A Comparison of US and European Standards for Translation Services

by Gérard de Angéli


The statements made and opinions expressed herein reflect only my personal views on the topic under discussion. In no way do they represent or convey the official position or doctrine of any official body or organization of any country on these matters. And I take responsibility for any error, inaccuracy, omission, or misjudgement found herein.

n June 2006, ASTM International (originally known as the American Society for Testing and Materials) issued the Standard Guide for Quality Assurance in Translation (1). Simultaneously, the CEN (European Committee for Standardization, comprising standardization bodies of 27 member states of the European Union) published European Standard EN 15038:2006 Translation Services – Service requirements (June 2006) (2).

To date (December 2007), only five national bodies have officially published this standard as part of their national catalogue of applicable standards, namely Germany, France, UK, the Netherlands, and Austria.

Any genuine effort to comply with the Standard requirements will bring about greater organizational effectiveness.

The purpose of this article is to discuss the issue of standards as applied to the translation industry, defining the purpose and contents of the translation standards both in the US and in the European Union, reviewing present trends in the field and raising issues with regards to the application of standards (assessment, compliance, certification) from technical, practical, and marketing standpoints.

Readers are invited to respond, submit questions and raise issues on the .
What is it all about?

Since we will be talking about standards (in translation), let us have a look first at what standard means.
Ordinary language

In ordinary language, standard used as a noun can have the following meanings (Oxford Dictionary):

  1. A level of quality or attainment.
  2. A required or agreed level of quality or attainment.
  3. Something used as a measure, norm, or model in comparative evaluations.
  4. (Standards) principles of honourable, decent behaviour.
  5. A military or ceremonial flag.
  6. An upright water or gas pipe.
  7. A tree that grows on an erect stem of full height.
  8. A shrub grafted on an erect stem and trained in tree form.

Read Also: Do We Really Need Translation Standards After All? 2

For the purpose of our discussion, 3 meanings seem relevant:

  1. Level of quality
  2. Required or agreed, and
  3. Measure for comparison purpose

[Interestingly enough, the modern word ‘standard’ comes from the Old French ‘estendart’ (a military or ceremonial flag). And it is amusing to find that translation companies claiming that their services comply with translation standards display their new officially approved status (certificate) using a … flag!

Below are a few typical ‘Flags’ of these modern translation warriors:

“Independent audit certificate.” (Displayed).”

“First and only … company to be awarded … EN 15038 for quality.”

“The new … EN 15038 for translation quality is an important landmark in our industry as, for the first time, you can ask potential customers for something tangible to help separate true quality providers from pretenders.”

“Don’t put up with vacuous claims or weasel words regarding quality or compliance.”

“If your translation company has been independently audited, they will have a certificate similar to ours to prove it, why not ask to see it?.”

.”. Standard EN 15038 is an industry-specific standard which covers the unique challenges involved in delivering high quality translation services.”


So a standard refers to quality, and as a translator/translation provider, do you care about quality?

You certainly would do when a client complains that in the last English to French translation of a Marketing Report, “outstanding orders of XYZ Proprietary Drug” was translated as “commandes exceptionnelles pour le médicament XYZ” (instead of “commandes en souffrance” – back orders! (Real life story heard recently at a meeting of translation professionals in Strasbourg).

But which quality?

Final product quality? Translator’s quality? Quality of your final revision/check procedure? Or quality of your processes for selecting translators and/or subcontracting, or managing the whole translation process, etc.?

This leads to two other interesting ideas:

FirsT, agreed or required quality: now how far you go about stating required quality level with your clients? The client quoted above (pharmaceutical) might have told you that “The document contains medical terms and it is very important that the translation of such terms be accurate.” Well, this would seem like a pretty basic (and obvious) requirement as regards medical translation (or actually any other specialized field!). You would expect that a translation of a medical document be accurate, would not you? But most of the time the agreed/required level of quality will not be further defined or formally stated. This is due to the fact that most clients view translation services as a pure commodity.

The second interesting point is measurement and comparison. How can I measure the quality of my translations? Are Robert’s translations better than mine?

At this point of the discussion you might say that so far we have been stating the obvious!

Maybe we need the help of the ‘pros’ now.

So let us hear what the standardization experts have to say about it.
Techno language

The British Standard Institute (BSI) defines a ‘standard’ as:

“A document, established by consensus and approved by a recognized body, that provides, for common and repeated use, rules, guidelines or characteristics for activities or their results, aimed at the achievement of the optimum degree of order in a given context” (3).

Now we know that a standard is a document, including:


Guidelines or


That cover activities or results, and

With an approval body involved.

Let us get into a little more detail as regards the definition of a standard.

According to the ISO (International Organization for Standardization):

“Standards can be broadly sub-divided into three categories, namely product, process and management systemstandards. The first refers to characteristics related to quality and safety for example. Process standards refer to the conditions under which products and services are to be produced, packaged or refined. Management system standards assist organizations to manage their operations. They are often used to help create a framework that then allows the organization to consistently achieve the requirements that are set out in product and process standards.” (4)

Does this help?

We now know that there are three kinds of standard:

  1. Standards for products (What BSI calls “results”)
  2. Standards for processes (What BSI calls “activities”), and
  3. Standards for management system

Now how does this apply to translation?

  1. The product is the document or software delivered to the customer
  2. Processes cover the way the translator does the translation (its competences and methods) and/or the way the translation project manager manages translation jobs
  3. The management system of the freelance translator/translation agency

Before we review the present translation standards, let say a word about previous standardization/compliance programs for translation companies.
ISO 9000 Series Standards as applied to translation companies

As you are probably aware, the manufacturing industry and other services worldwide have been involved in quality management and improvement programs and campaigns of all kinds from the early seventies, in an effort to compete with the Japanese industry (initially in automotive industry)

One of the ‘tools’ or methods used to initiate and drive such a process, especially for large industrial firms in relation to their subcontractors, has been the compliance with and certification to the ISO 9000 Series of Standards (9003, 9002 and 9001) conducted in many firms, and presently supplemented by the ISO 14000 Series of Standards on environmental management.

Numerous service companies have also been involved in this standardization process, including some translation companies.

Finding out how many translation companies in the world are ISO 9001 registered proved to be a hard task: searching on the website of the leading French certification body (AFAQ) returned three translation service providers as being ISO 9001 registered in France over a total of 60,000 registered companies. The UK BSI site could not be searched by sector and the German DKSCERT.com server returned 6 German translation services providers as being ISO 9001 certified.

So it would seem that currently very few translation companies are ISO 9001 registered.

Going back to the distinction between the three types of standards, we can say that the ISO 9000 Series Standards are clearly process and quality management system-oriented standards. And as we will see, the new European Standard on translation services does not differ much from these Standards.