How to pick the right translator or interpreter for your company’s needs
8 October 2012
Consider the case of the Canadian company translating baby formula labels into French.
“They mistranslated the instructions in such a way that the mixture would cause illness or even death in babies,” said Jiri Stejskal, spokesman for the American Translators Association. “That was caught in time luckily, but it wasn’t good for the manufacturer. It cost millions of dollars.”
Then there was the time New York City pharmacies mistranslated prescription labels into Spanish. The doses on countless bottles were wrong.
And the sign for a 100-year anniversary that instead of “100 años” (100 years) read “100 anos” (100 anuses).
A bad translation can be horrible for a business. It can endanger customers, lead to lawsuits and create a public relations nightmare.
A good translation, on other hand, can open up avenues to new markets and clientele and help a company establish strong relationships with non-English speakers.
So how do you prevent the latter and try to ensure the former?
“Just because you are bilingual doesn’t mean you can translate or interpret,” said Las Vegas translator and interpreter Judy Jenner, who owns Twin Translations with her sister. “That’s a basic requirement. Just because you can write doesn’t make you a reporter for The New York Times. Subject knowledge and other factors are very important.”
KNOW WHAT YOU NEED
Translators and interpreters say the first step toward a successful transaction is to figure out exactly what you need and the details of a project.
Although “interpreter” and “translator” are frequently used interchangeably, the terms are distinct. Interpreters deal with live situations and the spoken word, while translators work with text.
“It’s very different skill sets,” Jenner said. “With translating, you have time. You can do research. You can look at the text and take your time determining the best translation. Interpreters have to have an excellent memory and note-taking skills. They often speak simultaneously or just behind the speaker.”
It’s also important for the person doing the hiring to impart a clear objective for the project.
“We had a good example here at my company of a misunderstanding,” said Stejskal, president and CEO of the translation firm CETRA. “We translate a lot of surveys, and we did a survey in Japan for iPods. We assumed that they were surveying young people, and in Japanese you write differently for different age categories. So, we wrote the survey as if it was addressing young folks. It turns out they were surveying senior citizens, and it was all wrong. It needed to be more formal, so we had to scrap the whole thing.”
Specificity with an assignment is imperative. Is a Spanish-speaking audience from Argentina, Spain, Chile or Costa Rica? Will the tone be formal or casual? If you need an interpreter, what kind?
While there is no nationwide criteria for translators or interpreters, there are several professional organizations and government certifications for language specialists in specific areas. There are interpreters who train specifically for legal proceedings and court hearings, for example, and others who specialize in medical interpreting.
In Nevada, court interpreters are certified by the Nevada State Supreme Court. Medical interpreters also typically receive extra training, such as in government health information privacy guidelines.
“Under federal law it is illegal to use a family member or friend to interpret unless it’s an emergency,” said Tracy Young, a Reno-based medical interpreter. ”The most important reason why is because, with or without meaning to, they filter information. They are inaccurate. They will take out and add things, sometimes purposefully and sometimes not. Most of the time you don’t get an accurate interpretation. Medical interpreters are trained in privacy rules and not to repeat anything to anybody ever. A friend or family member is not trained and isn’t bound by the law and may share info with the whole church group.”
MEETING LANGUAGE NEEDS
As more international tourists visit Las Vegas and international ties grow stronger for Nevada, businesses and local governments alike increasingly need translation and interpreting services.
Sixteen percent of Las Vegas’ nearly 40 million tourists came from abroad in 2011 and generated 27 percent of the city’s total tourism revenue.
The Las Vegas Convention and Visitors Authority sees the international market as an area for rapid growth and has set a goal of increasing the international share of tourism to 30 percent in the next decade.
The changing demographics of Las Vegas’ visitors has not been lost on the resorts, in part because the large hotels and casinos that attract the most foreign tourists have a unique set of challenges. At any given time, there could be tourists from dozens of countries staying at one property.
MGM Resorts International began to translate its properties’ websites in 2002 to accommodate the city’s growing international crowd. It started with Spanish and progressed from there. This year, Korean and Portuguese were added to French, German, Italian, Japanese and two forms of Chinese. MGM also provides mobile device content in multiple languages.
“While the websites will allow you to book your room and find out about our websites, the mobile approach is a little different,” said Lou Ragg, MGM Resorts’ vice president of internet operations. “On the mobile sites, we’ll have content about the properties, about gaming and how to play, and also content that is targeted. International visitors tend to stay longer and spend more than domestic tourists. So we give information like the location of the Grand Canyon, pharmacies, groceries, Disneyland and other services. We try to be cognizant of other things they may want to do.”
For its translations, MGM uses a language service provider, a large company that typically employs only a few on-staff translators but maintains a large network of freelancers to meet a wide range of needs. MGM gives its contract company, SDL International, text in English and the language service provider finds the right translator.
“You can do machine translation work, but it doesn’t come out right,” Ragg said. “You want someone who knows the market and knows the culture so they can properly translate and convey the message. I highly recommend using a real translator over a machine. Automated translation systems are good for some things, but for broad, large-scale translation work, it’s good to use the company.”
MGM also uses Language Line Services, a Monterey, Calif.-based interpreting service, for on-the-spot needs. If a Filipino guest calls room service and they only speak Tagalog, for instance, the hotel can call the service and get an interpreter on the phone immediately.
Ragg said MGM has done a good job of providing translated materials to guests before they arrive at the properties but said more can be done on site.
For example, the Monte Carlo plans to have employees wear name tags labeled with the languages he or she speaks. Ragg also would like to see digital kiosks become more common as a way to provide guests with maps, guides and restaurant menus in a variety of languages. Right now, it is impractical to publish such items in dozens of different languages.
In Henderson, the city’s human resources department maintains a database of the language skills of all its employees.
“If a resident comes to the city offices and has a problem and they don’t speak English, we can more quickly find someone who can help them,” city spokeswoman Kathy Blaha said. “When our economic development team is hosting a delegation though, we may get interpreters or the delegation will bring their own.”
Blaha said the city has one staff member who can translate Mandarin, and they have turned to the Asian Chamber of Commerce in the past for recommendations.
TIPS FOR HIRING
Hiring a translator or interpreter for the first time can be daunting, After all, if you knew a language well, you wouldn’t need a professional.
Maybe it’s time to translate your business’s website into Spanish. Maybe a potential client from China is coming for a meeting. Where do you start?
Keep in mind the mantra most translators and interpreters live by: “Being bilingual does not make you a translator or interpreter.” In other words, it pays to use a professional over someone who thinks they are competent in a language but has little or no experience.
“You want someone with cultural awareness who has lived in the country for a long time,” Jenner said. “There is zero substitute for language immersion. Spanish is full of double entendres and political references. A translator should have a natural curiosity for language. If the favorite thing on their shelf isn’t the Royal Academy of Spanish Dictionary, they shouldn’t be translating. You have to be language geek.”
The Las Vegas Convention and Visitors Authority maintains a list of vendors that includes translation and interpretation services. The American Translators Association and Nevada Interpreters and Translators Association are also good places to start.
“Look for people who are sophisticated and highly specialized in their fields of translation,” Jenner said. “They should focus on a small slice. I don’t translate patents for machinery. I don’t do scientific translations or highly technical translations. I do e-commerce. Those are the impostors, the ones who say they can do everything. It’s just not possible.”
The industry standard is for translators to work into their native language. A native German speaker, for example, should translate from English into German, but not the other way around. There are exceptions, however, and in some cases where the language needed is not very common, compromises have to be made.
“You should work into the native language,” Stejskal said. “I am from what is now the Czech Republic, and there is not a lot of people who do Czech to English so I will do that in tandem with my wife sometimes, who is American.”
Prices vary depending on the length and complexity of a text. If you have a paper on astrophysics that needs to be translated into Swahili, that will cost more than a tourist brochure translated into Spanish. Jenner said she charges between 29 and 32 cents per word, with extra charges for converting documents into new formats or for rush orders.
Finally, hiring a translator or interpreter is like any other service. Ask for references, resumes and samples of previous work.
“It’s no different than hiring a web designer,” Jenner said. “You wouldn’t just pay them without seeing some of the web sites they’ve done previously. Ask if they have previous experience in the subject area, and ask if you can contact former customers.”
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