Translation quality expectations

The idea of translation quality is, shall we say, a bit elusive. To one translation buyer, the definition of a quality delivery is a translation that is orthographically perfect and grammatically correct. To another, a quality delivery is one that arrives on schedule; if the project is delivered late, then by that definition, it is not a quality delivery.

Not only is there no exact definition of quality, but that ill-defined designation is also a moving target. The same translation buyer will, for separate assignments and at different points in time, have varying quality expectations. All translation service providers understand this.

However, anecdotal evidence has recently pointed to a more sustained shift. In speaking with end clients, other translation companies and individual linguists, we have observed a trend toward changing quality expectations.

To assess whether or not translation buyers were willing to forgo quality to achieve reductions in cost and/or turnaround times, ForeignExchange recently conducted a simple straw poll that asked: Are quality expectations declining among translation buyers? While the results were unscientific, the almost 1,000 anonymous respondents voted 47%-53% that quality expectations are not declining among translation buyers.

Beyond simplistic yes/no votes, the question generated a tremendous amount of feedback and discussion on our blog and to the LinkedIn Medical Translators and Editors group. Some respondents shared that quality is not so much determined by the industry as it is dictated by the quality standards of the translation agency itself, which is then communicated to the translation teams. Quality expectations are first driven by the customer, although clients would never say that they want a translation “as fast as possible and as cheap as possible; and by the way, don’t worry about the quality.” Quality is usually assumed on the customer side, but should it be?

Another interesting point raised the question of availability. Translation has become a multi-billion dollar worldwide industry, and the business community is drawing from a very finite number of qualified translators. In other words, there are simply not enough qualified linguists in the world to supply quality translations for every single translation project.

The topic of “publishable” quality was commented on by several people, namely that the traditional steps of translate, edit, proof might be overkill in some cases depending on clients’ needs and content types. For “soft” marketing documents, quality was identified as not as high a priority as technical manuals. In fact, some stated that they were directed to “skip” the proofreading step altogether for certain materials. If certain documents will not be published, then only performing the translation step might be “good enough.”

Still other respondents felt that translation quality is affected by a lack of standards when selecting the translation team — from the initial translator all the way to in-country reviewers. Assume an assignment is handled by an experienced translation team that knows the material well and uses standard glossary terms, leverages their past work and produces what most would call a quality translation. However, their work is evaluated by an in-country review team that, due to vacation schedules, has no background in the style or agreed-upon terminology. The in-country group may not be particularly strong in grammar and language conventions either. That in-country team might make significant changes to the translation, giving the client the false impression that it was a poor translation.

The discussion overall was regularly diverted to the struggle of producing quality in a world where “fast and cheap” have become king. The frustration with the cost-time-quality trinity clearly generated the most comments. Some even labeled the desire to get high-quality translation fast and cheap as schizophrenic in the sense that it was an impossible task. Others lamented about the “old days” when people really cared about quality. Still more commented that quality should never be compromised, and if a customer demands quality but demands it for too low a price or too fast a turnaround, then that customer should be dropped.

Thus, the idea of an unambiguous definition of translation quality still eludes us. But thanks to the help of all those who participated in our straw poll, it at least does not appear that translation buyers are abandoning their quality standards.