If you pay peanuts…

Can you imagine telling a solicitor you are thinking of instructing – after having learned his hourly rate – that you can get the same service at a third of the price elsewhere? That’s not very likely, is it? Why not? 

For several reasons: If you have a legal problem, you don’t want to engage just anybody, you want a person with the requisite skills and experience; moreover, you want somebody you can trust, which has very little to do with money.

Why is it, then, that professional translators constantly have to put up with objections like the above after having submitted a quote? Is not translation also a professional skill and a matter of trust? After all, the documents to be translated are very often of a highly confidential nature or involve a lot of money. 

‘If a job is worth doing, it’s worth doing well’, the saying goes. So if you are going to spend money on a translation, why not make sure that the person you engage is actually a trained professional with the requisite experience.

It goes without saying that if your only criterion is price, you are not very likely to get the best translator. Self-respecting translators, just like any other professionals, know their own worth and will not make ridiculous compromises on price.

The trouble is that translation is perceived as a “commodity” rather than a “service”.

Translation agencies of the more dubious kind – offering hundreds of languages at next to nothing – have a lot to answer for in this regard. They have turned a highly specialised profession into a commodity, reducing the choice of translator to a mere comparison of rate per word.

Why is that not a good idea?

A good translation is closely dependent on the inside of a person’s head, so to speak (which is why Google Translate is not likely to ever become a true commercial success).

A good translator is usually somebody who has 1) spent several years studying the language(s) he or she works in at the highest level, 2) spent time researching and understanding his or her specialist subjects and continues to do so and 3) is continuing to hone his or her skills.

Moreover, a good translation is usually more than a “sentence-to-sentence”-translation. Quite often, the source text is not of the best quality or it has been removed from its context. Grammatical and other linguistic mistakes are one thing, but frequently the translator has to make an educated guess as to what the drafter meant. Often the drafter is not the person commissioning the translation, so it’s not possible to ask that person what he or she meant to say. This is a particularly common situation when drafters write in a language that is not their mother tongue, which is often the case with Danish drafters (writing in English).

This is where good background knowledge comes into its own. A translator who is familiar with the domain in question can often make sense of an otherwise nonsensical text – in other words, the translator does not merely translate, he first has to make sense of, or interpret the source text and then translate it. Such a skill is not quantifiable. Accordingly, one person’s translation cannot be easily compared with that of the next person. A good translation is closely linked to the translator’s background and experience, as well as personality. It has very little to do with the number of words! Good translations are not really quantifiable.

Clients should bear the above in mind the next time they are tempted to make a “rate per word” comparison.