A good translation is a good translation is often a mistake

Thoughts on the much-used word “quality” and how ISO certifications help

What is a “good” translation? One in accordance with ISO 17100 specifications? An incredibly fast one? An inexpensive one with few flaws? One that uses specific tools? One that also reflects the nuances of the source text?

What does the word “quality” mean in translations?

“Quality is when the end result matches the client’s expectation every time.”

The answer is simple: Quality is when the end result matches the client’s expectation every time. Or to put it more precisely, a result that meets the client’s goal in communicating. But getting there is not quite so simple. After all, the point is for the translation to achieve the expected result for the actual client. This is not necessarily the person who orders the service, but the person whom the translation targets, e.g. our client’s (potential) customer in the case of a marketing brochure.
So quality is all about the target audience or the characteristics a translation is expected to have. This means quality is not merely measured by a text having no or particularly few translation errors. It is about a translation being suitable for its intended use. To achieve a translation like this, we need to know in advance what its objective is. Without this knowledge, we can’t ensure that the translation will have the “right” quality.

There is no universally valid concept of quality

Given these insights, it can be said that the quality of a translation is defined by its characteristics. So, when getting started with a client, we ask the following question: “What do you need?” The options range from machine translation – aiming merely at making a text understandable in another language – to a sophisticated translation workflow with revision and transcreation for marketing purposes.
In the case of machine translation, quality may mean fast delivery and accuracy of content. Some terminological “messiness” may not interfere with a translation’s purpose if it is simply to be understood on a basic level.

Who needs ISO certifications if there is no universal concept of quality?

For us as a language service provider, the ISO 17100 and ISO 9001 certifications are a tool for regularly examining the big picture – for independently checking again and again whether the processes are being followed correctly and whether they are working.

For clients, the justification of certifications lies in their being an additional selection criterion.
But the mere existence of an ISO certification does not guarantee consistently high translation quality. Instead, certifications are a minimum standard that specifies certain structures. It is only over time that it becomes clear whether the translation service provider can reliably deliver quality.

ISO certifications are like test translations

An ISO certification is similar to a test translation: A translator handing in an acceptable sample does not mean this level will always be met under real conditions. Especially not in the long term. It only shows that a good result was achieved in this particular test situation. If the result is not even satisfactory in this test case, one may have reasonable doubts about the translator’s abilities.

And it is the same with an ISO certification: Sensible processes form the cornerstone. This is the only way to ensure stable quality in the long term. Of course, this is only a prerequisite, never a guarantee of quality. And this is precisely why certifications make sense. Because they are a commitment to comply with those processes, and also to demonstrate that compliance.

“Continuous improvement” and “Managing the unexpected”: Good quality management is also a state of mind

An essential component of good quality management is the continuous improvement process. And this only works if our teams bring awareness and ask in the face of every problem: “Is there something we need to change in our process?” This is what you read in every quality manual – but is it consistently practiced? The awareness that we are permanently in improvement processes is crucial. This mindset means the continuous improvement process is not just an empty phrase at Gemino.

Ideally, a language service provider will also react flexibly to sudden changes. Even with standardized workflows, no two translation projects are the same. New challenges often arise or the circumstances change during the course of the project. Assessing the associated risks, quickly adapting processes accordingly, and then still achieving the expected result are the hallmarks of good quality management. We call it “managing the unexpected”.


The quality of a translation is measured by how well it performs once in use. Few translation errors is not always the only relevant benchmark. Achieving the right quality requires aligning expectations with the client and stable processes that can map the unexpected – as well as a team with the right mindset. A mindset that always is questioning whether what they are doing is right. ISO certifications provide the framework for this – no more, no less.