Translation standards and quality assurance

A brief overview of what standards provide, and the European Translation Standard EN15038

One of the aims of SATC is to promote adherence to internationally defined standards.


Why have standards?

Translation is an art, not a science. Any text can be translated into another language in many ways, all of which can be equally valid. Given any page of text, no two translators will ever come up with the same result. So how can you judge the quality of a translation if you are not yourself an expert in the language in question?

You can’t. You can always engage another translator to provide an opinion, but how do you know that this one is any better than the first? You risk a lengthy discussion of the relative merits of one or another set of expressions. Quality is very difficult to measure.

So what can you do? The word ‘translation’ applies to two things, a translated text and the process of translation that has led to it. The translation process is more easily measurable. The aim of the EN15038 standard is to define the processes needed to provide reliable quality translation services.

It covers all related issues, including quality assurance and traceability. It specifies requirements for the translation service provider (TSP) with regard to human and technical resources, quality and project management, the contractual framework and service procedures. (See Requirements under EN15038 below.)

Since the standard applies to the process of translation, not to the result, it does not directly guarantee the quality of any given translation task. It does however guarantee that a well considered and standardised set of procedures are established and operated by the TSP.

Operating such a set of procedures greatly reduces the risk of a poor outcome, by ensuring that quality checks are performed. Humans constantly make mistakes, but the right combination of humans working to a well-designed procedure can usually catch those mistakes and correct them before anyone else knows they occurred. What’s more, since the procedure includes recording what happens and evaluating it, it means that if there is occasionally a poor outcome, then lessons will be drawn from it and the procedures changed to make sure the same thing does not repeat itself.

All this creates much greater reliability.

There are all kinds of procedures of course, and most companies operate some kind of standardised process. EN15038 concerns just one process, but it is one that has been agreed upon Europe-wide, and is therefore worth discussing as a basis for quality considerations in translation. Below you will find a summary of the requirements under the standard.

Do I need a translation that conforms to EN15038?

That depends on what you want it for. As you see below, the standard requires a systematic approach to translation management, and at least a translator and a separate reviser to treat the text. This provides much greater quality and reliability than just a single translator, since we all make mistakes and it can be devilishly difficult to spot your own.

For some purposes, of course, quality is not a principal concern. If you just want to get a quick overview of a simple text for example, this may not be an issue. But beware, for most purposes, and certainly when a written trace is to be kept, a quality standard is important. This is 1) to ensure that you have understood the issue correctly at first hand, 2) to leave a trace that will be similarly understandable to others that read the text after you, and 3) to harmonise with the professionalism you and others expect of your work in general.

The first two issues can easily be overlooked. Many texts written in any language contain passages whose meaning is not well expressed, or expressed in ambiguous or convoluted terms – few people in business and public institutions are good, clear writers. It is often surprisingly easy to make mistakes in translation such as confusing similar terms or misunderstanding a verb tense. A false understanding can have major consequences, and a well-managed team of translation professionals is the only solution that can provide a reliable guarantee that the translation conveys the correct meaning.

Issue 3) above is especially important for any text that is representative of your company or organisation. Here it is not only the correct meaning that is important, but the style and appropriate terminology. A letter to a client, an offer, a text for a business partner, all demonstrate the professionalism of your organisation. If we go further and consider a web page or advertising text, every word, expression and punctuation mark counts – it is hard to build a good brand image, but easy to damage it with a silly mistake. Depending on the market you are appealing to, you may also need good localisation, to make sure that your text is not just translated, but adjusted to the different experience and customs of another target audience.

If the task concerns a piece of legislation, a contract or instructions for using dangerous materials or medicines, even a EN15038-compliant translation may be insufficient. A review by a subject specialist is often advisable.

A good TSP will provide honest advice on these issues on the basis of the client’s best interests, and help you find the optimal combination of services.

Do I need a translation company that is EN15038 certified?

The EN standard requires a systematic approach, as do other standards such as ISO 9001. Many companies have such an approach even though they are not formally certified. SATC promotes adherence to the standards themselves, i.e. the operation of reliable quality systems.

Certification comes in three types: first, second and third party certification. First means that the company itself declares that it follows the standard. Second party certification may be made by e.g. a client who has experience with the company. This type rarely refers to the process or system, rather the result they have received, as the client usually has limited insight into the company’s systems.

A third party certification is made by a certification agency. Such agencies place their reputation behind the certificate, providing an independent opinion. They conduct a thorough audit of the systems and procedures that a company puts into place, with follow-up audits each year. There are numerous companies that perform certification, and the certificate is as good as the agency’s approach – some are much more demanding than others. A large, internationally recognised agency that has a reputation to lose by shoddy audit work is a good sign, though no guarantee on its own.

How can you be sure that the certificate really means what it says? How do you know that a company makes daily use of a quality management system after certification? The best guarantee is one of peer review.

Members of SATC are required to have a quality management system in practical use, and to satisfy the other members that they apply the highest professional and ethical standards in their work. It is in the vital interests of each member to ensure that the association’s reputation be constantly upheld. This system of peer review is the best quality guarantee available.

For a good guide to purchasing translation services, see the site of ATA, the American Translator’s Association:
We quote their conclusion here:
“There are hundreds of ways a translation project can go off track: ridiculous deadlines, ambiguities in source text amplified by the translator not asking questions, misapplied MT (machine translation), no proofreading of typeset text by a native speaker, blissful unawareness of an over-confident translator operating in a vacuum, poor coordination of large projects, poor cheap freelance translator, poor expensive freelance translator, poor cheap translation company, poor expensive translation company, no client input, and on and on.”

Requirements under the EN15038 standard

Whether a TSP uses its permanent staff or a free-lance translator to carry out a translation task, it must take responsibility for the quality of the outcome. This means the TSP must have a systematic approach to its human and technical resources, and to its project management and quality management systems.

Human resources

The TSP must have a clear procedure in place for selecting appropriately skilled translators for any given task. Translators and revisers must have translating competence, linguistic and textual competence in the source and target languages, research skills, and cultural awareness. They must also be competent to operate the technical resources to be utilised. Reviewers must have specialist knowledge of the subject in the target language.

These skills must be proven by an appropriate combination of academic qualifications and experience, and be maintained through training or experience.

Technical resources

The TSP must have appropriate equipment that can assure the correct and confidential handling of the task, the storage and archiving of documents and data, and recording of the process. This means suitable IT and communications resources, both hardware and software. For many clients this includes the ability to reliably produce translation memories.

Project and quality management

The TSP must have a project management system in place. This covers procedures for handling enquiries, making quotations, contracting, supervising preparation, assigning translators, revisers and reviewers, monitoring consistency, monitoring the timetable, maintaining contact with client and suppliers, approving delivery, following up and reacting to any complaints, invoicing and accounting. A log is maintained throughout the process providing complete traceability of each step and responsibility.

There must also be a documented quality management system that includes among other things a statement of objectives, and processes for monitoring the quality of services, providing after delivery correction and taking corrective action, and for handling information and material received from the client.

Client relations

The TSP must have documented procedures in place for the following: handling and analysing enquiries, determining project feasibility and the availability of resources; preparing quotations including price, deadline and other issues; reaching an explicit agreement on issues such as , copyright, liability, confidentiality, dispute settlement, quality assurance etc; handling of the client’s information; invoicing and accounting; archiving, traceability, follow up and assessing client satisfaction.

The translation task

The TSP prepares the documents for translation including technical and pre-translation processing. This may cover things like scanning and OCR treatment, according to the agreement with the client, preparation of documents or segmentation of text for Computer Assisted Translation, etc.. Any specific linguistic requirements are recorded, such as a client style guide, use of term bases or translation memories, adapting to a target group, creation or updating of glossaries or translation memories.

In translating, the translator takes care of a number of aspects: terminology and terminology consistency, grammar, lexical cohesion and phraseology, style, local and regional conventions , formatting, target group and purpose of the translation. When complete, the translator checks his/her own work and makes corrections as required.

Under EN15038, the TSP must have a separate person revise the translation and make corrections as appropriate in terms of terminology consistency, register and style.

A review or a proofreading are not mandatory under the EN standard, but may be performed by agreement with the client. The same applies to added value services, such as formatting, rewriting, updating, localisation, terminology data base creation and term base management, alignment of bilingual parallel texts, editing, subtitling etc.

A definition of terms

  • translator – person who translates
  • translation service provider (TSP) – person or organisation supplying translation services
  • translate – to render information in the source language into the target language in written form
  • target text – result of the translation process in the target language
  • target language – language into which the source text is rendered
  • source text – text to be translated
  • source language – language in which the source text is written
  • to revise – to examine a translation for its suitability for the agreed purpose, including a comparison of the source and target texts, and to recommend corrective measures. A reviser must be a competent translator.
  • to review – to examine a target text for its suitability for the agreed purpose and respect for the conventions of the domain to which it belongs, and to recommend corrective measures. A reviewer does not need to understand the source language.
  • register – a set of properties characteristic of a particular type of text or speech
  • proofreading – checking of proofs before publishing
  • locale – linguistic, cultural, technical and geographical conventions of a target audience
  • interpreting – rendering of spoken information in the source language into the target language in oral form
  • document – information and its supporting medium (ISO 9000:2000)
  • competence – demonstrated ability to apply knowledge and skills (ISO 9000:2000)
  • added value services – services that can be provided in addition to translation services
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