Translation clients are often buying blind. They seldom know what they are paying for, especially when buying a translation into a language other than their own. Translations are definitely not all born equal, evident to anyone who has experienced the pain, amusement or confusion of reading a bad one. Bad translations may take many forms and vary in the degree of injury. From the high comedy of machine translation (Menu items: “Nice little bits of pig, drunken” and “Pens at the countrywoman”) to those done by an overzealous, non-native speaker abusing a dictionary (“We are second-rate hotel situated in bowels of greenery…”), or those not bothering with a dictionary at all (“Enjoy your meal in our warm, inviting restroom!”), to technically correct, but clunky translations (“Hence, for example, the realization of the modular products as per above corresponds to the functional needs expressed…”), they all send the same loud message — buyer beware.
I would personally never translate into Italian. I have heard tales of those skilled in translation in both directions, but I have yet to see solid evidence of these mythical creatures (with a couple of exceptions; a unicorn hoof print here and there). Interpreters of spoken language can and do generally go both ways. Not so translators of the written word. Learning to write well and culturally appropriately in one’s own language, after years of study in one’s formative years, is hard enough. Learning to do so in one or more additional languages is improbable.
Many beginning translators are very good, and come to the undertaking with fresh, eager eyes. However, even more time-tested translators are good. Not only have they developed the tools and techniques of the trade, but, as they have weathered the trials and travails of translating, they tend to be dedicated to the profession and craft. Because translation can seem an obvious career option for expatriates and bilinguals in general, many foray into the translation thicket and quickly retreat when they learn that translating is HARD.
Ask a potential translator for samples. Get a native reader to look at them for style and flow. This little bit of research can tell you a lot about a translator’s skill. Good, smooth writing is a challenge in itself; writing well and conveying meaning into another language adds an entirely new dimension of challenge. Samples can also give you an idea of how well the translator’s style fits your purposes.
Not all documents are created alike and no translator can translate all documents well. Look at the translator’s specializations and experience. If a translator does not have legal experience, don’t give that translator your sticky legal document. If you want some snazzy marketing text, an expert in legalese may not be the best choice. For instance, if you have Italian texts wanting to become English in the fields of tourism, design, social sciences or marketing, I’m your woman. Let’s talk. Email me. Skype me. If you have a convoluted (or otherwise) legal, medical, highly technical or financial text, I’m not your woman (though I can help direct you to your man or woman).
You may wish to disregard all of the above advice if you really don’t care if the translation is shoddy. I mean no disrespect in suggesting that you might not care. Many documents have to be translated to meet a regulatory requirement, but no one really reads them and no one ever said they had to be translated decently. Other times a cursory understanding of a text is all that’s asked. Or perhaps, as witnessed in Chinese restaurants around the world, you are looking for a comic effect to keep your customers jolly during dinner. In these cases, you may do well to choose a non-native translator, a newbie, a computer, or Giuseppe the Plumber. On the other end of the spectrum, if you’ve just spent millions on an ad campaign, billboards to be plastered in all major cities, full-page magazine ads, go for the best. Follow my advice and then some (here’s a more comprehensive guide to choosing a translator from the American Translator Association). In Italy, many large glossy businesses, for whom image should be all, will polish every other aspect of their presentation, using the best graphic designers, the finest paper quality, primo web designers and then bring in some schmo with not so much as a spellchecker for the translations. Shaving 0.0001% off of their budgets and coming across as second rate. Most translation needs fall somewhere between billboards and Chinese restaurants. The same business may have varying quality level needs, and may negotiate with translators to pay for what they need (i.e. “Give me down and dirty” or “Spit-polished, please!”).
The Internet makes location irrelevant. This revolutionary fact is great news for translation clients, as your pool of potential translators expands infinitely. Translators are not like produce; homegrown and local are not better. They do not grow better translations when hovered over and fed suggestions. I have a friend who was looking to have subtitles for her documentary film translated from Catalan to English. Instead of choosing from the global market of expert Catalan-English subtitle translators, she wanted someone local and got to choose from two non-translators who happened to live in town and know Catalan. The most common misconception about translation is that it is a mechanical matter, the mere trading of words from one language for the words of another. This error is at the foundation of poor techniques in translator shopping. If you appreciate the complex ways in which languages and cultures differ from one another, as well as the inherent challenges of writing, you can begin to choose a translator without making the dreaded brutta figura (literal: “ugly figure”; non-literal: “bad impression”).