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Three Myths about the Translation Business

The native speaker principle is overrated, and the academic concept of 'quality' means little in a business context. Statements such as these may sound offensive to translators and clients alike. Yet those who plan to start up a translation business should be aware that the received views of the translation establishment may have little to do with reality.

There are countless languages in the world, most of which have many thousands and some even billions of monolingual or bilingual speakers. The laws of statistics would seem to dictate, therefore, that any attempt to set up a translation business is futile, if only because the number of potential competitors is overwhelming. However, once you have begun your translation business you will realise that serious competition - i.e., from rivals with business acumen and the nerve to question translation myths - is in fact comparatively scarce.

Native speakers are generally held to be indisputable authorities on translation issues. This leads us to the first myth about the translation business: the native speaker is infallible. When you start up your own translation business you will soon discover that most customers, especially the more knowledgeable ones, will demand that the translation be done by a native speaker, on the assumption that a native speaker is automatically a good writer. Not so. While there may be over a billion native speakers of English worldwide, only a fraction of them can be relied upon to possess the judgement it takes to decide whether a translation is linguistically sound in a given business context. We should not automatically assume that a native speaker is a good writer in his own language, and even less that he is a good translator. For one thing, translation requires thorough insight into the source language as well as the target language. When you hire translators for your business, you should never forget that while a good translator is usually a native speaker of the target language, not all native speakers are good translators.

The second myth about the translation business has to do with client priorities, and the assumption that more than anything else, clients want quality. People can be excused for taking this myth seriously. Anyone in his right mind would expect that the client's main concern when engaging a professional translation agency is to get a high-quality translation. Not so. Studies have shown that most clients are in fact more interested in speed than in quality. This is not to say that your client will be pleased to accept any trash as long as he gets it fast; the point is that quality standards in a business context are different from those in an academic context, and may be overshadowed by practical concerns. University students are trained to achieve linguistic perfection, to produce translations formulated in impeccable grammar and a superbly neutral style. Yet the fruits of such training may not be quite to the business client's taste. In fact, there are probably as many tastes as there are clients. A lawyer will expect you first and foremost to build unambiguous clauses and use appropriate legalese; a machine builder requires technical insight and authentic technical jargon; and the publisher of a general interest magazine needs articles that are simply a good read. What all clients tend to have in common, however, is a reverence for deadlines. After all, when a foreign client has arrived to sign a contract, there should be something to sign; when a magazine has been advertised to appear, it should be available when the market expects it. In a business environment, many different parties may be involved in the production of a single document, which means that delays will accumulate fast and may have grave financial consequences. So, starters should be aware that 'quality' equals adaptability to the client's register and jargon, and that short deadlines are as likely to attract business as quality assurance procedures.

And if you manage to attract business, you will find that the translation industry can be quite profitable, even for business starters. The third myth we would like to negate is that translation is essentially an ad hoc business with very low margins. Not so. Various successful ventures in recent years, for example in the Netherlands and in Eastern Europe, have belied the traditional image of the translator slaving away from dawn till dusk in an underheated attic and still barely managing to make ends meet. It is true that the translation process is extremely labour intensive, and despite all the computerisation efforts, the signs are that it will essentially remain a manual affair for many years to come. Nevertheless, if you are capable of providing high-quality translations, geared to your client's requirements and within the set deadlines, you will find that you will be taken seriously as a partner and rewarded by very decent bottom line profits.

Fester Leenstra is co-owner of Metamorfose Vertalingen, a translation agency in Utrecht (The Netherlands). For further details, visit: VERTAALBUREAU Medisch Vertaalbureau
Technisch Vertaalbureau Juridisch Vertaalbureau

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