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Featured Article from The ATA Chronicle (September 2012)


Standard Issue: Standards Are Becoming Standard
By David C. Rumsey

The explosive growth in the translation and interpreting business worldwide has increased the call for the creation of global standards for the language services industry. ATA’s Standards Committee is actively involved in this process. This column will appear periodically to update members regarding standards development, addressing what they are, how they work, and, most importantly, how they affect translators and interpreters.

There seems to be one in my inbox every day: another form asking me to detail my translation or educational experience—even from agencies for whom I have worked for years. Why? Because the agency wants to be certified by the International Organization for Standardization (ISO,, an international standards organization that creates quality standards for everything from fire alarms to forensics.

I usually take the time to fill out the form and wish the agency the best of luck. It reminds me of my time as a translation project manager in the early 1990s, when my boss charged me with the same thankless task of prepping the agency for ISO certification. At the time, many agencies wanted to become “ISO-certified” so that they could meet their clients’ requirement to use only ISO-certified vendors, even if there was no ISO standard specifically for the translation industry. So, I spent more than a year and a half documenting the labyrinthine decision-making processes involved in handling everything from an Icelandic voice-over and Korean software localization to Hindi desktop publishing.

Although the boss ultimately decided that the cost of applying for ISO certification was too expensive, the work I did helped us understand how things were done at our company and identify areas for improvement. Instead, the company opted for the tagline of “ISO-compliant” on our marketing material, with the explanation that when ISO certification for the translation industry was available, we would be ready.

That time is around the corner.

The recently released “ISO/TS 11669, Translation Projects—General Guidance” is a document that clients, agencies, and translators can purchase that describes best practices for the translation industry. The document provides an overview of the process, an explanation of various translation concepts, and a structured approach to creating translation specifications.

Much of the standard clarifies the roles and responsibilities of the project manager, translator, editor, reviewer, and the client—in wonderfully painstaking detail. In brief, the project manager determines the specifications for the project during a consultation with the client, including the size, purpose, and target audience. The project manager then assigns the appropriate translator based on documented competence and provides the relevant reference material or technical aids. The translator then works his or her magic to produce a translation that meets those specifications. The translation is then checked by an editor and potential reviewer, who ideally provide feedback to the translator to improve the quality of future translation projects.

The above is either obvious or awe inspiring, since many of us are familiar with the problems of dealing with clients or agencies that have not quite figured out the system. Hence, this technical standard is meant to work in conjunction with another standard-in-the-making, “ISO/WD 17100, Requirements for Translation Services,” which
covers much of the same material in a more abbreviated form. This working document outlines the requirements for a translation company to become ISO-certified. Essentially, companies need to have a process for creating project specifications, documenting translator competence, and tracking projects.

Again, this would be obvious to most of us, but these two documents establish a baseline for quality that can help in comparing services, and can serve as a reference point when disagreements arise. This is why standards are created in the first place.

Indeed, potential translation-related standards in the pipeline include those addressing interpreting services and the contentious issue of quantifying the quality of a translation. Each of these areas is fraught with varying outlooks and opinions. Perhaps the most challenging aspect of creating an ISO standard is that the standard has to be accepted by stakeholders in all participating countries. The standardized translation process must be as achievable for an agency in China as it is for one in Chile.

It is a monumental undertaking, but dedicated representatives and volunteers from translation agencies and national organizations, including ATA, are putting forth their best efforts. Conferences and meetings are held throughout the year where dedicated language industry professionals are trying to work out the details of upcoming ISO standards.

The outcome of many of these efforts remains to be finalized, but many agencies are not waiting. This is why many translators are seeing translation agencies implement translation scoring systems, issue never-ending checklists, and require translators to document, yet again, their qualifications and translation experience. Filling out these forms comes standard with the job.

David C. Rumsey is an ATA director and serves on ATA’s Standards Committee. He is a past administrator of ATA’s Nordic Division. A former project and localization manager, he has been a freelance translator for business, medical, and technical documentation from the Scandinavian languages and German since 1998. Contact: