Tips for Choosing and Working with Translators
What is Required
Professional translators are—first and foremost—writers. They are able to produce texts that read well in their native language. They serve as bridges between languages, rendering the message of the original text into their native language. (Translators are different from bilingual persons, who speak two languages fluently, but are not necessarily skilled at moving information between the two languages, especially in writing.)
When to translate a publication
The City of Seattle’s translation policy (PDF) calls for translating the following:
- vital documents into the first tier languages1 spoken by Seattle residents. (Vital documents are those that provide essential information for accessing City services and benefits, such as consent and complaint forms, notices of eligibility criteria, notices of availability of language assistance, etc.).
- documents containing critical information into both first and second tier2 languages. (Critical information documents may have life and death implications, such as emergency evacuation messages.)
- project documents into relevant language(s) when the project is in a neighborhood where five percent of the population consists of a specific language group;
- information describing project services when these are provided to a particular language group.
1. Seattle’s first tier languages are: Cantonese, Korean, Mandarin, Somali, Spanish, Tagalog, Vietnamese.
2. Seattle’s second tier languages are: Amharic, Cambodian, Laotian, Oromo, Thai, Tigrinya, Russian
King County does not have a translation policy.
Tips for choosing a translation service
Most firms offering translation services have Web sites that describe their services in detail.
Consider the following:
- Languages. Do they have the capability to translate the language you need? The ‘gold standard’ is to use a translator that works into his/her native language—that is, to translate a publication from English to Vietnamese, use a native Vietnamese speaker.
- Font technology: Does the firm have the necessary foreign language font technology for the language you need? Do they have graphics expertise?
- Cost. Do they charge by the word or the piece? What do they charge for formatting or editing? Do they base their fee on size of the final translated document, or on the source document? (These may be quite different.)
- Location. Is the firm local, or will interaction occur via phone and email?
- Other clients or projects. Have they worked on issues or with organizations similar to yours? Can you get references?
- Accreditation. Does the firm belong to a professional association like the Northwest Translators and Interpreters Society (NOTIS) or the American Translators Association (ATA)? Are its staff accredited?
- Existing contracts. Has your agency already set contracts for translation services? If so, what firms are on that list?
Tips for working with a translation service
- Plan ahead. Some firms levy a surcharge for ‘rush’ jobs.
- Explain who the audience is, what the publication is for and what it is intended to do. Style, pronounceability, word choice, phrasing—all vary with the type of publication and what you want it to achieve. An experience translator should ask for this information.
- For publications with technical content, provide information about the subject—clarify industry jargon, specialized terminology (e.g., ‘hazardous waste’), and other technical text that may not be clear to the translator.
- Be clear about the intended language and dialect. Spanish for immigrants from Spain, or Mexico City? Vietnamese for doctors and medical personnel, or for healthcare consumers?
- Specify the reading level.
- Request “dynamic equivalence”—that is, have the translator focus on conveying the same meaning as the original work, not just a literal translation of the words. Experienced translators go beyond a word for word translation by producing re-writes or adaptations of the original.
- Seek recommendations on whether terms, examples and illustrations are culturally appropriate.
- Request a thorough spelling and grammar check.
- Agree on a procedure for checking accuracy and completing corrections/revisions.
- Remember that other languages have different typographical conventions (e.g., in Spanish and French, months and days of the week are not capitalized.) Don’t ‘adjust’ foreign language texts to be more ‘grammatical’.
- Determine how the translated document will be provided to you. Will it be a WORD document, or a PDF, or something else? This is especially important when the language contains non-Roman characters (e.g., Japanese, Turkish, Vietnamese). The best plan is to discuss this with a Communications Specialist or with Graphics staff first, to decide how the translated text can be reproduced within the King County capabilities.
- Consider offering to credit the translation firm in the publication. This encourages top quality work.
Using computer translating software
For most projects, raw computer output isn’t suitable: you run the risk of looking inarticulate, or worse. Computer-generated translations can be edited by human translators, but many insist that it is faster (hence cheaper) to start from scratch. Some translation providers have proprietary software for specific language pairs and topics. While these will give better results, they aren’t free and will still need human revision.
American Translators Association (2003). Translation: Getting It Right. A Guide to Buying Translations
Northwest Translators and Interpreters Society (NOTIS)
Client Education: Ensuring a Positive Experience