Understanding and Planning for Translation Services: Q & A

Why do technical writers need translators and translation companies? With all of the advances in computer technology, can’t I just use a software application or online translation tool instead?

The past decade has seen significant advances in machine-translation (MT) technology. While MT is still a ways off its goal of replacing human translators, today it is used successfully in several industry sectors (incl. automotive, aerospace, defense) with lots of documentation to be translated.

For MT to be successful, though, it requires:

  • Appropriately written source text (i.e., “controlled English”)
  • Large volume of source text available electronically
  • An ongoing need
  • Availability of MT with appropriate combination of source and target languages
  • Clearly defined domain and terminology base
  • Large investment in computer hardware and software as well as human resources

These sorts of situations require high-end MT systems with significant costs. The free MT-over-the-Internet systems, on the other hand, provide a nice way to get the “gist” of a message, but are nowhere near this level of quality and represent a major step backwards when compared with human translation.

OK, so how do I select a translation vendor that’s right for my project/needs/organization?

To find a vendor that’s appropriate for you, you first must determine what your requirements are. Then, ask friends and colleagues, search the TECHWR-L archives, and conduct Internet searches.

Once you have a clear picture of your needs, base your vendor evaluation on the following criteria:

  • Primary vendor: Centralize the bulk of your translation work with one primary vendor and maintain one backup vendor.
  • Specialization: Regardless of what vendors tell you, they cannot handle every subject matter in every language. Demand specialization.
  • Process: If your organization has a translation process, be sure that your vendor understands this process (i.e., technology, localization engineering, DTP expertise). If no process exists, look for a vendor who can help develop one.
  • Quotations: Kick the tires on vendors’ rates and proposals. Look beyond the quoted prices to understand the pricing methodology. Sample questions include: How will they help you keep costs in line? What discounts are offered? What services are included?
  • Communication: Who will manage your account? How comfortable are you with your contact, with other team members, and with company management?

With every new English product release, translated documentation and collateral must be updated. This is often a time-consuming and frustrating process. What should companies be doing to reduce the cost and time of updates?

The best way to manage updates and revisions is through the use of translation-memory applications. Translation memories (TM) consist of a database in which each source sentence is stored together with the translated sentence (a translation memory “unit”). During translation, source sentences will be searched for in the database and a match value is calculated.

If the match value is 100%, the translation of the source sentence from the database is inserted into the text being translated. If the match value is below 100% and above a certain user-definable percentage, the old translation will be inserted as a translation proposal for the translator to review and edit. Sentences with match values below that margin have to be translated from scratch. New and changed translations will then be stored in the database for future use.

Companies implementing a TM solution typically do so with an eye toward improving consistency, shortening turnaround time, and reducing translation costs. Of the three objectives, the first–improving consistency–is most readily obtainable. Reductions in turnaround times and translation costs require careful analysis and planning.

One of the concerns about using a translation service is the expense associated with translation. What can be done to control translation costs?

Frequently, companies place all of their emphasis on saving short-term dollars by selecting the seemingly cheapest approach to translation (award to lowest-bid vendor, use of in-country affiliates) while ignoring qualifications and conflicting demands on internal resources. Unfortunately, you usually get what you pay for.

Instead, here are some proven ways to reduce your per-unit translation costs:

  • Establish a translation budget; ask for volume discounts.
  • Develop a process of issuing Requests for Proposals.
  • If at all possible, bundle translation work to take advantage of discounts and economies of scale.
  • Clearly document your expectations and vendor deliverables before any translation work begins.
  • If the vendor uses translation-memory tools, ask for a corresponding discount. If the vendor does not use translation-memory tools, consider selecting a vendor that does.
  • Insist on separate pricing for each service; lump-sum quotes make it difficult to compare prices.

As a technical writer, what can I do to make the translation process go more smoothly?

In one word: preparation. Prepare documents, prepare yourself, prepare your team, prepare the vendor. This involves asking lots of questions of all parties involved.

Few translation clients have instituted cross-departmental task forces to deal with translation or localization or multilingual labeling. To many departments, translation is a “black hole” and individuals do not understand what goes into a quality translation.

The person in charge of translations is sometimes not in the loop when it comes to product development schedules or engineering change orders. Requirements are thrown “over the wall” causing everybody downstream to switch into reactive mode. This then extends to the translation vendor who also does not receive any advance notice and is left to reprioritize schedules and resources at a moment’s notice.

While it sounds obvious, miscommunication and lack of preparation are often to blame when projects go awry.

Specifically, though, what information is a translation vendor going to need to know in order to complete the translation job successfully?

A “translation kit” should accompany every translation project. For smaller projects, it’s OK to do this verbally or through an informal email message. Complex projects require a separate checklist that spells out the client’s expectations:

  • Source and target language(s)
  • A list of all services that are to be provided
  • A list of all source files and formats
  • List all tools and applications to be used, including versions
  • Output formats, delivery method for all final deliverables
  • Time frame: start date, review deadlines, review times, final deadlines
  • Contact information for the main client contact, all reviewers, and technical contacts, where appropriate
  • Reference materials, both in the source and target languages
  • Past translations that can be leveraged for this job
  • Testing scripts, where applicable
  • Project-specific notes, comments, and instructions

If many of these sound obvious, that’s the point. By setting clear expectations, the client ensures that the translation company has all of the information needed to complete a project successfully.

Our organization is also thinking about translating our web site. What do I need to know before translating our web site?

Web translation (or localization) presents a number of additional challenges. The most obvious is text expansion. English, when translated into most other languages, expands by up to 20%. In a Word document this may make little difference, but on a navigation bar on a web site, text can often expand outside of the space allotted, impacting other elements of the web site. Since most web sites squeeze as much content as possible on a page, text expansion often presents significant problems, particularly when text is “embedded” into graphic elements.

As a rule, when internationalizing a web site or web-based help system, try to avoid the use of text embedded in graphics. This will not only reduce your upfront costs (in localizing the graphics), but will also decrease your maintenance costs (should the text in the graphic need to be edited).

A second major issue to be aware of is one of web site organization. If an organization wants to expand its site into six languages, the people managing that site will now have to manage 5x as many pages. Organization is key for both management and maintenance. There are several different methodologies for how to organize your site (and much depends on the tools used) but the key is that there is clearly defined system that everyone can easily follow.

Many companies review translations in each target country prior to finalizing the translated texts. While this review adds some value, it also introduces lots of delays as well as additional costs. Do you have any suggestions on how to streamline in-country reviews?

Indeed, vacation schedules, internal politics, and miscommunication across time zones make in-country reviews an expensive and time-consuming process. At ForeignExchange, we have found that a process we call R.E.V.I.E.W. optimizes in-country reviews:

Research and understand the situation between the client, the reviewers, and the vendor
Evaluate the nature of overseas office (i.e., technology, staffing, capabilities)
Visit to build personal relationships
Involve reviewers in the development of translation and review processes
Enable the technology–upgrade local hardware and software for electronic reviews
Watch for opportunities to improve the process

Proper planning, communication, vendor relations, and a good R.E.V.I.E.W. allows technical writers to improve translation turnaround times, reduce translation costs–and it may even help avoid a few headaches.

I have read several stories recently about translation companies being bought and sold. How might this affect my project or organization’s long-term translation needs?

The translation industry is undergoing dramatic change. Some translation companies have had four names in little more than two years. It is far from clear that the current trend toward industry consolidation is good for clients, employees, or even the merging companies themselves:

  • Management attention is diverted: With all of this buying and selling going on, who is watching the store?
  • Accelerated employee turnover: In the current red-hot job market, employees need only the slightest hint of uncertainty to jump ship.
  • Quality suffers: Quality problems often come hand-in-hand with employee turnover and lax management oversight.
  • Buying the wrong company: There have been few, if any, successful mergers in this industry.

While some larger translation clients benefit from enhanced geographic coverage and deeper service offerings, for most clients, this trend is not good news. A vendor’s “institutional memory” risks being lost with staff turnover, resulting in retraining expenses and efforts. In addition, overall service often suffers as the vendor’s project and account management change.

The bright spot amidst all this unrest is that there are many “boutique” translation companies evolving that are taking a more specialized approach to the translation industry. They focus more on vertical markets, offering more customized services and a better understanding of the needs of each given industry.


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