I can tell you that I speak French (and I stand by that claim as long as there are no French speakers in the room), but how do you know what that means? Do I maintain a well-read French language blog analyzing Victor Hugo in the original, or did I get the gist of “Amélie” without reading the subtitles?
Self-evaluation is an unreliable indicator of translation credentials, so I’ve developed this handy guide to help you decipher the most common claims about language skills.
1. I Am Bilingual
Take this to mean: “I can understand jokes in a foreign language without asking for additional explanation. I can also make jokes, but my bilingual sense of humor is no better than my native sense of humor.”
2. I Am Fluent
“I once had a dream in Spanish and have the entire ‘El Señor de los Anillos’ trilogy — including the section with Tom Bombadil.”
3. I Am a Native Speaker
“I grew up speaking another language but have little or no understanding of the actual language mechanics. Nor can I understand dialects outside of my hometown. Also, my spelling may be atrocious.”
4. I Have a Native-Level Proficiency
“I either have an over-inflated sense of my own abilities, or I am hoping that you do not actually fully understand what it is to be a native-level speaker.”
5. I Studied That Language in High School
“I can understand a menu in a restaurant, so long as they only serve traditionally stereotypical local dishes as outlined in Chapter 3 of my textbook.”
6. I Studied That Language in College
“I can do everything as in #5 above, but using sentence structures with more commas and superfluous adjectives. I can also name at least three famous dead authors who wrote in this language.”
7. I Studied Abroad
“I couldn’t wait until age 21 to drink legally in the US.”
8. I Speak Latin
“I have crippling student loan debt.”
9. I Am a Translator
“I work long hours for underappreciative project managers who don’t know the first thing about language quality. Also, unless I have a well-paying side job, a wealthy spouse, or a trust fund, I would like you to buy my coffee.”
10. I Am an Icelandic Translator
“I only work as many hours I want to. And, by the way, you probably cannot afford to hire me.”
11. I Am a Localizer
“I am the same as #9 above, but I am waiting for you to ask me to explain how localization differs from translation, internationalization, and globalization, because I have an impressive depth of knowledge on the subject.”
12. I Am a Linguist
“I used to be #9 until I fleshed out my LinkedIn profile.”
13. I Am a Linguaphile
“I am a combination of at least #8, #11 and #12 above, with possible traits of #4-7 as well. I always pronounce country names with their local pronunciation instead of the Americanized pronunciation (Think ‘Coo-vah’ instead of ‘Cuba’), and I want you to know I intend to raise my children bilingually, so I will mention this often.”
14. I Learned a Foreign Language From My Wife
“I know how to say ‘I’m sorry’ and ‘yes, dear’ in another language, and I pretend to understand what is going on when my mother-in-law visits.”
Okay, clearly I have a sense of humor (though I’m told I’m even funnier in French), and my blog editor insists I include a disclaimer that these descriptions are not meant to be taken seriously.
My point is, we tend to think that somebody either speaks a language or doesn’t, without recognizing the varying degrees of mastery — and that’s a big pitfall for localization professionals who need to hire translators when they don’t speak the language(s) themselves. That’s why it’s important to vet candidates beyond these common claims.
Line up some qualified reviews.
You will also want to have a sample of their work reviewed by a linguist you already trust, much as you would have your mechanic friend kick the tires of that 1989 Ford Ranger before you shake hands on the deal. The reviewer should be familiar with your project and be able to assess the voice for the type of content you’re translating.
Dig below the surface.
Past experience and professional references are crucial components to vet, but keep in mind that each project is unique: perhaps yours has requirements that are not relevant to the work they’ve done in the past. The goal is not to find a good linguist, it is to find the right linguist for your specific needs, so make sure that you probe into their experience working on projects similar to yours and for reference specific to this area.
Customize your evaluation approach.
Most companies experienced in localization have standard tests to evaluate prospective linguists that can be customized to evaluate skills in software localization, marketing, content creation, or testing. It may be worth paying for some third party linguistic consulting to make sure that you are making the right choice.
False assumptions are easy for anyone to make in a subject they don’t deeply understand. Sometimes it takes consultation from a trained localization professional to understand if a linguist is a good match.
Above all, keep in mind that you’re entrusting your in-market branding to a stranger, so this is the time to use every possible avenue to verify this person is the right fit for your team.