More quality, less speed: translation buyers beware!

Pick any two, they say, from price, quality and speed. Two, not three. Because you can’t have a top-quality translation for an urgent deadline without paying a premium, for example.

It’s true that translators can produce a sublime piece of work in a big rush now and then, when a valued client needs it, but it’s not a sustainable approach. And it’s dangerous to imply that it might be. In the long run, speed and quality are not reconcilable.

Yet, when browsing fellow translators’ websites – which I do occasionally, in case I want to outsource, or if I’m looking for partners for a professional-development project, like 2015’s “Back Translation Slam” (watch this space for a sequel, by the way) – one or two productivity claims catch my eye. You know: when a translator says that they have translated X million words over Y years. A couple of times, it worked out as around 1 million words a year.

Sounds impressive.

But is it really? Let’s do the math. (Or “do the mathS”, I should say, maintaining a British stiff upper lip in the face of a linguistic pet peeve.)

If you work on average for 5 days a week, 48 weeks a year, then 1 million words a year equates to over 4,100 words a day. New words, not repetitions. Including not only drafting but also researching, revising, reviewing and checking. On every working day, mind, not just More quality less speedwhen the force is with you. With no gaps and no time lost waiting for projects to come in. With no tricky jobs or nasty formatting to slow you down. While still finding time to do your CPD, your bookkeeping, your marketing and your computer maintenance.

Is that pace plausible?

Even if you took only 1 day off a week and 2 weeks’ holiday per year, you’d still have to do 3,300+ words each working day. And, taking it to the ludicrous extreme, if you were at it 365 days a year, you would need to produce more than 2,700 words every single day – while trying not to have a nervous breakdown. Outputs like that seem a bit far-fetched to me, even if you do have a superfast internet connection, voice-recognition software and superhuman powers of concentration.

But then what happens to the quality?

What we want is to craft an effective, incisive translation that wows the reader and fulfils its purpose – be that to explain a difficult technical subject, to persuade a complete stranger to part with their hard-earned cash, or to document a legal agreement in watertight, authentic language. But that takes time. Time to consider the nuances and tease out any cultural references. Time to decide between similar alternatives, weigh up connotations, check coherence, banish typos, expunge ambiguity, use quality-assurance tools, and polish the punctuation and style. Among other considerations.

Can some translators really do all that and still churn out 4,100 sparkling words every working day?

Well, I can’t. Which is why I don’t claim to, especially for texts with little formulaic or repetitive language or texts that involve a degree of creativity. I believe in taking the time needed to get it spot on and make it sound fresh. Working efficiently, of course, with no messing about, but without settling for second best.

The way forward is to hone our skills and create the best translated texts we can. That way leads to professional satisfaction, to a better and better product for our cherished clients and their readers, to higher standards in the profession, to greater recognition, to fees commensurate with the value we provide, and to greater job security (in particular, as an insurance policy against the march of the machines).

So, please. Don’t pick any two from price, quality and speed.

Just pick quality.

6 thoughts on “More quality, less speed: translation buyers beware!

  1. Nelia Fahloun

    Many thanks Oliver for another excellent post! I wholeheartedly agree with you: a good, or even a great, translation takes time, and probably more than we expect, especially in the first years of our career. After a mere 6 years of experience, I still plan my projects with a maximum of 2000 finished words a day, sometimes 2500 if they are a) very well written, b) iin my preferred specializations, anbd c) for clients I know very well. And even 2500 words a day would not be feasible 5 days a week for 52 weeks, at least not for me if I want to carry on delivering the same level of quality.

    1. Oliver Lawrence Post author

      Thanks Nelia (took your time, though 😉 ). I find it’s the creative element in my work, coupled with the need to let things sit a little to find out if they sound right, that takes the time. Productivity tools can help, but the limiting factor isn’t that I can’t type fast enough but that I can’t think fast enough 😉 .

  2. Michel Dutra

    I don’t think this article is fair to those who claim such an output.
    You forgot to take into account important variables here.

    In my experience, lexical density is a very important consideration.
    Compare the Wikipedia in English to the Wikipedia in Simple English. If you were asked to translate articles from both, it is not obvious that it would be faster to translate a simple text?

    My output varies 400% according to the text.
    That’s why you can even EARN MORE working for clients who pay less.
    Then, there is the fact that different people have different abilities.

    1. Oliver Lawrence Post author

      Thanks for commenting, Michel.
      With a simple text, you can indeed rattle off the translation that much faster. Obviously. And you can also save time by just doing a cursory revision/review/proofread. But I’m not talking about how fast you can translate an individual text; I was referring to output over the course of a year or several years. How many translators translate nothing but simple, repetitive easy texts day after day, week after week, year after year? Not many, I’d suggest; therefore, I stand by my original conclusions.
      Anyway, how many translators would want to work like that, like a linguistic sausage machine churning out easy words at high volumes? Where’s the satisfaction in that? Where’s the craft? Where are the long-term career prospects?


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