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Does ISO 9001 Certification Mean Better Quality from a Translation Agency?

 

Some translation Agencies advertize themselves as ISO 9001 certified. What does it mean and what value does it bring? 

ISO 9001 translation agency certificationISO 9000 is a family of standards by the International Organization for Standardization that cover Quality Management Systems.

QMS is a very broad term and is defined as a set of procedures, processes, or policies that have an impact on the company’s ability to deliver core goods or services and eventually the customer satisfaction.

QMS is obviously used not only in language translation and interpretation services. An example can be military specs and inspection, when military grade products are carefully manufactured and inspected as per special procedures, or a system of measures at an industrial facility that cover not only statistics (e.g. percentage of rejects during the manufacturing phase) but also the performance of the entire company.

quality interpretation servicesSome translation companies and agencies are indeed ISO 9001 certified, but it is important? Does it add quality?

We think it only does when it is combined with other lesser known ISO standards and other guidelines that cover the area of language translation and interpretation specifically.

Otherwise you may not go beyond certifying the company’s internal document flows and personnel and not interpretation services per se.

What are the most important translation and interpretation related ISO and non-ISO standards and guidelines to take into account?

First of all, they are ISO technical standards for simultaneous interpretation equipment. The equipment is highly specialized and not all AV audio technicians will be able to handle it without dedicated training. Sometimes, because some AV companies do not know the standards and the requirements, the equipment that is supplied is substandard.

simultaneous interpretatio headsetsSimultaneous interpretation booths interpreters use can be permanent (e.g. in the UN General Assembly Hall) or mobile/portable (e.g. installed in a hotel room for your conference.)

ISO 2603 “Simultaneous interpreting – Permanent booths – Requirements” covers the first category, and ISO 4043 “Simultaneous interpreting – Mobile booths – Requirements” covers the second.

The standards are somewhat similar in the sense that they describe what conditions simultaneous interpreters need to be able to perform well.

Sound quality, lighting, the size of the booth and the desk in the booth are just some examples of what is controlled by the standard.

simultaneous translation boothEven the type of the booth is defined by the ISO standards: an ISO compliant booth is a walk-in booth or a “full booth” of certain minimum dimensions i.e. the booth for simultaneous interpretation that you enter and close the door behind you.

The so called “table top” booths are substandard: they do not provide sufficient sound insulation for interpreters and are uncomfortable and more difficult to work in.

Some interpretation providers may choose them, however, to cut their own costs at the expense of interpreters.

 

Proper equipment is extremely important for interpreters – it is not a whim! Simultaneous interpretation means a huge cognitive overload for an interpreter and even small things may be irritating or impede the flow of interpretation. Interpreters are not trying to be difficult, they just want optimum working conditions to be able to perform at the top of their abilities!

 

simultaneous interpretation receiversSubstandard conditions potentially mean lower quality interpretation for your conference, because the top echelon of conference interpreters will refuse the assignment.

The mobile booth standard (4043) additionally describes some unique features of mobile booths, such as ventilation vents, different requirements for air circulation, etc.

ISO/FDIS 20109 “Simultaneous interpreting — Equipment – Requirements” is still under development and will cover requirements for the sound system, interpreter consoles, microphones, headsets, microphone management and, partly, video screens.

Beware of marketing language, such as “crystal clear sound” or “latest technologies.” The best question you can ask your potential interpretation services provider about equipment is: “Is your equipment ISO 4043 compliant?” And there are only two possible answers: a yes or a no. If they do not know what ISO 4043 is – run away as fast as you can!

ASTM Standards and Guidelines for Language Interpretation

The American Society for Testing and Materials (ASTM) exists since the 1890s and it did quite a lot to advance quality controls and standards in a variety of industries.

As far as language interpretation is concerned, the development of such standards started only in early 1990s and resulted in the creation of the ASTM Main Committee F43 in 2011.

The language interpretation standards are still not finalized but they include the following documents under revision:

  • ASTM F2089: Standard Guide for Language Interpreting Services and
  • ASTM F2575: Standard Guide for Quality Assurance in Translation

 

Standards are important for language translation and interpretation services.

Standards are important for language translation and interpretation services.

While these documents are still in draft format, they will be a useful addition to the body of standards.

ASTM F2575 is another useful document. It is a “Standard Guide for Quality Assurance in Translation”. Note, however, that this document and the two draft documents above are not standards but “guides” which means that individual providers can adopt their recommendations at their own discretion, and they contain no mandatory requirements.

In that sense, we personally are not sure if it is correct to speak of “ASTM F2575 Certified Translation Services” or certification under a guiding document as opposed to a mandatory standard. Providers may voluntarily comply with the guidelines but it does not seem a certification with appropriate verifications in place.

Some language providers may also resist introduction of mandatory standards, because it may have an impact on their profits and business models. Following standards may mean greater costs and less ability to offer lower prices at the expense of quality. 

podium microphoneNor is it correct to speak of ASTM F2089 certification, because this “Standard Practice for Language Interpreting” is also not mandatory. It has interesting insights about the profession, however.

ISO 13611 “Interpreting–Guidelines for Community Interpreting” is another guideline document with recommendations, it contains no requirements but may be useful to take into consideration.

Community interpreting is a type of language interpretation service that support daily needs of communities as opposed to organizations e.g. city halls, residential communities, police precincts, etc.

ISO 9001 certification, therefore, is only the tip of the iceberg and does not necessarily mean higher quality of services provided by a language translation firm. For simultaneous conference interpretation, as a minimum do ask if your provider is ISO 4043 complaint for mobile/portable simultaneous interpretation equipment!