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Who Needs Translation Standards After All?

Arvydas Okas
2017 11 20

It took the translation and localisation industry two decades to arrive at a comprehensive translation standard.

But while the work was in progress the global economy and technology changed so much that it made the new standard a mere formality. Lip service to the good practices.

ISO 17100 translationISO 17100 has been here for two years now

This standard was the ultimate effort to make translation service providers  (TSP‘s) be more responsible in the way they do business.

The problem is that translation as a service does not easily lend itself to formal rules.

In essence, it is a broadly defined, creative and rather subjective function. Just like copywriting, design, advertising and other art-rather-than-science activities.

Translation agencies constantly have to deal with all sorts of texts for all sorts of clients in all sorts of sectors.

Related Article: Translation Industry Entering Divergence

urgent translationWe needed that translation yesterday!

In addition, translation tasks always tend to be rather urgent, and they better be low-cost, too...

That‘s from the perspective of customers.

Not surprisingly – from the same perspective – overall confidence in translation agencies is known to be rather low (as is client loyalty).

This was a case for market leaders to improve the situation through the adoption of formal standards.

How did it go and where do we stand now?

What follows is a brief overview of how translation standardisation evolved.

one stop shop translationThe Beginnings: The 90‘s And Its One-Stop Shops

With the advent of the Internet and globalisation, there was an exodus of translators and editors from their publishing houses and editorial offices to set up their own ventures.

That is how the first translation agencies were born.

As their business grew, the founders began building teams around them – but only to realise that these teams are hard to manage.

The more languages and subjects, the harder.

Agencies assumed the role of one-stop shops, trying to cast their nets far and wide.

They would search for resources on Proz.Com, Translators’ Cafe and other similar freelancer portals. Many translators and people looking for extra income from translation would send their CV‘s to agencies via e-mail.

Unfortunately, only a small part of them really had the qualifications and competencies required.

Faced with client complaints, translation agencies would blame it all on the translators, the poor source documents, synonymous means of expression and other excuses.

It was obvious that this could not go on forever.

The Year 2000: The Translation Agency’s Word of Honour

Market leaders started establishing associations that used to give their members some formal credentials or accreditations.

high quality translationMember agencies could make use of various accreditation badges to give them more credibility.

However, this did not bring about any real change in hiring processes or working methods.

Serious agencies continued to be serious, while the careless ones remained so despite their badges. There was little real oversight.

2005-2010: ISO 9000! Yet Unsuitable For Translation...

When the generic ISO 9000 Quality Management Standard became popular, all major agencies embraced it with great enthusiasm.

ISO certified translationFor a while, this standard separated the wheat from the chaff, because it was subject to audit and required automated project management processes to be in place.

But even that did not last long.

There was one problem: this generic standard does not contain any requirements for translation-specific processes, linguist qualifications or quality requirements.

The quality system could be implemented along formal QMS lines, leaving just minimal quality requirements for translation.

It could be easily used as a formal certification without enforcing tougher oversight over translation processes – leaving the same ‘best-effort’ basis in place.

2006-2015: EN 15038 Translation Services

Since ISO 9000 was easily circumvented, the European Union of Associations of Translation Companies embarked on the development of a translation-specific standard.

It came out in 2006 as EN 15038.

This standard was serious.

It established certain minimum requirements for resources and translation processes:
  • Translators were required to have a university degree in translation or at least two years of documented experience
  • The four-eyes principle was firmly established: all translations were subject to revision by a second linguist specialising in the field
  • Communication with clients was also clearly regulated, though largely overlapping with ISO 9000
Most agencies that had been certified under ISO 9000 quickly adopted this new standard as well.

The combination of these two standards became the accepted quality benchmark in the industry.

2015: ISO 17100

Finally, on 1 May 2015 the new standard ISO 17100 Translation Services was published.

It looked like the ideal was achieved. However, its reception was muted.

The reason being?

It Turns Out Nobody Cares About Standards Anymore...

While the standard was being developed, the new global economy and technology advanced so much that it rendered any formal standardisation irrelevant.

The translation industry began splitting into two rapidly diverging camps:
  • Tech-driven high-volume translation with low quality expectations (e.g. for formal compliance), which means quality standards are irrelevant
  • Multilingual content and copy transcreation for brands and consumers in increasingly demanding and nichified market segments, which means a regression to a consultancy-based business model where standards are not relevant, either