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Are you settling for "fluent" enough when hiring a translator or interpreter?

We wrote a post a while back about how a lot of companies see being bilingual as enough for someone to send in a resume and be considered for work as a translator or interpreter. Some even went as far as to say "experience preferred" or something to that effect. Since that post, we've heard other company owners of similar businesses say that one has to be "fluent" or even has to have "studied abroad" to have the cultural experience one needs to do a good job. This frustrates us completely. A lot of what we do is client education in our industry, but what's hard to stomach is when a business owner of a translation and interpreting company doesn't really define fluency. Everyone seems to have a different idea of what "being fluent" in another language really means. Some think it has to do with a college degree in a language, while others think that a cultural experience abroad will do the trick. We're certainly not these people. Sure, these two things help one to master a language, but they are certainly not enough to be "fluent" in another language, let alone in the register needed to perform as a translator or interpreter. One might have visited Mexico City one summer, but that doesn't mean one lived in Mexico. This is where finding a true professional comes into play, as a lot of people exaggerate their experience and fluency on resumes and in interviews. The American Translators Association publishes a set of brochures for clients interested in buying translation and interpreting services called "Getting it Right." In fact, they just published a new one for interpreting, and we were pleased to receive it this week as a resource for our own clients. In skimming through it, we were happy to see that one of the main points made in "Interpreting: Getting it Right" is that fluency does not mean that a bilingual person can communicate well in two languages. The section warns, "Red Alert! Untrained 'bilinguals' are a major risk in an interpreting situation." However, we know that a lot of people don't understand this, and that's why we have a lot of client education to tackle every year. Luckily, our industry is becoming more and more respected and people are seeing the advantages of utilizing professionals (read: those who have training and specialize in their field of work).

So, it irks us greatly when business owners in the T&I industry don't make this clear. Sure, everyone has to start somewhere with training and experience, but you certainly wouldn't call on someone to interpret for a surgical procedure who doesn't have training and knowledge of key medical terms. So, fluency is only one part of this puzzle, and one's definition of the word needs to be quite clear. One might be able to have a conversation in Portuguese about an opinion on a certain political topic, but that doesn't make one the right person to interpret for a political debate. If your mother pulled your tooth when you were a child, does that mean she could double as a dentist?

Translation and interpretation are professional fields and not everyone who translates (renders written words and meaning from one language to another) likes or is qualified to interpret (render spoken words and meaning from one language to another). So, in order to continue gaining respect for our industry and ourselves as professionals, it only makes sense to hold our contractors and staff on a pedestal and keep the standards as high as we can. We like to use a thought that a colleague often shares at the office when it comes to tax time every year: "I am a professional in what I do. And my accountant is a professional in what she does. So, let me do my job and she can do hers, and we're all happy." There's nothing like utilizing a service from someone who does not professionally provide them. Can you imagine hiring a math major to do your taxes and expect that he knows exactly what to itemize on your deductions?

Just this week, we received a translated article for publication that our client needed to have revised because the publisher turned it down. Apparently there were too many grammatical errors and terminology issues for it to be considered. In order to find the best linguist for the job, our staff had to find a proofreader in our database who specialized in translation of orthodontics texts from Portuguese to English. This person has experience, training and education in the field. Read: this person is not just "fluent" in two languages. The client received the revisions and was very pleased to be able to resubmit the article for publication. With the cleaned-up file, we also sent our client a copy of ATA's "Translation: Getting it Right." This way, she won't have to go through such a stressful situation next time she needs to translate an article for publication, and she can feel better about paying only once for a professional service. Surely, paying once is enough if you are buying a high-quality product, right?

A lot of people want translations for pennies, but with any good product or service, if you want something good, you have to pay more than a few pennies. ATA's brochure on translation makes a great point: "Translation prices range from 1 to 10, and while high prices do not necessarily guarantee high quality, we submit that below a certain level you are unlikely to receive a text that does credit to your company and its products. If translators are netting little more than a babysitter, they are unlikely to be tracking your market with the attention it deserves."

So, if you're buying these services, how do you make sure to get the best quality translation or interpreting for your brand, company, patient or colleague? If you provide these services, how do you define your professional qualities as more than being just "fluent"? Have you ever had to revise a badly translated text or pay for a text to be revised?

It's not enough to simply be bilingual! Experience/training is a must!

We have wanted to write a post like this for some time, but it seems like one that is really common sense in our industry, so we held off for a while. It's time though. The other day, a colleague posted something about a flier she saw on a bulletin board. It interested us for two reasons: 1) the sign was posted by a competitor company in my state and 2) what the sign was advertising is simply ridiculous. Yet, we know this happens more often than it should in our industry.

So, here's a brief breakdown of what the sign says:

"Are you or a family member seeking employment? Are you or they bi-lingual? LINGUISTS NEEDED

Must have native or near native fluency in English and in a second language. Excellent communication skills Interpretation experience a plus Must be professional Medical and/or legal bi-lingual vocabulary required"

Okay, firstly, we want to point out that this company should know better than to post a sign about "employment" when probably, like most LSPs, they are looking for contractors. Contractors are not employees. And advertising employment is setting one up for problems later on when the person puts them down on a resume as an employer or inquires about benefits that employees typically receive.

Secondly, very few people know legal or medical terminology in two languages well enough to interpret it if they are not somehow involved in legal work or the medical field (or a professional interpreter who works in these fields). That said, "Interpretation experience a plus"??? How about "a must"! Why is it that so many companies are trying to expand their vendor database with inexperienced people simply to have a wider base of individuals to call on when they need someone to handle an interpreting appointment?

This company is not the only one that we have seen doing this lately. Another company contacted us about interpreting for them at a medical appointment recently and didn't even ask for any credentials at the beginning of the conversation. They simply wanted to know if we would be available to take the appointment on the day they wanted to schedule it. Wouldn't it be smart to know if we know what we're doing first??

Our clients want to know that we know what we're doing, and we simply can't imagine why other LSPs don't check into this first. Plus, it's not the smartest thing to put up a flier and simply advertise that experience is a plus. This is the fastest way to receiving an abundance of resumes and phone calls from people who don't know about our industry, let alone work in it. What about advertising on sites like or TranslatorsCafé where professional linguists can post their resumes and accept jobs or apply to your company for contract work?

When we send an interpreter to an appointment or outsource a translation project to a translator and proofreader, our clients expect that we've given them some sort of test or at least checked their credentials, made sure they've had training and experience, and know they have the terminology they need for the appointment or project. Why isn't this followed by other LSPs? Are they that desperate to find good people?

Do you have experience with a company who accepts contractors with little to no training or experience?