The Deceit of the Translation Sample

“Before I do business with you, you need to prove your worth to me by translating the attached presentation into German and delivering it back no later than Monday. I am timing you, ready, set, go…”

It was Friday afternoon when our lead generation team received this email. They passed it on to a sales rep who, unable to get hold of this prospect by phone, turned it to a project manager to proceed. Subsequently, the request hit my desk for approval and was quickly stopped in its tracks due to the fact that there had been no previous involvement with the prospect.

Although the above is not typical, we do receive now and then calls from prospective clients asking us to perform free translation samples early in the evaluation process. The intent is typically to gauge the quality and workmanship of our service. Other vendors often comply which encourages this practice in the industry. But before you ask for your next translation sample, think about what it is actually buying you.

When any company is faced with a test, it is natural for it to put its best foot forward. This requires having the most qualified translator do the work.

Once the test is accepted and a company is selected, the project starts. At that point a project manager is assigned to manage tasks. Translation tasks may involve multiple translators different from the original translator that worked on the sample. This is not to intentionally deceive the newly acquired client, but often is due to miscommunication or scheduling, availability and cost tradeoffs. The end result will still be acceptable if you have chosen a competent vendor, but the sample test suddenly looses all its meaning.

As a cartoon once put it: Individuals can and do make a difference, but it takes teamwork to really mess things up! Therefore a better indicator of vendors’ abilities is not at the micro level, but rather at the macro level. We suggest the following steps:

  1. Narrow down your search to no more than 3 potential vendors based on their abilities to meet your language, schedule, technology, process and price needs.
  2. Ask for references, preferably from clients that they have executed similar projects for. Do your due diligence. Call their clients and ask pertinent questions relating to your requirements. Find out about any problems they encountered and how they were addressed and resolved.
  3. Ask the vendor how often they perform customer satisfaction surveys and request to see the results for the past 3 years. Make sure you can assure yourself of their ability and commitment to retain clients and satisfy budget, schedule and quality requirements.
  4. Ask if you will have a dedicated project manager to work on your project and to interview her. A good project manager trumps a good translator. She will be charged with staffing your projects and making them successful. If you are to test someone, test the project manager’s technical skill, communications abilities and work ethics. The project manager’s SAT scores have more relevance than a translation sample!
  5. If you are still not sure about which vendor to choose, consider performing a paid pilot project starting with the most promising vendor. The pilot should have similar requirements as your actual project in all aspects except volume.

Measuring the success of your pilot project depends not only on accurate translations, but on other important factors like responsiveness, timely delivery, meeting technical requirements, willingness to adapt and meet your specific needs, accurate billing and a mutually enjoyable work relationship.

A translation sample is useful only if you are hiring an individual translator to perform well defined translation-only tasks and you are assured that all translation tasks forwarded to this translator will be executed only by him.

When choosing a localization vendor, replace your microscope with a kaleidoscope and focus it on your vendor’s macro abilities — client successes, background, culture, ethics and the project manager assigned to you, rather than a small translation sample. The end result will be much more appealing!

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