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Spanish Translation Services - What You Need to Know

The following article is meant to provide research results and insights into the translation industry for those who seek professional translation services, and to demystify how professional translations are done. While our primary concern is Spanish/English translation services, this article is equally valid for other language combinations.

Who is doing your translations when you pay?

Literally anybody could be doing your translation when you pay for translation services. The translation industry is a sort of Wild Wild West with no oversight whatsoever in the United States. The professional translation services you receive, whether they are for business or for personal reasons, are performed by people with varying levels of expertise, and you almost never know who is actually doing the work. The minimum qualification for a translator is some level of confidence about being able to translate the two languages they are charged to work on. Anybody can call themselves a professional translator and start translating, and there would be no official, regulatory agency to question them.

How do you find a high quality translation company?

This requires research. The reality is that the professional-looking company website you find online might only have a single proprietor with no language training, perhaps a single person sitting on their bed redirecting documents to the highest bidder at one of the translation posting sites like Proz.com and TranslatorsCafe.com. Whether the website purveyor is just a soloist or a team of consummate language services professionals, this is what typically happens: (1) You search the Internet and click on a website link, (2) Once you're on the site, a dialog box pops up asking "How can we help you?", or you browse the site, (3) You see a professional-looking site and read verbiage that makes you feel secure about the quality of the company and their services, (4) You send your documents and pay, it all seems okay, then (5) the company places an ad for the cheapest translator on a worldwide bidding site, or they use somebody they already know who meets their pricing criteria, or the person you're talking to does the translation themselves, and finally, (6) They send you whatever they receive or do themselves.

Here are the potential issues:

Unknown Document Security and Privacy

It's almost always an illusion to believe that the document you send to a translation company is kept private and secure. It's usually stored on a computer unencrypted, with multiple copies being created and transmitted as email attachments. It's important to note that nobody deletes your document as they pass it around, rather they multiply your document each time it's sent. It might be sent to dozens of translators or outsourcers who bid on your translation. Meanwhile you assume your document hasn't left the company. These bidding translators and outsourcers can work from any corner of the globe. Your Spanish translation might be done in Madrid, or it might be done in India or China, but often it's sent to outsourcers in India or China because they will do the translation cheaply, regardless of the fact that the Spanish/English translation is not crafted by a native speaker of either language. Also, more and more translations are being farmed out to lowest-bid document handlers (academically prepared or not) who simply edit the results they get from Google Translate.

If your document contains private or confidential business or personal information, the lack of document security and privacy can become serious. The ramifications of having your information "out in the world" are beyond the scope of this article. It's not hyperbole; it's what's going on. Even so, it's worth emphasizing that not every company and individual ignores security and privacy issues. The problem is that you as the customer don't usually know the inner workings of the company you find online, nor the knowledge and practices of the individuals who will be storing, handling, and multiplying your document in-house or across the Internet. There are also many cases of "companies" appearing and disappearing, especially in the ad results when you search.

Unknown Translation Quality

When you receive your translation, how do you know if it's unacceptable, poor, good, very good, or excellent? The only way to know for sure is to have a qualified person look it over, unless you are a qualified person yourself. Usually people search for translation services precisely because they are not qualified to do the translation, or don't know the target language at all, or there are no resources available to you to do translations fast (as happens with legal translations), whether it's Spanish, or some other language. When you go online, you find paid advertising results bundled with organic search engine results. Organic results are ranked by search engines using algorithms that examine website code and links and other factors that often change dramatically, but they do not directly measures the quality of the services provided by the purveyors of the websites they list. In short, the company you find online is almost completely dependent on your luck, and their luck for grabbing your attention. Logically, with no direct measures of company quality in a completely free and unregulated industry where the workers typically reside in any country with any level of skill and education, from no qualifications to impressive qualifications, and given that translation customers are rarely able to verify translation quality personally, as a translation services client, you are very likely to have no idea how good the translation will be from any particular company you find online. And checking for feedback online can be very misleading since there are strategies for extinguishing bad comments on websites, and companies with long histories and a lot of clients are far more likely to see a few disgruntled folks making comments, just statistically.

One salient feature of our research into Spanish translation quality is that two translations of the same content can both be grammatically and lexically correct, yet one translation is clearly better in terms of native-like syntax, style and lexical precision. For example, Spanish is generally considered an active voice language. A good Spanish translation is often one in which the translator changes a passive English voice into an active Spanish voice while remaining fully faithful to the source document. Further, word choice from among synonyms, as well as syntax and phraseology and common collocations (words typically appearing together) are often very different between translations, with one result clearly more natural sounding than the other - even when both translations are "acceptable" Spanish from the perspective of grammaticality, and "correct" from a prescriptive perspective because there are no formal linguistic errors per se. An "error-free" guarantee doesn't mean a translation will be more than marginally acceptable. These findings suggest that a good translator is also a good writer, which means translation is both an art and a skill, which in turn makes quality difficult to operationalize and quantify.

What is certain from our research is that translations are usually sold on price not value since value, which is dependent on quality, is rarely known by the buyer. Translation companies also appear and disappear leaving us with the impression that some are fly-by-night operations. We've also come to understand that guarantees of quality on websites are simply personal promises that the "best" translators will be used and that the "highest quality" translation will be delivered. We have not found a correlation between promises and value. We also examined online complaints. The number of complaints online were not correlated with low translation quality - sometimes quite the opposite. Nor were quality promises correlated with value in terms of price for services.

Symbols of Quality. Symbols of quality, like corporate badges and affiliations, are not particularly useful. For example, the presence the American Translator's Association (ATA) corporate membership logo on a translation company website does not mean that translation you receive from that company will be high quality. There is no relation between the ATA logo and the quality of the translation you will receive from any particular company, zero. ATA corporate membership is simply purchased. Likewise, the appearance of ISO symbols does not guarantee translation quality. In fact, ISO standards can add unnecessary costs to translation services if every required step is followed, and the quality of the language produced is not an ISO-certifiable deliverable.

Price and Translation Teams

Many translation companies indicate that they will use a certified translator, editor, and proofreader, yet charge you the lowest price. This is counterintuitive on its face, so we checked it out. Given the rates that qualified, experienced translators charge, the company offering the lowest price is very unlikely to be able to converge three qualified, experienced language professionals on your translation at the price they are offering. If you get a low bid from a company that asserts that they only use in-house translators, be wary. It's far more expensive to maintain in-house translators. If the same company translates more than a handful of languages, you can be sure that they are outsourcing. Outsourcing isn't always bad, however. Sometimes it's necessary. The reliability of a translation company in delivering high-quality translations really depends on the company's hiring practices, which is not something they are typically comfortable sharing.

The cheap certified translation market

The "certified Spanish translation" market is particularly subject to the above concerns, especially concerns around fly-by-night operations and your translation finding its way to the lowest-bidding, fastest-working stranger the company can find. It's worth knowing that you never need to pay for certified Spanish translation services, unless you want to. You can do them yourself. We are currently developing materials to help you to complete fully legal certified Spanish translations very inexpensively. Please check back.

How to find the best translation company

Since the translation industry is unregulated, finding a high-quality translation company is hit or miss. This is especially true for customers who only do one or a few translations. Our main purpose for researching Spanish translation services was to help students and researchers involved in academic activities locate the best services currently available (2018); however, to complete the picture for our members and provide suggestions for the broader community, we contacted big and small businesses that regularly rely on Spanish translations. By combining our own research results with feedback from companies that regularly use translation services, we are generating lists of companies that are most consistent in terms of high-quality translation services. These lists are currently available to members only.

Disclaimer

The Spanish Academic Network does not perform translation services, nor does it promote the services of any specific company or individual. We can provide a set of lists to help you locate the services that best fit your needs. As stated above, these lists are based on our unbiased Spanish translation quality reviews and feedback from companies that use translation services regularly. While our members provide us data on the companies if they use them, no member of the Spanish Academic Network necessarily endorses any company you find in these lists. These lists are improved and updated regularly.

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