Cheaper, But at What Cost?

Last month I was commissioned by a translation agency to proofread an English-to-French translation for an art centre. I was simply told that the end client wanted to make sure that the text was impeccable. The proofreading task turned into an editing one.

While all translation agencies claim to focus primarily on quality, the reality from a supplier’s experience is often, well… quite different. Let’s be honest: agencies being middlemen, their main concern is to take as big a share from the cake as possible. Cost is their number-one priority, not quality. When a translator works on a proofreading assignment, the frequent low quality of the work says it all: cheap amateurs translators are favoured over the better professionals who may then be hired to proofread the text and save the project from disaster.

This case was therefore typical: it was evident from the first paragraph that the translator had knowledge of neither art terminology nor art speak. Was the text highly specialised in terms of jargon? Or difficult in terms of written style? For an art specialist, it would have been quite basic; for a non-specialist, some research would have been necessary and a few sentences may have been somewhat challenging. But no research had been done and literal translation is one way of avoiding stylistic work, it seems. As for the typos, inconsistencies and false friends, they tell us something about the person’s diligence. Then an art specialist (me) had to be called on to tidy the mess.

Since the editing took twice the time the proofreading of a good quality translation would have taken, and given that I charge by the hour, it is unclear how the agency increased its margin in the end. And what if the better translators refuse to deal with a dog’s dinner, as is sometimes the case? Does the agency hire another cheap-and-not-bothered generalist translator to fix the damage? Good agencies know that working with good translators and paying a good rate for the service is vital for their business to thrive. Sadly, good agencies are rare.

Focussing on value rather than price would help to get it right first time and would save time, money and effort. It can also save a business’ reputation amongst suppliers, and ultimately amongst clients too.



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