How to buy translation services

How to buy services? choosing the right supplier

I had some free time on a flight so I thought to write another blog. Although I try to address this to people who are using or considering using translation service provider, this could apply to services that your business could in the future or currently in the process of procuring from a trusted vendor or internally from a department.

As basic business practice sort of business 101, now a days the most common theme you hear everywhere is efficiency, owners and investors are looking for maximize output/profitability of their companies/investments. Generally speaking the way to get this can be achieved is by squeezing cost out of operation or by skyrocketing revenue generation. When it comes to buying any type service that your company needs, there are many considerations to keep in mind when selecting a service provider or maybe you are considering or in the process of reviewing your current vendor/s maybe you like to benchmark your existing suppliers against the market? Ultimately you like to be certain that you are receiving the best value for money spent on the so called service. Here are few thoughts you should keep in mind:

Price vs. quality: in procuring any service there is what I call a price threshold beyond of which you are now getting bad quality for the cheap service that you decided to buy. The logic:

A- Services are generally labor intensive meaning: people are the main element in producing the service, no machines, no assembly lines or spare parts etc…

B- Ideally and by definition/the nature some services they can’t be off-shored (Of course this would depend on the services) or outsourced to cheap labor country somewhere. Example: “electrician, plumber, ” This could easily extend to let’s say Translation services: if you need a German translation you can’t get good German translation in China (I’m sure some 1% of you will disagree with me on this one, but I beg to differ, if you are native German living in China, my prediction that it’s only a matter of time before your German starts to lose its touch with the real German, due to the distance between the individual and their native country. It is commonly agreed that the less frequently you use the mother tongue language the more difficult it would be to maintain a positive high standard translation output). Ultimately you would want to try to procure the German translation in Germany. If you are a business in China who wants to buy German translation, you want to make sure that your translation service provider in China is using Translators who are in Germany. For that you need to understand that the translation in Germany would be higher cost then let’s say Chinese translation done in China, why? Because, translation like any other service it depends on 2 factors: A) Cost of living where translation is being done, and B) supply and demand factor, how many “Qualified” Translators are available for this particular language. Another example if you need a translation agency for your office in New York, would you be sourcing this service from India? Maybe, but I recommend that you try to find a translation vendor in your community. Now we come to the price question: Let’s say you sourced the cheapest translation agency in New York to perform the task you intend to undertake. Predictions, you are most likely to be dissatisfied with the quality of the work, why? Generally speaking the 80/20 rules apply in this case, meaning 80% of the times the cheapest price means exactly that. Let me ask you something: Are you going to rely on 20% of the times that this practice might work and 80% of times you will end up with negative results? Can you or the company you work for afford this kind of risk? Maybe!

Beyond the marketing smoke and mirrors: If you are a unilingual speaking individual, meaning you have no means to judge the quality of the translation work or the service you are trying to procure (maybe it’s not your expertise) you are now relying on what the sales person is telling you, that’s the marketing fluff. How do you know what’s real? I have to say that in most cases you are going to believe what you are being presented and you will sign the contract and off you go a few weeks or maybe a months later problems starts to appear. Then you start asking yourself the question: where did I go wrong? I thought I made the right choice? If this is your current situation in any service you bought, you are not the only one, many people/procurement managers fall into the same problem/trap. In any service the following saying is so true: you are as good as of the last job you did (as a supplier) as client or procurement, you need to verify that your prospective supplier can consistently (and I emphasize consistently as opposed to sometimes or spotty) provide you with the quality service you deserve or chose. So how do you really verify that you are selecting a partner/supplier that you can rely on the quality of their service and fairness for years to come?

A- Test the service: Here I recommend that not only to do a 500 word free test, most companies will put their best and their brightest on the test only to receive poor quality after you made your decision to go forward with the selected supplier. I recommend a 3/6 months trial a probation period, similar to if you were to hire an employee you would put them on a probation period. You are not looking for +/- answer on a particular job, you are more likely to look for and positive average overtime in your selected supplier.

B- Do not have exclusive contract with suppliers, as a client you need to give yourself the freedom to move around and not shackle yourself with an unwanted relationship if the selected supplier didn’t work out.

C- Always leave a “termination for convenient clause” in your contract: This gives you also the option to terminate a relationship for poor performance on the part of the supplier.

D- Back translation: If you are currently using a supplier and you are not sure of what you’re getting in terms of quality/price etc…I encourage you to take a translated document and send it me for back translation. Basically we return the document to the original language that was written in. Or I can do a deep linguistic review of the translated document. This process allows you as a client to either validate or start questioning the current arrangement you have in place.

In all this, I want to stress the importance of fairness and being open with your existing supplier, you should allow them a chance to defend their work, and correct the problems if you discovered any. If the problems are not corrected to your satisfaction, then you should seek out another supplier.

Agency vs. Translation Company: As an advocate to my client, I encourage you to select a company that has in house professional translators. Why?

A- Translation agencies generally produce low quality work, because their focus is on the administration aspect of the project (the receiving, processing and delivery). Vs. translation Global companies like CLS Communication which focuses on the in house professional translators a business model that is governed by stringent quality process (ISO)

B- Translation agencies by history started generally from the usual business idea that says, I take the work from the client, send it to a freelancer, put my profit margins on top of my cost, and send the result work to the client. Vs. True translation companies which they started by history from a translation project by itself, example: CLS Communication started by a management buyout for the in-sourcing of the translation department of UBS. The CEO Doris Albisser was the head of this department. So how do you think the culture and the DNA of this fast growing global organization? It’s absolutely focused on quality and clients.

C- Client turnover: Generally speaking agencies with the project routing business model (i.e. receive the work from the client send to the freelancer, and deliver the outcome translation to the client) generally they would have high client turnover rate. As a client I encourage you to ask your current or potential supplier what is their client turnover rate. I heard some scary numbers out there, one of my main competitors has in the upward of 60% client turnover rate.

D- What is their marketing budget? Agencies focus heavily on marketing, like the old saying, if you need to advertise on the back of the taxis in New York your translation service, I personally would doubt the quality translation this company produces. Starting from the basic principal if it’s so good quality why do you need to advertise it so heavily? Now this type of marketing would perhaps appeal to certain client, or might in fact fool others into at least giving the service a try, however if you are serious about translation and serving your client with respect in their intended language, perhaps this is not for you.

At the end of this controversial (according to some) blog…I wanted to mention that I used translation services only as an example, but this article can really apply to any service: Roofing, Plumbing, consulting, accounting etc… Please I encourage you to keep an open mind when reading this blog, and give me a call or email me if you have a specific situation you like to discuss

Until next time…I encourage you to keep reading my blog and look me up on linkedin and let’s stay connected.

Have a lovely day


10 thoughts on “How to buy translation services

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  1. Valid points, most of them. But some of the largest translation companies in the US that advertise quality as No. 1 do *not* employ translators in-house and would not recognize a bad translation from a good one if it were not for the “editors” (revisers) they outsource.
    It seems to me that a potential buyer of translations would do well to find translators in the registers of professional associations. The proven way to getting excellent translations is finding the right translators and cultivating a relationship with them.
    This is completely missing from your picture – translators – individual translation providers, folks with officially recognized qualifications professional members of translators' associations that work as sole traders or freelancers. By the way, since you say that you offer backtranslation and linguistic analysis, into what language(s) and from which one(s), in what areas of expertise?


  2. It has now usually been said that communication is one of the major key to any successful business in worldwide. And that is even more important if you're running a multinational venture or project, for you will have to hire effective, qualified and good knowledge of many languages to be able to communicate effectively that clearly hit the field of your marketing. If you want to hire trusted and qualified language translation service provider, simply visit us at translation services.


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