April 2010
By Bernard and Vivian Aschwanden

Bernard Aschwanden is a publishing technologies expert, an Adobe certified expert, a certified technical trainer, and the author of numerous articles on xml-based publishing and single sourcing. He is the founder and president of Publishing Smarter where he works with companies and people to help in creating, managing, and distributing content.


How to choose a translation vendor

When a company identifies a need for documentation to be translated into new languages for both existing and new customers, it is important to ensure it chooses the right translation vendor. To do so, it is necessary to identify options (with associated costs and risks) for meeting current demands, processes for handling future translation requests, and a big-picture strategy for documentation translation needs across product lines and worldwide needs.

A vendor works with you to manage people and processes and to find the right translators based on:

  • Regional needs (Spanish EU/Mexico, French Canada/France, Portuguese EU/Brazil, English US/Australia/England/etc) and/or,
  • Technical needs (Science/Medical/Finance/Tech), works with desktop publishing and verifies all final content against expectations.

Translation memory

Much of the value of translated content is in the translation memory (TM). This is basically a database that contains all previously translated data. It contains source and translated info but does not relate to the formatted (DTP) output. Any vendor should provide a TM to you. You should agree with the vendor as to when it is delivered to you though. Some customers prefer quarterly deliveries, others with each new release of content. Always have your own copy. If a vendor won’t provide it, don’t deal with that vendor. This is the first rule for translation vendor selection.

In-house or outsource

Many factors may influence your decision to translate in-house with hired translators, or to outsource all or part of the translation work to a 3rd-party vendor. Consider all options and associated costs before making a decision.

  • Factor in all costs associated with in-house translations
  • Understand the process and costs for outsourced translations
  • Consider hiring a short-term contractor

Once all your options have been weighed, there is a bit more to consider: The volume to translate, the way you handle technical content, the overall workflow, any certifications you may need, the way the translation memory is handled, and all desktop publishing of translated content. You may decide to limit what you review, or you may ask for specific services including:

  • Translating only a subset,
  • Outsourcing technical reviews or process/workflow automation analysis
  • Desktop publishing.

Research and assess vendors

Once you have researched your needs, and you have decided to pursue an external translation vendor, how do you select the right one? Planning and research in advance puts you into the better graces of a vendor. You show up ready and they don’t have to wait for answers or spend hours explaining basic concepts.

When you hire a translation or localization vendor, you are not just hiring a single translator. You are hiring an entire team. You can’t just ask questions about the actual word translation, you need to find out details about the whole team that will be working on your projects. The team includes: translators and editors (many), quality assurance personnel, programmers (web, computer), project managers, desktop publishers, graphic artists, system integrators and tool experts.

Once you know that a team will be required, find a source of translation providers. Apart from a standard online search, there are many ways to do this: Attend trade shows, word of mouth, referrals, membership groups, industry articles, and industry web sites (ATA, IOL, AofT, ATIO, LISA, GALA etc.).

Once you have a list of vendors that are potentials to follow up with, you need to narrow it down. Even if you spend one day per vendor to do your research and have meetings, you may be spending two weeks or more to talk to the initial selections. Spend a lot of time on the websites of those translation companies you are considering getting in touch with. You know what they say about first impressions – you can tell a lot about a company by what they advertise, and what they don’t! Try to get a better picture by finding out:

  • Who are their clients?
  • What are their distinguishing features?
  • What is the company size?
  • How long have they been in business?
  • Do they have a contact in your time zone?
  • Do they offer references or quality guarantees?

Send an email asking for information. You may find short-listing easier if certain companies don’t reply quickly. If they don’t care enough about new clients/business, how will they treat existing clients? If they reply you may find their communication skills lacking, or their English unreadable.

After this you should be able to narrow down your list to a few “yes” candidates, some “maybe”, and enough “no” to warrant the time spent on initial research.

At this point, you should also ask your shortlist of candidates if you could send them an elaborate questionnaire. Their answers will help you to decide if their company offerings suit your needs, and if you would choose to further develop a relationship with them. In some cases there may not even be a response to this. You should discard these vendors immediately.

Once you get your answers, compare them. What information do they choose not to provide? Where are their strengths and weaknesses? What impresses you? What doesn’t? Remove those vendors from the race who are unwilling to provide information, or that provide information that does not suit your business goals.

After receiving answers you may be able to immediately eliminate some vendors from the list of candidates, even before you have discussed any costs.

Information to collect and score

You can collect any information that is important to you for achieving your business goals. Suggested areas on which to collect information include:

  • Company details (history, experience, reliability, reputation, etc.)
  • Quality standards (processes, translator experience and training, reviews, guarantees, industry standards, translated content, etc.)
  • Project management (processes, availability, rates, performance, etc.)
  • Technology and tools (proprietary or standardized, security, storage, translation memory, software, content management, file transfer, etc.)
  • Rates (per word, staffing, quality of translation memory, allowable corrections, etc.)

Sample questions

The following is a collection of sample questions you may want to ask:

Questions related to the specific company and their practices:

  • Do you outsource? To whom? What are their credentials?
  • What languages do you manage? Are there any that you specialize in?
  • Do you have an industry specialty (IT, medicine)?  

Questions related to the quality of staff and processes:

  • What is your hiring process (translators)?
  • What is your project assignment process?
  • What is your quality control? Do you provide any guarantees?  

Questions related to the way projects are handled:

  • Do you have a dedicated Project Manager? What is the availability? Where is your PM located?
  • How do you manage status reporting? Can you ensure consistency to meet schedules?
  • What is the process if you (or we) are going to miss a date?  

Questions related to tools and formats supported:

  • What translation tools do you use?
  • What is your XML document translation experience?
  • What are supported file formats?  

Questions related to the specific pricing options available:

  • What are your general per-word rates?
  • Do you provide discounts for 100% or fuzzy matches?
  • What’s included in rates?
  • When do prices increase? (for example, is it based on technical complexity, or market values, or changes to scope?)  

A more detailed list of questions is available here.


While often considered the simplest way to compare the value of one vendor with another, the cost should be one of the last things you consider. When you identify the total costs make sure you get all the numbers. You have to be able to identify total costs for a fair comparison. Remember that the cost should not be the main factor in choosing a vendor

With that said, the most readily recognized cost is often the per word translation cost. Another cost is related to the engineering fees. There is an initial cost to set up a system and this will, again, vary from one vendor to another. The cost for editing and proofing rates is related to a second or even third pair of eyes reviewing materials. Vendors are also entitled to a fair project management rate for the work that has to be done. This work includes managing files that are being checked in and out of the translation process, tracking and controlling the project and timing, and the current status of any part of the project. In addition, the vendor provides a primary contact between you and the translators. Be aware that a 10-13 percent project management fee on top of the total is very normal. Once content is translated and needs to be published you may face desktop publishing rates. This includes work like layout and configuration, formatting and placement of tables, graphics, and other page related objects.

One of the last costs to be considered is associated with the review of translated content. In some cases the person translating your materials is not a subject matter expert. Therefore the material may undergo an additional review by someone with advanced knowledge of a topic.

Your vendor should be able to help you realize savings in translation over time. The savings come from several actions they can take, but also come from things that they can help you to do.

Final considerations

When deciding on a vendor, consider the previous options to decide how to move ahead. Based on this, identify the risks and the opportunities associated with translation of content as well as the total costs, not just the per-word-costs that some vendors provide. Finally, identify the suitability of the partnership from a business standpoint. Don’t let the personal feelings get in the way of the business decision. You may want an internal translator, you may like a specific vendor, but ensure you can back up the decision with sound business practices.