The Translation User's FAQ
(Frequently Asked Questions)

Q: What is a "good" translation?

A good translation is simply one that conveys the original message fully and accurately across the linguistic and cultural barrier that separates the writer from the intended reader. Good translations are produced by highly skilled individuals, deeply rooted in both the source and the target cultures, who are familiar with the specific lingo of the subject matter at hand. Good translations are also the result of carefully coordinated teamwork between translators, editors, and proofreaders to ensure accuracy and completeness.

Q: Will machine translation eventually replace human translators?

While translation was one of the first intended applications of computers over 50 years ago, the inherent complexity of language has so far frustrated all attempts at high-quality fully automatic machine translation (HQFAMT), despite the spectacular innovations in hardware and software since those early days. While machines have been successfully used to aid translators in repetitive tasks and to translate simple texts or "laundry lists" of words, even the most expensive and sophisticated computer systems have not been able to produce translations of acceptable quality of more demanding texts without extensive pre- and post-editing by human experts.

Q: Is a bilingual individual automatically qualified to translate between his or her languages?

Speaking two or more languages does not qualify one as a translator. Translation is an acquired skill of expressing ideas, formulated within the framework of a particular culture and within a specific field of human activity, in another language so that the message conveyed to the new audience remains unchanged. This skill is acquired over many years of practice after the individual has acquired the necessary basic language skills.

Q: Should I choose an individual translator or a translation company for my translation project?

While many translation companies are actually individuals incorporated for tax or marketing purposes, a full-service translation company is equipped to offer a broader range of services. It is not restricted to the particular skills of a single individual, but relies on a team consisting of both in-house talent and independent contractors that are carefully tested and selected for each particular project due to their expertise in a given area. When you buy translations from a reputable translation company, you pay for extra quality control and resources that are usually not available to an individual translator. If you need nothing more than a simple translation for information purposes, you may get better value from a competent individual translator. For demanding projects, however, where even the smallest mistake can be costly, and projects involving large volumes, several languages, tight deadlines, complex or unusual technical subjects, and typesetting, you'll need a full-service translation company.

Q: A translation bureau I contacted claims that they have 500 translators and that they handle all languages and all subject matters in house. Is that true?

No, it isn't. No translation business, not even the largest franchises, can afford to have translators in all imaginable combinations of languages and subject matters in house. The translation industry just doesn't work that way. All full-service translation bureaus rely on independent translators ("freelancers") for the majority of their work. What distinguishes reputable translation bureaus from "envelope switchers," i.e., merchants who buy translations from the cheapest available source and resell them at a hefty markup, is careful selection and testing of those independent contractors by a competent in-house core staff and a team approach to each translation job, whether in-house talent or outside experts are used for translation and editing.

Q: Am I better served by a small or a large translation company?

Most translation companies are single-individual or mom-and-pop businesses. In this industry, a company with 5-10 employees is "medium-sized" and one with 20 employees is "large." While there are competent businesses among both large and small companies, your translation is more likely to get the attention it deserves in a company where translator and management are not separated by several administrative layers. Experience has shown that medium-sized translation companies, owned and managed by translators, can best balance hands-on attention to each individual job and the resources needed for producing high-quality work with high productivity at a reasonable cost.

Q: Is a more expensive translation necessarily a better one?

When buying translations from a reputable source, you do pay for the resources and experience of the translation provider, accumulated over many years, and for the time during which this expertise is used in your project. This time will include preparation for translation, translation, editing, and proofreading by highly skilled individuals using up-to-date (and expensive) technological tools and reference materials. In some cases you may also pay for the company's fancy offices at a prestige address, slick advertising, and a large administrative/marketing overhead, which contribute nothing to the quality you get for your translation budget. So beware of cheap translations that may betray the novice attempting to get his or her first translation job, but don't automatically assume that a high price equals high quality.

Q: Why does my large translation project take so long to complete? Can't you just put more translators to work on it?

There is more to managing a large translation project than splitting it up among a number of translators. The entire project must be carefully coordinated prior to assigning portions of it to different translators, glossaries and style sheets must be prepared to make sure that what was called a "screw" on page 4 is not called a "bolt" on page 325, or 2" are not converted to 51 mm in Section 2 and to 5.08 cm in Section 9. Upon completion of the project, the entire text must be carefully proofread and edited for consistency of terminology, style, and format, placement of graphics and captions, not to mention completeness and accuracy. Similar considerations apply to multilingual projects. Specialized "translation memory" software can make this process easier and more reliable by automating some steps, but (especially for the first project for a given customer) the old saying still applies: "Haste makes waste."