Posted by: patenttranslator | May 29, 2013

I Am from the Translation Industry and I am Here to Help You Create a Universal Translation Quality Standard

The most terrifying words in the English language are “I am from the government and I am here to help you”, Ronald Reagan, circa 1980.

This is one of the funniest and most effective quotes of Ronald Reagan, because there is obviously a lot of truth in it. The great communicator had quite a few such quotes in his folksy repertoire in his day. He used this particular clever sentence among other things to help to dismantle a modicum of control that people like you and me used to have through their elected representatives over how modern corporations are dominating and defining our lives. He of course later had plenty of help in this respect from Bill Clinton, another communicator par excellence, who was so sincerely and deeply “feeling our pain” that he helped to get rid of the Glass-Steagall Act in 1999 – a law that made it clear that the taxpayers were on the hook to cover the losses of their neighborhood banks, but not the losses of the casino style Wall Street banks. This then made it possible for Wall Street bankers to plunge the whole world into a series of financial and economic crises, which is still very much the current situation in most countries more than 7 years later.

Wall Street bankers made out like the bandits that they are as they were bailed out thanks to the new laws once their fraudulent schemes stopped working because all of the money that they could steal was already stolen, while millions of people lost their jobs, their houses and savings for their retirement as the pensions plans sold to them by the big banks lost their value.


But my blog is supposed to be about translation issues, so I  will try to write mostly about translation.

I already said what I think about the futility of universal “translation standards” in this post a few weeks ago. From what I have seen so far, I believe that attempts to design a standard that would ensure a high quality of translation are mostly transparent attempts at self-serving marketing. 

But as I found out from a recent article in the ATA (American Translators Association) Chronicle by David C. Rumsey, an ATA director who serves on the ATA’s Standards Committee, “Whether we like it or not, translation standards are coming our way”.

I also found out from this and other materials that there are already many translation standards in existence which “the translation industry” is trying to throw at customers hoping that one of them will finally turn into a useful marketing gimmick.

These indispensable standards for quality in translation include (but are not limited to, as a patent lawyer would put it in a patent claim formulation of a new inventive step): EN15038, created by the European Committee for Standardization (CEN) in 2006, Active Standard ASTM F2575, a US standard for translation providers, available from the American Society for Testing and Materials (ASTM), while another standard currently being developed by the International Organization for Standardization (ISO), is called IS 17100. Also, in addition to the EN-15038 European Quality Standard, there is also the ISO 9000 series standard of the International Organization for Standardization, the Italian UNI 10754 standard, the German DIN 2345 Standard, Austrian standards Önorm D 1200 and Önorm D 1201, Canadian CAN CGSB121.10 standard, and I am sure that quite a few other ones are already being developed, from Denmark and Norway to Mongolia and Papua New Guinea.

In a familiar tone, David C. Rumsey’s article states that: …. “standards are actually here to help you – whether you are an individual translator working with an end client or a large multinational. They are intended to clarify the translation process for all parties involved: the translator, the agency, and the buyer” (emphasis added by Mad Patent Translator).

I did not realize that translators desperately need to have the translation process clarified to them by one of these selfless, learned translation standard committees, did you?

So I will try to clarify how I see them.

If you take a closer look at all of these standards, they are mostly developed to convince customers that only “the translation industry” (i.e. the relative small segment of translation industry represented by translation agencies) adheres to “best practices”, for example by using a “separate reviser” for every translation, preferably in several steps (the more steps, at least on paper or website propaganda, the better) and having each reviser sign off on the quality of the translation, which is something that individual translators, who based on this ingenious method are merely relatively unimportant peons engaged in the initial rough translation process during the first stage of one of the dozen mysterious quality standards, are unlikely to do.

As I wrote in my post about the so called “four-eyes principle”, this particular principle is likely to work only under certain predefined circumstances, which in fact means that it usually does not work at all, because the “separate reviser” is typically an underpaid CC (Clueless Coordinator) working for the agency, or an equally underpaid beginning translator who is willing to work for peanuts to gain valuable experience.

Personally, I don’t see great future for translation standards. Clients are not stupid. They can see through marketing propaganda.

One commenter on my blog this week put it best:”Few end clients believe marketing propaganda, because it is just that. They might be convinced the first time around, but if burned, they are unlikely to return to agencies providing poor translations and/or service.”   

To which I would only add, once burned, clients are unlikely to return to a translation agency, regardless of which “quality standards”, “certificate of compliance” and “quality edits” and how many “layers of control” it swears by.


Here is my self-serving advice to clients who want to achieve the best possible quality standard in translation in 3 simple steps:

1. Stay away from translation agencies and their marketing gimmicks. Instead, try to find a freelance translator who in your opinion is really good based on his or her last translation. This will probably take a few tries.

2. Keep sending your translations to this individual translator. If you do that, this lucky translator will eventually learn everything that he or she needs to know to do a very good job for you just about every time. Translators are not magicians, they sometime make mistakes. But if you work with an individual translator instead of a translation agency, you can always call or e-mail this person directly any time and let him or her know if something is wrong. With an agency …. it’s not that simple. They like to keep the translators under deep cover because if the clients knew who the translators were … what is there to prevent them from cutting out the middleman?

3.  Treat your translators as valued professionals, which basically means three things: pay them a decent rate, don’t give them impossible deadlines, and  pay your bills on time (at least most of the time).

That’s it. You have successfully created a hand-crafted quality standard specially designed for your particular translation needs, a quality standard that can’t be beat. And unlike the EN15038 standard, the ASTM F2575 standard, the IS 17100 standard, the ISO 9000 standard, the UNI 10754 standard, the DIN 2345 standard, the D 1200 and D 1201 standards, as well as the CAN CGSB121.10 and other ingenious and absolutely indispensable standards still in the pipeline, this standard is no marketing gimmick.


  1. To improve on your simplified, hand-crafted translation standard, I recommend for most texts to hire a freelance translator team in which one provides the translation and the other checks the finished product for errors. I always cringe when I am told that my translation goes directly to the end consumer without third party proofreading. How often do you write emails with the spellchecker turned on, read them once, read them twice, hit the send button and somehow you still missed a mistake. Not very often perhaps, but it happens.

    A trusted team of translators can also swap roles and thus even out peaks and valleys in orders. They will both be itimately familiar with special customer terminology and can even affort each other to take a well-deserved break once in a while with customer bases covered.

    Just food for thought and a voice promoting third party proofreading because it benefits all parties involved.


  2. Absolutely, provided that the client is willing to pay for it and time is not a problem.

    But in my line of work (translation of patents, mostly from Japanese, German and French), they are usually not willing to do that and they often need the translation ASAP.


  3. I really like your suggestions, Steve! We should add to (3) to also pay a living wage (i.e. a decent word rate).

    The problem is that the reviewer usually only checks spelling/grammar/punctuation/readability, which is the reason why writers always have an editor. So I think the four-eye principle has value in terms of noticing those typos. But as a means of improving the actual translation? I doubt it.


  4. 1. “We should add to (3) to also pay a living wage”


    2. “So I think the four-eye principle has value in terms of noticing those typos. But as a means of improving the actual translation? I doubt it.”

    Exactly. The proper role of a proofreader of the commercial type of translations that most translators provide is to look for typos and omissions.

    If a proofreader needs to do more than that, this means that the wrong translator was picked for the job.


    • I don’t quite agree with your last statement. Whenever the budget and deadline allows I enjoy working with an excellent tag team. Even though I consider myself to be good translator, my colleagues may look at my work and come up with brilliant alternative translations of tricky phrases that truly improve readability and style. Often they are able to do that simply because they look at the text with fresh eyes. Of course that is more applicable for marketing texts and less so for technical translations.

      But even for highly technical texts I like having the extra safety net of a sanity check just to make sure that I didn’t miss or missinterpreted some little thing. Seeing the edited product also helps me honing my translation skills because it allows me to potentially detect patterns of errors and to put my own quality checks in place to improve my finished product.

      I truly believe that interactive tag-teaming adds value to the product and most of my customers (even translation agencies) realize that and will pay for the added quality. Moreover, the system has also helped me to improve my own translation style and speed over the years.


  5. “I truly believe that interactive tag-teaming adds value to the product and most of my customers (even translation agencies) realize that and will pay for the added quality.”

    Maybe it works like this in your line of work, but not really in patent translation in my opinion.

    Imagine the following situation: You are testifying about your translation of a crucial patent in court proceedings. The attorney for the opposing party, who wants to invalidate a granted patent, asks:”Did you personally translate this patent document, which in Evidence A, Item 1 you certified as your translation and provided with your signature?”

    And your answer is:”Well, yes, but I originally called the blue widget a green widget, the square circle was originally a round rectangular, plus there are about dozen sentences that I translated one way, but after a discussion with an interactive tag-team of other translators, we decided to rewrite them to improve my translation style.”

    (You’re under oath, so you’d better tell the truth.)

    Your testimony in a lawsuit about the invalidation of an important piece of evidence has just been rendered useless …. and you have delivered a major victory to the opposing party.

    There are many possible translation of just about every sentence when you translate between language as disparate as Japanese and English. For example, there is generally no singular or plural in Japanese, personal pronouns (I, you, he, it) are usually missing, the verbs may have no tense as a crossbreed between infinitive and gerund is used instead, the subject is replaced by a much broader category called “theme” which may or may not be the same thing as the subject in English, and it may or may not be quite clear which verb the “theme” is referring to among several verbs strategically located in various parts of a long sentence, and so on, and so forth.

    In spite of all that, a patent translator worth his salt must be able to defend every single choice he or she made.


    • Very valid points for your specialization!


      • As are your points for your field.

        You can’t create a universal standard that could be applied to something that is called “translation” any more than you could create a universal standard for “writing” or “thinking”.


    • This blog needs a “Like” button!


      • It has a like button …. please click on it ….. PLEASE!


  6. What a pity that the people who are reading this blog are probably all translators – if translators really want to change things, they’ll have to write their thoughts somewhere where the potential clients will read them, otherwise, its just a way of letting off steam.


  7. Most regular readers of my silly blog probably are translators, but I believe that a significant percentage are not, and some of them may even be my clients or my potential clients.


  8. >..having each reviser sign off on the quality of the translation, which is something that individual translators, who based on this ingenious method are merely relatively unimportant peons engaged in the initial rough translation process during the first stage of one of the dozen mysterious quality standards, are unlikely to do.<


    Thank you, Steve, for taking on this "standards" nonsense in public. I sometimes get the impression that "the translation industry" looks forward to a magical day when every conceivable phoneme will be databased and translations can be done by multiple-choice.

    I particularly like point 2 of your translation standard. When translating a patent or legal document for an agency, it always frustrates the hell out of me when I have a specific question about a novel technical element, a particular point of law, a legal strategy, or an obvious error in the original text, and the "CC" refuses to pass the question on to the client and either a) gives me his/her own (clearly bullshitted) answer to the question, or b) tells me to "just do my best" (the implication being that I am not doing that already).


  9. Yes, it has been my experience that most patent lawyers don’t mind being bothered by questions like these, and some in fact love such questions (which makes me wonder … do they charge the client for time spent answering them?), but most agencies hate them because it means extra work and, most importantly, because they are afraid that their ignorance and/or identity of the actual translator could be revealed.


    • >Do they charge the client for the time spent answering them?<

      LOL, do you really need to ask?


  10. “…translation standards, are coming our way.” Translation standards comma??? Coming our way: when? Whose standards?


  11. Hi Steve,

    May I remind you of my article on EN 15308 and the Four-Eyes Principle for BDÜ (it is in German, but will probably be translated soon):

    There have been some developments in Germany, since the major certifying body TÜV SÜD withdrew from the certification programme. (A group of “certified“ translation agencies started a cease-and-desist letter campaign against “only registered“ agencies, which reflected badly on TÜV SÜD and the whole certification program.)

    Currently, there are about 40 certified LSPs with certificates expiring soon and round 300 registered LSPs, for more than 35,000 “unregistered” and “uncertified” translators in the country.

    PS: Thanks for “My Funny Valentine”, very nice!


  12. Hi Valerij:

    I started reading your article …. but, don’t take it the wrong way …. your articles are too damn long. I generally read long articles in languages like German or Japanese or Russian only if somebody pays me good money to do that.

    But this part of your comment speaks volumes:

    “Currently, there are about 40 certified LSPs with certificates expiring soon and round 300 registered LSPs, for more than 35,000 “unregistered” and “uncertified” translators in the country (Germany).”

    This kind of certification may be a somewhat useful marketing gimmick for certain kind of “LSPs”, but that is probably all that it is ever going to be.

    If you get your article translated and can provide a summary in English, hopefully no more than about a thousand words, I would be happy to publish it also here as a guest post to keep the discussion about “translation standards” going on a transatlantic level.

    Glad you liked the song. This recording was made in 1957!!!


  13. Yes, sorry, Steve, it is an article, but I have an idea for a blog post.

    The figures certainly speak volumes. The initial idea of EN 15308 was something different, it was rather a wide range of ideas – from the good intentions that hell is paved with to subtle attempts to get the better of the competition and drive freelance translators from the market. You need at least “four eyes“ to be able to operate on the market. Tell your lawyer or tax accountant that he/she is not competent if working alone. That accounts for the term LSP, which, at least as far as the definition is concerned, doesn’t take freelance translations out of the equation.

    For a client though, who never heard of EN 15308, keeping to the regulations would mean doubling the work effort, increasing the turnover time and cost, whereas the benefits of a better quality remain unproven and are, in fact, nothing more than a marketing claim.

    But enough of that.

    My favorite „Funny Valentine“ was from 1975 (with Gerry Mulligan at Carnegie): The Soviet Melodiya label produced a copy of the original Sony record in the 80s. At that time, I didn’t know Chet Baker could sing too.


    • I see a lot of old songs in English and French preserved on Youtube under the Russian name “Nostalgiya”, with the “ya” in azbuka.


  14. Great post Steve. Thanks for explaining why these standards are just a smokescreen to prop up non-value-adding agencies.

    Speaking of adding value, the ATA is the American Translators’ Association, not the American Translators Industry. You’re welcome 😉


  15. You are right, once again, and it wasn’t even a French word.

    Although the ATA (the apostrophe at the end of the word is not used much on this side of the pond) gets most of its money from translators, it is mostly run by the translation industry.

    So it was a classic example of a Freudian slip.


    • Ah, that’s interesting, and here I was thinking it was a translators’ association…


    • In what way is the ATA mostly run by the “translation industry”? At the last ATA conference the majority of the attendees were freelancers and so are the people who serve on the board. I certainly see it as an organization for translators (and interpreters as a minority) who are dealing with translation industry issues.


      • Well, it’s just my opinion, and while it is true that the last time I went to an ATA conference was in 1998, based on what I read in the ATA Chronicle, it is very much run by what is called “the translation industry” rather than individual translators (except when these translators have become a part of and identify with what is called “the translation industry”).

        The article I am citing in this post is a good case in point as it represents perfectly the one-sided, propagandistic type of articles I have come to expect from the ATA Chronicle. Instead of attempting to provide a serious analysis of the issue, it is a puff piece promoting the party line (our standards are gooood, ignoring them is baaaad!).

        The unmentioned agenda behind these “quality standards” is to make it seem that the quality of translations of individual translators who do not subscribe to these ingenious “quality ensuring methods” is inferior, unlike the quality of translation translations produced by agencies, although the opposite is often true.

        Perhaps other translators will care to weigh in by adding a few comments on this issue here.


  16. “I was thinking it was a translators’ association…”

    Since that was the original idea, they decided to keep the name.

    I know, it’s kind of confusing.


  17. Couldn’t agree more (on the standards issue, which is the core of your post). The question was once raised at our local Certified Translators Assn., and luckily most of us voted it down, because the review issue would mean having our translations validated by other certified peers (none of these lame [clueless] reviewers used by agencies would be acceptable to us), and who would then bear the cost of this process?


  18. I am curious, who or what body is certifying translators in Uruguay?


    • It’s the University of the Republic – UdelaR – in Montevideo, Uruguay, after completing a four-year translation course at the University’s Law School, which entails passing monthly written tests, failing which you have to sit for, and pass, an examination at the end of each year, for each of the subjects. After the University issues the diploma as certified translator in whatever pair (only 5 official languages are recognized for a certified translator’s degree: English, French, Italian, German and Portuguese), you have to register your degree, signature and professional seal with the Supreme Court of Justice. And then you are set to go. You also have to register your degree, signature and seal with the main public offices which normally process documentation. For all other languages, certified translators are required to work with “idóneos”, or persons proficient in the other languages, registered as such at the Cert. Translators Assn (CTPU), who cosign the translation with you but it’s you as certified translator the one who is ultimately responsible for the translation. Any document drawn up in a foreign language has to be translated into Spanish by a certified translator in order to be processed before any public office or bureau. This is a constitutional and legal requirement.
      I trust that I have satisfied your curiosity, Steve… 🙂


  19. Thank you very much, Nelida for your thorough response.

    So if for instance somebody like me wants to translate Japanese patents to Spanish in your country, let’s say this person graduated in Japanese studies from a well known University in Mexico or Spain, could such a person become certified in some manner in your country?


    • Not at this time. As I said, there are only 5 languages where people can graduate as certified translators, through the previously described process. You would have to translate the patent first into English (or into any other of the 4 officially recognized languages for certified translation), and then a certified translator of English would have to translate it into Spanish. A Japanese text can only be translated by an “idóneo” registered with the CTPU and validated by a local certified translator.


  20. Based on your response, it looks like I’m better off in the good old US of A, at least in this respect, verdad? [I think that’s how you say it in Spanish, although I don’t speak Spanish].

    But provided that the respective certified translators from Japanese to English and from English to Spanish adhere strictly either to the EN15038 standard, the ASTM F2575 standard, the IS 17100 standard, the ISO 9000 standard, the UNI 10754 standard, the DIN 2345 standard, the D 1200, D 1201 standards, or the CAN CGSB121.10, I am sure that the result would be excellent.

    What translators really need is a new method based on an approved universal translation quality standard.

    We just have to figure out which one.


    • No doubt about it. You’re definitely better off where you are. And yes, you asked it very idiomatically in Spanish. Are you sure you don’t speak it?
      And as to the standards, are you absolutely sure you did not leave any one out? 🙂


  21. “And as to the standards, are you absolutely sure you did not leave any one out?”

    I probably have left out something important.

    In some respects my standards are exceedingly low. But even so, they are much better than all of the standards listed in my post combined.


    • With that comment, I was pulling your leg, of course. (My twisted idea of Monday humor, LOL). And you are so right!


  22. Insightful as always, Steve.

    I love the way you describe the fraudulent practices of translation agencies.


  23. Thanks, Suhash.


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