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Buying translation services

If you are buying translation services for the first time, the process may seem a little strange and even scary. After all, it is not often that you buy a service the results of which you might not be able to understand or assess for yourself! The purpose of this short guide is to introduce to you some of the key concepts involved in professional translation, to help you make better informed decisions.

Key concepts

Most people think translation is all about words, and to a certain extent they are right. However, what is often more important for you is your message – what are you trying to tell your foreign customers or suppliers, and what are they trying to tell you? Because different languages use different ways of describing things, the individual words we use can sometimes get in the way. For example, in English we talk about being "neck and neck" with the other competitors in a race, whereas in German the phrase is "Kopf an Kopf" or head to head. Professional translators know all about these problems, and much more complex ones as well.

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When you ask a translator to do some work for you, it is a good idea to provide the translator with a brief, in addition to the text to be translated. The brief can specify the target audience (who will read the translation) and its purpose (whether it is for publication, or just for information purposes). You can also indicate other instructions, such as the deadline (though the translator will probably tell you whether or not this is realistic, given the volume to be translated), the file format (for example, whether brochures need to be laid out in a specific DTP format), and what variant of the target language is required, if any (e.g. UK English or US English, German for Austria, Switzerland or Germany).

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When it comes to charging for their services, translators normally bill by a convenient, yet arbitary unit, such as a word, a standard line of (for example) 55 characters including spaces or a standard page of (for example) 1500 characters excluding spaces. Alternatively, some prefer to bill by time, rather like your accountant or lawyer does. In either case, the translator arrives at the fee by calculating the effort involved, however that is measured. Nevertheless, it is worth remembering that translations from German into English usually grow by around 120% in terms of the number of words, whereas the number of characters (and hence a standard line count or standard page count) will remain fairly constant between the two languages. Therefore, it is important that you find out from the translator in advance whether the unit fee is based on the source text (i.e. the document you give to the translator) or the target text (the document that the translator returns to you).

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Finally, it is often useful if you can provide background documents or reference material. The purpose is to provide the translator with information on the subject area, your preferred terminology and any other information that will help with the job. Do not forget that while many translators do specialise in specific fields or industries (such as finance, banking, the law, mechanical engineering and chemistry), your company may use specific terms that are not obvious to outsiders. In addition, your foreign-language customers may have grown used to seeing specific terms translated in specific ways, so new translators need to be told how terms have been translated in the past in order to ensure your customers are not confused by changes in terminology (of course, a new translator may also point out inconsistencies in terminological use of which you were previously unaware, especially if you have not used the services of a professional translator before).

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Find a translator

If you are looking for a translator or interpreter from German or into German, please visit the directory of members of the Institute of Translation & Interpreting.

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