An old Spanish say goes like this: “Dime con quién andas y te diré quién eres” (English: tell me who you are friends with and I’ll tell you who you are). It means that the people you choose to surround yourself with will determine your image, your public persona, your identity.
A similar saying in English would be Birds of a feather flock together. It’s only human to desire to be with whom we feel a certain affinity. It could also be said that the people whose company we choose to keep might determine our degree of success in life. Our parents saw to it that we picked the right friends, for example. As adults, we face pressure to be with the right crowd and so on.
Whether we are students or professionals, we want to seek the association of those who we see as equal to, or better than, ourselves. Thus, a recent college graduate aspiring to be an interpreter will seek the company of more seasoned interpreters; the translator who decided to set up shop as an agency will procure advice from established agency owners whose experience approaches hers. This natural cycle resembles the medieval model of master and apprentice or, in clunkier prose, of mentor and mentee.
Apprentices follow the narrative that best seems to match their goals. If a translator wants more clients, she will gravitate towards the masters who offer a promising marketing plan. If a translator wants clients who pay more for her services, she will find the current chatter about premium markets quite attractive. In the marketplace of ideas, the ones that sound more promising win the day. And why wouldn’t they? If I’m a medical translator who wants to work for Big Pharma companies, I will naturally feel attracted by the rhetoric of someone who has Big Pharma contacts. That I may gain access to those contacts is obviously another story.
Some of the promising ideas in this marketplace are high quality translations. I have a problem with the use of quality in the realm of translation because, contrary to what standards associations and language service gurus affirm, quality in translation is an oxymoron, it can’t be objectively measured no matter how many error-counting templates are being used. To be clear, quality can only be measured for goods or services that can be predictably and repeatedly manufactured or performed the same way every single time. Manufacturing safety valves, for example, requires such a precision that quality measures have to be taken. Applying automatic weld points by a robot on an automotive chassis has to be a highly controlled process to deliver the same product predictably and accurately. The following excerpt illustrates how a manual welding process, with its innacuracies and variations, compares to a robotic welding process:
The previous discussion about NASCAR robot welding can be used to imagine how a translation process would fare under similar circumstances. The areas highlighted in yellow are mine. Please note key terms such as manual welding, variations in weld quality, inconsistent weld pattern, among others. Notice also the result of applying robotic welding: the elimination of variation and the improvement in weld accuracy. Translation providers married to the quality control model offer a similar guarantee.
Another aspect of quality control in this scenario is that it can be independently assessed. That’s why we tend to trust independent quality reviews of cars by organizations such as Consumer Reports because they are performed outside of the factory and outside of the marketing and sales pitch of the automaker. Carmakers use these independent assessments to prop up their advertising to sell more cars because the buying public sees those quality evaluations as authoritative and not part of the sales process.
Therefore, a translation agency or translator who claims to provide translations of such and such quality are expecting you to believe their hype and their sales spiel. They add testimonials with redacted clients’ names on their websites to add the patina of authoritativeness. If you let yourself be convinced by that rhetoric, that means you are maintaining a relative position on quality. In other words, to you, quality is subjective and part of the word of mouth.
Another fallacy in the translation quality discussion is budgeting for words, regardless of their multiplicity of meanings and different contexts. A customer may state that she understands that words have varying connotations and a legal document is not the same as a videogame script. However, for the translation quality metaphor to work —however inadequate is in reality— the customer has to see each word as a separate unit of a whole. In this view, words are assembled into strings of text, like so many pickle jars or oil cans are lined up in a factory, and translators are just assembly workers checking items for errors and discarding the words that don’t fit a set of parameters like spelling, punctuation or their proper place in the correct word order.
The lower rates become an issue secondary to this quality control problem. If you see words on a page like screws in a blister box or a pile of laser printer boxes, then it is easy to see why you would request the lowest price I can offer as a translator. But words are not products, items or fabricated things. They are living things created by thought.
Back to the old Spanish saying, I have long associated translators and agencies offering the lowest rates with poor-quality translations. So, I tend to dismiss translators offering low rates out of hand because I’ve conditioned myself to think that they must be providing low quality. I have to pry myself free from that assumption, however, because I really don’t know how good those translators are at what they do. I confess that I started this entry because I read the byline “Lowest rates available and high quality” on the profile of a translator working in Colombia. I realized I couldn’t judge her because I don’t know her particular circumstances beyond that phrase. I certainly don’t know the Colombian marketplace for translations and translators.
I do know the marketplace in the United States, and here translation providers who offer low rates do it because a) they want to increase their market share and b) they have embraced the assembly line quality control model and operate accordingly.