Managing Translation Quality in Multilingual Settings

The example of the European Union

By James Archibald

james-archibaldQuality management is one of the underpinnings of Canada’s language industry which has established itself without doubt as a trendsetter. Notwithstanding this enviable position, it is nevertheless worthwhile to compare the Canadian experience with that of other multilingual jurisdictions. That is why we have chosen to reflect on the European Union’s approach to quality assurance. 

The European Union (EU) is committed to providing quality translations to its member states in 24 official languages representing over 200 language pairs. It is clear that the translation volumes which have to be dealt with on a recurring basis require the extensive use of translation memories, the statistical analysis of databases or corpora, extensive use of automated translation systems and translation memories, as well as the requisite post editing of texts generated by computer-assisted translation tools. To compound the challenges faced by the EU, several non-European languages have also to be taken into account. The challenge is to manage quality output faced with what one might describe as a tsunami of words.

According to Ralf Steinberger, a computational linguist at the European Commission, “…the translation quality of EU documents is typically very good, especially for legal documents.”1 In terms of measurement, this assessment is supported by the fact that the work is carried out by highly qualified language professionals with subject-area expertise, on the one hand, and, on the other hand, by the fact that their work, even when produced through the support of automated systems, is subject to a multi-level revision process. Moreover, because of the varied subject matter of the texts to be translated, discipline-based specialists – such as members of EU’s legal services – shoulder a great deal of responsibility in the quality control process. Final responsibility falls upon the European Community’s Publication Office. The process is articulated along the classic lines of pre-translation, translation, revision, editing and copyediting. All this assumes, of course, the extensive knowledge base of the language professionals involved. The keystone of the system is the maintenance of consistency, the integration of information technology and the progressive introduction of system enhancements as technological progress permits. In other words, the high standard of the EU’s translation output is guaranteed by an integrated system which marries both the human and technological aspects of text production, an enviable paradigm.

Albrecht Neubert, an internationally recognized translation theorist at Kent State University (Ohio), posits that translation is a text-induced text production process.2 In his view, the challenge for translators is to identify the textual dynamic of source texts with a view to replicating that creative vitality in target texts following set processes and procedures necessary to maintain textual quality. The EU’s management and assessment of quality focuses on these processes and procedures including the whole range from pre-translation to revision. Target text acceptability is the ultimate test. If processes and procedures fail, so too does the product. Hence the standard must be maintained through the continuous improvement of related management practices all the way from the hiring of qualified language professionals to the seamless articulation of production processes which integrate the multiple competencies of terminologists, translators, language technologists, subject-area specialists and editors, all working together as a team under the oversight of the Directorate-General for Translation (DGT).

All this is fine, but one must never forget that quality in translation is also assessed by the end user who may not have the expertise of any of the key players in the institutional translation process. That is to say that the quality management system must also take into account the expectations of the end users. For example, EU regulations concerning the import and export of agricultural products must be understood by producers in the field such as Maltese-speaking tomato growers whose production is sold on major European markets using one or more of the EU’s 24 official languages.3

Those responsible for the quality management system are then faced with the upstream design of a solid quality management system as well as the downstream appreciation of acceptable target text quality. Hence, measurement is made in both quantitative and qualitative terms. Is the target text error-free? Was it produced in time? Is the text understandable and usable by the monolingual target reader in a language-culture which may not be akin to that of the source text? To harken back to the Maltese example, does the target text in Maltese, which may have been translated through an intermediary language, reflect with understandable precision the meaning of the source text?

The distinction then must be made between sufficient and necessary quality. The EU has integrated this into its text production process which supports both gisting and high-level equivalents as needed in the translation of legal and regulatory texts. To this effect, DGT’s machine translation service produces raw automatic translations from and into all of the EU’s official languages for users who simply need to grasp the gist of texts. However, users are advised that accurate, high-quality translations must be produced and revised by skilled professionals armed with the requisite subject-area knowledge and linguistic competency even when assisted by automated translation tools.  The distinction, therefore, is made between “raw quality” and high quality accuracy. In both cases, quality assurance matters, but the needs of the end users dictate the methodologies used to arrive at the desired result. Translation software may in fact be downloaded by departments which only require “raw quality” thereby relieving the DGT of the need to produce human translations of much of the textual material needed in everyday operations. The economic impact of this paradigm is obvious.  One is sufficient for general understanding while the other is necessary for institutional integrity and utter dependability.

The DGT Translation Memory4 (DG-TM) originally launched in November 2007 is currently available in 24 languages and may be used free of charge by EU institutions or agencies and any staff member working for a public administration in a member country. Hence, minimal quality standards are maintained across the EU members states even in the case of “raw” gisting which depends on a vast database of textual corpora produced by the EU Administration.  This common initiative has served to promote multilingualism, language diversity and the re-use of EU-generated corpora in the European Community while at the same time ensuring minimal and sufficient quality standards.

Parallel initiatives are to be found in other multilingual administrations and states, including, of course, the United Nations and an officially bilingual country like Canada. Indeed, the Canadian example of translation management is often cited as an outstanding illustration of translation quality management in the public sector. The needs of various government institutions in Canada are not dissimilar to those of the EU, albeit in a bilingual context, as was evidenced by the recent Senate hearings on the Translation Bureau and its ability to serve the needs of its various user publics through the use of both human and computer-assisted translation.5

Quality is the keystone of Canada’s language industry

It is not surprising to note that the management of translation quality is the keystone of Canada’s language industry. The quality management paradigm used by DGT embraces all the central principles of quality assurance that may also be found in translation agencies and linguistic services departments in the private sector. All are committed to managing quality upstream and downstream, to enhancing the delicate interface of machine and human translation and to do so with a view to promoting efficiency and efficacy in the industry. Indeed, Canada and Québec have taken leadership roles in this area. The Language Industry Association has assumed a key role in promoting ISO standards.6 OTTIAQ protects the public by encouraging and supporting the quality education of new entrants, by ensuring that certified translators meet quality standards and by regulating the maintenance of certified translators’ competencies through on-going professional inspection and development. It serves as a guarantor of the initial and continuing quality of its members’ services as a matter of public duty.7 And Québec’s regulatory agency, the Office des professions, has taken steps to reorient its policies and procedures to accentuate quality assurance with respect to the integration of aspiring experts into the professional system and to the reinforcement of the disciplinary system with a view to protecting the public.8 Managing quality has become a priority on all fronts. All these actors contribute to the maintenance of an integrated quality assurance system. It is comforting indeed to see that our language professionals are and intend to remain in the forefront of quality management.

James Archibald is the Director of the Department of Translation and Written Communication at McGill University. He holds a doctorate from the Université de Lille (France). He is a member of the Office des professions du Québec and the Conseil supérieur de la langue française.


1Steinberger, R. et al. “An overview of the European Union’s highly multilingual parallel corpora,”  Language Resources and Evaluation 48, 4 (December 2014):  679–707. 

2 Neubert, Albrecht and Gregory M Shreve. 1992. Translation as Text. KENT (Ohio): Kent State University Press.

3 Seychell, Laurent. 2008. La traduction professionnelle aux multiples visages : français — maltais. MALTE: Gutenberg Press.

4 DGT-Translation Memory.

5 Paradis, Denis, Chair. 2016.  Study of the Translation Bureau - Report of the Standing Committee on Official Languages. OTTAWA: Parliament of Canada.
The text is also available in French.

6 “AILIA takes over Chairmanship of ISO/TC37 SMC, Standards Council of Canada Mirror Committee.”

7 “Protecting the public.”

8 OPQ. 2014. Rapport du Comité de travail de travail concernant les nouveaux modèles d’encadrement professionnel. QUÉBEC : OPQ.