How to write an effective request for proposal for your translation or localization project

By Acclaro
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This article, written by Acclaro, was originally posted on the industry newsletter GALAxy in June, 2009. Although focusing on insider tips for not-for-profit organizations and their localization RFP needs, the article is also relevant to for-profits.

Many not-for-profit organizations (NPOs) walk a financial tightrope between desire and reality when considering a translation project. Here are a few key insider tips (many of which are also applicable to for-profits) to help organize your project and write an effective Request for Proposal (RFP) or Request for Information (RFI) — while keeping an eye on your priorities.

Getting started

Before you start writing your RFP, analyze your project and ask yourself:

  • What’s my budget and timeline? As you’ll see below, this can be a big help in starting to put some parameters around your project.
  • Does my project have a complex set of components that need translation into multiple languages? What will this mean for our content management processes? Can my existing teams manage the additional work? Or, do I only need translation into one language without complex additional tasks?
  • Is this a one-off project (like a brochure), or an ongoing project requiring regular updates and maintenance (like a website)? Managing updates to your English version will necessitate managing updates in your translated versions as well. Many translation agencies have tools available to help with this step.

A note about translation agencies

Translation agencies vary in size and service offerings. A multi-language vendor (MLV) should be able to handle a variety of project-related tasks, like desktop publishing, web formatting and software testing. A single-language vendor (SLV), who specializes only in one language and perhaps a narrower set of services, may be a better fit for some projects. Although human translators are preferred by most agencies, an automated, “machine translation” solution may be a low-cost consideration for projects where professional quality is not needed. In some cases, your existing community of users may also be able to contribute to the first translation pass, and a professional agency can then edit for consistency rather than translating from scratch. Consider shopping around to compare what services different companies can provide.

Your involvement in the project

Think about how much you do (or don’t) want to be involved in the process. Your translation partner will essentially be recreating your content for a specific audience and will want to get your input on tone, style and terminology for accuracy’s sake. Sometimes that’s a good thing. But, sometimes you may wish to leave it their hands. Being able to communicate these details to your translation agency will help them design a solution that meets your overall needs and requirements.

Writing your RFP

As you write your RFP, translation agencies will be interested in knowing the following:

  • Who are you? Give details about who you are, what you do and why you are considering translation.
  • What previous translation experience do you have? Have you ever worked with translation? If yes, how did you do it and were you pleased with the results? If you weren’t happy with your previous translations, what went wrong? Knowing your experiences (good and bad) will help an agency provide a useful response to your RFP.
  • What exactly do you need translated? Your translation partner will think in terms of project volume (specifically: words, pages and file types). Detailing exactly what you need translated will help your potential agency understand your plans from a volume perspective, and will help set accurate budgets and schedules up front.
  • What are your priorities for budget versus timeline? A turnaround time and a budgetary figure, even if fuzzy, are valuable pieces of information during the planning stages. However, these elements may not yet be clarified when you set out to write your RFP/RFI, or you may want to let your potential agency provide them to you. One tip to help set parameters is to prioritize the components that you want translated, and to rank your languages in order of importance. For example: “We would like to translate our website first in anticipation of a launch in six months, and then follow with our print brochures and press releases a few weeks later. Japanese and Spanish are the most important languages but we would also like pricing for French and German.”

A word about discounts and pro-bono work: Many translation providers are willing to consider supporting an NPO-worthy cause by reducing rates or contributing time. However, this usually means a net reduction in the agency’s own profit margin. Each translation provider approaches this differently, but having a good idea of your overall project details, timeline and available budget are key factors in deciding what the translation costs will be and what kind of savings can be offered. The more project details you provide in the RFP, the more effectively an agency can gauge its ability to participate.

Useful considerations submitted by NPOs in RFPs

At Acclaro, we have received many RFPs for NPOs, and have a good sense of what works, and what does not work. These points allow a translation agency to learn what is important to your organization and determine how to best address your specific needs.

  • Customer service capabilities, vendor qualification processes, quality management and assurance, issue resolution and escalation, frequency and intensity of business reviews, continuous improvement etc. These points keep translation agencies prepared and willing to meet your specific requirements and needs, as well as helping to prioritize the levels of trust and investment that you expect for your business relationship.
  • Requests to meet and speak with a translation firm’s employees, including the translators and editors who will work on the specific project. In a world of e-mail, FTP, VPN and instant messaging, phone or in-person meetings are important.
  • Flexibility in payment terms and delivery schedules. Many translation agencies understand that working with an NPO is more than just a business transaction. Some agencies may even work with you to stagger start and stop dates so that billable work is spread out over time.
  • Specifics about diversity and environmental sensitivities. People and values are important — and so is recycling office paper. If it’s important to partner with a translation agency that also takes these items seriously, just ask.

Translation agencies and NPOs share one very important thing: a passion for a purpose. While translation providers serve a wide variety of clients, an interest in disseminating information and ideas across languages and cultures is a common trait. With the above guidelines, NPOs can create RFPs and find translation partners with confidence.

An insider’s perspective

Acclaro spoke with several NPO contacts who helped formulate this article, including AIDS Vaccine Advocacy Coalition (AVAC), the Guggenheim Museum, Kiva and The Metropolitan Museum of Art. Below are some specific points these organizations feel should be addressed in RFPs and used to select a translation vendor:

  • Cost. This is likely to be the first and largest hurdle for non-profits in the planning stages. Can the vendor provide insight and advice in planning projects to reduce costs and narrow scope? Is the vendor extremely clear about costs and deliverables?
  • Quality and specialized skills: Aligning cost with an assurance of a quality result is essential. The vendor should demonstrate an expertise (or an ability to quickly and readily comprehend) in your organization’s particular terminology and subject areas, such as health care, the arts, education, etc.
  • Level of service. Non-profits do not always have access to the resources to manage complex projects. A translation agency that has a clear process and can give a little extra support to that process is helpful, such as helping to manage revisions made through a content review process. Other important considerations are consistency in agency team members over time and an agency’s responsiveness to your queries.
  • Language coverage and experience. Business audiences for non-profits may be located in areas that are generally outside the standard APAC (Asia, Pacific) and EMEA (Europe, Middle East, Africa) areas and for-profit business regions, which make working with difficult-to-source languages important. Traditionally, translation agencies make use of in-country linguists, so knowing the professional level of the translation team is also essential.

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