination process overseen by the ATA, but a certified translation is one for which the translator has sworn before a notary that the translation is true and accurate to the best of his or her knowledge.

Last but not least, if you're unsure about the translator's credentials, it's okay to ask for sample translations and client references to give you that extra measure of confidence.

3) Verify the credentials and expertise of the translation company

If you opt to hire a translation company, there are several important factors to consider. In addition to asking about the qualifications of the translator or translators who will be assigned to your project, you should also inquire about the credentials of the company. You will first want to make sure that the company, like the translator, has been certified. Translation service provider certification does not guarantee quality translation, but it does ensure that the company in question completes a specific set of documented steps to maintain a desired level of quality control.

It's also a good idea to ask about the quality control practices of the translation service provider. Translation companies have a system in place for regulating the quality of the work. This system typically involves the use of multiple translators for a single project to reduce the likelihood of typos and errors. Companies also make use of special resources that freelance translators don't such as Translation Memory (TM) software, which enables translators to translate a repetitive sentence or phrase only once. Although TM software is intended to reduce the workload of the translator and the time needed to complete the project, it also reduces the number of errors.

Liz Elting, president and CEO of TransPerfect, the world's largest privately held provider of language services and global communications solutions, maintains that the most critical aspects to check when hiring a translation service provider are industry expertise and specialization. If your document is meant for outside distribution, you need to be certain that the company is familiar with industry norms in your field. Translation companies have an advantage over freelance translators in this respect because they usually have account and project management teams who make sure that your translated document meets industry standards. Additionally, because companies have access to a pool of translators, they can offer greater specialization in your field. As Elting explains, "Even the best linguists in the world can't be everything to everyone, so by combining multiple linguists into a single workflow, translation service providers can draw from diverse styles and sets of industry knowledge to ultimately produce the best quality translations possible."

Remember, if you're at all unsure about the qualifications of the translation company, you can request sample translations and client references.

4) Get informed about going rates for your project

Pricing varies widely in the translation industry. Some translation service providers charge by the word or the page, while others quote a price per document or even an hourly rate. The fee is determined by a variety of factors, including the availability of translators who work in the language or the field, the credentials of the translator or the agency, the level of difficulty of the project and the turn around time for completion. It's therefore extremely important to find out the going rate for your project by either conducting a simple Internet search or requesting multiple quotes from translation service providers.

Before settling on a price, however, there are several factors to keep in mind. If you're paying by the word, you need to know that some languages use more words than others to convey ideas. English to Spanish translation, for example, results in a higher number of Spanish words. So it's to your benefit to negotiate a per-word rate for your project based on the language that uses the fewest number of words.

You should also know that most translators prefer to charge by the word unless it's to their advantage not to do so. For instance, if the document is brief or the spacing and font size are large, then the translator may opt to charge by the document or the page. You will therefore want to calculate the rate per word to make sure that the quoted price for the project is reasonable.

Never agree to pay a translator by the hour, because you could end up overpaying. What looks like a simple project to you may in fact be an extremely difficult and time-consuming one to translate. Even worse, the translator may be inexperienced and therefore very slow.

Finally, beware of translators who charge below the going rate for your project. They may be amateurs or translators who utilize machine translation programs to do the job.

5) Negotiate a reduced fee for redundant projects

Many translation projects—in particular legal contracts and technical manuals—contain repetitive language, which involves less work for the translator. If the wording of your project is redundant, you should ask your translation service provider for a discount. Either you or the translator will need to examine the document to determine the number of exact and close matches in the source text. This is particularly easy if you're working with a translation company, because some software programs have an analysis function that calculates the precise percentage of matches. Once you know this percentage, you can negotiate a fair price for your translation project.