Surprisingly enough, not everyone can fully understand the crucial difference between goods and services: unlike goods, which are tangible in nature, you can’t examine the result of a service beforehand. Now that might sound trite, but in fact we translation service providers are frequently expected to provide a standardised product. But there is no such thing as a standardised translation – which is a good thing! Think about it this way: When you’re in the hardware store looking to buy screws, you can examine them closely as well as measure, compare and handle them before buying. In the world of translation, the only way you’d be able to do this is with the service provider itself and its internal processes. You can’t do this with the service provider’s performance as you would with a standard product, however. That’s where it gets interesting – and subjective.
There are, of course, objective criteria in our world as well: (The following paragraphs apply primarily to translation companies, not freelance translators.)
Expertise is mandatory
Always check that the translation company has the required area of expertise in its portfolio. Texts for translation fall under a whole range of categories, so getting a good result really depends on the translation company’s in-depth knowledge of the required subject area. If you can’t immediately tell from the website whether the company offers the specialisation, ask them! It’s not enough just to skim through a list of its customers. It’s entirely possible, for instance, for a service provider to work for a renowned pharmaceutical company, but to be exclusively contracted by its legal department.
The different output stages should be clear. The service provider should ideally be certified in accordance with ISO 9000 or, even better, EN 15038, the standard translation services certification, (or the internationally recognised successor ISO 17100). The latter is a process standard, which means the company’s internal processes must meet the highest standards and that the company works in a very process-oriented way. This means efficiency, reliability and transparency in providing services for the customer.
The right company size
Customers (plus the job volume) and service providers should be compatible in terms of size. If your annual translation volume is so large that the service provider’s revenue doubles overnight, then it’s only a matter of time before things go pear-shaped. Such development in growth for contractors rarely pans out well for the customers. If the customer’s volume only makes up 1% of the service provider’s revenue, then they are sure to continue doing a good job, but any special requests the customer has might not be handled with top priority. In an ideal world, the customer should make up between 10 and 30% of the service provider’s revenue. This will ensure you’re taken seriously enough without causing too many “growing pains”.
As I already mentioned, the main focus here is the selection criteria for translation companies. Lone wolves struggle to deliver a service beyond a certain job volume. Holiday, illness or time blocked out for other customers limits the scope of availability of one individual, not to mention the multiple languages and subject areas. A translation team, on the other hand, is always available in one constellation to meet you and your needs, including coordination and organisation. With this setup, team members can back each other up in case of emergency so the team is never short-handed.
Professional project management
When you first initiate contact with a translation company, it will often be the case that you only come into contact with the owner or the sales representatives – and rightly so. After all, you want to get to know the people in charge. However, on a day-to-day basis you will be dealing with the project manager. You will ideally have a fixed contact person who also knows your company’s requirements inside out, such as the distinctive qualities of the corporate language and the incoming jobs. I also consider it a real advantage to meet the project manager in the preliminary stages since it’s also important to see if the chemistry is there.
Putting a face to a name
And last but not least, it doesn’t do any harm to make the sometimes long journey to the service providers’ offices. Behind many a huge internet presence usually hides a considerably smaller organisational structure. Gaining a better impression of the company and its philosophy is much easier to do by simply paying a personal visit. That also gives you the chance to meet your future go-to-person face to face. Being on-site allows you to get a better feel for the team, company standard and the working atmosphere – something that’s very important since services are provided by people. People who have to understand which purpose your texts are meant to serve in the respective languages and how your business operates. It is precisely for this reason that dialogue is necessary – it is the cornerstone of a functioning service. If objectives and criteria for fulfilling a job are set out in advance, you can then examine, judge and compare the result in hindsight and hopefully you’ll be pleased with it!
About the author:
Udo Leinhäuser was managing partner of Leinhäuser Language Services until the end of 2012. Since then, he has been working in international search engine optimization as well as independent consultant in the translation industry.