Are you settling for “fluent” enough when hiring a translator or interpreter?

Interpreting Services, Translation Services

We wrote a post a while back about how a lot of companies see being bilingual as enough for someone to send in a resume and be considered for work as a translator or interpreter. Some even went as far as to say “experience preferred” or something to that effect. Since that post, we’ve heard other company owners of similar businesses say that one has to be “fluent” or even has to have “studied abroad” to have the cultural experience one needs to do a good job. This frustrates us completely. A lot of what we do is client education in our industry, but what’s hard to stomach is when a business owner of a translation and interpreting company doesn’t really define fluency.

Everyone seems to have a different idea of what “being fluent” in another language really means. Some think it has to do with a college degree in a language, while others think that a cultural experience abroad will do the trick. We’re certainly not these people. Sure, these two things help one to master a language, but they are certainly not enough to be “fluent” in another language, let alone in the register needed to perform as a translator or interpreter. One might have visited Mexico City one summer, but that doesn’t mean one lived in Mexico. This is where finding a true professional comes into play, as a lot of people exaggerate their experience and fluency on resumes and in interviews. The American Translators Association publishes a set of brochures for clients interested in buying translation and interpreting services called “Getting it Right.” In fact, they just published a new one for interpreting, and we were pleased to receive it this week as a resource for our own clients. In skimming through it, we were happy to see that one of the main points made in “Interpreting: Getting it Right” is that fluency does not mean that a bilingual person can communicate well in two languages. The section warns, “Red Alert! Untrained ‘bilinguals’ are a major risk in an interpreting situation.” However, we know that a lot of people don’t understand this, and that’s why we have a lot of client education to tackle every year. Luckily, our industry is becoming more and more respected and people are seeing the advantages of utilizing professionals (read: those who have training and specialize in their field of work).

So, it irks us greatly when business owners in the T&I industry don’t make this clear. Sure, everyone has to start somewhere with training and experience, but you certainly wouldn’t call on someone to interpret for a surgical procedure who doesn’t have training and knowledge of key medical terms. So, fluency is only one part of this puzzle, and one’s definition of the word needs to be quite clear. One might be able to have a conversation in Portuguese about an opinion on a certain political topic, but that doesn’t make one the right person to interpret for a political debate. If your mother pulled your tooth when you were a child, does that mean she could double as a dentist?

Translation and interpretation are professional fields and not everyone who translates (renders written words and meaning from one language to another) likes or is qualified to interpret (render spoken words and meaning from one language to another). So, in order to continue gaining respect for our industry and ourselves as professionals, it only makes sense to hold our contractors and staff on a pedestal and keep the standards as high as we can. We like to use a thought that a colleague often shares at the office when it comes to tax time every year: “I am a professional in what I do. And my accountant is a professional in what she does. So, let me do my job and she can do hers, and we’re all happy.” There’s nothing like utilizing a service from someone who does not professionally provide them. Can you imagine hiring a math major to do your taxes and expect that he knows exactly what to itemize on your deductions?

Just this week, we received a translated article for publication that our client needed to have revised because the publisher turned it down. Apparently there were too many grammatical errors and terminology issues for it to be considered. In order to find the best linguist for the job, our staff had to find a proofreader in our database who specialized in translation of orthodontics texts from Portuguese to English. This person has experience, training and education in the field. Read: this person is not just “fluent” in two languages. The client received the revisions and was very pleased to be able to resubmit the article for publication. With the cleaned-up file, we also sent our client a copy of ATA’s “Translation: Getting it Right.” This way, she won’t have to go through such a stressful situation next time she needs to translate an article for publication, and she can feel better about paying only once for a professional service. Surely, paying once is enough if you are buying a high-quality product, right?

A lot of people want translations for pennies, but with any good product or service, if you want something good, you have to pay more than a few pennies. ATA’s brochure on translation makes a great point: “Translation prices range from 1 to 10, and while high prices do not necessarily guarantee high quality, we submit that below a certain level you are unlikely to receive a text that does credit to your company and its products. If translators are netting little more than a babysitter, they are unlikely to be tracking your market with the attention it deserves.”

So, if you’re buying these services, how do you make sure to get the best quality translation or interpreting for your brand, company, patient or colleague? If you provide these services, how do you define your professional qualities as more than being just “fluent”? Have you ever had to revise a badly translated text or pay for a text to be revised?

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