As your company expands locally and overseas, hiring is not limited to bringing new employees on board —outsourcing to small translation businesses when needed can be a lifesaver if done right. Contracting a language services company for the first time can be a daunting experience when you don’t know anyone in the industry. Who do you turn to for referrals? How can you screen? Who vets the professionals who say they can translate your marketing collaterals, your website, your tradeshow signage?
Hiring an independent translation provider is not much different than hiring a new electrician or an interior decorator. Surely you don’t just crack your yellow pages book open and start dialing AAA Translations on a whim, right? The following paragraphs should be helpful in guiding you through the maze of options and help you to weed out the marketing hyperbole to know exactly who you are hiring and what you are getting in return.
Let me start with a personal story. Two years ago, I was looking for a floor installer to set a new floor in my recently purchased condo. I did my due diligence: scanned prices for materials and called 3-4 different floor installers out of a list provided by a local retailer, who didn’t offer to endorse any in the list. During my calls, I asked for particulars and a quote. Three of them visited my place and offered a written quote. Finally, I chose the lowest quote, the installer came and installed the floor as promised. But he was very slow on follow-ups, I had to hold payment temporarily due to his ordering the wrong materials and arguing with the retailer over it. Did I get the floor installation I wanted? In a way, yes, but the customer service experience left a bittersweet taste. Would I do business with this provider? Definitely not.
What was my problem? What did I not foresee? After all, I researched prices for flooring and looked up a handful of installers…but I focused a bit too much on price. Being fairly new in the area, I had no one to ask for recommendations. What would I do differently? I would focus more on (a) getting recommendations and (b) asking information about satisfied customers served by the installer and worry less on getting the lowest bid.
When faced with a need to translate brochures, websites, manuals and the like, many businesses intuitively reach out to other businesses for recommendations. Unlike services such as roof repair, tax preparation and office remodeling, language services such as translation are invisible to the buyer because the product, the language the translation is written in, is usually an unknown variable. A client of mine serves the language needs of a clinic in central Indiana. This clinic serves English speakers as well as Spanish and Burmese speakers. Except for Burmese-reading patients, nor the clinic staff or my client read any Burmese. So, for my client to know that the product —the Burmese translations— are any good is to rely on the reaction from Burmese patients.
So, many buyers of translation services go in blind, depending on promises of high quality translations from translation vendors. Is there a way to leverage this situation in your favor? Even if you don’t speak or read the foreign language, you can still control the screening of language providers and get the best bang for your buck…and happy customers who come to rely on your company literature in multiple languages.
I have compiled a short list of recommendations to help you out in your search for the best candidate for your translation job. The objective is to gain a clearer picture of the language services industry and keep you on the driver’s seat.
Call a professional association first. Professional translators and reputable translation companies are usually members of a professional association and have to abide by a code of ethics. The American Translators Association is the entity representing language professionals that have passed a certification exam, have university degrees or have undergone special training. Its members have provided language services for a number of years and are generally qualified to write documentation at a college or business level. ATA has regional affiliate offices called chapters and provide free access to a comprehensive directory of translators, interpreters and language service companies. In NE Ohio, visit http://notatranslators.org/ for a list of local language service providers.
Call your local chamber of commerce. Many translators and translation companies are members of a local chamber of commerce and are involved in their activities. Take advantage of this resource by getting in touch with your local chamber of commerce.
Call a competitor. Maybe one of your competitors has a webpage in a foreign language. Call him up and find out what he did about screening and selecting their language service provider. When requesting a referral, ask what priorities they applied in the selection, how they measured the provider’s performance and whether their customers were happy with the final product (the translation).
Ask for references. If you already have a language services provider in mind, via referral, recommendation or previous experience, ask for solid references of past work. Specifically, make sure to ask how they handled errors, mistranslations or complaints by customers, how responsive and sensitive to your customer’s needs they are, and how willing they are to learn about your company.
Look beyond bilingual. Many language service providers promise translations of any type of document in any known language. Since translation involves writing, ask for verifiable samples of translations. By verifiable I mean original translations that haven’t been lifted or scraped off of websites, original translations from real-life satisfied customers, and translation copy that responded to the business needs of the customer. Translation is a specialized writing skill not entirely dependent on bilingualism. Respectable professional translators are excellent writers. Be wary of interpreting companies or full-time interpreters who offer translations, as well as bilingual professionals with no previous successful writing experience of a professional (i.e., published) level.
Look for a matching skill set. Even in the world of professional translators, not every translator or translation company is well suited for all types of documents or websites. Look for providers with proven experience in your industry or in a sister industry. Avoid jacks and jills of all trades in this respect. If you are a hospital that performs clinical trials, for example, look for a provider with expertise in that kind of medical documentation.
Last but not least, here’s a step you can take to be in control of who you hire as your translator even if you don’t know the foreign language: ask for a written sample. Not a translation, but a short piece of original writing in English about your business or industry. For example, if you are a manufacturer, ask the translator or language services provider to send you a 200-word composition about the kind of products you make. How does this help you? First, it is in English and you can gauge how good the writing is. Second, it shows how familiar and comfortable the provider is in writing about your industry or product. Third, it tells you the level of interest the provider has in working for a company like yours.
As with many other hiring scenarios, you will want to make sure that your language services provider is someone who provides good service, who will be loyal to your customers and who will solve a particular problem in your organization, not create one. Even if you don’t speak or read a foreign language that your company needs, you can still maintain control over the screening and hiring process of a language specialist that will hopefully become a long-time associate and, like any other good employee, will mirror your hard-earned good reputation and business image for years to come.