In Pursuit of the Cheapest Translation Cost Is translation still a service or has it become a commodity?

Is translation still a service or has it become a commodity?

In the annals of management science, it is well understood that making the best choice at each stage of a process may not yield the best global solution. This principle is aptly illustrated by Scott Adams in The Dilbert Future(New York: HarperBusiness, 1997), where Dilbert reports to his pointy-haired boss: “You saved one million dollars by having programmers in Elbonia write software for us. But we wasted four million dollars trying to debug the software.” Replace “programming” with “translating,” “debugging” with “editing,” and we get the big picture. There is nothing wrong with rational cost-saving measures, but saving translation costs mindlessly often means paying extra for hidden editing costs eventually. One of the underlying causes may be the following:

Dear translator,

we were recently contacted by a client to do a patent translation from English into Indonesian. We need a technical translator that is confortable [sic] translating information systems information [sic]. Our budget is limited for this work and so we would like to find out how much you charge for this type of work. The job is around [xx,xxx] words. Please let us know if this is something you would be interested in, and your prices. Please send your resume as well.

Today, literally anyone with a PC and Internet access can instantly setup a translation company, access the many online translator databases, get a list of translators for all language combinations, and then act as an e-broker for potential translation projects.

This typical e-mail was sent to a long list of translators; the message is transparent, the Freudian slip apparent. Anyone ready to quote the lowest, bargain basement, dirt cheap price, will most likely get the job. The e-mail implies that critical factors to ensure translation quality are not that important. The sender does not care much about the prospective translators’ comfort level in handling the job, professional experiences and qualifications. Simply note the request for prices precedes that for resumes or qualifications. Such e-mails, unfortunately, seem to be the norm these days. Within the last year, I have received up to five such e-mails per week.

Today, literally anyone with a PC and Internet access (and who is not wired these days?) can instantly setup a translation company (TC), access the many online translator databases (Aquarius, ATA, NCTA, etc.), get a list of translators for all language combinations, and then act as an e-broker for potential translation projects. Translation expertise, linguistic knowledge and commitment to quality are optional. Naturally, many of these e-brokers do not understand, much less care about, the difference between professional and amateurish translators. The word amateur, in its classical sense, does not imply inferiority; it is the antonym of professional and refers to those who pursue an endeavor for passion rather than for monetary rewards. However there is a difference between an amateur (non-professional) and amateurish (unprofessional), the latter referring rather to the person’s ineptitude, incompetence, and substandard work quality.

The basic economics behind the pursuit of the cheapest translation cost is a no-brainer. In a typical car showroom, cars that yield the largest commission for the smooth-talking salesman, rather than cars with the best value, will most likely be pitched to ill-prepared and uninformed prospective customers. Likewise, the lowest price quoted by the cheapest translator financially translates into the highest commission for the broker. Clearly this car salesman mentality undercuts professional translators—who continuously invest more resources to ensure total quality control in self-editing time, up-to-date encyclopedias, dictionaries and self-improvement efforts—and undermines reputable translation companies who conscientiously adhere to the highest industry standards and operate on fixed overhead costs.
The lowest price or the best value?

The proliferation of e-brokers and have-website-will-translate bilinguals may have significantly increased the number of editing assignments on previously-translated documents. It is a vicious cycle: the explosion of the translation business over the internet may have caused a shortage of bona fide translation companies, competent project managers and qualified translators. The Peter principle applies: quite a few players have been promoted to their levels of incompetence. These incompetent players can afford to focus only on low prices (thus higher commission) and fast turnaround times (thus higher volume)—instead of on translation quality and culture-sensitive considerations—thanks to the anonymity and instancy of the Internet culture. Some do not even hesitate to make a killing, disappear in the darkness of cyberspace, and then reincarnate with a new name.

The degradation of average translation quality—due to mix-ups between the cheapest price and best value—generates an even higher demand for experienced translators and professional editors to debug poor translations. In order to accommodate these debugging assignments, professional translators are sometimes compelled to decline their fair share of regular translation work which is then assigned by hapless and unsuspecting project managers to mediocre or incompetent translators. Eventually these poor translations will haunt those professionals in the form of even more debugging assignments with pressing deadlines demanded by indignant clients who feel they were shortchanged by unscrupulous service providers.


The lowest price at all costs is exactly that

There are at least three main reasons for the proliferation of poor translations. First, there is the myopic penny-wise-dollar-foolish drive to get the lowest price in the fastest turnaround time at all costs. Second, there is the increasing role of amateurish-translators-cum-bilinguals who fancy themselves as qualified professional translators. Last but not least, there is the trivialization of internationalization.

In 1999, a TC inundated me with a flurry of calls and e-mails to translate a well-known organization’s flagship book of about 220,000 words in 3 weeks. Actually, the client had directly contacted me before, so I knew about the project but was reluctant to get involved. When I was eventually compelled to respond, I told them that the turnaround time was just impossible. But they confidently argued that the book could be simultaneously translated by five different translators (for which I was expected to recruit three fellow translators within that time frame!) because in previous years the client had translated the same book in the same time frame and under the same circumstances into other languages. Still giving the TC the benefit of doubt, I quixotically expressed concerns about quality and consistency issues: If the book was to be translated by five translators—even well-qualified professionals—the tight deadline would still not allow even minimal editing for the sake of terminological consistency. “The book needs not be consistent,” was the casual reply, “it just needs to be translated as soon as possible.” These words, after all, from people who called themselves a translation company.


“Make Sexual Harassment Your Business”

This subhead, for example, is a back-translation of a brochure’s headline, the incompetent translator having confused the semantic meaning of “business” with “concern” in Indonesian. The result is a strict literal translation of a seriously flawed misinterpretation, hence: “Make Sexual Harassment Your Business.” Other examples which have crossed my desk: mix-ups of “security” with “securities”, “mean” with “median”, “court” with “trial”, “authority” with “authorization” and so on. Recently, the simple phrase of “20-story plunge” in a safety poster for a famous worldwide elevator manufacturer was recklessly rendered with embellishments as “elevator counterweight of a 20-floor building.” Unfortunately, that’s not the end of the story. When I alerted the TC that we had another case of traduttori traditori, and offered to correct the error, the casual response was: “That’s not necessary; it had been translated and edited anyway—just proofread it!”

The most common mistake made by amateurish translators is their stubborn inclination toward word-for-word, verbatim translation without any respect for semantics, logic or context. Obviously this approach generates most of the problems, especially between two languages with different grammatical and syntactical properties. While professional translators work methodically in a conceptual framework approach—thought first, execution afterward—amateurish translators are trigger-happy to perform blind verbatim translations as fast as possible in a McTranslate sweatshop fashion. Caveat emptor: translation is among the few services where clients literally do not understand what they are paying for.


The problem of an accurate translation

The third reason is amateurish translators’ ignorance of cross-cultural differences, the trivialization of internationalization and customization or localization. Even though professional translators rarely mention anything about internationalization and customization, these two processes are integral and inherent steps in a quality translation process; for the benchmark of a good translation is that it should not be easily recognized as a translation. Once, instead of conducting a regular editing assignment as planned, I ended up retranslating a whole brochure promoting healthy lifestyle which had been recklessly translated verbatim and started with this opening line: “All around the country, breakfast tables are taking on a new look. Gone are the eggs, bacon, sausage, cream and buttered toast you may have been accustomed to.” Actually the Indonesian translation was “good”, even accurate, but in fact that accuracy is exactly the problem! Aside from the issue that most Indonesians have different breakfasts, imagine the potential uproar if the verbatim translation of this opening line had been published in a country where 86.9% of the population are Moslems, who would be insulted if someone suggested that they touch bacon—let alone being accustomed to eating it!


NMR spectroscopy, anyone?

Many professional translators and respectable TCs still believe that translation is a service instead of a commodity. In my database of about 700 TCs there are at least 135 TCs who incorporate the word “service” or “services” in their business names. Nevertheless the Internet—where almost everything is supposed to be a bargain or downloadable for free—has put this assumption to the ultimate test. Nowadays the most common first question in this business seems to be: “What is your rate?” instead of, “Are you comfortable translating a document about the application of nuclear magnetic resonance spectroscopy in molecular studies?” It is as if after our names, language combinations and telephone numbers our business cards should flash our rates in bold typeface. The lower, the better.

Jack Reznicki, a famous advertising photographer, wrote in his book Illustration Photography (New York: Amphoto, 1987), that when someone asks him out of the blue, “How much do you charge for a photograph?” he likes to answer, “How deep is the ocean?” Ask a loaded question, Reznicki says, get a loaded answer. Any respectable TC understands that a professional translator’s “standard” rate—if any—is hardly a blanket rate which covers all situations. To summarily judge translators according to their rates is as simplistic as to judge a book by its cover. Translation rates depend on independent variables such as difficulty of subject matter, length of document, turnaround time, translator’s current workload and other technical factors (formatting requirements, excessive metric conversions, source document legibility, etc.). Translating a 6,000-word brochure about an automatic external defibrilator with biphasic waveform technology over the weekend is a completely different game than translating a newspaper clipping on a regular business day.


The hidden costs

The pursuit of the cheapest translation cost at all costs highlights the mentality of Dilbert’s boss and the “Elbonian” syndrome as illustrated by Scott Adams. Responsible linguistic project management comprises much more than simplistically maximizing profits and minimizing costs, as sooner or later such conduct will tarnish the industry’s overall reputation. We have witnessed HMOs becoming the target of Jay Leno and David Letterman’s late-night jokes as financially-obsessed and medically-untrained claim reviewers are allowed to make critical medical decisions. Likewise, if monolingual bean counters are allowed to make critical linguistic and cultural decisions, the translation industry may be the next laughing stock. For a client, the bitterness of poor quality will be remembered long after the sweetness of low price is forgotten. For most of those who read texts poorly translated into their native language, a ridiculous translation will always corrupt their first impression of a brand image, or a corporate image, regardless of subsequent corrective actions.

Selling translation services does not have to mean selling out. Whether translation is a service or a commodity depends on the practitioner’s personal attitude, conduct and ethics. Translation is a commodity for those who succumb to the temptation of selling out, for the sake of volume and short-term gains. It is a service for those who consistently adhere to the most rigorous standards and follow their conscience for the sake of quality and long-term professional relationships.


© Copyright Translation Journal and the Authors 1999

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