ISO standards – what are they all about?

Language industry ISO standards have had a fair amount of airtime recently, writes Raisa McNab, CEO, Association of Translation Companies. Great! A bit of discussion is always welcome, but if you aren’t deeply involved in standards and quality management, the conversation can sometimes appear a bit difficult to follow. Let’s open it up and have a closer look at what language industry ISO standards are all about.

In the early days…

My first introduction to language industry standards came in 2007 with European standard EN 15038 for translation services. This was a big deal. EN 15038 was the first standard specifically developed for the language services industry. EUATC had an instrumental role in its conception, and I was proud to have implemented a quality management system that was certified to the standard.

Since then, EN 15038 has morphed into ISO 17100, and I’ve been involved in the development of a host of other industry standards, and talked about standards and certification a lot.

But one thing hasn’t changed. The fact that language industry standards exist continues to be a reflection of our unregulated industry’s professionalisation. ISO certification is a concept that our clients understand, and for many companies certification is an important way to demonstrate commitment to quality-managed operations, and compliance to an international benchmark.

…and now

Now, fourteen years after the first one, we have a number of ISO standards specifically developed for the language services industry.

For translation, ISO 17100 for translation services has been joined by ISO 18587 for machine translation post-editing, and a new standard for legal translation, ISO 20771.

For interpreting, technical standards on interpreting booths have been joined by standards on interpreting services ISO 18841 and ISO 20228 for legal interpreting, and others are being drafted.

An international compromise

These standards don’t appear out of thin air. They are the outcome of an involved, lengthy process with several versions produced, evaluated and commented on by hundreds of stakeholders before the emergence of the final published standard.

And the final version of a standard is always, always a compromise. Here’s the difficulty: ISO standards by definition are international, and as such they need to be applicable in all countries, in all markets, and in all sizes of companies and operations.

During the development process, each country has but one vote at the ISO committee, via each country’s mirror committee, to which national associations and stakeholders contribute. Umbrella associations such as EUATC have an important role to play as liaison members, but have no vote.

In the end, I imagine it’s much like running a democratic government and voting on new legislation – you have to consolidate and compromise if you hope to end up with something that’s acceptable to most.

Creating relevance

Often, a particular standard makes a lot more sense in one market than it does in another, or for a particular type of service more than another.

This shouldn’t surprise us. Our industry is hugely diverse, so no industry standard can hope to offer blanket cover. The relevance of these standards really comes from their application.

If a standard makes sense to you and your company operationally and commercially, it has value.

Standards shouldn’t exist in a vacuum. They need to resonate with the community, and they need to be recognised and used. A big part of creating this relevance lies with the work of international ISO committees and the national associations feeding into them, developing new proposals and assessing and evaluating existing ones.

One circle has just closed with the publication of a new industry standard, ISO 20771 for legal translation, creating a huge amount of discussion (see Slator here, here and here). This, I think, has been really healthy, and interesting besides.

Another circle closes soon with the pending review of ISO 17100 for translation services. Is it still relevant? That is for the ISO nations to decide, so if you want to have a say in what standards are developed, and how, get in touch with your national association and get involved.

I know it’s a cliché, but these standards really are for us, by us, developed through discussion and compromise. As they should.

Raisa McNab is Chief Executive Officer at the UK’s Association of Translation Companies (ATC), one of the founder members of the EUATC. Raisa has been closely involved in the development of language industry ISO standards since 2010, and currently runs the ATC’s ISO Commenting Group responsible for evaluating emerging ISO standards for the industry.

Raisa also leads the ATC’s ISO Certification Service, an independent commercial certification body providing ISO certification services to language service companies across the world.