Translation clients are often buying blind. They seldom know what they are paying for, especially when buying a translation into a language other than their own. Translations are definitely not all born equal, a fact to which anyone who has experienced the pain, amusement or confusion of reading a bad one will attest.
Bad translations may take many forms and vary in the degree of injury. From the high comedy of the Alta Vista Babel Fish machine translation (Menu items: “Nice little bits of pig, drunken” and “Pens at the countrywoman”) to those done by an overzealous, non-native speaker abusing a dictionary (“We are second-rate hotel situated in bowels of greenery...”), or those not bothering with a dictionary at all ("The product must be delivered tempestuously!"), to technically correct, but clunky translations (“Hence, for example, the realization of the modular products as per above corresponds to the functional needs expressed...”), they all send the same message — buyer beware.
What can you do to avoid unintentional comedy, or just making a bad impression?
Look for ATA accreditation.
The American Translator Association attempts to set a standard of quality and accuracy by administering difficult, peer-evaluated tests in specific language combinations. Experienced, ATA-accredited translators evaluate the test to award certification. On average, only 20% of those who attempt it pass the test.
Look at samples.
Find a native speaker of the target language (the language into which the document is translated) who can read samples of the translator’s work. It’s even better if your evaluator also knows the source language (the language from which the document is translated). This little bit of research can tell you a lot about a translator’s skill. Good, smooth writing is a challenge in itself; writing well and conveying meaning into another language adds an entirely new dimension of challenge. Don’t assume that just because someone is a native speaker of a language, they translate well.
Match the document to the translator.
Not all documents are created alike and no translator can translate all documents well. Look at the translator’s specialization and experience. If a translator does not have legal experience, don’t give that translator your sticky legal document. If you want some snazzy marketing text, an expert in legalese may not always be the best choice.
The most common misconception about translation is that it is a mechanical matter, the mere trading of words from one language for the words of another. If you understand the complex ways in which languages and cultures differ from one another, as well as the inherent challenges of writing, you can begin to choose a translator without making the dreaded brutta figura (literal: “ugly figure”; non-literal: “bad impression”).