When do translations have quality?

The question as to the quality of a translation might be better formulated as: when is a translation a good translation? Many intelligent people have attempted to answer this question. Philosophers, who lose themselves all too easily in profundity. Linguists, who screen a translation according to precisely defined, linguistic and metalinguistic criteria. And countless proofreaders, who consider a translation from their own unique quality perspective and must reliably manage the balancing act of remaining loyal to both the customer and the target audience.

In reality, however, the response to the original question is always provided by the target audience of the translation. At the latest, the quality of a translation may be proven when repairing a car, evaluating a stock market report or programming a cardiac pacemaker. The translation must clearly convey how something is used, how something behaves or how an event has occurred.

So many viewpoints, so many recipients with different motivations, so many conflicting standards. Ultimately, however, there is only ever one verdict: the translation is either good or not. The translator will either be entrusted with further assignments or, following a period of “radio silence”, he will wonder whether there was something not quite right with the fruits of his labor. To tell him that his work did not meet the high expectations of quality is the exception rather than the rule.

Why so? Probably because quality is always in the eye of the beholder. Nobody can judge the quality of a translation without removing their own (or somebody else’s) subjective perception from the equation. All too often, well-founded criticism is replaced with the testimony of another invisible or anonymous party, whether it be the company’s native speaker who is exalted above all doubt, the well-shielded, at best shadowy manager on an upper floor or even the end customer as the highest and ostensibly untouchable authority.

What makes a translation a poor translation?

This almost appears to be a simpler question because the answers gush forth: incorrect choice of words, poor spelling, confused punctuation, apparent lack of expert knowledge, sentences are too long or too short, the text reads like a translation rather than flowing naturally and you may as well have assigned it to a secretary or a computer. Poor translations exude laziness, mechanical effort and a lack of professionalism. However, they also betray time pressure, low rates of pay and a lack of appreciation.

We have dedicated ourselves to the quality of translations so intensively and for so long that we have grown weary of the numerous parameters and definitions. Instead, we have distilled the answer to a simple formula:

“A translation is good if it fulfills its purpose without being conspicuous.”

And, of course, if it impresses the reader, then the translation has hit the bullseye! As a simple rule of thumb, however, our theorem should be appropriate in many situations.

Who can provide us with quality translations?

Language service providers can be very different in their working methods, communication channels and business structure. This table shows whom you can entrust with certain language services, and who you should avoid. It also shows where you can expect the best value for money.

 Übersetzungen mit Qualität: AnbietervergleichÜbersetzungen mit Qualität: AnbietervergleichQuality in translation: comparison of providers


Armin Mutscheller is a graduate translator for English and German who specializes in medicine, technology, terminology and knowledge management. His company is located in Neckargemünd, Germany. For many other European and Asian languages, he works with an experienced team of professional translators. Together, we translate all types of text, including technical documentation, marketing materials, press bulletins, legal documents and contracts, software and websites.

© 2017 Armin Mutscheller • Quality through 25 years of experience and specialization • ISO 17100 compliant translation process • Member of the Professional Association of Interpreters and Translators in Germany (BDÜ)