Why Lousy Translators Still Get Work

posted 20 May 2011, 08:34 by Luciano Monteiro   [ updated 20 May 2011, 09:11 ]
A prominent speaker remarked at the 3rd memoQfest in Budapest last month that translators do not make good business people, and that translation companies should be managed and administered by individuals from other sectors. Whilst I believe he may be right if you focus solely on profits, he couldn’t be more wrong when it comes to quality.

As I was saying to some nice agency owners I met for lunch during that conference, trust is fundamental in our industry. I am a professional, and I don’t want to be just an easily replaceable nut or bolt in the middle of a huge, inefficient machine. I trust that the companies offering me work will eventually pay me. And I want to be contacted by clients who trust I am the best person to provide a solution to their translation needs.

However, trust must not be blind. Clear-sighted trust cannot exist unless you have the means to assess who's trustable and who's not. And that's not possible unless you're an industry insider, unless you've been there and done that as a translator.

There are people out there who wonder why lousy translators still get work. It's simple: they are given work by somebody unable to evaluate their quality. By the way, I’m not saying that the people behind translation agencies have to speak all languages in the world in order to evaluate writing quality. However, some small steps can go a long way, such as interviewing translators, looking for references, checking credentials, doing the whole thing. Nothing could be worse than trusting statistical methods, hiring several cheap translators and then hoping that cross-review between them will produce anything good.

If you’re a translation company owner and tell me that approaching each translator personally is not possible in megaprojects with millions of words, I’ll reply that yes, it is possible. But perhaps you’ll need more and better people at management positions. And of course, you’ll need to pay better rates. Unless you hire well and pay well, you're not going to get quality work.

The crux of the matter
It seems to me that some outsiders running translation companies really think that the work translators perform is just a tiny part of the whole process known as, well… translation!

The presentation about integration of TM systems in content management systems in Budapest was hilarious. In a plug disguised as conference session, the makers of a CMS unveiled their state-of-the-art invention in which everything is automated — you just need to add the original on one side, then have it translated, and the translation will come out on the other end.

Amazing, isn’t it? You ‘just’ need to have the document translated. It’s clear those people have no clue of what translation is — an intricate and complicated process that involves different skills and efforts made by a highly educated, competent and ethical linguist. TM and CM systems are there just to streamline translation work, but they cannot be seen as more important than translation itself.

And I bet they'll sell those marvelous products, as many translation company owners have no clue either and will buy into that fantasy. After all, if they can sell toothbrushes, they can sell translations too, right? That’s what some agents provocateurs want the market to think.

I don't regret having attended memoQfest, as all those sessions made me see why interactions between agencies and translators have become love-hate relationships. It seems to me that most of those business people, who have never translated a single word, are not able to see that they are part of a unique industry. Regardless of how much money they spend on CAT tools, TM environments, MT engines, CM systems and the like, they will ultimately rely on the creative mind of human translators.