All you need to know about buying translations

15 useful tips for assigning translations plus the
secret to becoming a satisfied client

Do you enjoy the night sky? What do you see when you look up there? Countless stars, constellations, maybe the moon, and the pale streak of the Milky Way. You might recognize the Big and Little Dipper, the North Star, and unless you’re an amateur astronomer, your knowledge probably ends about there. You have a vague sense of the vast expanse above your head: our solar system, our galaxy, the universe… You’d like to learn more, but you’re not sure how or where to start. The view makes your breath catch in your throat and sets your mind spinning with possibilities for exploration and adventure. Or maybe it sends a chill down your spine and fills you with dread.

Every area of human understanding, every field of human endeavor is its own galaxy in the universe of knowledge. If you want to understand that galaxy, you need a teacher or guide to help you navigate its stars and planets, explain the basic principles behind them and give you the key to unlocking its secrets.

Translating words from one language to another seems like a simple task – just get someone who knows both source and target languages, end of story. But for a translation to really work, you’ll find it’s anything but simple. You’ll have to navigate a whole galaxy of questions, problems and potential disasters, and you won’t know where to start and where to end.

If you’ll allow me, I’ll be your guide to the Galaxy of Translation. I’ve been working in this galaxy for twenty years now. I’ll teach you the names for the stars and planets, show you their orbits and explain the principles of how this galaxy works. Then you’ll be able to assign translation projects like a professional, without unnecessary misunderstandings and delays, and the money spent on the translation will prove to be a good investment. I’ll cover each topic with a few brief, easy-to-understand points to help you find your way and make informed decisions.

First, one important point – a translation is a written document conveying the information from the original language in another (target) language. This is performed by a translator. If you need someone to go with you to a business meeting with foreign partners, help you lead a meeting in a foreign language or take part in a conference or court case in a foreign country, then you need an interpreter, not a translator. Interpreting is actually its own, separate galaxy, immediately neighboring the translation galaxy. But we won’t be going there today.

And one last thing before we begin: I am fully aware that the translation/space metaphor is somewhat lacking as to scientific accuracy, so I must ask you for a certain suspension of disbelief as we play astronomer.

Now take a deep breath, because our journey through the Galaxy of Translation is about to start.

What catches your eye first are the stars. They shine brightly and everything else in the galaxy revolves around them. They fall into several categories.

The client

That would be you. You have something you need translated into a foreign language, and you’re looking for the right translator for the job. You are the bright, shining sun in the Galaxy of Translation. Your project is the driving force that gives this galaxy its purpose and meaning, because you are the one paying for the translation. If you want to be sure your money is well spent, devote plenty of time to your project in the preparation stage and give the translator as much information as possible.

Before assigning a translation, consider the following:

  • Who is the target audience? (The general public, a specific target group, a narrow circle of experts, etc.)
  • What purpose will it serve? (Introduce readers to your company, sell your product, attract potential customers to your website)
  • Where will it appear? (Online, in print, in a commercial)
  • What reference materials can you provide? (Glossary, website, materials from similar projects)
  • When do you need the finished translation?
  • What budget have you set aside for the translation?

Markéta’s Tip #1: Don’t underestimate the preparation phase. Attention to detail now will save you time, money and plenty of headaches in the long run.

Got it? Great. Now you can start looking for the next star in the Galaxy of Translation, which is

The translator

A translator is a person who masters two languages: target and source. The language of the original and the language of the translation (the language they’re translating into). It should go without saying that the language of the translation should be the translator’s native language. Only in our native language do we have the instinctive command of nuance needed to make a translation sound smooth and natural. A good translation should not sound like a translation, but should read like it was written in the target language. In addition to their language skills, translators have to be familiar with the culture and life in the country where the target language is spoken. They also need a good understanding of the subject matter for the translation. But how can you know which translator to choose, and what should you know about them before you start working together?

  • Language skills – ideally your translator should be able to show you qualifications, such as a university diploma or certificate from passing a prestigious language test. Some translators might have mastered their source language after spending years living in that country, in which case you can ask for references from satisfied customers. Be wary of translators who can show no such proof. Spending six months somewhere on an internship or as an au pair is not a solid foundation for a career as a translator.
  • Subject-matter knowledge – it can be quite difficult to find a translator who is a fully qualified expert in the specific subject you are looking for, but you can definitely find one who specializes in that field. They should be familiar with any specialized vocabulary, understand the issues involved and know where to find more information if needed. Ask about their previous projects to get an idea of whether or not they will be able to handle your text.
  • Technology – translators in the 21st century work with computers, using various programs and applications to make it easier to communicate, to improve the efficiency and quality of their work, and to deliver a translation that meets your needs. If you have any special requests as to format or similar, let your translator know before assigning the project so you are both on the same page. Otherwise the translation will usually be in the same format as the original.
  • Good translators will ask a lot of questions: who is going to be reading the translation, where it will appear, what purpose should it serve. They should ask about anything unclear or anything lacking context. They will want to see reference materials, like your website, previous projects and glossaries, if available.
  • Good translators will want to know more about your company and the products or services you offer, so that the translation will line up with your brand values, brand position and target group.
  • Good translators will be able to advise you on any potential problems with the translation due to the cultural and social context of the target language country. They will tell you if your product name, slogan or visuals might not be suitable for that country, and help you come up with something different.
  • Good translators are good communicators and will get back to you quickly to answer any questions you may have, so don’t hesitate to ask about anything you don’t understand. This will help prevent unnecessary misunderstandings down the road.

So where do you find a translator like that, anyway? You’ve got many different options, but here are the main ones:

  • A professional translator should have their own website. So just put a few relevant keywords into your search engine and start hunting. First impressions count. The care translators put into their own business materials often gives a clue as to how they will approach your project.
  • Membership directories for professional organizations. Translators have their own professional organizations in most countries. The Czech Republic has the JTP, the USA has the ATA, the UK has the ITI, and France has the SFT. Memberships cost money, and some organizations (such as the ITI) only include members in the directory if they have passed a certification examination, so you can be sure that the translators in the directory are skilled professionals.
  • Translator directory sites. Many translators have profiles on translation websites where you can post a job or browse the directory looking for a translator who matches your requirements. and are two of the most well-known.
  • Social media. LinkedIn profiles, Facebook groups, YouTube channels – you can find the right translator for you in any of these places.

Markéta’s Tip #2: Choose your translator with care. Ask to see proof of their language skills or references from satisfied customers. Take note of how the translator communicates with you and if they present themselves as a skilled professional.

Two heads are better than one, and four eyes are better than two. That’s why it’s always a good idea to send the translation to a

Proofreader, or editor

Both will review and check your translation thoroughly. A proofreader mainly corrects typos and grammatical mistakes, while an editor also makes stylistic improvements to make the text flow more smoothly in the target language, serve its intended purpose and maintain consistency with other texts from your company or brand.

In some cases you may had your materials translated and been using the translated version for some time, yet still feel they are not as effective as they could be. An experienced editor can suggest changes to make the materials more fit for purpose and more appropriate for the target group, cultural context and business environment in that country.

Markéta’s Tip #3: For important projects, ask your translator to arrange for external review to ensure the highest possible quality.

To be continued…

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