Quality is a word we hear a lot in the translation industry.

But what exactly do we mean when we talk about quality? What metrics do we use to define it and is there a single gold standard that works for every job and every client? We have quality assurance tools and processes, but are these enough to guarantee a quality product in every case?

For this article, I thought I would dig down into just what we mean when we talk about quality in translation and what I think this looks like in practice.

Quality Assurance is No Silver Bullet

The natural place to start in any discussion about quality is with one of the key defined steps in most translation work flows – quality assurance. It has become something of an industry standard to use quality assurance tools and these are often advertised to clients as being a key part in the process.

A text is translated, proofread, subjected to quality assurance and then delivered.

The QA process can be built up into a sort of silver bullet that promises to eradicate all errors and smooth over the rough edges, leaving us with a perfect, glimmering result.

But what does it actually involve in practice?

The quality assurance step is when we use a CAT tool to check over a translation and flag potential issues, such as mismatched numbers or punctuation marks that don’t align, or places in the translation where established terminology appears to be missing.

It is an essential part of every translation job, much like running a spellcheck, and it is a handy way of picking up minor errors.

But sometimes I feel its importance is overblown within our industry, and actually there is only so much it can do to help boost quality.

Yes, it will help eliminate typos and human error, but the machine itself has no real understanding for the content of a text or what matters to the parties involved. All it can do is identify where a string of text does not match a set of predefined criteria.

It has no sense for the voice or the flow of the text – it works at the level of characters, data and simple variables.

So if quality assurance is not the whole picture, where should we be shifting our focus?

The Right People

Naturally, quality has to begin with the people we work with. Proponents of the quality assurance process like to think that everything can be automated. That our work is simply about checking boxes and shifting things into the right position.

But translation is necessarily a human task, and so the most important driver of quality is inevitable the actual people themselves.

It is therefore crucial that agencies put in the legwork to create a robust and reliable database of competent, qualified translators with proven track records. We need to make sure the people we work with understand the translation industry and how it works, and that they possess the skills to do a good job.

It is also important to creating a nice work environment – albeit a virtual one – so that our linguists feel welcome, included and part of a team. That way, they will be incentivised to do as good a job as possible and to take ownership over the tasks we assign them.

The risk of foregoing this human touch is translators with no skin in the game. No personal connection to the agency they are working with or the end clients, and no sense of duty towards them.

Translators with this mindset are concerned more about turning in their work and submitting their invoices.

What we need instead is translators who are motivated to put in the time and energy required to craft a truly excellent piece of work.

Teamwork Makes the Dream Work

In my experience, another very important driver of quality is the way in which translation teams are set up and held together.

I have discussed in previous articles how the translation industry can be quite fragmented due to its necessarily cross-border nature.

Translators, Project Managers and proofreaders are not usually in the room together and often in the case of translators and proofreaders, they might not even know who the other linguist is.

I have seen first-hand how this way of working can lead linguists to regard each other as rivals rather than collaborators. Concerns about terms or minor issues can quickly become acrimonious, with translators and proofreaders squabbling back and forth. Focus then shifts onto insignificant matters as the two opponents feel backed into a corner, and ultimately it quality that suffers.

I suppose this is no surprise in a sector where many are freelancers without a fixed salary. Linguists feel they need to defend their reputation in order to safeguard future work. But what is being lost here is that actually both linguists are working towards the same goal. The purpose of the proofreading step is to bolster the text and make it better, not to tear down the other collaborator.

The solution to this problem is more communication.

Here at Comunica, we use tools like Slack and Zoom to bring our linguists together so that they can get to know each other and take a more collaborative approach to their jobs.

By getting them on the same page, and helping them to get to know each other on a personal level, we can foster a sense of collaboration between them. This goes a long way to sharpening focus and boosting quality.

Customer Input Is the Final Frontier

Having the right people and the right systems in place gives us a solid foundation to take on any kind of translation job, but there is one territory that we still need to conquer in order to take ourselves over the line and that’s customer collaboration.

Once more it comes back to that central tussle between humans and machines. Because of the messaging put out by parts of the industry for such a long time, many clients really do feel that much of what we do is automated. They ask if we have a quality assurance process and they rest assured when we say yes, we do. Okay then, they think, the computer will take care of everything from here.

Part of the battle for quality involves explaining to customers that actually, the machines can only do so much, and a well-rounded, high-quality translation requires human input not just from our linguists, but from the people who understand the text and what it is intended to convey and achieve better than anybody else – the customer.

What we need to do is to liaise with the client and build a picture of what they are expecting. What kind of tone do they want the text to have? Light and funny, serious, straight-to-the-point, tongue-in-cheek? What terminology would they like us to use – do they already have a certain word for a certain term, and what can they tell us about their industry and the way they speak on a daily basis?

Beyond that, reference materials are also crucial – whether they come in the form of a website, explanatory notes, or perhaps a catalogue with images that might help bring the text to life or allow translators to understand what exactly a certain product is or does.

Without some context and a point of entry into the world inhabited by the customer, even the best translators working with the best tools are still just stabbing in the dark. And this is no way to guarantee quality.

All The Pieces in Place

With all the right resources and information in place, it is incredible and very edifying to see what we can produce together.

Translation is an art form which means it is neither easy nor objective, but when all the pieces coalesce together we can produce true masterpieces.

Work we can all be proud to have played a hand in.