Translation standards

Translation Services’  Standards


The term “quality” or “professional level” in relation to translation seems to be vague and can mean different things to different people and be prone to misinterpretation. Though professionals may understand it to incorporate aspects like correct lexicon (terminology), syntax (style), register, spelling, fidelity to the original, etc., the public at large e.g. purchasers of translation services would often go by the translators’ marketing skills, e.g. website presentation, etc., which do not necessarily point to translator I.T. skills, let alone translator competence.

Some agencies that pride themselves on providing “quality” translations are frequently not even aware of what they’re providing, as they use flawed criteria for sorting the wheat from the chaff. Though the obvious ones like qualifications and experience are taken into account, so are the more dubious ones, like age and geographical location. In fact none of those determines ultimately translator competence, for the most significant “ingredient” of a good translator is hard to capture. Similarly as for writers, it is a creative streak. A translator is a writer who writes within the constraints of a template created by another writer in another language. A translator’s scope of manoeuvre, i.e. the freedom of choice of linguistic expression is thus determined by the original writer, nevertheless translator’s creative skills are required to put the original into the correct for the target language syntax and make the impact on the new readership identical to the one exerted on the original one. No amount of training can quite make up for that hard-to-detect inborn quality required for that task, which includes memory retrieval skills and ability of abstract thinking. The amount of creativity required would vary from lesser (e.g. for technical translations) to greater, (e.g. for translating poetry), but it is indispensable in order to produce an acceptable standard of translations. That’s why the statement “born rather than made” which applies to writers, should equally apply to translators.

In localised economies, the best determinant of “quality” would be a provider’s reputation established over the years, but this is not the case in our global world. Although one would think the number of achievements points to a good translator, they are hard to evaluate when in languages of lesser diffusion. The prolific output may point to luck or better opportunities a translator has had rather than his/her real competence. And the budding talent would be excluded to everybody’s disadvantage, if assessments were based solely on that criterion. The difficulty in identifying good translator skills is the underlying cause for the high volume of poor translations that have flooded the Polish market for nearly the last two decades, giving rise to the widespread phenomenon of Polglish – an unintelligible hybrid of Polish and English. It includes English terms with Polish suffixes (with an occasional sprinkling of “faux amis”) bound together by the English syntax.

That is why it is essential to define translation quality by aspects like: “non-visibility of source language in a target language text” or “correct word usage and style of the target language” in order to avoid misunderstanding and facilitate self-assessment of potential translation service providers.

polished-translations at


3 responses to this post.

  1. What makes a professional translator

    Whenever someone, as an author, tries to “communicate” something to someone else, the resulting message is a combination of the author’s ideas, intentions, opinions, prejudices and emotions, including desires, neuroses and fears, all these factors being influenced by the environment, family and culture the author was raised and lived in.

    A translator, as a human being him/herself, should be aware of his/her own mind’s workings when receiving the original message, in order to avoid, as much as possible, contaminating the message with his/her own truths and opinions. Receiving a message from an author is such a complicated process, given all the aspects which have influenced its original creation, that any contribution introduced by a not-so-cautious translator will tend to produce a sometimes disastrous result.

    No wonder the Italians say “traduttori, traditori”.

    In view of the (almost?) impossibility of finding a “perfect” translator, one which would be capable of receiving the author’s “message” in its entirety, with no distortions, the true professional is distinguished from people who “can speak the language” by the awareness and care with which he/she approaches the task of translating.

    Respect for the source message and experience translate into quality (intentional).

    My quote: A translator is an author without a subject.
    Because the subject was created by someone else, in another language, and who came from another culture.

    About authoring:
    “Writing should be done in the same manner as the washerwomen of Alagoas practice their craft. They start with a first wash(ing), soaking the dirty clothing by the bank of the lagoon or stream; they wring the piece of clothing, soak it again, and then wring it once more. They then add indigo, soap and wring once, and then twice. Then they rinse, and soak it again, now splashing the water onto the cloth with their hands. They beat the cloth on a slab or clean stone, they wring it again and then one more time, they wring it until no water drops from the cloth anymore. Only after they have done all this do they hang the clean piece of clothing to dry, on a string or clothes line. Whoever goes into writing should do the very same thing. The word was not meant to embellish or to spark like fake gold; the word was meant to say.” (Graciliano Ramos, during an interview, in 1948)


  2. Jose, you’ll be pleased to hear that I have started going to the river once a week as part of my professional development effort. It has not helped much with my translation work thus far, but I live in hope, and my clothes are much cleaner now.

    Our institute is also a bit slow in awarding PD points for this activity, but I am an optimist at heart.


    • Louis, I’m glad to have had some influence, albeit small, in your washing habits.
      Two things will happen, you’ll feel better and, eventually, you’l be awarded some points.


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