An open letter to translation buyers: can you really afford cheap translations?

prometheus-get-what-you-pay-for2When we set out to buy a product or service, it is only logical for us to try to acquire said product or service at the lowest possible price. Many prefer to do so while retaining the highest possible level of quality. Sometimes this is feasible, but often, as the old adage goes, “You get what you pay for.”

Buying translations is no exception. Something a translation buyer may not be aware of however, is although he or she may be promised the same level of quality as that offered by the same service provided at a higher price, this is rarely ever possible.

With the advent of machine translation (Google Translate and its counterparts as well as independently compiled translation machines), one might almost think the demand for professional, human translations has declined as a result. After all, everyone can use these tools which are available free of charge, accessible on their own computers, laptops, tablets and mobile telephones, right? Nothing, however, could be farther from the truth when it comes to demand. As the distances between us shorten (cyber distances, that is) and the world becomes more of a global community in terms of the trade of goods and services and communications, the need for us to communicate with one another via our own respective languages has never been so high. This trend and the need for quality, professional translations will only continue and expand as globalization increases.

Translation agencies typically cull from a pool of freelance translators who work in various language combinations. Some of these are educated in translation, or in their various professional fields, or both, with years of experience under their belt in translation and/or their particular area of specialization. Others are newcomers to the business, either just having graduated from a translation or related educational program, and are making their first forays into the profession. Yet others are “migrants”, a growing group of victims of layoffs in their respective industries, who might have been exposed to two or more languages in their previous line of work, and who are attracted to the apparent advantages of working from home and setting their own hours. There are even students who are being recruited by translation agencies (in some cases, as young as 15 or 16!) to provide the agencies with cheap translations that are “good enough (a broad concept which is open to interpretation)”, allowing them to keep their margins intact and their in-house staff on the payroll.

Suppose you have launched a new product and are looking to roll it out to several other markets, perhaps on a regional level, or country by country. You naturally need the labels, documentation, promotional materials, and the website translated into these other languages in order to market the product properly in these other countries. You contact two or three translation agencies to get a quote. You might find vast or even minor differences between their prices. What you might not be told is that those offering rock-bottom prices might in fact be using students, unqualified or inexperienced translators, or perhaps in extreme cases, even machine translation, the result of which is checked by a (hopefully) native speaker, a process that is used on an increasingly more frequent basis in the translation industry and is known as post-editing. These cost-saving measures are great for an agency’s bottom line, and your budget, but do they provide you with the quality you need (and should demand)? After all, students and inexperienced translators may soon discover that they need certain tools of the trade to do their job, including the latest hardware, software, mobile devices, and assorted other office supplies and equipment. They need to invest in CPD, and attend expensive conferences and workshops to ensure their skills are up to standard. They may realize that offering a price 50 to even 75% below that of an experienced, qualified translator is one they ultimately can’t live on and will quit while they’re behind, and look for a job that pays a living wage. Many also realize that being in business for themselves means just that, running a business, and are not prepared for the many administrative tasks, hours, and responsibilities this involves.

So when these “transients” leave the industry as many of them inevitably will, where will this leave translation agencies? Having to resort (or revert back) to using translators who insist on providing high quality and who are capable of doing so? The problem is many of these translators will have long since stopped working for these agencies when they were first presented with the ultimatum, “accept a 25 to 30% cut in the rate you have been charging for 10+ years, or we won’t send you any more work.” Some do cave, out of necessity (or ignorance, feeling their options are limited), but the vast majority won’t. This resource, the pool of qualified translators, will therefore no longer be available to the agencies. Some might have to close up shop, others might have to lower their expectations and look for new transients.

Another issue translation buyers need to be aware of and one many won’t hear about from the agencies they have contracted for their translation work (agencies who, in all fairness, may not be aware of this hazard themselves, or perhaps choose to look the other way) is that many of these inexperienced and frankly, “morally challenged” translators might just be running their confidential texts (think contracts, reports, internal memos – none of which are meant for public consumption) through a translation machine to save time, increase output and thus earn more. “So?” you might be thinking. “It’s cheaper that way, isn’t it?” Sure, no doubt about it. But it also means that if one of these translators has used a free translation machine, your confidential information has now been uploaded to cyber space, is accessible to the public where it will forever remain.

The ramifications are mind-boggling, and ultimately, not worth the lower price you might be paying.

Other adverse effects of using cheap translation involve the sacrifices in the quality and thus accuracy of your translation. How costly will it be to remedy a PR nightmare in another country just because the translation left out one, crucial word? Or because it contains mistranslations of others? How much will it cost you to hire lawyers to handle all the lawsuits inevitably resulting from an incorrect translation in the manual for a consumer product that results in harm or injury to its users? (Not to mention the costs of retranslating and reprinting the documentation.)

The problem with pitting translation agencies against one another to get the lowest price, is this forces them to cut back on their own costs, one of which might involve hiring a proofreader, preferably a native speaker of the language of the translation, to ensure it is flawless. It’s a frightening prospect to think you might be using a translation in your business that hasn’t been proofread, particularly if it is written in a language you can’t read (to presumably check it yourself). I’ve even known of agencies who only do spot checks (if any checks at all!) of the translation before sending it on to the end customer. The 25% you might have saved on the translation can potentially cost you thousands more in rectifying the damage caused by an incorrect translation.

Another issue to consider in going with the cheapest provider is the reliability of their vendors. This becomes particularly relevant with urgent or rush translations. Most high-quality translators are constantly busy, many working 60-hour weeks, including nights and weekends. Many agencies are therefore forced to scrape the bottom of the barrel to find a translator with the time to do a last-minute, urgent translation. But are these translators capable of providing the quality you need? Or are they rushing through the job to get it in on time? Can you be sure they have the professional attitude and skills required to provide an accurate, good translation under pressure?

Translation is not a commodity where economies of scale apply, at least not when it’s done properly. And it is not a service where corners can be cut without sacrificing quality and accuracy.

The Internet is full of articles on translation gaffes and mistranslations of product names or advertising slogans. Amusing to read about, always good for a chuckle, but what happens when it’s your product? Translation is more than just “retyping” a text into another language. Context, local culture and accurate terminology must figure into the equation.

Are you willing to take the risk in your business just to save a minimal amount? Would you be penny-wise and pound-foolish when it comes to other services your company needs?

In summary, can you really afford a cheap translation? Food for thought.



16 thoughts on “An open letter to translation buyers: can you really afford cheap translations?

  1. Hi Allison,

    This is excellent, it covers all the points I want to say to people when they ask me “Can’t you just run it through Google translate and then tidy it up a bit?” (ex-potential agency clients and friends both!). I hope you don’t mind, but I’ve saved the article to show to anyone in the future – full credit will be given, of course.

  2. It takes a lot of time and effort to become an expert translator so why would anyone offer these services in a cheap rate? Only newbies or students can afford to translate the projects in a very cheap rates.
    Even though many people uses free tools like Google translators for translation but to transform sentiments and cultural things into text, we really need an expert translator.
    Thanks a lot for sharing such article.

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