Choosing a Translator, by Lucy Brooks, CL, FCIL


  • Would you be happy for a first-year medical student to carry out your
    kidney transplant?

  • Or ask your nephew who’s doing GCSE maths to audit your company’s

  • Or employ someone who last practised law 20 years ago to draft a contract?



Of course not!  Doctors, accountants and lawyers require years of training and experience before they can be expected to do a professional job.  And they have to keep abreast of developments in their profession – a process known as continuing professional development.

   Let us turn the analogy to translation.  A surprising number of people believe someone who has an A-level in French is qualified to translate any manner of documents.   But it takes many more years before the student can be a professional translator.   It may come as a surprise to you that even then someone who is proficient in two languages is not necessarily someone who can translate well between them.  Besides having a thorough knowledge of the language from which he is translating, your translator must have a certain turn of phrase and style of writing in his own language that will ensure your text will read as if it had been written in the target language in the first place. 

   Let us look at the specifics.  You have an important message to make to your clients and potential market.  How do you ensure that your brochure will not contain howlers such as “drive away barrier” for starter inhibitor (found in a car brochure), “achievement exits” for power outputs (found in a translation destined for the electronics industry), and “free bath” for an open-air swimming pool (from a town council’s glossy brochure for a town in the south of Germany)?

   The translating industry in the United Kingdom is unregulated.  Anyone can advertise themselves as a translator, without the need to prove they can understand one word of the source text.  A veritable minefield for businesses!

   For many years professional, practising translators have worked hard to ensure high levels of professionalism in their industry.  Two professional institutes for translators and interpreters exist in this country: the Chartered Institute of Linguists (CIoL) and the Institute of Translators and Interpreters (ITI).  Both strive to ensure their members achieve the highest levels of competence, skills, and professionalism in handling translated texts from one language to another – international communications - and that they practice continuing career development.

   In 2005 the IoL was awarded the Royal Charter and is now known as the Chartered Institute of Linguists.  This means that the Institute has been recognised by the Privy Council and the Monarch as one that strives towards the professionalism of its members.

   Subsequent to achieving this goal, the CIoL, in conjunction with ITI and other professional organisations, has now instituted individual chartered status for its members.  Like the professional status for members of its sister institutes – such as the Institute of Chartered Accountants, The Law Society, the General Medical Council, the Institutes of Shipbrokers, Arbitrators, Foresters and so on - the Institute of Linguists requires of its chartered members the very highest levels of expertise, professionalism, career development, and dedication to the profession.


The constituents of translation

When choosing a translator you need to look into a number of things.   Firstly, the translator should always work into his or her mother tongue.  Many people think that if you can translate from German to English that you can do the same in reverse.  Unless the translator is what I call “cradle bi-lingual”, in other words grew up to maturity speaking both languages equally well, then he or she should only translate into the mother tongue.  That is the language in which they have a “feel” for the style and perception of the language.

  The translator should not only be familiar with the field but have at his fingertips the resources (dictionaries, language forums, links) to find out more.  He does not need to be an engineer to translate a technical manual, nor an accountant to translate an annual report, but he must understand how the machine works, or how the financial world operates.

 Make sure that you and the translator understand what the translation is supposed to achieve. Particularly with short pieces, unless the translator knows the audience being addressed, it’s very difficult for him to set the right tone for the piece.  It is not always possible to use intuition to pick up the tone from reading the source text. 


Agency or Freelancer

Agencies vary enormously in size, from multinationals with offices in New York, Paris and Hong Kong, to mini-agencies run from a home office.  The former will find you a translator on the other side of the world to work on a translation overnight.  It will then be checked for correctness by a native of your country.  Quality can vary from superb to dreadful.  As one of those checkers, I’ve seen translations bordering on both extremes of the range.  It is imperative that you agree on the level of service you will receive; translation, translation quality review, and final proof-reading are all stages of the work, and each will incur a separate charge.

   A small agency will be more restricted in the services it can offer, but will be able to offer a more personal service, and will build up a relationship of trust both with you and with its translators.  The advantage of the small agency is that it will be able to handle many of your multi-language projects; an individual freelancer may not be in a position to do this. If you prefer to work directly with translators be prepared to do the project management yourself.  The fewer language combinations you require the more sense it makes to work with freelancers direct.


Agree a deadline

Allow a reasonable amount of time to do a good job, say a week for a job consisting of around 3000 words.  Even though a text of 3,000 words may only take a day - or two days at most - to do, good translators are usually busy and might not be able to start immediately, so they will appreciate a client who gives them up to a week to do a job of that size.  Good translators also have home lives.  I get two or three phone calls every Friday evening around 5 p.m. from some agency or other wanting 10,000 words translated by Monday.  Three reasons why I say no:  1. I could not do 10,000 words in that time, even if I started right then and there. 2. I’ve got other jobs on the go from more organised clients.  3. I have a family.

  If your job is very large and your deadline very tight, the agency will probably split it among several translators.  The results will vary in quality, and there is the likelihood that terminology will not be consistent.  So the sooner you consult your translation provider, the more likely you are to find the right person. On the other hand, some very short jobs can often be slotted into a translator’s schedule for that day.  Personally, I welcome an occasional change from whatever I’m working on.   


Agree a price

Most translators charge per 1000 words.  Ensure that you understand whether this is based on source or target words.  It is probably best for you to agree on source because this is easier to establish at the outset.  Target words can often work out far more than the source text.  My own language direction of German to English produces around 10-15% more words in English.  For that reason, my source word prices are higher than the target word price.  The same would apply to translators from English into French, for example.

  If it is not possible to agree a word rate (complicated formats, proof-reading, or reviewing services), it may be necessary to discuss an hourly rate.  But both parties need to have an idea of what can be achieved in that hour.  The translator will want full details of what is required, and the client will want to know what he’s letting himself in for.


Providing the original

Is the source text in the form of an MS Word, Excel or Powerpoint?  Personally speaking, Microsoft Office is my preferred format because the software (glossaries and databases) I use can handle it perfectly. Most PDF (in Adobe Acrobat) files can be converted into a Word document with the aid of a conversion program.  More complicated formats require extra processing, so if you want your document presented in Quark or Interleaf or similar, this needs to be discussed from the very outset.  Try to provide an electronic document rather than a poor fax, or faint photocopies.


Regional variation

Portuguese in Brazil is very different from the European sort.  There are lots of Spanish-speaking countries in South America – each has its own variations from the mother country.  Make sure you are choosing a translator who is familiar with your target audience.



Typos happen.  There was a case a while back where a brochure for a lens manufacturer had to be pulped because of a typo on the front cover: It said worlwide.  The translation supplier and the client each thought the other was proofing, so no-one did.


Choosing the wrong translator can have very serious consequences

A colleague who worked for a French translation firm received a telephone call from an industrial bakery that made various types of fruit tart, etc. The bakery had received a letter from a rather irate customer in the UK (a supermarket chain) who had analysed one of their pear and almond tarts and - surprise, surprise - found almonds in it, although an "allergy questionnaire" had been completed, declaring that the products contained no nuts.  The bakery had avoided the "enormous" expense of getting the questionnaire translated professionally by resorting to a dictionary and their school English. When they got to the question "Does your product contain nuts?" they had translated "nuts" as "noix" - and replied, truthfully, that their pear and almond tarts contained no walnuts. “Nuts" should have been rendered in French as "fruits à coque" to ensure it covered the generic term covering all nuts.


Here’s another fine mess

A colleague (member of the Institute of Linguists) was asked to check over a website that had been translated into French.

  Things started badly when the first link on the site was labelled “à la maison” (at home) which has nothing to do with a home page (“accueil” is the accepted way of doing this).  It got worse when it emerged that the website, which concerned the Central African Republic, or CAR in the English version, contained a further howler.  The translator merrily translated CAR each time as VOITURE.


The upshot of all this

When you need a translation, always try to plan ahead.  Interview potential agencies or freelancers with some of the above questions in mind. Ask them which professional organisations they belong to. The IoL and the ITI have entrance qualifications and codes of conduct.  Members who fail to adhere to the code are disbarred.

  In the next few years, there will be more and more Chartered Linguists. Ask if your potential translator has achieved this status.

   If you are still not sure, ask for references, or give your candidate a short test job to do, and have it evaluated.

   If you wish to employ an agency to handle multi-language projects, ask whether it will always use the same translator for each language and ask about the standards by which they operate.  If you prefer to deal directly with the individual translators you may need to create a small team of them to cover all your language requirements.

   Once you have made your choice, treat your translator as part of your team.  He or she will appreciate being included in the planning process, and would probably also benefit from a quick visit to your factory or your offices (if this is feasible) to get a feel for your product or service.

   Arrange reasonable deadlines with your translators.  And if you want to keep them on-board, pay invoices promptly.  Ninety days is too long to expect anyone to wait, let alone a freelancer.

   If you follow at least some of this advice you are unlikely to fall into some of the traps I have cited in this article and will build a lasting and constructive relationship with your translation provider.


© Lucy Brooks, CL, FCI, MITI

Following careers in local government and industrial PR Lucy Brooks has been a freelance translator for 27 years. She is an active member of the Chartered Institute of Linguists, and until 2018 was the Managing Director of eCPD Webinars, accredited provider of CPD for language professionals. She was awarded the newly instituted Chartered Linguist status in early 2008.



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