Why ISO matters in translation

When you’re looking for a reliable language service provider, a certificate with these three letters adds instant credibility. But what is ISO? What are international standards? How do they benefit you? Which standards apply to the language services industry? And what does ISO certification tell you about a translation provider’s credentials?

What is ISO? 

The International Organization for Standardization is an independent association that unites experts from various industries to set out agreed ways of doing things well. The resulting documents are known as international standards. These standards outline best practices to help 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. They go beyond national borders and local legislation. When you’re trading internationally, having a mutual understanding of requirements is a must.

ISO standards provide a common language for organisations to address key issues. These include quality, health and safety, environmental protection and information security. This is no mean feat when you consider that every industry has its own jargon. When businesses are deciding whether to implement ISO standards, one of the biggest challenges lies in interpreting the requirements as they apply to their organisation. Businesses that overcome this hurdle and achieve ISO certification benefit from greater resilience and increased efficiency. Their customers are happier, too.

Why is ISO important for translation?

There are no laws to regulate the translation market in the UK. This is also the case in many other countries. Because of this, 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. Our blog on how to find the right translation agency also offers tips on finding and working with a professional translation provider. 

A voice in the language services industry

In the absence of regulation, ISO standards provide a framework for language service providers to demonstrate their commitment to excellence. Professional bodies such as the UK’s Association of Translation Companies have taken a leading role in the development of industry-relevant ISO standards. There are now 80 published standards and 30 under development. So, as you can see, promoting professionalism in the language services industry is a priority for the International Organization for Standardization.

Is ISO mandatory?

No. ISO standards are voluntary. They do not replace national laws. However, their international reach makes them a useful benchmark for choosing between 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 disconcerting. 

Conformity, certification and accreditation – a matter of credibility

These words all sound similar and seem to add credibility. But what do they mean in relation 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. A certification body may or may not be accredited. Accreditation is when an accreditation body confirms that a certification body adheres to international standards relating to conformity assessment. It’s a bit like auditing the auditor.

What is the difference between ISO and QMS?

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

ISO stands for the International Organization for Standardization. This is the Geneva-based independent non-governmental organisation that was established in 1946. Since its foundation, it has published over 20,000 standards. These standards are designed to keep you safe, drive growth, or present 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. That’s because it is relevant to all businesses in every industry. The ISO 9001:2015 quality management system standard provides a framework for businesses to meet the needs of their customers. Translation buyers in certain industries expect potential suppliers to hold certification to ISO 9001. For others, ISO 9001 certification is shorthand for a better experience. It offers reassurance that the company you’re working with can consistently provide products or services that meet your needs. 

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. It sets out minimum requirements in terms of translator competences. A suitably qualified translator is one who has a degree in translation, a degree in any other subject plus two years’ full-time experience in translation, or at least five years’ full-time experience in translation. A second linguist with the same competences then revises the translated content. According to a report published by language industry intelligence research consultancy Slator in September 2020, just over half of the 140 language service providers it surveyed are ISO 17100 certified.

The newer ISO 18587:2017 post-editing of machine translation output standard is ISO’s contribution to guiding translation providers in their approach to machine translation. Automated translation technology is possibly the biggest disruptor in our industry right now. Certification to this standard demonstrates a translation provider’s readiness to keep up with the times and incorporate machine translation into their workflows responsibly. Slator’s 2020 report showed that only 13% of language service providers were certified to this standard. However, as the technology improves, we expect this figure to grow.

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 are relevant to every business in any industry. Some address major pain points such as: “How do I know you’re keeping my data safe?” or “How can you reassure me that you’re not a fly-by-night operation?” Speak to anyone in your IT department, and they will confirm that certification to the heavyweight ISO 27001:2013 information security management system standard shows that a company takes information security very, very seriously. This standard leaves no stone unturned. It covers aspects such as access control, business continuity, compliance, physical security and incident management. The standard is a global benchmark for managing information security. For this reason, companies in highly regulated industries such as banking and healthcare hold it in high regard. 

ISO management system standards can tell you whether a potential supplier shares your values. Why not ask them which ones they have adopted? 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. It shows that they are committed to sustainability and to minimising 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 proud to be one of only a handful of language service providers to hold certifications to five ISO standards. These include the coveted ISO 9001 certification for quality management. We were also early adopters of the language industry-specific standards ISO 17100 and ISO 18587. Attaining certification to these standards demonstrates that our processes stand up to rigorous, independent scrutiny. ISO standards serve as the framework for our commitment to delivering consistently high quality and providing exemplary customer service.

About the author

Bethan Thomas has worked in the translation industry for 20 years. She speaks four languages, plus standardese. She has a decade’s worth of experience in implementing and maintaining ISO standards. A trained internal auditor, she has also contributed to the development of language industry standards through the ATC’s ISO development group.

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