How to choose a translator
Before choosing an agency there are a few important factors to consider so that you pay the best price for the appropriate amount of work. There’s no point buying a Ferrari when you only need a little Fiesta, and vice versa, when you need a very accurate translation, the translator will need to have the skills and inclination to do the work to a high standard.
Before I start going into any details, I’m going to emphasize this – you need to know what you want. Generally for this article I’m going to breakdown three types of translator:
- Based in cheaper countries overseas
- Native or not native speakers
- Based in the UK but not certified
- Certified and based in the UK
Despite what many agencies may claim on their websites, I’m absolutely certain that a lot of translation work is actually done by translators living in relatively cheap countries, where English may not be the mother tongue, and in many cases by people who are not native speakers. I could (but won’t) name a few large agencies who “guarantee” native speakers but they absolutely do not use them. I am regularly contacted by agencies to help them win new clients. Once the clients win a contract, suddenly I don’t hear from the client anymore and find out they are sending the work to be done in India for example.
I want to be clear, there’s nothing wrong with say Bulgaria or Romania, or China, or India. There are, I’m sure, many good translators who can produce high quality work in all those countries. My question would be whether many of those translators can produce that work in English, and for those who can, is there an adequate quality control, training and production system to ensure the highest quality of end translation. Sometimes an “academic check” can simply be a box on a piece of paper asking for a tick if you have a Master’s Degree. As far as I know, no one has ever actually contacted Imperial College to verify my Masters Degree certificate.
I mentioned the native speaker aspect and it’s absolutely crucial. A translator should only ever translate into their mother tongue. That means there are millions of English to German translators (as many Germans study English) but much fewer German to English translators for example. For Chinese to English the numbers are even more limited. I would even say that there are a good number of “fully certified translators” who are not actually native English speakers.
The definition of a native speaker can be complex and there are many shades of grey. Generally I would look at where people went to middle, and high school. A degree abroad is not sufficient. I have a degree in China for example, but I’m certainly not claiming to be a Chinese native speaker. There will be cases like Singaporeans where the environment is pretty bilingual but even then, it depends on the family. A Chinese Singaporean family may have decided only to focus on Mandarin, or may have done their education exclusively in English.
So, recognizing that it can be complex, we should always aim to find a native speaker unless you want junk.
Why aren’t you certified? Lack of skill? Can’t pass the exams? Aren’t really interested in the profession? The list could go on.
Certified translators have put some “skin the game” and are willing to put the time and effort to show their professionalism. It’s absolutely possible that a brand new translator on their first job might produce an excellent translation, but it’s also likely they will get things wrong, not be able to work with the right software and so on.
If money was no object, I would always opt for a certified translator. In some cases you will be required to get a certified translation, in which case it’s an easy decision. (I’m fully certified by the way)
This is a tricky point. I find that working with partners in the UK tends to go more smoothly with things like payments and time zones and so on. Also someone in the UK is more accountable if things go wrong. Finally, there are many fake translators who hide behind “working abroad” type circumstances. If you can’t pick up the phone and talk to them, will they be able to help if things go wrong?
In the UK the qualifications for translators are as follows:
- Degree in whichever language, including some modules on translation
- Degree in translation
- DipTrans Certification
- Master’s Degree in Translation
- PhD I guess, although often the PhD students are more focused on research than actual day to day freelancing.
- Lecturers? I’m not really sure about that, I teach translation studies part time, and I know a few excellent translators who also do.
Ask the right questions and think about price
An email saying “I was told to get this officially translated” isn’t enough information. There are varying levels of certification and notarization. As a rule of thumb I always advise reviewing the guidelines published by the Home Office for an official translation. These state that certified translators must be full members of the ITI or IOL. I’m a full member of both.
It’s probably worth getting two quotes, but I would say for example, if I suspect a client is trying to play me off against another translator I would always decline the job. I’ve got a very steady stream of job so I don’t need to have bottom feeder clients. There will always be cheaper people than me.
Be aware there are sadly many agencies who are outright liars and cheats. Google the name of your potential translator carefully, maybe including words like “scam” or “blacklist”. If they are being blacklisted it will usually show up.
Conclusions on how to find a translator
Start by figuring out what exactly you need. Good translators will be helpful and usually happy to get involved, I often work with potential clients to understand their needs. In many case I have referred clients to other agencies if we are not a good fit.
Then ask if the translator can do the work, are the qualified? Certified? UK-based? Native speaker?
Then think about what you will do if things go wrong. Will they take your money and run? Will they help if something goes wrong in the middle of the job? What if your work gets audited in a year’s time? Will they still be willing to help then? If your translation gets challenged in court, will they be willing to appear and verify it?
Once you’ve got a shortlist, check they are not being blacklisted or haven’t been banned from anywhere. Then go for the best fit.