In my experience, there are 4 levels of translation:
- Basic comprehension
- you can get this level from translate.google.com, Microsoft’s Skype Translator, or other similar tools
- this is sufficient for about 40-60% comprehension
- using these tools is ok for quick chat app translations and other headlines or phrases from non-native websites
- but, I’ve found trying to use them for anything else is quite cumbersome and unproductive
- avoid using them for document or web page translation. It’ll look like a 5 year old translated it to the native speaker
- Rough draft
- you can get this level from application providers, like bablic.com, transperfect.com, and other similar tools
- this is sufficient for 60-80% comprehension and 80-90% spelling/grammar precision
- they are useful for a head-start on large volume translation, but they aren’t a replacement for people…yet
- the providers of these tools tend to imply that higher quality results are possible over time with statements like “the more you use the tool, the more it will become tuned to your favored phrases and words”
- indeed, some possess what appears to be basic machine learning capability, but it remains inferior to the judgment of a human translator
- Finished, professional copy
- for this level, you need a live human being (preferably a team) who is expert in the source (“starting”) and target (“ending”) languages
- this is sufficient for 80-90% comprehension and 90-95% spelling/grammar precision
- most people typically use a fluent, bi-lingual employee, a translator from a university that has students majoring in foreign languages, or an online service with independent contractors like upwork.com (formerly Odesk) or elance.com
- I highly recommend testing two or three of these providers with the same 3-4 sample work products, at the same time. Once they finish translating all samples, then have a trusted individual, fluent in the target language, review and score the results. (If possible, have more than one person do the review, so they can compare notes.)
- before you give them the test – which you should pay them for, BTW – require that they provide you their pricing structure, both for the test as well as the full project or long-term assignment you have for them, so that you can do an “apples to apples” comparison of cost v. quality
- Localized, native-equivalent content
- for this level, you need a fluent, bi- or multi-lingual speaker AND reader, either highly familiar with the target region or a native of it
- this is sufficient for up to 99% comprehension and spelling/grammar precision
- the difference between this level and the prior, “professional” level is like the difference between an English-language news release written by an Australian-based translator for US target audience versus the same news release written by an American-based translator.
- the former may choose to include “ue” at the end of words like “catalog” or “dialog” or use “s” instead of “z” for words like “categorize” or “digitize”
- they will also have a different understanding of idioms and colloquialisms that indicate a truly, locally-appropriate translation
- providers for this level of quality are usually from the top translating agencies in the target countries, for example, in China it would be companies like Linguitronics and Real Idea
You probably noticed that I only scored the level of comprehension and spelling/grammatical precision at 99%, even for the highest level of translation. In my experience, that last 1% will only come from having a professional copywriter from a PR or marcom firm do a final, editorial pass through the translation.
Yes, an additional pass adds time and money to the cost. But, if you want to achieve the highest level of quality, that’s what it takes. I can assure you that you want to avoid the alternative – embarrassing translations like the one I received just today.
[NOTE: for the record, the correct words are: “focused” “of” “markets” and “platform”]
Whether due to poor translation or general sloppiness, the multiple mistakes in the English-language translation in this example diminish the message and perception of the initiative – an outcome no one wants.