Finding, choosing and working with translators

Practical ways to find a translator, obtain a better translation, and help the translator do their job more effectively.

I frequently commission translations in many different foreign languages both on this website and others.

Here are practical ways to avoid some of the issues that can arise.

1. Finding a suitable translator

Before starting your search, keep in mind that the ideal translator for you will depend on the text that you need to be translated. If you have a specialised text describing pharmaceuticals, or legal documents to be translated, a general translator is unlikely to be suitable.

I tend to use proz to find the majority of my translators.

Proz is a directory where translators are listed or ranked in order, according to experience. Experience is based on the number of Kudoz points that they have earned. These are gained from helping other translators with tricky points of translation, and so relate to experience.

You can also see the length of time the translator has been registered with proz, and the number of years experience that they have of translating.

There is also a feedback system from clients and colleagues.

Equally important from our point of view, is that each translator has a profile, in which list their specialities, experience, rates and so on.

2. Which translator should I use?

If you are a small business owner, need a website translated and don't want to pay the extra price of going through an agency, then choosing the right decision is your choice alone.

In the same way, as for example, employing a builder, the ideal person to use is either someone recommended, or you have used before and worked well with.

Assuming that isn't the case, the you can use the translators qualifications, specialities and proz ranking to guide you.

Translators in proz are ranked according to points, but unfortunately, a high number of points doesn't always guarantee a great piece of work. I have had several occasions where I've received shoddy work from translators who are highly regarded in Proz.

Luckily there is enough information within the translators proz profile to help us drill down a bit deeper, and hopefully find the perfect translator for our needs.

And so we are going to use the translators profile to decide whether or not they are a good fit for our needs.

I look at the top left of the translators profile in proz where "Native in" is written. If the translator has more than one native language, I won't use them (unless I know them or have used them previously). Being bilingual, as many translators are, is different from being a native speaker.

Virtually everyone has one dominant language, and again this comes down to subtleties when translating.

On the left of the profile is a list of "Working languages" and the directions in which the translator works. For example, working might be "English to Spanish", and "French to Spanish", indicating that the translator will transate from English to Spanish, and French to Spanish.

If there are two many language pairs, I won't use the translator - even if all the languages in the language pair are from the same family. French, Italian, Spanish, Catalan, Portuguese and Romanian are from the same family and because of theses similarities, once you have learnt one, it becomes easier to learn others.

I won't use them because I worry that the translator will miss the subtleties of the language. How many languages can you really master? Remember, this isn't about having a conversation, but understanding every nook, cranny and obscure turn of phrase in a language.

If a translator, translates into a language that isn't his native language, I won't use them. An illustration of this would be a native French speaker having a language pair "French to English" and "English to French". I want a native speaker.

I will then look at qualifications.

I want my translator to be degree educated. A degree being a good indication of literacy in the translators own language. I might then check that the degree is relevant to the area being translated. E.g. If I was having a text on astrophysics translated, I might look for an astrophysicist. I don't always do this. It will depend very much on the text.

Again depending on the translation required, I might look at additional qualifications. Lets take as an example Legal translation, a very specific niche within the world of translations.

I would ideally expect my translator to have a qualification such as "Postgraduate Diploma in English-Spanish Legal Translation from the University of Alicante, Spain" (if they were Spanish) or perhaps as an alternative having worked in the law and having a legal qualification.

There are other more general qualifications such as "Postgraduate Diploma in English-Spanish Translation" (again using Spanish as my example), but I'm more interested in domain specific knowledge and qualifications - at least for a specialist translation.

Of course, these are just guidelines to help with choosing a translator, and not absolute. There are exceptions to every rule.

But ultimately, nothing can beat personal recommendation.

But in the same way as if you are having your plumbing fixed, you would be more likely to use a plumber, than a general builder, it is often better to use a specialist than not.

3. How much should I pay?

Prices are often negotiable, especially with translators with fewer or a lower number of Kudoz points. Translators at the top of the list tend to be busy, and can charge their full rate.

There is a balance to be struck depending on your budget and requirements, and as with any business transaction obtaining the best price for yourself, but also paying a fair price to the translator.

I have been quoted initial prices of up to 300% more than I have ended up paying.

Translators will often charge agencies more (and their rates reflect this), as agencies often represent large firms and copmanies who are not so price sensitive.

A translator with a large number of Kudoz points should be more experienced, and so in theory produce a better translation than a translator who is just starting out.

If you need a specialist translation to be carried out, I would always use a translator experienced in that field, with a larger number of Kudoz points. Legal translation, for example, requires domain specific knowledge or training to do well. (I'm an ex-lawyer so I can state this with certainty).

This reduces your room for negotation over the price of the translation.

For more general translations, the level of experience isn't as crucial.

4. English is the translators second language

This is so obvious that you might consider that it doesn't warrant a mention.

But, there is a huge difference between communicating with a native speaker, and a non-native speaker, no matter how good their level of English.

There are subleties in the language that your translator might miss. I have found over the years that this is far more likely in e-mail communication, than in the actual text that needs to be translated.

I suspect that this is often due to the informal nature of e-mail, where there is a tendency to write as we speak, which isn't always precise.

Avoid this by writing in very clear English, and avoid all use of slang, current expressions and keep your sentences short and free from ambiguity.

As a translator will (or certainly should have), an extremely high level of English due to his or her profession, it is easy to forget that they are not in fact native speakers of English, which can lead to confusion and misunderstandings on both sides.

I'm basing this on practical experience.

5. Decide your requirements initially

Any text that you are having translated has a level of importance, or you wouldn't bother having it translated. But some texts are more important than others.

The accuracy of legal documents, contracts, medical correspondance spring to mind as of being of crucial importance.

Decide on the importance of the quality of the translation to you. This will help you when you look for a translator, as not all translators are created equally.

If any translators are reading this (and feeling put out), everything written here is based on personal experience.

I have had some absolutely fanstastic translations performed, where the translator has gone the extra mile.

Unfortunately, I've also had the opposite experience.

6. Have everything proofread

Even the best translators make mistakes.

If the translation is particularly important or mission critical, it is essential to have it checked by another professional translator.

Everyone makes mistakes, has an off day or loses focus from time to time.

I have discovered mis-translations/mistales in work that I have had done for various websites sufficiently often that I consider proof-reading or sense-checking to be essential.

7. Treat the translators with respect

Again this seems so obvious, it shouldn't need to be mentioned.

But people can be really unfriendly/hostile/rude in e-mails.

But remember that (the vast majority of) translators are trying to do the best they can for you, and establishing a friendly dialog helps everyone.