Driving quality up in the translation industry

14 12 2012

I have just read the comments to an interesting post about translation buyers’ expectations in terms of quality. The issue is approached by many of the translators commenting on the topic as if the quality of translations depended solely on clients and on what they were are willing to pay for it. They make a valid point that if clients are looking for the cheapest job in the quickest time frame possible, a serious translator cannot help but “swim or sink” and that means compromising on quality.

Our industry is full of clutter. Translation is a service that can often be provided remotely from anywhere in the world to clients anywhere in the world. The initial investment is a household connection to the Internet and a computer. Hence, there are thousands (if not millions) of translation agencies and freelancers, who provide translation services independently worldwide, without qualifications, experience or even adequate knowledge of the language pairs they provided services for. Competition may sometimes look fierce, because translators in developed countries compete against providers in developing countries that can offer much cheaper services. Also, there aren’t regulations applicable to all countries that can help translators put a cap on their prices.

I can understand why many dedicated translators are frustrated with their position and the unfair sort of competition they find themselves in, but I would like to approach the topic from a different perspective.

Naturally, a demand on the buyer side for quality will drive the overall quality of the industry up. This is a very straightforward concept, but can the seller side of the industry drive quality up too without compromising its revenue? I think so.

I have read it somewhere (it may not be true, but still a valid point) that Apple does not invest on market research. Their philosophy is to “create amazing” and they firmly believe that if they can do that, customers will find it amazing too and pay a fair price for their products. In fact, we are so much in awe of what they create that some people are willing to pay for products before they are even launched, because they know they’ll be the first owners of something amazing.

In every industry there is room for quality and innovation. We don’t create technology or innovation in its strict sense as translators, but we too can create amazing. If instead of thinking what our clients’ expectations in terms of quality are, we think long and hard about what our expectations are, we have a chance of creating something better than they ever expected.  We are the experts in translation and in our language pair, hence who better than us to set the bar high for the job that we’ll deliver?

Right, easy to say, but what to do about the competition? There are several markets within a market. There is the market for cheap translations, and let’s face it, sometimes speed is more important than price, it doesn’t matter if the document produced doesn’t say exactly what the original text said (in which case I would argue against the need for a translation in the first place,  but that is an entirely different topic), or although the client would love to pay more they just can’t afford it. There is a market and there are providers who cater for it. There will always be.

However, there is also a high-end market; this is not as price sensitive and will put quality over price and speed. This is the market we should aim for if we want to drive quality up. I am not suggesting that we become inflexible, but as service providers we must decide where we are prepared to compromise and where we aren’t. For example,  I am prepared to compromise a few nights sleep to complete a job within a tight deadline for a client with whom I have a good relationship, i.e. who is willing to pay a rate we both find fair and is loyal to my services. I am not compromising my sleep over a low paying overnight job from an agency that is charging their client an urgency rate, but is unwilling to pay me for the urgency.

Naturally, I can do this now because I have been building a client base for many years. My clients have selected me as their provider over the years and I have selected them too. However, when I started I wasn’t known in my field and couldn’t be as choosy about the jobs I  took. My approach then was compromising on everything, but quality. Even if an agency would ask me to do a ridiculous amount of words overnight for a much better rate (fully aware that there was no way anyone could deliver a good job in that sort of time frame), if I didn’t think I could deliver a quality job I would say no. Many people said I was crazy: “It will take you weeks now to make what you could have made in a day!” and it did feel crazy and a bit masochistic many times, but to me it was about the long term and it has payed off! If all serious translators did that, we would force agencies and even clients to challenge the quality of translations more often and become more aware of the importance of quality- i.e. we could drive quality up. The only reason not to do that is if we believe that we cannot rise to the challenge. I certainly can.

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