Can you really afford a cheap translation service?

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Prices within the translation industry can be dramatically different from one agency to another. What is the real difference between a “cheap” and an “expensive” translation service? Can you really afford a cheap translation?

Why is Cost Important in Translation?

“It’s unwise to pay too much, but it’s worse to pay too little. When you pay too much, you lose a little money – that’s all. When you pay too little, you sometimes lose everything, because the thing you bought was incapable of doing the thing it was bought to do. The common law of business balance prohibits paying a little and getting a lot – it can’t be done. If you deal with the lowest bidder, it is well to add something for the risk you run, and if you do that you will have enough to pay for something better.” John Ruskin

If you’ve ever bought anything from anyone, you’ll probably know that quality and cost go hand-in-hand. If you buy an umbrella for £3.00, expect it to be inside-out within three minutes; splash out on a good-quality one for £30, and it’ll be by your side for years.

There are some situations where cheap rubbish ends up being the better option; but as we all know, in the long run one quality item almost always works out cheaper than fifteen shoddy imitations.

There are lots of differences between umbrellas and translation services; but for our purposes, let’s focus on just two.

The first is that personally, I only ever buy cheap umbrellas – because in my hands, their lifespan is likely to be limited not by the quality of the product but my capacity to not lose them. Since you can’t leave a translation behind in Costa or on the train (at least not if you have it in email format like most people do), there’s no reason not to opt for a high-quality service.

The second difference is that, unlike a good umbrella which is always greatly appreciated, a good translation tends to go unnoticed. The reason for this is that, by definition, a translation is at its best when you can’t even tell it’s there. The goal of a translation is precisely to not read as a translation; it should look completely natural, as though it was made for the target language. Just like a smudge on a window, you only notice the imperfections in a translation; so when you have a truly brilliant piece of work, it’s easy to see straight through it and forget its true value.

The Price of Poor Translations

Unfortunately, if you forget the value of a good translation, it’s also much easier to forget how costly and damaging a bad translation can be.

The European Commission’s Directorate General for Translation recently published an in-depth report on the costs of poor quality in its work, and I thought it would be handy to take a look.

One aspect of the report struck me as particularly useful: the definition and arrangement of the various kinds of quality costs according to American businessman and quality control expert Armand V. Feigenbaum [pictured left].

He notes the four different stages of the supply process where a business either pays for good quality, or is forced to spend money rectifying the consequences of poor quality. This is often the case seen in many business translations where the product is let down by the accompanying documentation.

The Four Costs of Translation Services

The four types of cost mentioned above are as follows:

Prevention Cost

As they say, “an ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure”, and this is certainly true when dealing with language services. I have spent some time working with non-profits, proofreading documents which have been translated by unqualified volunteers, and I often find that I could have performed the translation itself in less time than it took me to correct all the errors which result from a poor-quality translation.

Of course, paying for quality from the get-go is initially more expensive: prevention costs act as insurance against the subsequent repercussions of poor quality goods.

In a business setting, this could mean hiring quality assurance staff, or investing in training and tools; or, when contracting language services, it means enlisting a qualified, specialised translator through a reputed translation agency such as ourselves.

By hiring a trusted agency, you get the peace of mind of knowing that they have their own quality assurance measures in place to make sure you don’t end up publishing a sub-par text. Google Translate may be free up-front, but you risk paying the price for a poor translation somewhere down the line.

Appraisal Cost

These measures are often used in conjunction with preventative ones, almost as a second safety net to make sure products are produced flawlessly first time.

Within industry and business, appraisal could involve inspecting purchased materials before production, regular equipment testing, and evaluation of staff performance.

When contracting translation services, it means having the text proofread by a second set of eyes to ensure that the text seems natural. Not everyone opts for this service, but we usually recommend it [watch Why does my translation need proofreading?]. Working with a foreign text for hours on end can skew your vision of what sounds right or natural in English (is it ‘separate to’ or ‘separate from’? ‘Amongst’ or ‘among’?) and having a second translator proofread the text often helps to iron out any stylistic inconsistencies and polish up a text to perfection.

Of course, appraisal requires investments of time and money; but the cost will be less if your prevention measures are very good – e.g. if you have people in-house to do this or you only use trusted translators and agencies, proofreading will be faster because less editing will be required – and if there are any imperfections after the prevention stage, it’s always much better to catch them now rather than later.

Internal Failure Cost

Now we move from the cost of good translations to the cost of bad translations. An internal failure is when a product is found to be faulty at the end of the construction process, but before delivery to the customer – or when a translation is delivered to you with mistakes which you then have to correct or have corrected before publishing or otherwise using it.

This is much more costly than the prevention and appraisal expenses. In manufacturing, it involves stripping the product down, sourcing more parts, waiting for delivery and reproduction of the item, all of which costs money and creates delays.

At this stage, new risks come into play such as missed deadlines, impatient clients, staff time devoted to compensatory PR, and even reputational damage. In language services, working with unqualified individuals or agencies with sub-par standards, and skipping the proofreading, could lead to poor translations that need to be returned or re-commissioned before publishing, which could have similar consequences.

Avoid the costs of internal failures by steering clear of cheap translations in the first place, and by hiring a responsible and trusted linguist or language agency.

External Failure Cost

This is the most dramatic, the ‘Code Red’ of the four kinds of quality costs, as it means that the customer receives the product in a faulty state.

The costs associated with external failures can be invisible – the customer decides to simply put up with the flaw, but he or she will not purchase from you again, and will not recommend you to others. This reputation loss is not as easily definable as concrete expenses, but it can be very damaging to your overall profits if many of your customers are dissatisfied.

On the other hand, the costs associated with external failures can also be immense.

If you sell chainsaws, for example, then any faulty product that reaches the customer could cost up to seven-figure sums in liabilities and product recall.

Likewise, even if the product itself is flawless, a poor-quality translation of the instruction manual could cause mayhem for your company. Little words like ‘never’ might be easy to overlook; but if the translator misses it out of the sentence ‘Never operate the chainsaw while under the influence of mind-altering substances,’ the rise in your legal expenses will be anything but negligible.

Even besides the possibly disastrous consequences of a poor translation entering the public domain, poorly-translated instructions can lead to customers not getting the most out of their product, believing the product is faulty when in fact they simply misunderstood a step in the instructions, or at the very least, feeling the frustration we’re all so familiar with when faced with horrendously written (or drawn) instructions.

So if internal failures can be damaging to your reputation and your ability to meet deadlines, external failures are to be avoided at all cost.

Costly Conclusions

At the end of the day, what becomes clear is that cheap translations are not always as cheap as they may seem.

Of course, the chainsaw example above is an extreme one, but there is always a danger of misunderstanding of instructions when poor translations are used; the consequences could range from customers believing the product does not work because they aren’t using it properly, to actual personal injury or damage to property. By investing in preventative and appraisal measures, which act as a kind of insurance against internal and external failures, you are protecting your business against all kinds of financial risks later on.

If you do use a free or cheap, unaccredited translation service, or try to use non-qualified people rather than professional translators, you might get away with it; but you could also face much bigger problems later on.

So really, if you’re serious about saving money, make sure you get it done right first time, by an agency that knows what it’s doing.

“Price is what you pay. Value is what you get.” Warren Buffett

Researched & written by professional translator Megan Currie. If you found this blog interesting, then please share it!


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