6 Reasons for Poor Translation Quality

Wed 13 Nov 2019
Posted by: Ana Pintor


Written by Alan White, Business Development Director at Cicero Translations

Translation quality is perhaps the single most important factor for exporters when ordering translation services, so why do so many translation agencies get it wrong? Many exporters will undoubtedly have received a translation at some point that they are told is ‘not right’ or ‘looks like it’s been done by Google’, causing embarrassment and poor sales or product delays. We thought we’d look at some of the reasons that can influence the quality of translations, so that you can avoid them whenever you need translation services.

The first thing to stress is that it can be difficult to view translation quality as being right or wrong. Exporters may only ask for a straightforward translation, but may actually need copy writing or something more creative. It is possible for content (especially creative content) to be translated accurately but still miss the mark if the desired tone has not been achieved. Therefore, it is important to distinguish between objective errors (spelling, grammar, syntax) and those relating to style.

1. Time

A common reason translation quality can suffer. Content is needed more quickly than ever before in today’s world. Exporters can often ill-afford to wait for translators to spend hours on the best way to phrase a sentence, and this pressure can sometimes lead to a translation that is less than perfect. Projects might even need to be split between multiple translators, and if this process is not managed correctly, then problems can start to creep in. It is important to talk to your translation provider and only ask for a quick turnaround when this is needed. Translation agencies will, for the most part, try and pull out all the stops for you, and may not always say if a deadline is too tight, but a rushed translation will probably not be as good as one completed under less time pressure.

2. Poor Translator Selection

One principal reason for dissatisfaction with translation services could be that your Language Service Provider (LSP) has chosen an unsuitable translator to do the work  – for example, if they specialise in legal translation rather than creative translation. Moreover, in a bid to be competitive, some LSPs use non-qualified translators or even students to carry out their work, which can lead to quality issues. Managing linguists and their different skill sets, and regularly checking translators’ work, is key aspect in providing the best service possible.

3. One-size-fits-all approach

Issues can occur if your agency applies a one-size-fits-all approach to different translations. Whilst all exporters would undoubtedly want high quality translations in all scenarios, it is safe to say that the majority would view a key press release or safety instructions as more important than an internal email, for example. It is therefore key that you speak to your translation agency about whether they offer different levels of translation services for different types of content. Whilst it may seem obvious, some agencies may process a key marketing message in the same way as processing an internal communication. This may lead to a technically correct translation, but one that doesn’t hit the spot.

  4. No engagement

A related issue for creative translation services in particular is where the LSP doesn’t engage with the client upfront to find out how they are positioning themselves in the market. Some exporters may want to portray themselves as global market leaders in their own country, but in another region of the world might want to stress their local credentials or their personalised approach. This will (or should) determine the tone of the language and ultimately how effective the translation is. If this is not done it can lead to a translation that doesn’t deliver the desired impact.

5. Technology

Translation technology, in the form of translation memories and term bases, can ensure that translations are consistent with previously translated content and use terminology that has been approved by the client. If not used, translation projects can sometimes be inconsistent with previous material or use non-standard terminology. This aspect can be particularly relevant where large amounts of translation already exist– if the new translation is different in terms of tone or terminology, then this can be badly received, even if there is nothing grammatically wrong with the work.

6. Pricing

As in any business, pricing can play a major role in quality, particularly as there is often a lack of transparency when it comes to how LSPs price translation services. Exporters understandably look at pricing when comparing providers of translation services and LSPs battle it out to win their business. However, it is important to consider if they always provide the same service for that cheaper price. As with any business, it’s possible – even likely - that there will be some difference in quality if one translation services provider is half the price of another. Have an open and honest conversation with the translation providers you are looking at and explore what is included in the pricing and what their processes are… and remember to also have that very same conversation with the LSP that’s wooing you with a price that seems too good to be true.

Translation quality is rightly at the forefront of exporters’ thoughts when it comes to commissioning translators: after all, a poor translation can have a huge impact on your brand. Whilst it is clear that not all ‘quality concerns’ are the same, there are initiatives that exporters can take to avoid poor quality translations.


About the author

Alan White works for Cicero Translations as their Business Development Director and is a member of the Institute of Export & International Trade (IOE&IT).

Alan has worked in the translation/localisation industry for over 15 years. As a fluent French & Spanish speaker, he is passionate about breaking down communication barriers, both in a business context and beyond.