Certifications, Accreditations and Judging Translations
In some countries even more heavily regulated than the US, translators
may be required to prove their training, business status, and ability
before a governmental agency. They are then issued a governmental approval,
certification, or license.
There are no such state or federal agencies in the US, and no governmentally
certified translators. (Some agencies, and some courts, may have their
own internal lists of translators or interpreters found to be satisfactory.)
Any attempt to license translators in the US would almost certainly be
unconstitutional under the First Amendment.
Buyers of translations in the US are pretty much on their own and, unfortunately,
the worse you need a translation the less you are able to judge how good
it is. (For some useful tips, see http://www.iti.org.uk/pdfs/Translation_-_getting_it_right.pdf.)
The American Translators Association (ATA) offers accreditation examinations
to associate members who, if they pass the examinations, become full (accredited)
members. The examinations are given in 24 major languages pairs such as
German to English or English to Spanish. Passing and accreditation are
considered to indicate possession of basic skills. This accreditation
is not governmentally recognized. It was originally available only to
ATA members. Since 2000, ATA has decided to rename 'accreditation' to
'certification', to make the certification available to non-members, and
to require continuing education to maintain certification.
Membership in ATA and other translators' organizations, and accreditation,
are positive factors; but ATA does not offer accreditation in all languages;
the accreditation is basic; and many good translators in the US are not
ATA members or have not sought accreditation, often because they consider
that their work speaks for itself. Also, of course, there are many good
translators outside the US, especially for translation into languages
other than English. Evidence of training and experience (resume, curriculum
vitae) helps. Word of mouth and referrals from other buyers may help;
but because nearly all translation buyers strongly request confidentiality,
I do not use them as references.
Once you have found a few individual translators, how do you choose among
Many translators are willing to do a short test translation of perhaps
300 words at no charge. As a more serious test, consider paying two or
three leading candidates to translate a complete short document so that
you can see which translation you prefer for your specific purpose.
Even if you do not know how accurate the translation is, it should at
the very least make sense in your language. (Presumably the original made
sense.). The words should be spelled correctly, and it should read reasonably
smoothly. The latter requirement may have to be stretched a bit for some
documents, such as patent claims, which rarely read smoothly in any language;
but in general the finished translation should read as if it had originally
been written in English. Remember that none of those features guarantees
that the translation is actually accurate.
Some clients have a document translated from, say, English into German.
Then they have a different translator 'back-translate' the German into
English, and they compare the original and back-translated English. Many
translators say that is not a good idea, for several reasons:
- It is unlikely that any two writers or translators will use precisely,
or even nearly, the same wording or phrasing.
- If there is a significant difference, then which translator do you
- If there is not a significant difference, is that really meaningful?
The back-translator, finding an awkward or even incorrect statement
in German, is likely to translate it into correct English, so the English
may be correct even if the German is not.
In my opinion, it will be more effective to have the translation edited
by someone (perhaps not even a translator) who is skilled in the 'target'
language (German, in this example) and in the subject matter of the document.
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