How to Choose a Translation Vendor (Long)

A shorter version of this paper is available.When a company identifies a need for documentation to be translated into new languages for both existing customers and new customers it is important to ensure you choose the right translation vendor. In doing so, it is necessary to identify options (with associated costs and risks) for meeting current demands, processes for handling future translation requests, and a big-picture strategy for documentation translation needs across product lines and worldwide needs.

To begin with, let’s first identify what a translation vendor does. Or at least what a vendor is assumed to do for the purposes of this paper. A vendor:

  • Works with you to manage people and processes
  • Finds the right translators based on your needs
    • Regional needs (Spanish EU/Mexico, French Canada/France, Portuguese EU/Brazil, English US/Australia/England/Canada)
    • Technical needs (Science/Medical/Finance/Tech)
  • Works with desktop publishing
  • Verifies all final content against expectations

Let us also identify the difference between translation and localization. It’s crucial to ensure you get the lingo right. Translation means taking words in one language and translating them to another. Localization means taking concepts, images, ideas, content and making it all understandable to the target user Localization also includes “locale” for a specific language or terminology. For instance Latin American Spanish is localized differently than European Spanish. Note that the term “L10N” (Localization … 10 letters between “L” and “N”) is often used generically to cover everything, including translation. Most translation vendors only talk about L10N, assuming that you know that it “includes” the translation process.

Much of the value of translated content is in the translation memory and the associated tools that can work with it. To further clarify terms used in this paper, let’s look at what a translation memory is and what we mean by translation tools and how they work.

This content was originally delivered for Tekom in Germany and at Lavacon in Hawaii.

Publishing Smarter offers consulting services related to the selection of translation vendors. Contact us for more information.

Translation memory

This is basically a database that contains all previously translated data. It contains source and translated info but does not relate to the formatted (DTP) output. This should always be provided to you by the vendor. You should agree with the vendor as to when it is delivered to you though. Some customers prefer quarterly deliveries, others with each new release of content. Always have your own copy. If a vendor won’t provide it, don’t deal with that vendor. This is the first rule for translation vendor selection.

The translation memory is most useful when there is a high level of repetition or multiple translations. If you use controlled or simplified English content will increase; repetition within your content makes the use of a translation memory even more effective. Even a solid review by an editor or a consistent set of content that follows a style guide can help.

Generalization of how translation tools work

The following is a generalization of the translation process, and it isn’t complete, or overly detailed. But it provides a big picture of what has to be done during translation projects. This gives you some insight into what a translation vendor will likely deal with.

All of this becomes important because the better your source content is, and the better your vendor is, the faster you can translate, the higher the quality and consistency of your message, and the less it costs you overall. Faster, better, cheaper. The first two are pretty easy to see.

You save money when you do this right because you won’t have to pay to retranslate content that is previously approved. You are faster with your time to produce content, and it is of better quality, so therefore the cost of creating content drops and the perception of value increases. This puts money in the bank.

File prep

Files have to be “prepped” for translation tools. TRADOS is still the most common translation tool. It uses a RTF or a proprietary form of RTF. Content in tools like InDesign or FrameMaker must be saved to an ‘exchange’ format (e.g. *.idx or *.mif) and then converted.

Apply a translation memory

Once this is done, the translation memory is applied. You can find identical matches, fuzzy matches, or no matches and each are treated uniquely. The first time you translate content it is most likely that the majority of content has no matches unless you have either previously translated content, or the vendor has a default translation memory they make available to you.

Identical matches (and all matches really) are usually not free. Good translation vendors will usually charge about 33% of the “no match” rate, because this text still must be reviewed and verified in context. If a vendor is looking to provide free content on a match, be a bit suspicious. It takes time to review content, and they aren’t in business just to give away their time. If you do not pay for identical matches, you will have some translated content which essentially does not go through the LQA (Linguistic Quality Assurance) process.

Fuzzy match is usually a higher rate. A fuzzy match is one that has content that is very similar to another translated phrase. These are some of the most difficult to work with as previous context needs to be considered (for example, did the phrase “click OK” or “select OK” or “choose OK” get used the last time) and the translator needs to know your style. Again, consider the idea of an editor, a solid style guide, or controlling language through software tools to limit the chances of this happening.

If no matches are found then the linguist will usually be using an established “glossary” of key terms and a “translation kit” that lists rules and preferences for certain phrases. Translation kit will include instructions for which strings stay in English. Again, if your preferred translation partner can’t talk to you about this and answer questions or provide samples, consider changing your choice.

Post translation

After translation is complete, the files are converted back to native, binary format.

There is often some “post translation” touch up or correction to formatting, mainly due to text expansion. (This is more of an issue if target language must have same page breaks as source English – that is a project requirement you should avoid, whenever possible.)

Translate in-house or outsource?

Many factors may influence your decision to translate in-house with hired translators, or to outsource all or part of the translation work to a 3rd-party vendor. Consider all options and associated costs before making a decision.

While this paper addresses how to choose a translation vendor, it is important to also point out that there may be many factors that lead you to not working with a vendor, but instead just hiring a translator. Many of the ideas related to vendor selection can also be directly applicable to hiring an internal resource.

Some things to consider in making the decision on in-house or outsource translation decision are outlined below.

Factor in all costs associated with in-house translations

This includes costs of hiring, training, and managing one or more permanent employees. In some cases, there may be relocation costs to consider, particularly if you need to hire overseas translators. Don’t forget the licensing, training, and support costs associated with the specialized software (new copies of tools as well as the OS and any specialized plug-in tools) that must be purchased to support the translation process, and related equipment costs. You likely need to buy Trados or some other standard translation tools. If you translate into many languages, you will need to hire translators for each language and repeat the costs. You will also need appropriate internal reviewers to proof any translated work before it is released.

Understand the process and costs for outsourced translations

Costs can be high for outsourced translation work, but it may easier or more cost effective than hiring and supporting an internal translation team (even a translation team of 1). Before deciding, understand the process and your part in it. You will still need to find internal resources to oversee the translation project (liaise with the 3rd-party project manager), to proof and approve translated work, to set up internal processes to work with the external team, and to possibly set up the IT infrastructure for file transfers (for example, between your content management system and their translation database).

Consider a hiring a short-term contractor

You may choose to consider hiring a short-term contractor for small translation project, or for assisting an existing in-house translator during peak periods or to handle overflow work. A contracted translator can work onsite or in the target country you are translating for. This option requires good communication, coordination, and cooperation between both sets of translators. You will be responsible for hiring, assessing skill level, and managing the contracted translator. Quality standards and inconsistencies in translation may become an issue if your contractor is not as qualified, experienced, or trained on the same tools or processes as your in-house translator or others on your team (for example, if the contractor you hire is a university student or a non-SME).

Other considerations

Some questions to ask yourself: Are you comfortable sending proprietary information electronically to a 3rd-party company? Are you willing to change your processes to fit into a translation vendor’s required workflows? Are you willing to give over the reigns of control and monetarily compensate each of the specialists, translators, reviewers, desktop publishers, and project managers that play different roles in the outsourced translation process? Your answers will help decide which translation path is best for you.

It is possible to split the work between in-house and 3rd-party content specialists. How much work do you want a translation company to be responsible for? Do you want the vendor to just translate content, or do you want them to look after the desktop publishing and layout of finished content as well?

If you decide to split the work between internal resources and those of a translation partner, then consider how you will divide the work, who will store/control the source files, and how/when you will merge the translation memory. Decide whether a vendor will translate the content while you complete the layout and publishing work in-house, or if you will look after translating content in-house while the vendor takes care of the desktop publishing components (work that is not typically the forte of a linguist/translator anyway). If you use both in-house and outsourced staff then you need to ensure that there is good cooperation between them.

Miscellaneous options to consider

Once all your options have been weighed, there is a bit more to consider. The volume to translate, the way you handle technical content, the overall workflow, any certifications you may need, the way the translation memory is handled, and all desktop publishing of translated content still needs to be considered.

Translate only a subset

If you find that time or other resources (people/money) are tight, then you can decided to translate a subset of your content. That is, pick only the most useful documents, and translate just that material. You can even decide to only translate the most important part of the most important documents (perhaps only the actual steps in a procedure and drop all supporting images, all additional information, or resulting actions). This is likely the fastest way to deliver information to customers, but it can leave them wanting more or feeling cheated.

Outsource technical reviews

One potentially tight bottleneck for a company is the review of translated material. Consider how development and support staff are often already busy with their traditional roles. The have very little time to review translated documents, even if they are experts in the language.

Some vendors can find subject matter experts in your industry that speak the language, and who will ramp-up to your product and then review your translated content against the original. In some cases this alone is worth the cost of translation services. Medical, legal, technical, scientific, or other specialty content should be reviewed for the true nature of the message being delivered.

Process/workflow automation analysis

Some vendors will come in and analyze your current processes and workflow for translation if you are doing it in-house, and recommend improvements to maximize efficiencies and automate certain parts. This is, again, a part of the vendor partnership that is often overlooked.

Certificate of translation

Some vendors offer a certification of translation so you can tell your foreign customers that their documents have been professionally translated; a sort of guarantee of quality. As with technical reviews, you need to make sure you deal with the specific audience you are writing for. Some certifications are industry specific, e.g. Medical or Life Sciences. If you are in a regulated field (especially Life Sciences) you may wish to select a translation vendor who is ISO-9001:2000 certified.

Cleanse/rebuild translation memory

It is likely that an out of date or old translation memory is of poor quality. Some vendors will cleanse it and rebuild on it during the translation process so it isn’t just discarded. Starting from scratch can cost more, but cleansing and testing an old one also has associated costs. Consider the way you work with your legacy translation memory in the same way you consider the way you work with your legacy content in Word, FrameMaker, Quark, PageMaker, or any other tool. Sometimes it’s worth converting, in other cases, you gain more by starting fresh.

There may be instances where it can actually be less expensive to retranslate from scratch, and discard the older translation memory rather than attempt to rebuild it. This is something that no customer wants to hear, but you must do cost benefits analysis on the new format’s benefits (e.g. greater leveraging) and determine the tipping point when savings will exceed the cost of giving up old translation memory.

Outsource desktop publishing

As mentioned earlier, this is the part of a translator’s job that can be tedious. Most vendors outsource this work themselves to full time DTP professionals who speak the target language, and leave the translation to the professional translators.

A recent trend amongst some translation vendors has been to move to off-shore DTP. (For instance, FrameMaker formatting takes place in India or China.) There may be quality control issues associated with such production. Insist on a short pilot project before entrusting a very large, elaborately formatted project to this method. Some vendors can deliver quality DTP formatting from off-shore resources; others can’t.

Final considerations: Risks, costs, and suitability

When deciding on a vendor, consider the previous options to decide how to move ahead. Based on this, identify the risks and the opportunities associated with translation of content as well as the total costs, not just the per-word-costs that some vendors provide. Finally, identify the suitability of the partnership from a business standpoint. Don’t let the personal feelings get in the way of the business decision. You may want an internal translator, you may like a specific vendor, but ensure you can back up the decision with sound business practices.

Risks and opportunities

The main risks are to Quality, Schedule, and Cost. A good vendor works with you to mitigate any of these, or turn any of them into opportunities to increase quality, speed up delivery time, and reduce costs.

Consider risks to target publication dates, availability of in-house reviewers, quality/accuracy of translation, availability of in-house translator for new projects that have translation needs (they may be pulled in different directions by different departments), having a vendor build on an existing poor-quality TM (and reintroducing poorly translated terms), preparation time of an in-house translator to create a terminology glossary for vendors to reference, the overall satisfaction of customer (e.g. getting only a subset instead of whole doc set). There are more risks to think about, but that should get you started.

Consider opportunities to save money, save time, reduce risk to quality, build up your own professional translation memory, ensure the consistency of style and terms applied to the translation, transparency in status and project management, and flexibility to accommodate changes to content during translation as important reasons to work with a qualified partner.

Associated costs (long term)

Compare the costs of a salary for in-house employees, contractors, software, in-house reviewers, hardware, and more. Once you can identify this you can compare it with the costs charged by translation vendors. Making the financial pitch properly can be one of the single biggest reasons for a successful or failing partnership. Get your facts right.

Once you know the costs, ensure you have a sponsor for the costs – they will be high. This sponsor could be from one, or from many departments. This can include sales (if some large foreign sales dependent upon availability of translated documents, they may foot the bill), product engineering, development, or other groups within the company.

Also, consider that initial translation costs (going into new language for first time) are expensive. You generally will not see a return on investment when going to a new language during the first year. Amortize your costs over an 18 to 36 month period. This is the normal approach to take.

Suitability

Consider the fit of translation needs with your overall product and business alignment. For example, if it’s a one-off translation, then it may not be worth investing in salaried employee and tool requirements. Even with a one-off you should ask for the translation memory though, as you might decide to do more translation in the future.

What about your workflow and processes? Can a 3rd party vendor fit into your unique publishing processes? If so, can the vendor ensure that the same staff resources (who have learned your processes) will be available when your project is updated and translated again?

Also consider your specific environment and manageability for the project. Do you have the time to manage internal translation resources? Do you have access to an offsite contractor? Or even a translation agency? Does your in-house translator have time to deal with another contractor, or a 3rd party vendor?

Know your stakeholders

Before you can plan on translations and vendor partnerships, you need to know your stakeholders. Failure to know who is involved may result in a lot of time and effort spent on a translation vendor search only to have things fall apart because of miscommunications internally. You need to know who will be working with the vendor, who will work with content, and who will manage anything that is passed back and forth between them.

Administrators

This is the keeper of permissions within a translation environment who controls what specific roles exist and what roles users have.

Having an administrator on board with technical knowledge of your workflow makes it easier to see how a solution works with a CMS tool, with your file backup systems, or with any other technical issues you may run into.

For example, an administrator can quickly update a workflow to include a translation review during an automated process that sends a checked in file to the appropriate technical reviewer when files are returned from translation.

Writers

Identify the types, or roles, of your writers. Who does the bulk of the content creation? Are your authors internal, or do they work all over the country? Is it a consistent group of people, or do they come and go? Are they dedicated to the task, or is it something they do on the side? Is there a team or a group of individuals? Have you ensured that stylistic preferences will not interfere with content and prevent the appearance of “one voice?” (Style guides and glossaries help here.)

Having writers who work in their own informal fashion, or who are widely distributed across time zones and geographic locations, or are only working on short term projects or contracts can introduce inconsistent content which increases costs for translations. If they know what the issues are likely to be and can help to avoid them then the translation is easier and the vendor relationship better.

For example, a group of writers who share the same phrasing in content can reduce the need for translation of “click OK”, as opposed to “choose OK”, or “press OK”, or “select OK” and reduce costs by truly benefitting from a translation memory.

Designers

Get to know the people who design any given piece or the publication as a whole? Are they technical people or artistic types? Is there a team or a group of individuals working independently? Is the designer or team also responsible for other design tasks in your organization? Is the designer aware of globalization issues (e.g. ensuring that there is enough white space on the page for text expansion) or can the designer layout content for the new market? Is there a background with the new page sizes, or specific colours that need to be considered?

Having designers with a detailed understanding of the market your translated content will be seen in is a crucial part of the successfully deliver of the message. For example, a designer can help you to understand that red is a lucky colour in China, a colour for warnings in North America, and a colour for mourning in South Africa.

Developers

The development team may not need to be directly involved in translation other than to modify some interface items and objects. The most direct involvement is likely with a translator to determine placement of objects and line breaks. Developers should ensure that code is double-byte enabled for Asian languages. This step is often overlooked in early product development.

Having support from developers can dramatically reduce the amount of overhead for translations. If a translated word or phrase does not fit into the UI you would either need to go back to a translator and ask for revisions or deal with your developers. Developers can make quick changes that don’t call for a lot of content change.

For example, consider a button with Next or a button with Proceed on it. To make a button wider is a quick change to a line of code. To edit the translated phrase may mean revisiting every step that had “Click Next” written in it.

Reviewers

Who's involved in approving something that has been passed to translation? Editors, of course, but what about management? Legal? Partners? Ensure that all the people who need to sign off on content are on board with your decisions to translate and familiar with key people at a vendor who will be contacting them.

Having reviewers with specific technical skills can ensure that translated content has the right message to make sure that the content is technically accurate and clear. It also adds another set of eyes to review translated information.

For example, conversion of values into an appropriate decimal format (comma or a space or nothing to represent one billion (or one thousand million) when written down?) is crucial to make sure that financial records are correctly reviewed and analyzed. Without this you could have incorrect instructions in your finished deliverable.

Editors

Who does most of the translating? Do the translators act as their own editors? Is there a team of translators? Is that a dedicated role, or is it something someone does when time is available? You can examine these questions on per-content piece level, as well as on a site- or publication-wide level. The value of an editor can not be overstated.

With a good editor in both a source and a target language your message will be far more clear and concise. An editor provides a standard for content to be compared against to take the work of many translators and make it sound like one message.

Translators

Is the translation internally managed? Do you partner with outside vendors? Do translators receive a ‘copy’ of the information, or work directly in the system? How many languages are translated to? Is each language handled in the same fashion? How often do you translate content? Does the translator have an appropriate professional background? (e.g. medical, legal or banking.) This is particularly critical in some languages. German bankers use an entirely different tone and “voice” than other German professionals (think English “legal-ese.”) and this may need a translator with banking in his background.

Having a good translator (the person who translates, not the vendor who works with translators) may cost more and result in higher translation costs, but the message may be far better. Delivering the right message to the client is often well worth a few extra cents per word of translation.

For example, a translator who lives in Spain and works with the Spanish media every week is likely better suited to translate a press release than an engineer inside your company who studied Spanish while attending school in Los Angeles, California.

Other stakeholders

This is only a partial list of stakeholders to consider and the values that they can bring. Don’t forget to also speak to management, any non-translation related outside vendors, and even to your clients before charging ahead. Everyone will want success in whatever your business does, and the less overhead you need to deal with at the end of the project, the easier it will be.

Research and assess vendors

Once you have researched your needs, and you have decided to pursue an external translation vendor, how do you select the right one? The first step is to complete the research from the first part of this paper. Failure to do so will leave you with a set of unanswered question every step of the way. Doing planning and research in advance also puts you into the better graces of a vendor. You show up ready and they don’t have to wait for answers or spend hours explaining basic concepts.

To begin, let’s identify exactly what you get when you decide to outsource your translation.

What (and who) are you actually hiring?

When you hire a translation or localization vendor, you are not just hiring a single translator. You are hiring an entire team. You can’t just ask questions about the actual word translation, you need to find out details about the whole team that will be working on your projects. The team includes:

  • Translators and editors (many)
  • Quality Assurance personnel
  • Programmers (web, computer)
  • Project manager
  • Desktop publishers
  • Graphic artists
  • System integrators and tool experts

Where to start?

Once you know that a team will be required, you need to find a source of translation providers. You can start by searching on Google and sort the results (by the way, as of this mornings search I saw a list of about 4,130,000 for ‘translation vendor’ which took about 0.20 seconds) or you can be a bit more refined.

  • Attend trade shows
  • Word of mouth, referrals
  • Membership groups
  • Industry articles
  • Industry web sites (ATA, IOL, AofT, ATIO, LISA, GALA …)
  • and, if needed, Web search

Let’s assume you don’t have any industry contacts. Where do you start? Ask coworkers, peers, contacts who they use, who they’ve heard others use. Check mailing list archives, newsgroups, SIGs you are a part of. Yes, do a Google search and visit some of the top hits, but beware. If you search try this:

  • Google “Translation Organizations” and see what you get!
  • or “Top Translation Companies”
  • or “FrameMaker and Localization”

Take some time and search the STC archives for past articles and spend time visiting translation organization websites such as American Translators Association (ATA), Chartered Institute of Linguistics (IOL), Association of Translators, Interpreters of Ontario (ATIO), Localization Industry Standards Association (LISA), The Globalization and Localization Association (GALA) and so on.

Some companies may even have a full time translator who had worked for many of these companies. She may be able to recommend those she thought were fair and had good processes, and she may already be in touch with other translators worldwide to poll them. What you start, you may find yourself with a list of 8, 10, or even 20 translation vendors (large and small, North American, European, international, or based in multiple target countries).

Narrow it down

Once you have a list of vendors that are potentials to follow up with you need to narrow it down. Even if you spend one day per vendor to do your research and have meetings you may be spending 2 weeks or more to talk to the initial selections.

Spend a lot of time on the websites of those translation companies you are considering getting in touch with. You know what they say about 1st impressions – you can tell a lot about a company by what they advertise, and what they don’t!

  • Who are their clients?
  • What are their distinguishing features?
  • What is the company size?
  • How long have they been in business?
  • Are they profitable?
  • Do they translate from and into desired languages?
  • Do they have a contact in your time zone?
  • Do they support your tools?
  • Do they offer references or quality guarantees?

If you haven’t already done so, search online to find out what clients have said about those on your initial list, and even try to talk to specific translators who have worked for these vendors. Are the translators happy with them (meaning no overload of work, well-managed projects, expectations are realistic)? Did client work get delivered on time? There are a multitude of blogs and mailing lists out there that volunteer this information!

Finally, send them an email asking for information. You may find short-listing is easier if certain companies don’t have their act together enough to reply to you within 24 hours. If they don’t care enough about new clients/business, how will they treat existing clients? You may also find their communication skills lacking, and emails in unreadable English.

After doing these things, you should be able to narrow down your list to a few yes’s, the odd maybe’s, and enough no’s to warrant the time spent on initial research.

Short-listing

Once you have a list of vendors that are worth more detailed follow up begin by identifying a few key things to discuss.

Decide what’s important to you early on. Go into the discussion knowing what your business goals are: Saving money? Fast turnaround? Impeccable translation quality? Full service management? Develop questions that will make the candidates address these areas for you.

At this point, you should also ask your shortlist of candidates if you could send them an extensive questionnaire. Their answers will help you decide if their company offerings suit your needs, and if you would choose to further develop a relationship with them. In some cases there may not even be a response to this. That immediately can knock a vendor off your list.

Once you get your answers, compare them. What information do they choose not to provide? Where are their strengths and weaknesses? What impresses you? What doesn’t? Remove those vendors from the race who are unwilling to provide information, or that provide information that does not suit your business goals.

After receiving answers, you may even be able to immediately eliminate some vendors from the list of candidates, and all this before we even discuss costs.

Start the relationship building

Once you have a solid shortlist of two or three vendors, work with them to build the relationship and get started. Before you go any further, get an NDA (both ends) in place so you can start talking honestly and exchanging proprietary information

Once that is done, send them some sample documentation so they can see what you do – graphics, structure, tools, terminology, and more. It all affects rates. Speaking of rates, ask them for their cost breakdowns (how they typically charge clients, what’s included in all the costs, translation rates, and so on.) More on this later.

Get client testimonials, particularly from clients in your industry or using your tools. Ask for client satisfaction polls from the past few years to see what others have thought of them. If they haven’t done any, you may want to ask why. Finally, set up phone meetings for each of the remaining candidates. This will give you a chance to clarify information they’ve sent, and for them to ask you more about your business needs. About 1 hour for each should be sufficient.

After all this, you should have a good sense of who you are dealing with, how their processes mesh with yours, and whether you can see yourself working long term with them.

Let them sell

For those who made it this far, ask them to set up a webinar or in-person meeting so they can show you their web portals, go through their spiel, and give you a walk-thru of how it’s all supposed to work. Invite team members and stakeholders if you like. If you’re lucky, they might even take you and the team out to lunch.

After they leave, debrief—you’ve likely developed a decent working relationship so far with each of the vendors. A fresh set of questions, eyes, and opinions is helpful in narrowing down the field further. In some cases, half the team might immediately say they couldn’t stand the assigned project manager from the vendor side. Good to know if they’ll be the ones having to deal with him.

Reality Check: with shrinking margins and declining revenues in the translation industry, be aware that your vendor may not be able to perform a pilot test, or devote excessive team effort to win you business if your expenditures may be less than $100,000 per year. With recent fluctuations in currency markets it may be difficult to get a firm quote on pricing for 3 months, 6 months, or a year into the future. Markets have just been too hectic lately.

Try them out

With an NDA in place, and feelings of goodwill all around, ask your shortlist of vendors to translate a sample for you. They won’t do a lot, maybe 500 to 1000 words, but it will give you a chance to walk through the process and see how it feels. They will want any translation memory you currently have, along with any terminology definitions or glossaries.

Don't expect that a perfect translation means that they are a perfect company. During this early stage, they are most likely using their best translators and taking extra time to get things right.

Once you decide on a vendor or two, you can minimize the risk of a poor translation by sending a few docs to each candidate, or have them handle different product doc sets. That way if one company turns out to be less than stellar, you aren’t completely sunk. It’s always good to have a backup plan.

Score vendor responses to questions

You will need to assess the answers you get back from the detailed questionnaires previously sent to vendors. Before starting the assessment, decide ahead of time which questions are most important to you and your business goals. For example, pricing may be less important to you than the quality of the translation. Assign a weight to each question. Give more important questions a higher weighting, and less important questions a lower weighting. You can choose any range of numerical range for the weighting.

Once weights are assigned to questions, you are ready to review and rate a vendor’s answers. An answer that is positive (“yes”), favorable, or one in which you have high confidence in the vendor to deliver as stated deserves a higher rating; a negative answer gets a low rating. Choose any rating scale (for example, 1-10, 1-100, 1-1000). The greater the scale, the more distinction you will see between vendors’ answers.

The final step is to multiply questions weights and answer ratings to give you a final score. Compare each vendor’s total score to help decide which vendor best suits your business needs.

This just shows one section of a sample evaluation sheet. Here, four vendors are scored on their rates and associated costs.

Information to collect and score

You can collect any information that is important to you and achieving your business goals. Suggested areas on which collect information include—

  • Company details (history, experience, reliability, reputation, etc.)
  • Quality standards (processes, translator experience and training, reviews, guarantees, industry standards, translated content, etc.)
  • Project management (processes, availability, rates, performance, etc.)
  • Technology and tools (proprietary or standardized, security, storage, translation memory, software, content management, file transfer, etc.)
  • Rates (per word, staffing, quality of translation memory, allowable corrections, etc.)

If you are fortunate enough to have an in-house translator available to you, have them participate in the assessment process and provide guidance as to what questions to ask and which answers should raise alarm bells. Sample questions are provided below.

Sample questions

The following is a collection of sample questions you may want to ask about. This is not an all-inclusive list, but rather a solid starting point. Based on your needs the list of questions may grow or shrink dramatically.

Vendor

Questions related to the specific company and their practices:

  • Do you outsource? To whom? What are their credentials?
  • What languages do you manage? Are there any that you have a specialty in?
  • Do you have an industry specialty (IT, medicine)?
  • Can you provide a recent client list? Who are your repeat clients?
  • Do you have references? What about client satisfaction surveys?
  • What is the rate of turnover for your translators?
  • Do you have a place within industry rankings?

Quality

Questions related to the quality of staff and processes:

  • What is your hiring process (translators)?
  • What is your project assignment process?
  • How do you test/monitor translators?
  • Do you have a process for corrections from client?
  • What is your quality control? Do you provide any guarantees?
  • Are there samples (Can you create some for us? Do you have any from others?)
  • Do you use the same translators for each release, or new people?

Project management

Questions related to the way projects are handled:

  • Do you have a dedicated Project Manager? What is the availability? Where is your PM located?
  • How do you manage status reporting? Can you ensure consistency to meet schedules?
  • What is average turnaround time?
  • What is the process if you (or we) are going to miss a date?
  • What is the number of translators assigned to “urgent” projects?
  • How do you handle customer service issues?
  • Do you have mid-project flexibility for new requirements?

Technology and tools

Questions related to tools and formats supported:

  • What translation tools do you use?
  • What is your XML document translation experience?
  • What are supported file formats?
  • What is the process for receiving and returning files?
  • Are corrections we provide fixed in source or formatted files?
  • Who owns the translation memory at end? (if you don’t get this, go somewhere else)
  • Can we use our styles/glossaries/processes?

Rates

Questions related to the specific pricing options available:

  • What are your general per-word rates?
  • Do you provide discounts for 100% or fuzzy matches?
  • What’s included in rates? Ask for a sample rate breakdown. More information on rates later
  • When do prices increase? (for example, is it based on technical complexity, or market values, or changes to scope?)
    • Note: recently when the US dollar was very weak against the Euro, linguists based in Europe became more expensive. North American translation vendors made a valiant attempt to not raise prices, but sometimes, economic-driven price increases must be passed on.
  • How are engineering/layout fees, and figures/graphics/tables charged? (per hour, per word, flat rate, or incl.)
  • Note about graphics: if you do not have the original “native” graphics files (e.g. illustrator) and only have “flat” files (e.g. *.eps) which contain text callouts requiring translation you will have far more billing from the vendor for labor-intensive “text restoration.” Always make an effort to maintain all artwork in its native format; the vendor will require it at some point.
  • How many rounds of client feedback allowed?
  • Do your rates dependent on the project size?

Other criteria

This is where you can narrow the field further. One company may feel that your projects are too small for them, and keeps pushing for contacts in other departments to see if large-scale localization might one day be required. This type of a company is clearly looking for bigger fish, and may even say so in as many words. This is good to know up front. If it’s not a fit, then cross them off your list immediately.

  • Measure responsiveness to your questions and requests
  • Review the accuracy of their translation samples
  • What is the status of the relationship with the company and the point of contact (NDA in place? Ready to go? Fit?)
  • Overall impressions and instilled confidence
  • What an in-house translator thinks (global reputation with translators)

Costs

While often considered the simplest way to compare the value of one vendor with another, the cost should be one of the last things you consider. It’s a difference of a couple of percent shouldn’t be the main reason for making a decision. Instead you need to ensure that all other criteria is identified early, then use cost as a decider between equal choices.

Main cost considerations

When you identify the total costs make sure you get all the numbers. You have to be able to identify total costs for a fair comparison. You need to ask vendors to break out or combine info so that you can judge fairly. This may mean that you need to set out your pricing model in partnership with all potential vendors.

Identify what you need from the vendor as well. If you are willing to forego a second review of translated content to reduce costs, identify it early. If you plan to do all desktop publishing in-house, let them know. You must tell the vendors explicitly what you must have from them, as well as what you absolutely will do in house.

Primary costs

Remember that these costs should not be the main factor in choosing a vendor. With that being said, the most readily recognized costs is often the per word translation cost. This is the cost for every word that is counted. As an aside, good editing, good control over your vocabulary and good use of a style guide can go a long way to helping to keep this cost down.

The cost per word can vary from one vendor to another and may also depend on factors such as the complexity of the source content. This cost is higher early on in the project as the first round of translation is going to require a far greater word count, and it requires much more time in the development of a translation memory and standard phrasing. However, it won’t always be the highest cost of a translation project. It’s just the most immediate price and therefore simple to see and to quantify.

Another cost is related to the engineering fees. There is an initial cost to set up a system and these will, again, vary from one vendor to another. It will depend on the complexity of the system that needs to be in place. In many cases this can be hidden by the vendor in the total quote, so consider if you want this broken out into its own line item.

Secondary costs

In addition to the cost per word rate there are a secondary set of costs to consider. Some may be provided using an hourly cost, some using per word costs, and others as a percentage of the project or even as an included part of the original per word quote for translation. Again, regardless of the fees, try to outline them in a way that you can fairly compare them.

The cost for editing and proofing rates is related to a second or even third pair of eyes reviewing materials. A vendor who says they don’t need to review content is a vendor to avoid. The review should be a part of any project.

Vendors are also entitled to a fair project management rate for the work that has to be done. This work includes managing files that are being checked in and out of the translation process, tracking and controlling the project and timing, and the current status of any part of the project. In addition, the vendor provides a primary contact between you and the translators. Be aware that a 10-13% project management fee on top of the total is very normal. There is a great deal of internal communications outside of translation that require salaried staff on the vendor side. This includes documenting, distributing translation kits, answering linguist’s questions, and much, much more. Consider your own company and how many people are required to get a product to market. Project management time is a legitimate expense, but many new customers do not understand why it is necessary.

Once content is translated and needs to be published you may face desktop publishing rates. This includes work like layout and configuration, formatting and placement of tables, graphics, and other page related objects. You may have a simple layout, or a very complex one. Based on the layout, the look and feel of the content, and the message you deliver it may be necessary to have involved layout work done. This cost is often billed on an hourly rate.

One of the last items is associated with the review of translated content costs. In some cases the person translating your materials is not a subject matter expert. He may be technically adept and capable of understanding the content, but is not an expert in the topic. Therefore the material may undergo an additional review by someone with advanced knowledge of a topic. She may be the person with the final say on the accuracy of the materials. This is often billed as an hourly rate, but could be included in other costs.

It is important to note that you should let your potential vendors know what method you would prefer pricing in. While not all vendors can comply (in some cases they simple can not break out the unique costs) they will do the best they can to explain their pricing formulas to you.

Savings to consider

Your vendor should be able to help you realize savings in translation over time. The savings come from several actions they can take, but also come from things that they can help you to do.

Content reuse can immediately reduce the costs of translation. Once content is translated, the phrase can be replaced and reviewed. This is far less costly then being translated a second time. Remember that short phrases will need to be reviewed for context to ensure that they still make sense.

Once it is started, a translation memory reduces your costs. However, the translation memory is based on historical information and organization of content. Therefore, if you are planning a major rewriting of your content do so early. The translation memory then allows you to have matched content reviewed. Don’t reverse the process. Ensure that what you provide the vendor is the content as you want it in your source language first. If a good translation memory exists your rates will be lower and this can be applied almost immediately.

Consider using a single translation firm for more than one language. This can provide service related discounts on things like project management, desktop publishing, and more. However, beware a translation company that is not strong in a language. Test your vendors for compliance with your needs. A good vendor will let you know their language weaknesses and work with you to provide all the services you need.

Lastly, you can divide tasks up to increase your potential savings. You may want to consider an in-house person for some jobs. While in-house layout may be less costly or provide greater control you have to balance this against the cost of having a full time resource available for what may be part time work. The same balance needs to be considered for in-house review by subject matter experts. However, if they know the language then it’s likely they catch errors that others might miss.

Summary

In conclusion, it’s crucial to take the time to get to know the vendors and to build a relationship with them. It’s equally important to ensure the content you provide to your selected vendors is of the type of quality that you want to deliver to clients in a native language. That is, don’t start with poor content and expect good translations.

Begin by developing a request for information and then clearly identify what you need before sending out the request for proposal. There are also companies who can help you develop both an RFI and an RFP.

In the RFP make sure you provide detailed specifications to your potential vendors. They need to know if they are quoting on text translation alone. Let them know if content is structured. Inform them of the software source. Provide information about tables, charts, and graphics. Let them know if you already have a translation memory for them to build on. Make sure they know what turnaround time you expect.

Build a solid relationship with your potential vendors. Get references and follow up with them. Remember to spent time on more than just finding out if they deliver good work, find out how do they handle customer issues? Do they honour contracts and price quotes? You want a good working relationship…take time to find out if you’ll get along and your service expectations will be met by them.

Make sure you find out if they translators they hire are qualified or certified, and have adequate training and industry experience. Ask how they know their translators are good. Find out what processes they have in place to ensure quality translations.

Identify all costs evenly. Not just per-word rates. There’s desktop publishing, project management, image editing, formatting, quality assurance, charges for change, and more to consider.

Don’t set yourself up as a test case. Find out if the vendor worked with your content management system before. If you have an in-house translation tool or source software, ask if they know it. Using XML standards like ATA, S1000D, Docbook or DITA? If so, make sure they know your structured authoring environment. And ensure they have actually translated into the target language before.

Related to their history, make sure that they do have industry experience. If they have never worked with aerospace, but have years of medical experience, you may want to shop around a bit more. Content such as technical terms, acronyms, slang phrasing and more differ within industries, so make sure the vendor and the translator know your field at least as well as you do.

Ensure you know how they track translation to ensure what they’ve translated into the target language has been done so well. Ask about processes they have in place to ensure high quality? No processes mean they are likely amateurs.

Ask about the methods used to handle client reviews and proofing. Will the vendor charge extra if you find mistakes you need them to fix? Does their review/verification process fit with your publishing process, or is it inconvenient?

The vendor you end up with will be trusted with your international reputation by providing meaning and context. This is your business, not just your content, and you need to know it’s the right fit. Don’t underestimate the amount of time and effort you will need to put into thinking things through before you finally hire a vendor. But when you find a good vendor, make sure you stay in their good books as well. Work with them on case studies, offer to be a client reference for them, and help them succeed. By doing so you will strengthen your own business ties with them and ensure a profitable relationship as you move forward.