Document Translation – What’s at Stake

You’ve tried Google Translate. You’ve tried Bing. Heck, you’ve tried document translation crowdsourced from noobs and rubes pecking out gibberish on their mobile phones. And the result of these automated and/or jejune techniques has been, certainly, some degree of insight into what is purported by the source document. But nothing you would be able to rely on at a shareholders’ meeting or in a court of law. Automated translation has its place (in mining terms, you might compare it to open-pit excavation: it gives you something to work with, but more fine-grained processes are required for the ore crushing, grading, chemical leeching and finally refining), and crowdsourced translations may be marginally OK for applications like subtitling, games and so on.

But you need a publication-ready document translation. That’s why you’re here. Truth is, you’ve also tried going with a few of the agencies that appear at the top of the search engine rankings for “document translation”. The result has been, well, middle of the road. Nothing stellar. A few errors here and there, suspicious inconsistencies, changes of tense you think should not be there. In short, a vaguely amateurish aura that the impression made by the agency project managers did nothing to correct.

Translation is a discipline with the potential for a great many things to go wrong. When you are relying on a translation to help you survive litigation or complete an important transaction, a substandard job not only risks failing to add value, but actively obstructing your efforts to win the case or seal the deal. A poor translation may very well cost you credibility, goodwill and leverage.  Not to mention the cost of the translation itself, as if adding insult to injury.

At Document Translation, our objective is to educate institutional consumers of translation about the process of procuring a high-quality document translation. An organization that has mastered this process will be able to source high-quality document translations from reputable vendors on short notice while dramatically reducing the risk of things going wrong. All that’s needed is a bit of due diligence. Or, to put it on more homely terms, a stitch in time to save the nine.

Ultimately procuring quality is about identifying and managing risks. This is as true of document translation as it is of public sector or defense procurement. Witness the legendary boondoggle of the F-35. From the procuring organization’s perspective, the worst-case scenario is bankruptcy. Certainly the US government is all but bankrupt. What makes you think your organization is immune to ruin as the result of a poor procurement decision? It is a well-known fact that erroneous translations can result in tort liability.

In order to understand and mitigate these risks, it is helpful to understand document translation as a process characterized by a series of potential failure points, all of which require diligent attention and apt action in order to ensure the quality of the final product – and with it the reputation and financial health of your organization.


This brief synopsis of failure points does not purport to be exhaustive for every project need, but it does provide a rough map of the territory you will need to navigate.

  • Confidentiality: Does your vendor have adequate mechanisms in place to ensure that privileged or confidential information does not end up in the wrong hands as a result of the document translation process?
  • Workflow: Does the agency have a structured and recognized workflow in place to ensure quality and predictability of outcome? Does the agency utilize a proofreader specialized in the discipline in question?
  • Complaints management: Does the language service provider have streamlined methods for handling and responding to complaints regarding the quality, consistency and accuracy of the translation product? An ad hoc method is not enough. This needs to be contractually established, and the procedure must have a track record of bringing about quality and satisfaction.
  • Language variant: Your translator or agency must provide a translation whose linguistic usage reflects the terminology used in your country. There must be processes in place to ensure that the work you are getting was produced by a native of the country (US, UK, South Africa, etc.) of the translation’s intended target audience. If your car manual for US drivers discusses the features of the car’s bonnet and boot, you’ve got a problem.
  • Communication and feedback: A quality agency or independent professional will provide mechanisms for incorporating you, the client, into the document translation workflow. This way you can specify or alter terminology on an ad hoc basis, or even check up on the project in real time as it is coming along, providing any feedback you see fit to submit.

Document Translation is happy to provide this resource for institutional consumers of translation. We hope you find value in the content assembled on this site, and welcome your feedback, which you may submit using the Contact page, along with any Document Translation projects for which you’d like us to provide a referral.

Our objective is to contribute to enhancing quality in the translation industry as a whole, to improve relationships between clients and vendors, and to help ensure that competent translation professionals are recognized and rewarded for the value they provide in the bargain.