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Are low prices leading to poor quality?

Are low prices leading to poor quality?A couple of weeks ago, our article Good translations must be expensive argued that translation quality has very little to do with price - and vice versa.

We have received dozens of replies as blog comments, emails, and group postings. Readers generally felt strongly about this, one way or the other.

One of the responses that stood out was from Janet Rubin who provides German to English translation services (www.language2language.net). In Janet's experience, lower prices paid for linguistic work do, in fact, negatively impact the quality of final deliverables:

It's hard to resist the urge to make sweeping generalizations, but I can really only speak from experience.

Good translation products are the result of multiple layers of work. One of the basic layers is at least one proofreading by someone (preferably someone with translation experience) other than the main translator.

In my personal experience, every client I've dealt with that started to use "cheap" (or sometimes only "cheaper") translations started having issues with their proofreading afterward. Issues that affected the time - and money - eventually spent on the project.

As a translator, I have virtually GIVEN UP ON PERFORMING PROOFREADING because the quality of translations I've seen is so consistently LOW - especially in the case of jobs that I *know* were remunerated at what most European translators consider to be low levels. And I am not alone.

I have a pet theory about one major factor (in addition to the many other important factors) that influences the translation process and its price. It is generally accepted in this profession that the production of quality translations not only requires that the linguist have some sort of education in the language s/he is translating from (the more specialized the field, the more specialized the education), but also that s/he experience the source language in its true environment.

That is to say, the best translators are translating into their true native language, but have *lived* in the country of their source language at some time. And that takes a certain amount of resources.

Of course, this factor may indeed have less influence on certain sectors of the profession - perhaps those who type up instruction manuals day in and day out with little variation (although we've all seen how low the quality of so many instruction manuals has dropped), or people working with medical reports in a particular field who see the same words repeat over and over are less likely to produce poorer quality translations simply due to the fact that they haven't had much life experience where the source language is used on a daily basis.

But in the real world, prices are often a reflection of the education and experience (on a personal level) and of the time and process complexity (on a company level) that go into the final translation. After all, time is money. If the final translation is "cheap" or even "less expensive", I personally could not help but think - Why is their time not worth more?? Where did they cut corners??

In the fields I work in (law, finance, business, marketing), to produce a quality translation it is imperative to understand the vocabulary, register, tone, sense, idioms, double entendres, cultural references, etc. in the source text. And then the translator has to have the intellectual capacity to reproduce and reflect all of that in the target language. It takes education, experience, time, commitment, supervision, and practice.

And that doesn't even address the other layers of the process such as proofreading, revision, editing, and quality assurance (and in some cases formatting), all undertaken by people other than the translator (but hopefully in consultation at some point with the translator).

Most people/organizations who can do all this well are putting in a lot of work - and have already spent a lot of time, effort, and money to get that far.

Although a high price tag is no guarantee of good quality, the people/organizations who do all that work are generally going to reflect this in the price they ask.
Well put, Janet.

What do you think?

ForeignExchange's METRiQ quality system provides medical device and pharmaceutical companies with measurable, known translation quality - at a lower cost. To learn more, contact ForeignExchange Translations.


  1. Paulina said...
    I cannot but agree with Janet. Education of a translator is more expensive than that of a lawyer or a medical doctor: you need at least one faculty of studies, courses in translation software, postgraduate schools, etc. After all this, who would like to earn USD 0,015 per word? Nobody, I guess. So if a translator agrees on such a rate, s/he probably isn't qualified to meet basic quality requirements.
    Anonymous said...
    Eloquently (and diplomatically) stated. Another analogy that may "get to the point" quickly is that of a haircut at an established salon vs. a haircut at a beauty school. Both practitioners can cut hair. One has been cutting longer... and can do so with much more precision and a more predictable -- if not guaranteed -- outcome. The other... well, the price reflects what he/she can do at that moment in time... I am familiar with many who have walked out of beauty schools and headed straight for one of those "established salons", where the client is more confident with what he or she will receive.
    Anonymous said...
    I agree strenuously with Janet's posit and examples of expenses/investments by language service professionals and related pricing for the work. I'll add a couple: reference resources including technical, authoritative books and online services (in addition to the much less-reliable 'crowdsourced' forums and glossaries); expert, professional training for continuing education and updating; periodic, extended visits in-country for each working language; and professional conferences.
    amaxson said...
    Thanks so much for all your comments!
    We recognize the level of education required of translators, especially translators of highly specialized fields, or even marketing material where intricate knowledge of the language is necessary to produce translations with the proper tone, idioms, etc.
    While we can appreciate that no one WANTS to work for .015USD/word, it often comes down to simple economics of supply and demand. Rates can sometimes reflect the level of work a linguist can achieve, but sometimes it simply reflects their desire to win the work. This can be the difference between making money, even if it is less than the translator would like, or not getting the job.
    Add to this the constant desire for clients to see lower prices, and negotiations for discounts and lower rates become an inevitability.
    When high volumes of work are negotiated on a per word basis, perhaps the amount the translator is being paid goes down, but it is our hope and expectation that these negotiations do not affect quality.
    Sure, if steps are skipped to 'save' on costs, we would expect to see some impact to quality. However, if lower rates are established, but all edits, proofs, and quality checks are still in place, does quality still reflect price?

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