Certified translator can prevent marketing embarrassment

Looking for a translator who can make your written material sing in a foreign language the way it does in English? The letters ATA after the translator’s name can provide a clue about the person’s ability.

Like every professional organization worth its salt, the American Translators Association has a code of conduct and quality standards that set the bar for performance and help members separate themselves from the pack. Without standards, you might run into the problem Coors had when its slogan “Turn it loose” became “Suffer from diarrhea” in the Spanish translation.

Headquartered in Virginia, the ATA is made up of more than 8,500 freelance translators.

About four years ago, it established a division encompassing translation companies, according to Suzanne Robinson, the owner of Denver-based Liaison Multilingual. By the end of 2001, there were 523 small- to medium-sized members in the Translation Company Division.

Now the ATA/TCD is putting together industry standards to guide company members in the way they operate with clients and the translators with whom they subcontract; and to give clients confidence in the translation company’s ability to do the job.

“The primary reason for doing this is to encourage higher standards within our own industry, and to encourage all companies that are willing to subscribe to these standards to work at a quality level,” says Robinson, who is heading the effort.

Developing standards

Developing standards that will satisfy a cross-section of the membership and still be true to its goal is no easy task, and Robinson and her team have invested three years in the project to date. Fortunately, the work done by organizations in Europe and Canada has served as a model.

Last November, Robinson met with representatives of the translation company associations of the European Community, the British Standards Institution and the Canadian translation companies. From this research, she says, has come “a document that is appropriate for companies in the U.S.”

The ATA/TCD quality standards are still a work in progress and must be approved by the TCD membership at the June conference in Chicago and in the fall at the annual meeting of the ATA in Atlanta.

The finished product will cover such issues as ethics and professional conduct when dealing with clients, translators and interpreters, other independent contractors and competitors; confidentiality, so important in this age of lax security; quality requirements and how these requirements are met; quality management, which includes inspection, testing and editing of the finished translation; and staff training, among other items.

The quality standards point to the challenge of selecting a translator who is right for your needs. “There can be hidden complications that those of us who don’t speak a particular language would never know and could not easily evaluate,” says Robinson.

Fluency in a language is no guarantee of a person’s ability to produce a proper translation. It’s not enough that the translator speaks the language; he or she should be able to speak the particular dialect of the language that you need.

In addition, a skilled translator should have knowledge of any subject matter that’s outside the norm — especially where complicated scientific or legal material is involved — and an appreciation of the culture of the target audience.

“A lot of things can go wrong that you can never imagine going wrong” if you’re not plugged into the culture, Robinson notes. Gerber learned this lesson when it put its baby food on the market in Africa, using a picture of a beautiful baby on its packaging, as it does in the United States.

Unfortunately, in Africa many people can’t read English and labels are designed to show what’s inside the package.

It’s just this kind of experience that the ATA/TCD wants to help clients avoid. “Right now, a client has no way of knowing if the translation they got is good,” says Robinson. “And they sometimes have a difficult time going back to the translation company and getting help with whatever may have gone wrong.”

This should change once the standards are set and translation companies buy into them. Clients then would be empowered to seek redress from the company if negative feedback flowed from the work. However, unlike the Canadian standards, the ATA/TCD standards will have no legal weight.

“We’re not trying to replace the legal structure of the country, we’re just trying to offer a guideline that a company can comply with and feel bound by,” says Robinson.

While there is good support for the standards overall, compliance will be voluntary and some TCD members will choose to take a pass, says Robinson.

But once the standards have been established and companies state their compliance on all contracts, what should result is a key element in all business dealings: increased confidence between client and company.

In the meantime, beware slogans that don’t travel well, such as the Kentucky Fried Chicken’s “finger-lickin’ good,” which translated in Chinese to “eat your fingers off.”

P.J. Dinner