Applying a Six Sigma Approach to Accurate, Effective Translation

Applying a Six Sigma Approach to Accurate, Effective Translation

By Matt Mermel

Whether Fortune 500 conglomerates or small start-ups, many organizations tend to regard translation and localization as peripheral to their business model and profit margins, often delegating the task to in-country employees with no formal translation training. Such an approach toward translation is how, for example, a bilingual secretary or accountant can end up translating a technical training manual. Inconsistent and costly, this ill-advised design process yields error-ridden and mistake-prone outputs, as companies like 3M and Microsoft learned all to well before revamping their translation and localization policies within only the past few years. Limiting and reducing translation mistakes are of particular concern to your organization, as they can incur expensive customs fines and penalties when exporting a poorly localized product to foreign market, not to mention lost revenues and delayed product launches.

An examination of the translation and localization industry, as well as discussions with translation professionals, reveals an intricate link between Six Sigma standards and accurate, reliable, and efficient translation that reduces errors and clearly communicates the intent of a service or product in the target language. As Terena Bell, CEO of In Every Language, notes, effective translation processes are “not about doing more with less, but rather doing better with what you’ve got.” To this end, Six Sigma proves invaluable, with the Define and Control stages constituting the most important components for the translation and localization industry.


In the initial Define stage, language service providers seek to understand the core challenges and obstacles their client faces when translating and localizing products and services. Via extensive discussions with the organization, the client needs to share all relevant information about its product, as well as its goals for the target market. Moreover, the client should be amicable to accepting changes to this plan as prescribed by the translation and localization firm and its target market experts. A real-life example of the Define stage in action is that of an American packaging company whose translator mislabeled industrial packing “film” as “movies.” While many things could have prevented this from happening—better knowledge of the client’s product for one—a translation memory, a component of Control, that identified how “film” was to be translated would have auto-filled this word for translation from the client’s previously translated materials. Additionally it would have prevented the error from ever entering the document. So translation memory not only lowers costs, but also increases quality.


At the Control phase, companies seek to limit sources of potential waste and error. Because accurate and effective translations that enhance target market performance by their very definition significantly reduce and, preferably eliminate, language mistakes, Control is where an organization begins to refine its translation and localization processes. Translation memories (TM) in particular prove indispensible to sound and effective translation. TM stores previously translated segments in both the original, source language and the new, target language—from individual words to complete sentences to entire paragraphs—in order to make the translation process more efficient and beneficial for both parties. It provides substantial time and money savings for both the vendor and buyer. On the supply side, TM software speeds up the translation process and allows the translator to take on more projects, in turn increasing sources of potential revenue; for the client, TM databases greatly reduce the costs of localization Whenever previously translated segments reappear in new text, the TM automatically processes the terms and replaces them with their designated match. Over time, the cost savings can be thousands to millions, and industry wide, clients save 25% off the base rate per word for partial matches to the TM, while full TM matches are discounted at 50%.

Measure and Analyze

At the Measure and Analyze stages, translation firms review the project’s Control components to determine if these tools are actually working for the client organization in the designated target market and delivering tangible returns on investment for the company. These metrics include the number of words translated, the cost of translation per word, and whether or not the translated material has increased sales in the targeting market. Here, the translator seeks to enhance project consistency by resolving a range of matters, such as quantifying and leveraging the amount of new words to previously translated words in the TM and term glossaries to keep costs low. This stage also seeks to determine whether or not the communication strategy of choice (i.e., formal or informal language) for the translated and localized product or service has contributed to improved sales and revenues. Metrics revealed in these stages allow the translator to identify which components of translation and localization process are and are not working for the client and inform the articulation of a principled strategy for the Improve stage.


In the fifth component of the Six Sigma process as it applies to the translation industry, organizations work to actively implement solutions to lingering concerns identified at the Measure and Analyze stages. Aimed at creating consistency and replicability in the business model, the Improve phase capitalizes upon the client’s key performance indicators (KPI), converting the translation process once and for all from a cost center to a strategic profit driver. For example, if translation errors revealed in the Measure and Analyze stages arose due to a furniture client alternating the words couch and sofa, the translation company will recommend clients use either couch or sofa in its original English, but never both.


Going global expands market presence and increases revenues; to do so effectively, companies must internationalize their products. Quality translation and localization goes far beyond simply replacing words in the source language with their corresponding terms in the target. Rather, it requires careful attention to and replication of meaning, tone, context, and intent. At the corporate level, all departments involved in a product’s lifecycle must collaborate and cooperate to ensure productive translation and localization outcomes. By adhering to the Six Sigma quality assurance guidelines, your company can limit risk and reduce error while facilitating consistency and reliability at each juncture of the translation and localization process. By implementing the Six Sigma processes, then, translation transforms from merely the cost of your company doing business globally into a robust international profit driver. The tips discussed in this article will go a long way toward helping you and your company initiate fruitful translation and localization projects, or refine an internationalization processes already underway.

By Matt Mermel, ©2015 Intercom, Volume 62 Issue 02, February 2015