The Cheap vs. the Quality Translation

Why do I state this as a contradiction? Does this have to be a contradiction?

Not necessarily, but actually, in my experience in most cases it is. There are three things to consider here:

  1. What is a “high quality” translation?
  2. Which types of texts need high quality?
  3. What does a translator need to sustain him/herself?

1. A translation is of high quality when it equals or even outperforms the source text in its effect on the reader. The reaction “Erm, what is this supposed to mean?” on the contrary will often be the effect of low quality translations. How can you determine the effect of a translation? Well, the best method is probably to watch a person’s reaction while s/he reads the text. When the wrinkles on the forehead deepen with every sentence this is a clear indication that something might be wrong! If there is no opportunity to watch people while they read a translation, invite the readers to provide feedback in some other way. For example, ask your overseas business partners whether they find your English website easy to read. Or, perhaps there is an experienced translator among your friends or contacts who will take a look at your English company brochure and let you know her/his opinion. You might also have an English native speaker among your co-workers or employees. Let them tell you what they honestly think about the company marketing collaterals, for example. Consider investing in higher quality, because in most cases you will probably get the wrinkles on the forehead…

2. Which types of texts need high quality?

Texts have a purpose. The required quality level of a translation is determined by the text’s intended purpose. In most cases, a text that is used in-house in a company need not necessarily have book-reading quality. Lack of time, lack of resources, and so on. So, for example, the functionality overview of a software system introduced in a subsidiary halfway across the world to support company-wide collaboration need not necessarily be perfectly formulated. It will suffice to get the basic idea across. There may be the occasional typo and nobody will mind a sentence that has a slighty malformed grammar touch to it. People make no purchasing decision based on such texts. Nor will it really matter if the English in any odd email sent to a distributor in, say India, is a little off-correct. School English (I am speaking of non-English natives here, of course) will do perfectly!

However, there are texts where quality does matter a lot. These are all texts involved in the purchasing process and texts with an instructional quality to them. Such texts are, for example, handling instructions, operating or user manuals, and – of course – all types of marketing collateral, ranging from the product description and the company brochure to the website. Remember that the website is a marketing and communication instrument to the entire world! It is probably the most important way of corporate communication these days. Therefore, not only its graphic design but also its text quality should be paramount.

3. Well, this is a tough one! 😉

What does a translator need to sustain him/herself?

There are surveys conducted regularly inter-US and worldwide to get a salary overview across language service providers and – whoa – the variations are immense. Actually, the question should rather be: What is the price-performance ratio a translator can offer? A good translator will not only send a price quote in response to your request. S/he will ask questions first: What is the purpose of the text? Who is the target group? How many will read this? Is there terminology already used in-house? Who will be my SME (subject matter expert) contact, if I have questions? Will there be…? Can I have…? When…? How…? Which format…? Etc.

Remember that translation nowadays also involves tools. Most translators (should) work using translation memory systems. These are databases that store translated texts for later reuse. Expensive stuff, indeed, which needs to be updated and upgraded regularly, but they ensure text consistency in highly repetitive documents, such as user manuals and technical descriptions. For the benefit of the client and the translator alike…

So, to sum it up, usually there is a difference in quality directly related to the rates.

Cheers and so long for now


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