How do you know if a translation is correct?
Working with a translator or multilingual copywriter involves a great deal of trust. Even more so if you don’t speak the language they are translating your document into. It’s a bit like buying a surprise envelope – albeit a rather expensive one. So how do you know is a translation is correct and your chosen translator is any good?
It gets even more complicated when you learn that anyone can decide they are a translator. Unlike say law, or medicine, it’s an unregulated profession. This was how I originally started in the industry – I had a degree in Italian, years of marketing experience, but no specific translation qualification or anything to prove that I had reached a minimum level of competence.
The picture now is very different, as I will explain later on. And am I a better translator now? You bet!
What is a correct translation anyway?
But wait. What if I tell you that there are many ways that a translation can be correct? Now that is a bit frightening. You see, if you give a piece to ten different translators, they will probably all translate it in a slightly different way. And all ten of these translations might be perfectly correct, and accurate.
Have you ever heard of classic novels being re-translated? Well often it’s because someone else feels that they can translate it slightly differently, putting their own take on it, and perhaps modernising it for today’s audience.
Now that is a bit scary.
Perhaps we shouldn’t be thinking of translation as something that is ‘correct’ or ‘incorrect’, but whether it is ‘effective’ or ‘ineffective’.
You see, rarely is translation a case of substituting one word for another. When translating marketing copy, I often have to make fairly big changes in the English version, sometimes even cutting out half a sentence at a time.
This is because the Italian original is written to appeal to Italian customers. Being extremely faithful to the original just wouldn’t work for English-speakers.
So, now knowing this, how can you choose the right professional for the job? And once the translation is completed, how can you know if it’s correct?
Before working with a translator: check their profile
Just like you would want to know more about a web designer before you commission them with redesigning your website, pay attention to your translator’s profile. All translators are different, and each have different strengths and weaknesses.
But if you don’t know the industry, you probably don’t know what to look for. The following sections can be used as a mini checklist
Check whether your translator is a member of any professional associations. While there are different grades of membership depending on experience, members usually pass a vetting procedure to ensure that they are serious about the profession and committed to professional development.
In the UK, the main translation bodies are the Chartered Institute of Linguists (CIoL) and the Institute of Translation and Interpreting (ITI). In Italy, the go-to is the Association of Italian Translators and Interpreters (AITI). I’m currently an Associate Member of the CIoL.
Don’t limit yourself to translation associations. If you need a contract translating and find a legal translator who is a member of the Law Society, doesn’t that speak volumes about their professionality?
Not all translators have translation qualifications, but those who don’t often have years of experience, often in a specific field.
Qualifications, along with membership of professional associations, are one way of reassuring you of the quality of a translator’s work. Perhaps your translator has a Master’s degree in translation?
I hold the Diploma in Translation, a rigorous pass-or-fail test held by the CIoL. It was certainly no walk in the park, one mistranslation means an automatic fail (pass rate is around 30% for some papers, and I’ve even heard of pass rates of 0% for Italian to English in some years) . I was rather relieved that I didn’t have to go through the ordeal of the 8-hour exam again.
Qualification is often in specific language pairs. Read here why most professional translators only translate into their mother (or dominant) tongue.
Testimonials & portfolio
Does the translator display any testimonials on their website or LinkedIn profile? Happy clients speak volumes, especially if they work in a similar field to you.
A portfolio is an excellent way to see the quality of a translator’s work. However, note that as many agencies operate under a Non-Disclosure Agreement, this may not tell the whole story. So, an empty portfolio doesn’t necessarily spell a lack of experience, but suggests their client profile is more geared towards agencies than direct clients.
Translators aren’t interchangeable. Some are excellent at translating legal documents because they have built up years of experience in this fields. I am certainly not one of those.
Other translators, like me, specialise in marketing copy. I have honed my sensitivity to tone of voice, learned the technical aspects of copywriting and SEO through extra training. I know how to optimise the English version of your website for Google, but ask me to translate a manual for a car? I’d have no clue!
That’s why is always best to work with a specialised translator.
After the translation project is complete: assessing accuracy
If a big project is on the cards, you could start with a small ‘tester’ project before committing. Perhaps start with a blogpost before translating your website.
If you understand the language that the post has been translated into, then a good start is to read it yourself to get a feel of whether it maintains the message of the original document. You can also ask a native speaker to take a look.
Ask your translator whether they will be working with a proofreader. This is the gold standard but will cost more than if they proofread their own work. However, the value of having four eyes (plus your own) over the translation is not to be sniffed at. After all, even the best translators are not immune to mistakes every now and again.
Many agencies include proofreading in the overall price, but don’t take this for granted and make sure you check whether it’s included.
What if you spot mistakes in the translation?
Mistakes can be subjective. They can be a question of style or preference.
Sometimes they are glaring bloopers. Maybe your translator completely misunderstood something. Although most translators will contact you with questions if they are unsure about anything, sometimes vague wording (or even mistakes) in the original document can cause problems.
And if the translation is riddled with spelling mistakes and grammar errors then run for the hills!
No one is immune to mistakes, so the first thing you should do if you spot something is to contact your translator. They will usually be happy to have a discussion with you about word choice and style. If you or a colleague spots any mistakes, then we will usually rectify for no extra fee.
As well as rectifying any mistakes, I include two rounds of amends for copywriting and translation projects. I am always happy to discuss the rationale behind my choices – it could be a particular phrase that will appeal more to an English audience, it could be that I’ve used a particular phrase to aid the SEO, or that I wanted to create a jaunty and lively rhythm.
Translation or copywriting should not be ego-driven, so don’t worry about hurting your translator’s feelings. After all, the end goal of translation is to sell your products, communicate important information clearly, or connect with a new audience. And it’s important to get that right.
I hope this article has helped you do understand how to choose a good translator for your project, and how to know if a particular translation is correct. If are an Italian brand that needs help attracting an English-speaking audience, then give me a shout. I might be able to help, or know someone else who can.