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A-Z of Translation – the letter Q:

Our letter Q entry pretty much chooses itself:


Quality – Everyone in the translation sector claims to deliver quality, but it’s difficult to pin down what that really means. The classic quality assurance approach would be to talk about compliance with defined and implied requirements – except that most translation clients don’t define their requirements in any detail and may have widely varying implied requirements.

A minimum implied requirement would probably be that the translation should be fit for purpose and contain no errors. Unfortunately, errors are not easy to define. One person’s minor loss of nuance is another person’s major translation error. And what counts as a grammar error, exactly? Anyone who has ever worked on a quality scoring system for translations will be all too familiar with the problems.

As an aside: Certification to ISO 9000 or a similar standard might seem calculated to inspire confidence, but ISO 9000 suffers from being originally designed for manufacturing environments. As such, the end product is assumed to be consistently good or consistently bad because faults are typically due to non-compliant raw materials, operator error or an out-of-adjustment machine. Sampling every 10th or 100th product etc. is thus sufficient to identify whether the process is working satisfactorily and delivering the required quality. The human nature of translation, on the other hand, means that the end product can be perfect one minute, very poor the next and then perfect again the following minute, so every single product needs to be checked in detail.

Fitness for purpose would mean that the translation does the same job as the original text. An obvious objection here is that the target audience for the translation may be markedly different and much less homogenous. It’s a big ask to ensure that a document tailored to a French audience, for example, will be just as effective when translated into English and used across multiple countries worldwide. No translation provider could guarantee that.

In fact, the purpose might be different anyway: a large organisation may need the translation of a press release for internal purposes only, for example, so that it knows what information is being communicated in the market in question. Time spent honing the translation to win over a critical readership would be wasted in such a case.

Many translators seem oddly untroubled by such concerns, perhaps because they so often work in isolation as freelancers and receive little feedback. Those who are embedded in a multi-stage translation process are accustomed to having their work more or less extensively revised and tend to have more insight into the end client’s needs. Most valuable, of course, is direct client feedback or the ability to view the final version of the translation as used by the client.

Given the above, any conscientious translator will often have that “Are we there yet?” feeling when finalising a translation. Has the content really been captured as accurately as possible? Is the terminology consistent and appropriate? Has any reference material or background information been fully taken into account? Is the style properly adapted to the document type and target audience? Doubt is good here; doubt is a healthy spur to go that extra mile.

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