translation is all about

understanding a culture


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5 golden rules for businesses

When considering having business documentation translated, it is easy to be tempted by shortcuts to ‘simplify’ or cut the cost of the process. But when translating external communications - and a great deal of internal communication too - businesses need to remember that failing to have such translation done professionally can all too easily lead to brand damage, misunderstanding, lost opportunity, unanticipated additional cost - and even offence. To help businesses understand the issues at stake and make the right choice, we have drawn up the following five-point plan:


  1. Don’t be tempted by Aunt Agnes!

  2. Be cautious of machine translations

  3. If you need a professional, only use one translating into his or her native tongue

  4. Ask for credentials

  5. As ever, cheapest does not mean best


  1. We use ‘Aunt Agnes’ to personify the ‘do-it-yourself’ approach to translation. For sure, there are occasions when it’s acceptable to use someone you know who has knowledge of a particular language to help you out. But in the vast majority of cases - especially if they are translating out of their own language into another - this will never do. The risks of looking and sounding foolish are just too great. If there is any danger of exposure to your business, think about using a professional services provider.

  2. ‘Machine translation’ is where text is copied and pasted into a website and translated automatically at the push of a button (eg Google Translate). Again, there are plenty of occasions where this is adequate, such as when you want to get the gist of something written in a foreign language, and in that respect these services are improving all the time. However, if you need to understand a foreign business contract, or you want to send some documentation to a potential client abroad, you need clarity and precision - and for that you need a human translator!

  3. Translation is not just about transposing words from one language into another in roughly the same order. It is about understanding the nuances, getting the register right (a shop floor promotion uses language very differently than a boardroom presentation) and, most importantly, understanding the culture you are writing for. The only way to do this is to use an experienced translator who is translating into his or her native tongue - and ideally living in-country as well.

  4. Any self-respecting professional translator will be happy to provide evidence of their experience. This will be in the form of a translation qualification, membership of a recognised translation organisation (ITI and IOL in the UK), references, examples of work, evidence of a number of years’ experience as a translator, and ideally a good number of years working in an industry that is relevant to what you want (few mechanical engineers make good legal translators). A good translation agency will have a large number of linguists on their books and will choose the individual(s) appropriate for your needs.

  5. Finally, as in any industry, if you want the job done properly, you need to expect to pay a competitive rate. Translation pricing is usually based on the number of words in the original document or file. This price should cover the entire translation process, and this needs to consist of a number of stages. Specifically:

  • Translation of the document by a qualified, mother-tongue translator

  • Independent review/checking and proofreading of the translation by a second translator

  • Resolution of any issues arising from the review

  • Final QA of the translation by a competent and experienced translation project manager.

It’s rarely possible to do this well for less than £80 per 1000 words, so if you are being offered translation services for substantially less than this, ask yourself where they are cutting the costs. It will inevitably involve lower quality translations, produced in haste - and unchecked - by unqualified translators. This is commonly achieved by using linguists based in countries with lower costs of living (although you will probably not be made aware of this). Fine if the languages you are looking for are native to those countries, but all too often they are not.

Your business’ reputation is too valuable to waste on cutting a few corners - especially where the potential of foreign markets is involved. Don’t take unnecessary risks, talk to a professional languages service provider first.


For more on this subject, see this excellent guide to choosing a translator from the American Translators Association.

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