Quality Standards in the Language Industry

The survival of a language services provider (LSP) rests, quite simply, in its ability to provide quality translation, interpretation, and localization services to its clients. However, given that language is a human function prone to error, misinterpretation, and a high degree of nuance, establishing a standard framework to help ensure quality services and quantify benchmarks and quality metrics has represented an ongoing challenge for LSPs, industry advocates, and clients.

One of the first standards developed to tackle these complicated issues was EN 15038, created by the European Committee for Standardization (CEN). The EN 15038 standard provided basic requirements for the resources and processes involved in providing translation services, the relationship between the service provider and client, as well as certain best practices for translation services to follow.

The EN 15038 standard was later used as the foundation for an enhanced standard developed by the International Organization for Standardization (ISO), ISO 17100. Prior to the adoption of this new standard, some LSPs opted to follow the ISO 9001 Quality Management Standard. While this standard did cover best practices pertaining to general quality assurance processes, it was not sufficient to address the unique aspects of the language services industry. Among other topics, the ISO 17100 standard defined the minimum qualifications for professional translators as well as the minimum process requirements for a translation project, including translation, editing, proofreading, and final verification

Another key international organization that jumped into the fray in developing quality standards for the language services industry was ASTM International. Comprised of industry leaders, industry advocacy organizations such as the American Translators Association (ATA), and interested parties in the federal government formed the F15.48 sub-committee to study and enact additional quality standards. As a result, the ASTM F2575 Standard Guide for Quality Assurance in Translation was implemented, covering all aspects of the translation process from start-to-finish, and including translation parameters, source content information, target content requirements, process parameters, project environment, and the project stakeholder relationship.

While these early efforts of standardizing quality processes in the language industry focused primarily on written translation, both ISO and ASTM quickly worked to add standards that specifically addressed interpretation services as well, including ISO 18841:2018 and the ASTM F2089-15 Standard Practice for Language Interpreting. These interpreting standards address the multiple modalities for interpretation (consecutive, simultaneous, on-site, remote, etc.), qualifications and skills for interpreters, preparatory materials, and even appropriate working conditions.

The main drawback of each of these standards, however, is that they do not address the key question of standards or metrics for the assessment of quality in language services, which can vary greatly from project to project and client to client, not to mention between different LSPs. For example, what are “acceptable” vs. “unacceptable” errors? How can one address such subtle nuances in language, such as the subtle difference between using “enojado” or “enfadado,” which both mean “angry” in Spanish? What factors determine if a translation is “usable”?

To address these issues, both ISO and ASTM have been working on a number of draft standards that seek to clarify and standardize the manner in which translation quality is assessed, including readability, accuracy, conformity, consistency, and the constitution of “fatal errors.” While still under consideration and significant debate, these new efforts may be able to begin resolving this industry-wide challenge and better manage expectations and understandings of quality between LSPs, the linguists themselves, and clients.