The linguistic quality paradox

Many products and services are now delivered in 11 to 20 languages at first release. The list of languages often includes not only Chinese, Japanese and Korean, but also Indonesian, Russian and Turkish. It can be a real challenge for both translation buyers and language service providers (LSPs) to guarantee an acceptable level of quality.

Surprisingly, large quality assurance budgets don’t always equate to meeting customer quality preferences. Language teams, whether on the buyer or supplier side, tend to spend a lot of time and money on linguistic quality. That’s in spite of the fact that data demonstrates that no one-to-one link exists between price and translation quality. Instead, participants describe a much larger web of critical business and process variables that affect translation deliverables.

Worst of all, the investment in quality is often made with no input from real prospects and customers. It takes place at the end of the process through linguistic quality assurance programs in the form of multiple in-country reviews. How can teams let go of this downstream process in order to have a much greater impact on quality upstream?

Beware of conflicting views of quality. Unfortunately, a translation team’s definition of high quality — even if it’s vetted through service providers, local partners and in-country reviewers — does not always match the prevalent view held by their prospects and customers in a given market. If you maintain a large stable of internal or external reviewers who apply more or less the same quality filters regardless of content type to most local markets, you can be sure that you are spending more money than you should on quality reviews. At the same time, your company is probably failing to meet local market expectations worldwide.

Keep in mind that adding external resources and money won’t solve it. Some companies think they can solve the quality problem by simply hiring more outside reviewers or throwing more money at the issue. Avoid waiting until your budget grows to a point that it attracts the attention of your chief financial officer. The last thing you want is for someone else to mandate cuts that will affect your ability to scale linguistic quality assurance.

Reconsider your organization’s real goals in the realm of quality. What phrases do you choose to describe how you handle linguistic quality when speaking with colleagues and executives? If you say, “highest quality possible within budget” or “we’ve solved that issue with outsourced review teams,” then it’s time to take a step back to focus on who should be setting your quality specifications. It should be your prospects and customers who ultimately determine the appropriate level of quality for delivery, not third-party review teams or in-country staff delivering their version of the best quality.

To do this, tune in to customer expectations at the local level. Far too many organizations implement linguistic quality assurance programs in a cloistered mode, limiting their ability to reach out to the real people who use their products and services. In some places, it may be more important to have a higher volume of content translated into the local language with a few errors, rather than to deliver small volumes, albeit perfectly translated. In other markets, additional or more advanced features of your product or a premium level of customer service may be what the customer really wants.

Make sure you reach out to your prospects and customers directly. They have found you, so you should be able to find them. They are out there and willing to talk, once you find ways to engage with them on their own turf and ask questions. Consider social media platforms, conferences, translation crowds, user groups, buyer councils or even internet cafés, which are still very popular in many parts of the world. If you haven’t done so already, employ your translation and localization partners to help you obtain feedback from consumers on the ground.

Additionally, ask what marketing has done for you lately. Product managers and in-country marketing managers may be able to provide valuable insight regarding local views on linguistic quality. They may even connect you to customers willing to share their opinions. If your marketing team is not tracking the websites, advertising and social media of your strongest local competitors, push them to do so by sharing a few critical questions related to linguistic quality. In the end, the language service team should not be blamed for low product sales due to linguistic quality, when the real issue is a lack of proper adaptation of the product or content for the local market in question.

Make it a priority to decrease your participation in linguistic quality assurance over time. Buyers of language services are already scaling back their involvement in linguistic quality assurance processes, and you can, too. They are reaching this goal by making it clear to their partners that final quality is their responsibility and setting up metrics dashboards to track this area. At the same time, they are making sure that style guides, glossaries and translation memories are strictly maintained on a timely basis and made available to all stakeholders when needed.

Linguistic quality should not be a straitjacket, applied to all content and all markets in the same way. Throwing money and external resources at the overabundance of content required on numerous delivery platforms just won’t scale over time. Rather than emphasizing the downstream role of an in-country review team and expecting them to “save the day,” language teams need to build processes that allow their prospects and customers to be the ultimate gatekeepers of quality.