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How To Select a Legal Translation Provider

January 5, 2012

(This blog is a truncated version of an article that ran in the New York Law Journal last month.)

At most law firms, when a document translation is needed, the usual course of action is to request estimates from several translation companies and pick the cheapest one.

This is not unreasonable. Clients are more cost-conscious than ever, and less likely to obtain a legal translation that comes with a hefty price tag. Unfortunately, the cost of fixing a poor translation is much higher than obtaining an accurate translation to begin with, not to mention spillover costs in embarrassment or even potential damage to your case.

Here are 7 factors to consider when selecting a legal translation provider:

1. Quality

Quality is the most important factor. But how can you determine if a company provides quality legal translations? Translation is not a science, and there is no such thing as a perfect document translation. But it makes sense to find out more about a company’s quality control procedures, how they select and vet their translators, and how they proofread completed translations. Are their translators accredited by the American Translator’s Association (ATA) or similar organizations? What is their process for dealing with translation errors? If a translation company can’t answer these questions to your satisfaction, you should be wary of trusting them with your documents.

2. ISO Certification

While ISO certification does not guarantee accurate legal translations, it does indicate that the translation company has a quality management system in place and documented processes for quality assurance. While not foolproof, it is certainly better than no certification. Since many established translation companies have achieved ISO certification, you are better off relying on one that does.

3. Legal Specialization

It makes sense to choose a company that specializes in legal translation. Even if you only need to translate several documents, you are better off working with a provider that is familiar with litigation and the discovery process, and can provide legal support services in addition to document translation (i.e., interpretation for depositions, foreign-language document review, etc.). Ask about the qualifications of their legal translators, and how many years they have been translating legal documents. Also ask about proofreading. If your case deals with technical subject matter, then make sure translators they would assign have a relevant educational and experiential background.

4. Reputation

How long has the agency been around? Has anyone in your firm used them in the past? You should not hesitate to ask for references to projects of similar scope and subject matter.

5. Responsiveness

It’s worth inquiring how long estimates typically take. Most translation companies can provide an estimate in an hour or two. But some—particularly the largest companies—can take much longer. Do they provide after-hours or weekend service? If translation requests often arrive at your desk after 6pm, you should not select a translation provider that only responds to new requests between 9-5.

6. Size

Bigger does not necessarily mean better. At the largest companies, chances are you will deal with a different project manager and translator for each project, and the quality of the translation work may vary from project to project. You may wait longer to obtain a quote, receive impersonal service, and get the impression that your business is low on the priority list if you are not a big client. On the other hand, it makes sense to work with a company that is big enough to handle the various languages and technical specialties you may require at the necessary turn-around time. As in so many things, the “Goldilocks Rule” applies: pick a translation company that isn’t too small or too big, but “just right” for your needs.

7. Price

Price is always a concern, and clients are more sensitive than ever in this economy. While quality—not price—ideally should be the overriding factor, once you have established that the translation companies you are considering have appropriate qualifications, it certainly makes sense to compare fees. Just make sure you compare apples to apples. Many translation companies offer low rates that only include the cost of the translation– proofreading and formatting are extra. Their per-word rates may be lower than other services, but the final bill ends up much higher. Make sure to ask what the translation estimate includes, and if it is “all-inclusive.” If it isn’t, then ask for an estimate of the additional charges.