Clients hiring the services of translators often have no idea what they’re really getting for their money. This is especially true when purchasing a translation in which the target language is not understood by the client. Not only can one phrase in any given language be translated in several distinct ways, but it can also be translated badly in an even more ways. Just look at most cartoon/comic fan translations.
A “bad translation” can be bad for many different reasons, and to varying degrees. You can get completely nonsensical, random translations from the likes of Google Translator of Babelfish, or you can get them from an obviously non-native speaker who has a bit too much confidence in their linguistic skills. You can also get bad translations by translators who are indeed native speakers in their target language, but who have extremely limited abilities in the source language, causing errors which may be grammatically correct but have little to nothing to do with the source text. There are also many translations which are technically correct – in the sense that they adhere to both the source text and the general rules of spelling and grammar – but which are too awkward and/or rambling to properly follow. Unfortunately, unless you either know the translator to have adequate ability or have a good system for selection, you never know when these bad translations will pop up to ruin your day.
Here, we will outline some basic steps you can take to avoid having to deal with these bad translations by choosing an appropriate translator from the get-go.
A number of professional translator associations - for example, the ATA (North America) or the JTF (Japan) - make an attempt to set quality and accuracy standards by administering difficult, peer-evaluated tests for various specified language pairs. Professional translators with experience and accreditation evaluate these tests to decide whether or not to award certification. Translators with these accreditations are generally reliable, and usually have proven skills.
Check Available Samples
If possible, look for a native speaker of the target language who will be able to read samples of the prospective translator's work. Even better would be to find an evaluator who also has a background in the source language, and even more so if you can find someone with knowledge of the source material as well. A bit of this sort of research can provide you with a pretty good estimate of a translator's skill level. Proper, natural-sounding writing can be difficult enough as it is; writing properly while also conveying a set meaning into another language can jack up the challenge level considerably. You should NEVER assume that a “native speaker” of a language equals a “proficient translator”.
Pair Up the Translator with the Material
Not all documents are exactly the same, and no translator can translate all documents adequately and efficiently. Thoroughly check a translator's experience and fields of specialty. If a translator does not have experience translating technical documents, then you probably shouldn’t assign them a highly technical user manual for a drill press. If you’re looking for someone to translate a press release for a trendy new restaurant or club, then you might not want to go with a medical translation specialist.
One of the most common misconceptions about the translation business is that it is a scientific and exact process - simply trading words from one language with words of another language, and having them make sense. If you have an understanding of the complex ways in which languages and cultures differ from each other - as well as of the inherent challenges of proper writing - you should be able to select a translator without having to scramble around for someone to proofread and subsequently correct an entire project by the deadline.