Is your translator taking confidentiality seriously?

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Confidentiality Polish Translation

Picture the scene. Taking a thoughtful sip from her flat white, the translator sits back in her favourite cereal café and types the final paragraph of her latest, highly confidential, pharmaceutical translation assignment for a clinical research organisation. With a self-satisfied sigh, she closes the lid on her MacBook Pro and contemplates dinner. Meanwhile, a stranger, who has absorbed and been taking notes on the classified secrets in the document from the next table, is already three blocks away, looking similarly pleased with himself as he makes off with the details of sensitive drug research data. Confidentiality was clearly not at the top of this translator’s agenda!

Oddly, this kind of behaviour is not uncommon for those in the translation field. Working in public places, often on confidential documents, and even in some instances posting selfies on Instagram at work (“Just working on the latest press release for Medtronic over a cappuccino and cake in Starbucks! #translation #blessed #lovemyjob”), is just one of several ways in which many translators put their work at risk of security threat. And despite non-disclosure agreements being made as a matter of course, the line is very often crossed by less scrupulous translators.

Now consider the contrasting case of the Danish translator who worked on Inferno, a mystery thriller by Dan Brown, author of the huge international bestseller The Da Vinci Code. In 2013 translator Mich Vraa publicly complained of the insanely strict measures involved in this job; after handing in mobile phones and cameras, the team of translators worked away in a locked, Internet-free bunker with bodyguards breathing down their necks. Each night, the manuscripts were locked away in a secure safe and, when the work was finished, it was smuggled home by the editor in a USB stick hidden in her bra. Vraa was taken aback and vowed to never again work on translating one of Brown’s books.

Such conditions may seem over the top and paranoid, but somewhere between the two extremes of the laid-back hipster and the bunker-bound Dane lies a grey area that many translators negotiate every day — and the many security risks in today’s technology make it more important than ever to ensure you are working with a translator for whom confidentiality is a priority.

Whether you need to translate a psychiatrist’s report, a pharmaceutical company’s research papers, a government doctrine on public health or an Olympic gold medalist’s drug test results, there are many reasons why you might require confidentiality from a translation job. And the risks extend far beyond the risk of a café-based snoop peering over his latté…

Possible confidentiality breaches


  1. Cloud storage

    Cloud storage is an increasingly ubiquitous part of modern technology, but often subject to breaches, as computer users put themselves at the mercy of their individual storage provider’s security protocol. Which is not to say that cloud storage itself is inherently risky, just that it contains plenty of hazards for the unwary. Despite tabloids scaremongering about hacked celebrity iCloud accounts,  in majority of cases the weakest security link is not the cloud storage provider, but rather the user.

  2. Machine translation

    Many translators use machine translation tools which store and collect information on the material being translated. While content ownership remains with the user, many free machine translation services, such as Google Translate, reserve the right to use your data to improve translation results. To increase translator’s  productivity, machine translation tools are now incorporated in professional computer-assisted translation (CAT) software, such as Trados Studio. In certain cases, post-editing machine translation indeed takes a lot less time than translating from scratch. However, with highly confidential information, perhaps it’s safer to disable the machine translation option all together.

  3. Online OCR services

    Similar problems can stem from the use of scanning software to transfer printed words to editable text. Online optical character recognition (OCR) services can collect, store, and re-use your information. Secure alternatives for converting scanned documents (which often happen to be medical records) are desktop-based tools, such as ABBYY FineReader.

  4. Translation memory

    All professional translators these days use computer-assisted translation (CAT) software to boost their productivity and improve the quality of their translation. The main appeal of CAT tools is that they have a translation memory, a linguistic database of previous translations which can be re-used and recycled. Although it’s by far the most useful thing that has ever been created for translators, a translation memory can be a double-edged sword. Sharing it with other translators may lead to accidental disclosure of information contained in old translations.

  5. Terminology queries

    Imagine if our café-bound translator had a query regarding the terminology used in the document she was assigned to. In a bid to clear up her confusion, taking another sip on her coffee, she posts a query on an Internet forum full of experts in the field, quoting directly from the document. Inadvertently she has given away the confidential information she was supposed to be closely guarding.

  6. Subcontracting

    Subcontracting is another area of potential risk. Your translator may operate with the gravity her confidentiality agreement demands, but imagine what might happen if she subcontracted work to one or more translators without communicating that risk. They could take all manner of liberties with the security of the information, without knowing they were doing anything wrong. It’s worth noting translation agencies also subcontract work to other translation agencies. I was once asked by three different language service providers to quote for the same patient’s medical report. I am not sure the patient would have been happy if he had found out his private medical information was being circulated on the world wide web.

There is no shortage of potential security risks involved in the translation industry. But each of these risks can be averted, and confidential translators have secure procedures to ensure the contents of their assignments are not leaked. They may not necessarily be smuggling USB drives in their undergarments, but they will be working in private offices, on password-protected computers, with protected Internet access and storage. Documents are transferred via secure means, in which the data are encrypted for safe passage. Physical documents are converted to editable formats using secure OCR software, and when they are discarded they are shredded beyond comprehension. Where top-secret information is involved, the translator may even be working offline, or in a security bubble, President Obama-style.

But whatever the sensitivity of your translation job, it pays to make sure you choose a translator who takes their confidentiality seriously and… does not let caffeine cravings get in the way of security.

Are you worried that confidentiality of your document may be compromised during the translation process? Please share your concerns below.

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