Translation quality assurance is not easy to summarise.
In fact, just explaining translation quality itself can feel a lot like opening Russian dolls.
However, once the latter concept is understood, it follows that the former will make more sense. In the first half of this article, we will look at this.
In the second half, we will look at how can you optimize your quality assurance process.
What is translation quality?
Translation quality is, on the surface, simply how good translation is. But delve deeper, and you soon find that there are more levels to it.
The accuracy of a translation generally refers to the following:
- Similarity to source text
- Apt choice of translated terms
- Correct spelling
- Grammatically correct
- Cohesion between different parts of the translation
It is probably the first – and perhaps only level – most people outside of the translation industry associate with translation quality.
The purpose of a translation is very relevant to how its quality is judged.
For example, unlike marketing material, the translation of legal documents requires prioritising accuracy and closeness to the source text above readability.
Translation of manufacturing manuals also requires an emphasis on accuracy. But unlike legal translation, it emphasises accuracy and clarity in overall meaning more than in specific terminology.
Style is particularly important in the translation of commercial marketing material. It includes issues such as tone of voice, phraseology, emphasis, and more.
Sometimes localization and even transcreation come into play with this kind of translation.
Translation quality paradoxes
There are two paradoxes worth considering when you think about translation quality.
Translation quality paradox 1: Client assessment (in)ability
Language service users often can’t understand the target language of the services they use.
They can ask a third party to assess it. However, they would then need to be sure of the third party’s ability to do so…
I know of one instance of a client complaining about a translation because a business associate told them that it was poor quality and inaccurate.
The project manager, who was familiar with and confident in the translation’s high standard, asked for examples. The client replied: “Oh, don’t worry then. I’ll take your word for it.”
Of course, sometimes clients are able to understand translations directly. But even in these cases, they might not have the ability to discern the quality as well as a language professional. And there is also the second paradox…
Translation quality paradox 2: The nature of Translation itself!
Give two different translators the same text to translate (between the same languages), and you will get two different outcomes.
Whatever way you look at it, there is always a slightly subjective aspect to translation. Translators are often juggling context, style, emphasis, and interpretation, as well as relying on their own basic sentence structure preferences.
This is at its most extreme in literature. In Nineteen Ways of Looking at Wang Wei (2016), Eliot Weinberger examines (over) nineteen ways that a single Chinese poem has been translated. This led him to note:
“…Translation is more than a leap from dictionary to dictionary; it is a reimagining of the poem… As no individual reader remains the same, each reading becomes a different – not merely another – reading. The same poem cannot be read twice.”
And Alexander Pushkin wrote that translations are like horses that change at the posthouses of civilisation (posthouses were inns where horses could be kept or rented).
This also applies to commercial translation to a degree. Marketing material, for example, can vary greatly in different translators’ hands – and this can determine its effectiveness.
Whereas legal translation is distinct because it is a form of translation that strives to shed variation as much as possible.
The solution to translation paradoxes: Client communication
Having a transparent and communicative approach to client relationships is the key to overcoming potential issues around their perception of translation quality.
Naturally, the best time to do this is during the initial sales or project onboarding process. You can ask questions that will clarify their expectations and understanding. If the client has their own QA process, it will be important that their QA assessment is mirrored and that all areas of review will be covered.
Marketing strategies for translation companies are also useful. Blogs, videos, social media posts, webinars, and email newsletters all offer opportunities to educate your target audience.
What is translation quality assurance?
Translation quality assurance (QA) is the systematic process translation providers follow in order to ensure high-quality translation.
A good quality assurance process is not covered just by using good translators. It maximises the effectiveness of translators.
Carrying it out involves overseeing how quality is maintained at all steps of the translation process, from project setup to delivery.
Don’t confuse quality assurance in translation with quality assurance in software
Translation quality assurance is often confused with quality assurance in software testing. These are not the same thing.
Quality assurance (QA) professionals generally test products for their quality. It is a career related to software, so it does often involve testing translated products.
However, their priority is the product, not the translation itself (though, of course, they may make comments and suggestions on aspects of this).
(For more information on this kind of software testing and quality assurance, read our blog on localization career paths.)
What’s the difference between quality assurance, quality control and quality management?
These terms are often mistakenly used interchangeably. The difference between them lies in scope.
- Quality management (or a quality system) is the umbrella term that includes all quality-related tasks, processes and issues
- Quality assurance (QA) is the process of the maintenance of specific quality standard requirements. It is a part of quality management
- Quality control (QC) is essentially the inspection of products’ or services’ quality. It is one part of QA
In practical terms, this means you have a translation quality management system and/or department which uses a translation quality assurance process that inspects the results using translation quality control checks.
There is an external aspect to this process, too. We cover this below (8. Incorporate client review process).
What is ISO 17100:2015?
The International Organization for Standardization (ISO) is an independent organization that brings together multiple national standards bodies.
Originally based on manufacturing processes, it then spread to being used in services industries, including translation.
Its goal is to help develop voluntary internal standards for multiple industries. It does this by bringing together multiple industry players to form a consensus on their industry’s standards.
ISO 17100:2015 is a translation industry standard framework. It is aimed at translation companies, not freelance translators. It’s a term you will often hear mentioned in relation to translation quality assurance.
It doesn’t directly assess the quality of translation itself but sets the translation steps required to achieve a high-quality translation.
(It should be noted that it doesn’t apply to direct machine translation or interpretation services.)
Companies can hire specialist ISO consultants or train internal staff to help build or maintain the required standards.
Once gained, ISO 17100:2015 certification provides a powerful signal to potential customers about your quality assurance.
7 ways to improve your translation quality assurance process
The quality assurance process is what maximises the effectiveness of translators.
Each translation company should tailor their QA process to meet its own needs. It can vary according to their scale, projects at hand, and other factors. However, it is important that your process reflects the standards and testing criteria of your client.
Below are some general ways to consider for improving your translation quality assurance process.
1. Create (or find) a reliable recruitment process
Having a reliable source of new talent is a great way to ensure the quality of your translation (and organisation more broadly!) continues to improve.
Working with an experienced specialist translation recruitment partner is obviously the simplest way to achieve this.
Whether you are doing this yourself or using your internal resources, there are a number of best practices you can follow to maximise the recruitment processes’ chances of success:
Create attractive and clear job adverts
Job adverts should be treated with the same care other kinds of marketing material is given. How you frame both the position itself and company information will impact the application rate.
Begin by using clear language, including job titles. There may currently be trends for positions like ‘Digital Prophet’, ‘Chief Dreamer’, etc., but these don’t tell potential employees anything useful.
It’s also useful to distinguish clearly between essential and preferable skillsets. And be clear when and if specific qualifications are needed.
And finally, format your job adverts using paragraphs, bullet points, bold, etc., when needed. It’s easy for applicants to miss relevant information if they are confronted with giant walls of text.
Recruit across multiple channels
To gain the widest possible reach for your job ads, use multiple different channels.
Specialist translation industry job sites, different social media platforms, and both email and phone outreach all help.
There are also industry-specialist paid-for platforms and software. Some of these offer free trials and are worth considering if you intend to recruit regularly.
Create a referral program
A referral program is a recruitment strategy whereby companies’ own employees recommend candidates from their (the existing employees’) networks.
Some studies suggest that employees who join via referrals outperform those who don’t.
In order to start a referral program, companies simply need to set up a scheme with incentives for their employees. These are often direct financial bonuses, but they can also include other gifts.
Use Structured interviews
Structured interviews are interviews using pre-determined questions asked in a pre-determined order. Unlike traditional interviews, they don’t aim to mimic conversations and rely on the interviewer’s intuition.
Exactly how structured they are, depends on the pre-determined scoring criteria. You can ask anything from open-ended to binary (yes/no) questions.
The goal is to try to reach as objective analysis of their answers as possible, rather than to risk positive cognitive biases (such as narrative fallacy, framing, etc.) creeping in because of a candidate’s ability to interview well.
It also helps you ensure that the exact same ground is covered and compared with every interviewee.
2. Regular employee training
Regular employee training is a direct investment in your translation quality.
It can be internally or externally led and can cover a range of areas relevant to your work. It not only gives you the direct benefit of improving your employee’s skillsets and knowledge but also boosts their morale.
After all, it signals to them that you are willing to invest in their progression.
3. Terminology lists
Terminology lists are reference lists for both source and target language translations that help keep consistency within and across translation projects.
Terminology lists can’t always be produced before projects begin and they often need updating as projects progress.
Having a process for maintaining and updating terminology lists is vital. It can be done manually, but it is often better to use translation technology for it (see the following point).
4. Translation technology
Technology has transformed how translation is done and how its quality is maintained and reviewed.
It has lowered turnaround times and translation rates. Some believe that it could change the translation industry even more radically in the near future.
But knowing which translation tools to use in the first place can be difficult. Some are more or less suited to different tasks.
Below are three examples of translation technology that can aid translation quality.
Translation Management Systems (TMS)
A translation management system (TMS) is software used to manage the translation process/workflow.
It is particularly useful when multiple translators are working on a project. Cloud-based TMS software often combines with CAT tools (see below) to keep multiple parties in line on the latest version of a project and up-to-date with its terminology.
Computer-assisted translation (CAT)
CAT tools help translators divide the text up into strings and automate the translation of repeated phrases.
When a translator translates a certain word or phrase, CAT tools automate the translation of the same text elsewhere in the document. They can also carry this translation memory over to other projects.
Machine translation (MT)
Machine translation uses software to directly translate text. It is a fast-evolving field that has the potential to completely transform how translation is carried out.
At the moment, it is a useful translation tool in some areas. In other areas, it still has a way to go.
For example, in our conversation with machine translation expert Laura Casanellas, she explained that post-editing translation of machine translation-generated marketing material can be more time-consuming than using human translators.
5. Internal review system
Both proofreading and the checking of desktop publishing are essential parts of translation work.
Translation projects should ideally have more than one separate proofreader, including at least one familiar with both the source and target text languages.
A final check should always be carried out by the project manager associated with the project.
6. Internal feedback
In translation, feedback should be considered both a short and long-term investment. It can benefit both the translator and the project manager.
To quote psychologist Daniel Kahneman: “True intuitive expertise is learned from prolonged experience with good feedback on mistakes.”
Relationships and culture are essential components of giving good translation quality feedback. Translators can easily feel under attack if feedback is framed or delivered in an overly negative manner.
There is also the issue of the relatively subjective nature of certain aspects of translation (see above, ‘What is translation quality?’). So it is important that both translators and reviewers are aware of exactly where the boundaries between objective and subjective issues are.
There are many ways to develop an effective and sophisticated feedback process and environment.
One way is to incorporate translators into the review processes. They can then learn from experience how it works and therefore better understand when they themselves receive it.
7. Incorporate client review process
A big part of quality assurance is measurement. Meeting clients’ standards and the criteria they set for their reviews is a very tricky part of the QA process.
Each client may have their own standards and processes. Considering these for each project is essential. If a particular client usually changes a lot of text, for example, then it is worthwhile holding off the final proofread until they have done their initial review.
Communication with client reviewers can be delicate. The LSP program manager needs to be very diplomatic about getting the client reviewer on the side and being clear about their standards.
If the reviewers’ standards are not met, then it can be a very bumpy road for the service provider.
Achieving and maintaining quality assurance in translation is not easy. There are many moving parts to any given translation project.
To begin with, you need good translators, proofreaders, project managers, technology, and workflows. To maximise the potential of these, you need a good quality assurance process.
The most well-known standardized quality assurance framework for translation service providers is ISO 7100:2015. But companies are free to create their own processes and measures.
There are several steps you can take to help build a reliable and effective translation quality assurance process, each with its own requirements.
These cover everything from how you manage the recruitment to which translation tools you use and the manner you deliver feedback.