The American Translators Association (ATA) used to have a coffee mug with the slogan I was looking for. I don’t know if the “Coffee Mug blue w/white logo ($8)” from the current ATAware merchandise still has it. I couldn’t find the picture, but it doesn’t matter. The coffee stains have always been part of the header image above, and the inscription reads just as well in plain black on white: “The translation is not a commodity”.
This non-commodity attitude is something I can strongly identify with. In her “Translation: Getting it Right”, downloadable in many language versions from the ATA website, Chris Durban (she coined the phrase, as far as I know) doesn’t explain about commodities or fungibles, but another ATA brochure – “Translation. Standards for buying a non-commodity” – does. Besides many points of difference mentioned there (type of document, subject-matter expertise, the intended readers or target group, purpose, etc.), it was the quality of translation and service which for me always mattered most.
As I was updating my German website last week, I tried to explain the idea of the relation between translation as a non-commodity and quality of translation. Many clients appreciate quality of service (e.g. delivery time, readiness to accommodate last minute changes, etc.), but cannot easily judge translation quality by itself. More often, it is the clients of our clients (“the intended readers or target group”), who can tell the good from the poor.
As Bernd Pitschedsrieder, the former German CEO of VW, once cynically said, “the worm must taste good to the fish, not the fisherman.” I don’t envy a sales manager who sells worms to fishermen, but he probably knows how to explain the difference between various species. For a translator, making a pitch to a potential client and promising to deliver the right quality for the “fish” (the client’s customers, business clients, partners, audience, users of technical documents, recipients of financial information) is a problem.
“Liar, liar! Pants on fire! Who can afford to tell the truth about translation quality…?”, asks Paul Sulzberger in his conversation with Luigi Muzii on how translation providers should (or should not) communicate quality to their clients.
I will get back to Luigi Muzii, his latest “Quirks” and his understanding of translation technology (the “Big Wave”) in one of my next blog posts, so stay tuned. This post is about something different. However, Luigi’s statement brings me back to the main point: “When every translation provider in the market attempts to stand out from the crowd by claiming that they deliver “quality”, it’s no wonder that buyers find it hard to tell the difference between them. Promising to do “a good quality job” is hardly a unique selling proposition, is it?”
No, it isn’t, and the bad news is: this is only the first problem. The other one is related to the statement on the mug that I was looking for: “Translation is not a commodity”.
On one hand, we argue against measuring everything by the same yardstick. On the other hand, we claim, unisono, to deliver products that are invariably and intrinsically good. We promise a uniformly superior quality. Why so?
A good news after the bad is: I know a simple solution to both problems. I know quite a few translation providers who resolve these contradictions simultaneously, whether fully aware of any contradiction or not.
In recent offerings from several Russian translation agencies and freelance translators I was struck by a price differentiation for various quality grades. There were quotes for “business class translations”, “premium translations”, “standard translations”, “basic translations”. Thought provoking indeed:
After spending a dozen or so years as a translator of marketing materials and an interpreter for CEOs, CFOs and marketing consultants, I was struck by the fact that it never occurred to me to offer translation of varying quality, at various rates. But perhaps I worked for the wrong trainers.
If you take the three classic project variables, i.e. cost, time and quality, it is only the first two which get usually tuned and tweaked. It seems reasonable to me not to have any uniform price (I, for one, don’t have any). I also know translators who quote two rates – for standard and express delivery.
Fast, cheap, good. The client is invariably called upon to “pick two”. But why not grade the third variable, i.e. quality?
In so doing, we would communicate that quality matters. We could offer various quality grades as proof.
If Luigi Muzii is right when saying that “buyers have difficulty differentiating between good and poor quality work“, we could proactively help the buyers with our structured value proposition. We could show how to differentiate and be discerning. We could offer various products with different price tags and make our “non-commodities” more tangible. Allora, we can “signal” (Luigi’s terminology) translation quality better.
What the heck I thought, why not? Tony Soprano is not only a made man, he’s a made marketing guru. There are books like “Tony Soprano on Management: Leadership Lessons Inspired by America’s Favorite Mobster” and many others which I probably should read next. There are business trainers and economists I’d certainly need to work for to learn about diversification.
But even without a little marketing help from Tony Soprano and his friends, I think it is a good trick to push the price up, not down. An extra mile that we promise the client to go is certainly worth a few more cents for a word. Quote .15 for your “regular style” translation, but tell the client your “premium class” is only .5 more. Marketing-wise, wouldn’t it be a viable business model?
Add garbage, go forth.
But let us get serious for a change. The question is how to grade. The labels “business class, “professional grade”, “standard” or “basic” do sound euphemistic. There must be something else besides “quality translation” (wrong signal!) and “subprime” (such is a perfidious word). There certainly is a better classification.
Back in the nineties, the EAGLES working group (Expert Advisory Group on Language Engineering Standards) made a rough distinction of translation quality and set four generic levels:
1. raw translation that conveys the information core of the original text, may contain some minor grammatical or syntactic errors without impeding the understandability of the target text and could be used e.g. for translations of large amounts of scientific abstracts;
2. regular quality translation that achieves full and grammatically correct transfer of the information and presents reasonable linguistic fluency, might be somewhat flawed in terms of register accuracy (style) and could be used for technical manuals;
3. extra quality translation that achieves both fluency and idiomatic accuracy, is properly adapted to the cultural context of the target language and is typically used for advertisements and literature;
4. adaptation that is not the direct translation of an original text, but the re-authoring of newspaper articles and some types of advertisements , it can also present extreme cases of pragmatic text translation to overcome cultural barriers (see “Methods and the role of revision in academic and professional environments of translation” by Georgia Kostopoulou).
Another differentiation of translation quality is my favorite. It is found in Chris Durban’s ATA brochure I mentioned in the beginning of my post. Chris Durban differentiates between for-information translation (“accurate yet unpolished work… can generally be produced faster and more cheaply”) and for-publication translation (used “to sell or persuade, or if image is important to you”) (see “Translation: Getting it Right”).
There are other distinctions and differentiations, the main thing is they are all about varying degrees of quality and various quality levels. Translation is not a commodity, after all. If we have differences, let us differ. But diversify? I might be fond of rhetorical questions, but these are not rhetorical ones.
I have been doing extra quality translation + adaptation (see above) for many years. Time to change?
I don’t diversify (yet). Do you?
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