September 2009
By Jason Heaton

Jason Heaton is a ten-year veteran of the localization and life sciences industries and is currently the marketing manager with ForeignExchange Translations.

Using EN 15038:2006 as an assessment tool

If you have struggled with a good way to assess the countless translation agencies vying for your business or looked for a way to assess your current provider, you’re not alone. Companies around the globe have longed for a standard objective means by which to carry out their assessments. Some help has arrived in the form of European Standard EN 15038:2006, “Translation Services — Service Requirements.”

A few industry related national standards such as the German
DIN 2345, the Austrian ÖNORM 1200, etc. existed before EN 15038 was drafted and published, however, EN 15038 was a new creation developed by a joint Task Force within the European Committee for Standardization (CEN).

As a mere European standard EN 15038 has been adopted in the member countries, replacing existing national standards. Despite its European pedigree, it can be applied universally. (The original text published in the Multilingual Magazine has been slightly changed here, due to facts we learned after the article's publication.)

EN 15038 provides guidance on such topics as human resources, linguist competency, technical resources, project management (PM), client relationships and quality management. In short, it covers all the important areas that will determine the level of service and quality a company can expect from its translation provider. In regulated industries, where metrics and standards are vital, EN 15038 is a welcome tool. Many translation agencies are flocking to get EN 15038-certified or claim compliance. While certification is great, it is also helpful for client-side companies to understand the guts of the standard. Though it’s not a “silver bullet,” the finer points of EN 15038 give companies a good starting point from which they can assess their current or prospective translation service providers.

The service requirements standard is broken up into three main sections: Basic Requirements, Client-Translation Service Provider (TSP) Relationship and Procedures in Translation Services.

Basic requirements

The Basic Requirements section of EN 15038 covers the following areas: human resources, technical resources, quality management system and PM.
The human resources section of EN 15038 focuses primarily on the competencies of the linguists who work on projects. The standard breaks down these competencies into five categories:

Translating competence. Linguists can translate to an appropriate level in terms of terminology, grammar, phraseology, style, locale and target audience. Equally emphasized is that the translation is done in relation to client expectations and requirements.

Linguistic and technical competence in source and target languages. Linguists should have full comprehension of the source language and a mastery of the target language.

Research competence, information acquisition and processing. A linguist should be proficient in using tools available to learn more about the subject matter in which they are translating.

Cultural competence. Translations should be done with the target audience in mind with respect to value systems, behavioral standards and locale.
Technical competence. Proficiency in hardware and software tools necessary to carry out the translations.

These competencies should come as the result of a recognized higher education degree, equivalent qualification in other areas plus two years of documented experience translating and/or at least five years of professional translation experience. Additionally, EN 15038 stipulates that editors should have adequate experience in the competencies above as well and reviewers should be specialists in the subject matter in which they are working (for example, medical device, finance or consumer electronics).

While it would be nearly impossible for a client to be able to screen linguists for these competencies, they can ensure that the TSP has processes in place for the selection and qualification of linguists. By asking to see a TSP’s selection criteria and perhaps random linguist records, a client can have a pretty good idea of a TSP’s adherence to this requirement.

EN 15038 does not go into much detail regarding technical resources, but the high-level requirements it does list are important:

The TSP should have the equipment necessary to carry out projects and provide for safe and confidential handling of client documents and electronic media and data.

The TSP should also have adequate communications equipment and hardware and software.

Access to relevant information sources and media.

Technology changes so quickly now that the writers of the standard were wise to not go into too much detail in this section. Faster processors, upgraded operating systems and storage methods, as well as advances in content management, translation memory (TM) and the advent of machine translation, would render any more specific directives obsolete almost annually.

It would be a good idea to ask your TSP for its archiving and disaster recovery protocols. Also, a list of its software capabilities will help determine how current they are, especially vis-à-vis your specific project needs.

Though not cited specifically in EN 15038, TM would fall under this section. TM is the widely used means by which previously translated phrases can be leveraged in later projects to maximize consistency and cost-effectiveness and reduce turnaround times. There is an ever-growing list of options in TM technology. What is important is not how much a TM system can do, but how it pertains to your specific needs.

EN 15038 states that a TSP should have a quality system suited to its size and structure but should include a statement of quality system objectives, a process for monitoring quality, a robust corrective action program and a process for handling information and material received from clients.

The simplest approach to assessing an agency’s quality management system is to check its certifications and compliance to recognized standards, most notably ISO 9000. Since many companies that use translations have their own ISO-certified quality systems, it is easy to relate these to that of the TSP. Check your agency’s certification status and any compliance to other standards, such as ISO 14971 (Risk Management). It might also be helpful to have your own company’s internal quality auditor perform an audit on the TSP to check on key points as they might relate to your business.

Quite simply, EN 15038 states that each translation project should be overseen by a project manager and be carried out according to the TSP’s procedures and in accordance with the project expectations and requirements agreed upon.

Client-TSP relationship

The second main section of EN 15038, which covers the client-TSP relationship, is actually quite short. The focus is on how projects are assessed, quoted, agreed upon and concluded.

With regard to human and technical resources, an agency should not be so eager to “win” a project that it is not being honest about its bandwidth and capabilities. So, a forthright discussion about its human and technical resources, backed by documented proof, will tease out any issues of scalability.

Barring other client-TSP agreements, projects should be quoted with, at the least, price and delivery details. One could assume that the project schedule is included in “delivery details” and is often an equal, if not more vital, concern to clients than price.

EN 15038 briefly touches on agreements that an agency establishes with its clients. This point is somewhat open but basically states that there should be a contract between the TSP and client that covers commercial and legal terms such as copyright, liability, confidentiality and settlement of disputes. These are typically assumptions contained within a Master Services Agreement, Statement of Work or individual project proposal.

It is the responsibility of the TSP to attempt to eliminate ambiguity by approaching the client for supplementary information related to a project. This point actually speaks to the larger need for good client-TSP communication, which is often intangible but still vital to a good relationship.

All information received from the client should be handled in accordance with the TSP’s quality management system. This point relates to confidentiality, version control and archiving that should be covered in the TSP’s quality management system, which was discussed above.

A TSP should have procedures in place for wrapping up a project. This covers post-delivery: archiving, follow-up and assessment of client satisfaction. Again, this points to the larger need for good communication. Project “postmortems” are effective means by which clients and TSPs can discuss the good and bad aspects of a project, which will lead to future improvements. The way a TSP finishes a project is as important as how it starts one.

Procedures in translation services

The final section in EN 15038 breaks down how projects are carried out. First, a TSP must have documented procedures in place for PM, including:

  • Monitoring and supervising preparations — kickoff meetings, review of proposal and requirements, and so on
  • Assigning translators
  • Assigning editors — EN 15038 calls these “revisers”
  • Issuing instructions
  • Enabling and monitoring consistency — this could be facilitated through the use of glossaries, style guides and TMs
  • Monitoring and supervising the schedule
  • Staying in contact with all parties, including the client
  • Delivery

It should be noted that while most TSPs have the position “project manager” within their ranks, the tasks above are often carried out by several people, such as linguistic leads, publishing leads and account managers. One might want to talk to a TSP about how each of the above tasks is carried out and by whom.

The attention to detail EN 15038 gives to preparation highlights the importance of this area. The standard goes into some detail about each preparation step, breaking it down into administrative, technical and linguistic aspects.

Administrative — Two points are highlighted here: projects should be logged, which allows their status to be determined at all times. Also, appropriate internal and external resources are to be assigned and documented, again for traceability.

Technical — Appropriate technical resources should be used, and any pre-translation technical processing should be carried out. This might include preparation or extraction of text, TM leveraging or post-alignment of text.

Linguistic Preparation — focuses on recording any specific linguistic requirements a project and/or client might have. This could include style guides or specs for adaptation to a specific target audience or glossaries. The source text should be analyzed in order to head off any possible translation problems, such as colloquialisms or industry or company-specific terminology.

For assessment of a TSP’s adherence to the above preparation points, it might be helpful to obtain any pre-project procedures and checklists, as well as style guides specific to your company or your company’s industry.

EN 15038 succinctly describes an effective translation process. It is based on having appropriate staff, conducting an editing step to verify the translation quality and performing quality checks throughout the process. Ask for a thorough description of how a project is carried out, step-by-step. Is editing done? If so, is it by a separate person? Ask to see quality checklists that linguists use.

EN 15038:2006 fills a gap that previously existed: an objective set of criteria by which TSPs can be assessed. While many of its points may seem obvious, taken as a whole, the standard can be effectively used to make decisions about potential translation vendors and review existing ones. Its contents could also be adapted or augmented for use in specific industries. And it provides justifications for decisions that are often difficult to make in a service industry like translation. With many regulated industries’ increased focus on supplier quality and compliance to standards, a watertight method of assessing service providers such as translation agencies will surely become more important in the coming years.