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 when 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.