Why ISO matters in translation

When you’re looking for a reliable language service provider, this three-letter initialism undoubtedly adds instant credibility. But what is ISO? What are international standards? How do they benefit you? Which standards are applicable to the language services industry? And what does certification to ISO standards tell you about a translation provider’s credentials?

What is ISO? 

The International Organization for Standardization, which also goes by the snappier-sounding ISO, is an independent association that brings together world-leading experts from a range of industries to set out agreed ways of doing things well: The resulting documents are known as international standards. They define requirements and outline best practices to enable businesses in any industry to consistently offer fit-for-purpose products or services. 

A common language that overcomes barriers 

In our increasingly globalised world, ISO standards serve as a modern lingua franca, transcending national borders and local legislation. Because when you’re trading internationally, having a mutual understanding of requirements is a must. 

ISO standards provide a common language for businesses in any industry to address issues such as quality, health and safety, environmental protection and information security. No mean feat when you consider that each industry has its own jargon. This is perhaps one of the biggest obstacles that businesses face when deciding whether to implement ISO standards – how to decipher the language used in the standards and interpret the clauses as they apply to their organisation. For businesses that do overcome this hurdle, the benefits of ISO certification include enhanced customer satisfaction, greater resilience and increased efficiency. 

Why is ISO important for translation?

The translation and interpreting market is unregulated in the UK and in many other countries. Anyone can claim to be a professional translator or interpreter and peddle their services accordingly. For a translation buyer, this represents a real minefield. How do you know whether you’re working with a true professional? The International Organization for Standardization has stepped in with a series of industry-relevant standards to help you make sense of things. You can also read our blog on how to find the right translation agency for tips on finding and working with a professional translation provider. 

A voice in the language services industry

In the absence of regulation in the language services industry, ISO standards provide a framework for LSPs to demonstrate their commitment to excellence. National bodies and professional organisations such as the UK’s Association of Translation Companies have taken a leading role in the development of industry-relevant ISO standards. With 16 published standards and 4 standards under development as at August 2020, great  strides have been made to promote professionalism in the language services industry.

Is ISO mandatory?

No. ISO standards are voluntary and do not replace national laws. However, given their international reach, they are a useful benchmark when it comes to choosing between potential translation providers. This is especially true if you work in a highly regulated industry and find the lack of regulation in the language services industry a bit disconcerting. 

Conformity, certification and accreditation – a matter of credibility

These words all sound quite similar and seem to add credibility. But what do they mean when it comes to ISO standards? Anyone can claim conformity to an ISO standard. However, without independent verification, this claim doesn’t hold much water. A company that holds certification to an ISO standard has undergone an external audit by an independent certification body to assess whether a company’s product, service or system meets specific requirements. A certification body may or may not be accredited. Accreditation is the formal recognition by an accreditation body that an organisation providing audit and certification services operates according to international standards relating to conformity assessment. A bit like auditing the auditor.

What is the difference between ISO and QMS?

While we’re on the subject of defining terms, how about the difference between ISO and QMS? 

ISO stands for the International Organization for Standardization, the Geneva-based independent non-governmental organisation established in 1946. Since it was founded, it has published over 20,000 standards designed to keep you safe, drive innovation and growth, or put forward solutions to global challenges. 

QMS stands for quality management system. And there’s an ISO standard for that! In fact, it is one of ISO’s most well-known standards because it is relevant to all businesses in every industry. The widely respected ISO 9001:2015 quality management system standard is recognised worldwide and provides a framework for businesses to meet the expectations and needs of their customers. For translation buyers in certain industries, certification to ISO 9001 is a prerequisite when they are considering potential suppliers. For others, it’s shorthand for a better experience. It offers reassurance that the company you’re working with has defined processes for consistently providing products or services that meet your needs and fulfil statutory and regulatory requirements. 

What about other standards? Which ones are relevant to the language services industry?

The ISO 17100:2015 translation services standard is the most widely adopted industry-specific ISO standard among language service providers and sets out minimum requirements in terms of translator qualifications and competences. Translations that comply with this standard have been translated by a professional with either a degree in translation, a degree in any other subject plus two years’ full-time experience in translation, or a professional with at least five years’ full-time experience in translation. These translations are then revised by a second linguist with the same competences. According to a report published by language industry intelligence research consultancy Slator in September 2020, just over half of the 140 language service providers (LSPs) it surveyed are certified to ISO 17100.

The newer ISO 18587:2017 post-editing of machine translation output standard is ISO’s contribution to guiding LSPs in their approach to what is possibly the biggest disruptor in the language industry – machine translation. Certification to this standard demonstrates an LSP’s readiness to innovate and to incorporate machine translation into its workflows responsibly. In its report, Slator cites a meagre 13% of LSPs certified to the ISO 18587 standard as of August 2020, but it is only a matter of time before this figure grows as machine translation improves.

Other industry-relevant standards include the recently published ISO 20771:2020 legal translation standard for legal translators and ISO 18841:2018 for interpreting services.

Any other standards I might have heard of?

You might be more familiar with some of ISO’s other standards. Management system standards like ISO 9001:2015 are designed to be applicable across a wide range of businesses in a variety of industries. Some address major pain points such as: “How do I know you’re keeping my data safe?” or “How can I be assured that you’re not a fly-by-night operation?”

Speak to anyone in your IT department, and they will attest to the fact that certification to the heavyweight ISO 27001:2013 information security management system standard is an irrefutable sign that a company takes information security very, very seriously. The 30-page beast with 114 controls leaves no stone unturned covering aspects such as access control, business continuity, compliance, physical security and incident management. The standard is a global benchmark for the management of information security and is trusted by companies in highly regulated industries such as banking, automotive and healthcare trust it. 

ISO management system standards can tell you whether a potential supplier shares your values or has similar strategic objectives. Why not ask them which ones they have adopted in their organisation? It will give you a good insight into what matters to them. Certification to the ISO 14001:2015 environmental management system standard is a clear indication of a company’s green credentials and shows that they are committed to sustainability and to minimisation of their eco footprint. 

And if you’re a translation buyer in the healthcare industry, certification to the ISO 13485:2016 medical devices standard may well be a must-have on your checklist.

Walking the talk?

Much like learning a foreign language, it takes time and effort to achieve certification to ISO standards but the benefits speak for themselves. At Planet Languages, we’re extremely proud to be one of only a handful of LSPs to hold certifications to five ISO standards including the coveted ISO 9001 certification for quality management, awarded by UKAS-accredited certification body TÜV SÜD. We were also early adopters of the language industry-specific standards ISO 17100:2015 for translation services and ISO 18587:2017 for post-editing machine translation output. Attaining certification to these standards demonstrates that our processes stand up to rigorous, independent scrutiny by the ATC Certification Service’s industry expert auditors. Our commitment to delivering consistently high quality and providing exemplary customer service is underpinned by ISO standards.

About the author

Bethan Thomas has worked in the translation industry for 20 years and speaks four languages, plus standardese. She was responsible for guiding Planet Languages to certification to ISO 17100’s predecessor, EN 15038, back in 2012. Since then, she has helped the company achieve certification to the ISO 17100, ISO 18587, ISO 9001, ISO 14001 and ISO 27001 standards. A trained internal auditor, she has also contributed to the development of language industry standards through the ATC’s ISO development group.