Quality standards in translation: what is the guarantee?

Being a translator is a real profession. As evidence, there are specific diplomas and courses, professional membership associations, official examinations and even quality standards.

The EN 15038 standard was approved in August 2006. Its purpose is “to establish requirements for the provision of quality services from translation services providers” and emphasises quality assurance and traceability.

It details the professional skills and technical resources required by each party involved in the translation process (translator, editor, expert proofreader, project manager) and the procedures applicable to translation services.

Of course each TSP (Translation Service Provider) must produce documentation detailing how they ensure the implementation of mandatory procedures.

The standard is very comprehensive and covers all aspects clearly. It includes both concepts and methods studied during translation diploma courses, as well as the ethical standards to which members of various translation associations must adhere, and as a whole, the quality requirements common to all service provision.

The standard can be applied by all translators for we have all learnt to keep our documents separate: source documents, target documents to be proofread and final target documents. We have all learnt to research and to keep the reference documents of each client. We have all learnt to establish a style guide, glossary, specifications, quotation and invoice. Haven’t we?

Particularly since we must have between two (if university training in the field) and five years’ experience to comply with the standard.

However, no certification for this standard exists. When it was published, there were in fact plans to develop an “NF” label (French certification), but this didn’t happen.

Noting this lack, the French National Chamber of Translation Companies CNET, who participated in the development of the NF EN 15038 standard, decided to create CERTITRAD, its own reference for “Quality of Services from Translation Companies”. According to the CNET, this new standard is born of a “resolutely customer-centric approach”, a major innovation given that hitherto translation service providers applied quality assurance procedures just through their own fussy diligence. Members of CNET state that they add to their aim guarantees of “responsiveness, reliability, confidentiality, professionalism, and of course, quality of service”, but these elements are already contemplated in the EN 15038 standard for translation service provision. So what is the use of a second standard?

None at all, if not but for one small word: “company” which makes all the difference. Indeed, the CERTITRAD reference system includes all the elements of the EN 15038 standard (which applies to “service providers”, so to freelancers as much as firms and agencies) but adds some elements that can only be offered by a “company”. For example, having at least one salaried employee (and at least one “real” translator) and having your own commercial offices. It also mentions translator “datasheets” (CVs! What an original idea!), and a standardised process for selecting subcontractors (those famous translation “tests”)[1]. In fact, even if a self-employed professional translator applies all the NF EN 15038 procedures (for example, working in tandem with a colleague), they will never be able to obtain CERTITRAD certification.

Still, there is one element directly linked to quality which is never cited in the certification procedure: price. It’s all very well to have translators pass tests, promise wonders to clients and communicate about company performance, but when you offer subcontractors a rate equal to half the average price charged, you inevitably end up working with unmotivated people who will botch the job and seize the first opportunity to jump ship. It is for this reason that very few translation companies offer to train a dedicated team of translators for each client: most agencies are on the lookout for the cheapest translator going and transparency would certainly be a major handicap in this type of strategy.


What is more, whether for NF EN 15308 or for CERTITRAD, we all know that obtaining certification does not mean we apply the process to each translation request. As House puts it, “everybody lies”.

That is why when it comes down to it, when choosing your service provider, you can ask to consult their General Terms of Sale and Methodology and you can have tests completed to be proofread in-house by your “budding novelist” of a salesperson or your most “exacting” engineer. But the secret to any happy relationship – in business as in life – is trust.

[1]             We will discuss this in our next blog post “What are translation tests for?”