Translation: Standards for Buying a Non-Commodity

American Translators Association published this translation buying guide Translation: Standards for Buying a Non-Commodity for translation buyers and sellers (both individuals and organizations).

It says in a nutshell:

"Translation is not a commodity. If it were, it would be enough to say: "You need a translation? Go out and ask several translation service providers how much they charge per word and choose the lowest figure." End of story. But translation is not a commodity, which means that using price as your sole criterion in selecting a supplier is a bad idea (maybe even a very bad idea).

In every translation project, the buyer and the translation service provider (translator or translation team) should agree in advance on a set of specifications to be followed while carrying out the project.

This statement is more powerful than it might appear. It provides the basis for a universal definition: "The quality of a translation is the degree to which it follows the agreed-upon specifications."

Simple but true.

If you do not identify what you want up front or do identify it, but those instructions do not reach the person doing the work, or are not understood by him or her, you are unlikely to get a good translation.

Patching up a poor translation costs even more time and money, since it may also mean patching up your image and reputation if you have inadvertently offended or left readers grappling with an incomprehensible phrase.

Failed translation projects are as different as frogs and falcons, but they have one thing in common: time, money and frustration could have been saved if both sides had agreed in advance who did what, when and how. If they had drawn up a set of specifications.

The bare-bones specifications from which many others are derived are

1. Audience of the translation
2. Purpose of the translation
3. Deadline
4. Price
5. Subject area and type of text
6. Source language and regional variation
7. Format (word processing file? XML?)
8. Volume (how many words, characters, etc.)
9. Target language and regional variation
10. Steps to be followed during the production phase, after analyzing the source text. Here are the most basic ones: translation, bilingual checking, and monolingual checking.

An absolutely critical part of this tenth specification is to identify who is responsible for each step of the production phase, and to define the specialized know-how of each person (for example, subject-matter expertise). If any basic step is going to be skipped, that should be noted, and a reason given.

Q: Who comes up with the specifications for the translation project?

A: Everyone involved: the buyer and the translation provider."

Read the full text of the ATA translation buying guide Translation: Standards for Buying a Non-Commodity

CONTACT me with any questions you might have about Translation: Standards for Buying a Non-Commodity


Olga Kellen,
English - Russian Translator,
Associate member of ATA,
American Translators Association