Finding a Balance: Standards Certification in Localization

What is Quality?

The localization industry is highly fragmented and not regulated by industry standards. Moreover, only a few standards exist that address the specific products and services offered by language service providers (LSPs). Yet, many LSPs seek voluntary certification to selected standards. What is their primary motivation to do so?

Before providing a perspective on this question, let me first define quality within the context of value. In general, quality is just one of several attributes that we use to assess our experience with a product or service. And depending on how we prioritize attributes, their cumulative value can vary for each of us.

For example, the saying “one man’s junk is another man’s treasure” perfectly highlights how differently we define value. In addition, the notion “more bang for the buck” encapsulates value as an exchange between desired attributes and price. These two expressions demonstrate that value and attributes such as quality are relative propositions.

Likewise, we often assess quality in quantitative and qualitative terms. Quantitative features tend to be objective while qualitative features are often subjective. For instance, we might use the number of translation mistakes as an objective measure of quality. In contrast, we unconsciously apply our own preferences for writing style and terminology as a measure of subjective translation quality.

Managing Quality

Quality standards generally focus on predefined specifications (e.g., dimensions, tolerances, criteria) and industry practices. Since the localization industry is a service industry, the latter focus is particularly relevant for LSPs and translation buyers. Regardless of industry, though, proactively managing quality requires a formal quality management system. The American Society for Quality (ASQ), for example, defines a QMS as follows:

“A quality management system (QMS) is defined as a formalized system that documents processes, procedures, and responsibilities for achieving quality policies and objectives. A QMS helps coordinate and direct an organization’s activities to meet customer and regulatory requirements and improve its effectiveness and efficiency on a continuous basis.”

However, please note that quality standards do not define quality itself. And this is by design because standards should not limit innovation and competitiveness by prescribing quality objectives. Essentially, a company must define its own quality objectives and then employ the practices that help achieve these objectives.

Furthermore, a QMS ensures consistent practices to deliver consistent products and services defined by a company’s unique quality objectives. And the keywords here are “consistent practices” and “unique quality objectives.” Thus, quality objectives can vary, and clients decide whether an LSP meets expectations and delivers the right value.

A Brief Look at Relevant Standards

Quality Standards

LSPs might consider the following quality standards for their business:

  • ISO 9001: Requirements for Quality Management Systems (QMS)
  • ISO 13485: Requirements for QMS for medical device manufacturers
  • ISO 17100: Requirements and industry practices for delivering translation services
  • ISO 18587: Requirements for human post-editing of Machine Translation (MT)
  • SAE J2450: Definition of translation quality metrics and their measurement

The first two quality standards outline the requirements for a QMS and the underlying quality management practices. While ISO 9001 is generic and applies to any industry, ISO 13485 focuses specifically on the medical device industry. Typically, only LSPs that support the life sciences industry would consider certification to ISO 13485 in addition to ISO 9001.

The next three quality standards target the localization industry. Both ISO 17100 and ISO 18587 are international standards. In comparison, SAE J2450 is a US standard developed by the Society of Automotive Engineers (SAE). Nevertheless, SAE J2450 has established itself as a popular framework for quantifying translation quality, particularly for technical translations. Although certification to SAE J2450 is not common, LSPs often reference it in conjunction with their proprietary translation quality practices.

Overall, ISO 17100 is the primary global standard that defines best practices for professional translation services. Consequently, most sizeable LSPs have obtained or aim to obtain certification to this standard. Furthermore, with recent advancements in MT, an increasing number of LSPs that utilize MT are pursing certification to ISO 18587.

Other Standards

There are a few other standards that some LSPs might find relevant. These are not quality standards, but they can augment an LSP’s quality management practices and deliver value to their clients.

  • ISO 27001: Requirements for Information Security Management Systems (ISMS)
  • ISO 14971: Application of risk management for medical devices

Although certification to ISO 27001 is not as widespread in the localization industry yet, it is gaining traction. This trend is driven by clients who are concerned with the handling of confidential and sensitive information. As cybercrimes and data breaches continue to increase, more clients will demand reassurance that their data is safe with their LSPs.

In the first quarter of 2020 alone, the number of phishing websites increased by 350% according to the United Nations. This highlights how global events such as the COVID-19 pandemic can elevate cyber threats and expose insufficient information security.

Lastly, like ISO 13485, ISO 14971 is specific to the medical device industry. LSPs might consider it to extend their clients’ risk management practices to include the translation of medical device documentation.

Potential Reasons for Certification

Existential Reasoning

A quality mindset and sense of continuous improvement are motivated by a company’s culture and leadership. Getting certified to a quality standard is not a substitute for the discipline and commitment it takes to be good at quality management. Another way of looking at this: Buying a book does not make you any smarter or allow you to understand its content unless you read it.

The same applies to quality management—it is a practice that should come from a company’s internal conviction. The majority of LSPs highlight quality in one form or another. However, if mainly competitive pressures push them to pursue certification, they are in it for the wrong reasons. It becomes a checkbox item rather than a hallmark of their company’s identity and brand promise.

My point is that any LSP, small or large, can embrace a quality mindset as a fundamental business practice. Obtaining certification is a milestone that formally acknowledges an LSP’s commitment and business practices to deliver quality services. The best way to prove it to clients is through routine audits. These can involve audits by the LSP’s registrar, internal (self) audits, and client-initiated audits.

Audits demonstrate how LSPs go about their business. And to back it up, the LSP’s quality records offer concrete proof for clients and auditors. This is essential for building trust and confidence in an LSP’s services. Furthermore, for clients (translation buyers), it can be one of the most tangible differentiators for distinguishing one LSP from another.

Practical Reasoning

Obtaining and maintaining certification involves effort and cost. From a practical perspective, certification assumes a certain business maturity, including dedicated resources and infrastructure. Since the majority of LSPs are very small (<25 direct employees), not all LSPs can realistically commit to such a business decision.

But there is a much more fundamental question to answer: Will certification make a difference—a difference for both the LSP and the client? A quick answer might be that both parties should see a net gain. However, this oversimplifies the reasoning and undermines a sincere motivation for quality management.

From an LSP’s perspective, certification can help:

  • Clarify and establish quality objectives
  • Promote consistent practices and service delivery
  • Establish documented processes/procedures
  • Establish more mature business practices
  • Reduce cost and process variance
  • Improve overall quality of services and deliverables
  • Establish credibility
  • Increase brand awareness and market perception
  • Improve competitiveness/marketability
  • Improve client retention/loyalty
  • Increase repeat business
  • Win new business

From a client’s perspective, an LSP’s certification to industry standards can help:

  • Prequalify/gauge prospective LSPs (e.g., RFP events)
  • Assess business maturity and commitment to industry practices
  • Establish accountability through quality objectives
  • Verify actual practices against documented practices
  • Assess performance in context
  • Identify non-conformances/non-compliance
  • Identify opportunities for improvement
  • Gain trust and confidence
  • Establish a baseline for client-initiated audits


The practical benefits and potential gains for LSPs and clients are obvious. However, not all LSPs will have the ability to meet the requirements for certification. Or it might not make business sense because their target clients do not expect certification to specific industry standards.

For example, many smaller LSPs work with larger LSPs as subcontractors. In addition, it is common that larger LSPs obtain certification while smaller LSPs do not. Essentially, larger LSPs are the clients of smaller LSPs. In this scenario, a larger LSP maintains certified business practices to represent the expectations of the actual translation buyer (end client).

This example illustrates that the type of provider-client relationship also determines whether certification is relevant or even needed. If an LSP targets only certain client types, certification may not make any difference in fulfilling expectations and delivering value. Likewise, effective quality management practices are reflective of a company’s culture and beliefs. This applies to any LSP, small or large. More importantly, although certification enforces compliance, it does not instill passion and conviction. There are many LSPs that deliver high quality and value without certification.

In conclusion, the size of an LSP and standards certifications are not indicators of ability to meet client expectations. And the best way to balance priorities is to stay involved and agree on what matters most for the relationship.

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