Posted by: Steve Vitek | January 20, 2012

Is It Possible To Design a Procedural Method That Will Guarantee “Translation Quality”?

I mentioned several times on this blog that I am frequently asked by translation agencies to proofread and edit patent translations that were done by other translators who are probably less experienced than myself. I always turn down such requests, although I used to do this kind of work for a while when I was a beginner, which would be back when Reagan was president. It’s just not worth the hassle for me because the payment is invariably really low for this kind of work.

I think that just about anybody who can write good English and has some common sense can proofread translations of Japanese and Chinese patents, provided that the documents were translated by a competent  and experienced translator. Of course, if it is for example a complex chemical patent, it helps if this quality checker is a patent lawyer who has a PhD in chemistry, as well as a translation degree in Japanese or Chinese and 20 years of solid experience in the field of patent translation.

But let’s face it, how many people like that are even alive in this moment on this planet? I would say probably less than a dozen for each language. And how many of them, if they do exist, would be willing to proofread a poor to really bad patent translation for 40 dollars an hour, which is what most agencies would pay me for this kind of work? None of them, of course. Why would they want to waste their time by proofreading translations for peanuts when they can make substantial salaries filing new patents or fighting patent litigation battles for corporate clients?

So what usually happens is that a poor translation is proofread by a beginner who is still learning the ropes so to speak, who wants to find out how other people are translating things that they themselves are not quite sure how to translate. This is why I was accepting this kind of work back in the eighties, in spite of the low pay.

At least two “universal quality standard methods” have been created to guarantee the quality of translations, the EN15038 quality standard which is used in Europe, and the ISO 9001 standard which is used in the United States. I don’t really know what is happening with the European method, but I think that the ISO 9001 method is mostly good only for advertising purposes. Although I see it being advertised every now and then on websites of translation agencies, I have never been asked by a patent law firm whether I am adhering to the rules of this method or any other method officially designated to ensure high translation quality standards.

I think that it would not be terribly difficult to create a quality assurance method for example to ensure an acceptable quality of toys imported by Walmart from China. You check them for lead and sharp edges, then you throw them a few times against the wall, and they either pass the test or not.

But I do not believe that it is possible design a foolproof method that would guarantee high quality of translation. It so happens that translation is an intellectual activity and it is very difficult to come up with objective metrics for measuring intellectual activity.

It is not really the method that is used as much as the persons implementing the method, or any method, who can be guarantors of quality, provided that certain conditions are met.

Even the best, most qualified and highly experienced translator-quality checker will not be able to turn a really bad translation into a really good one, regardless of the method that is used.

Besides, I think that it is simply silly to assume that the same procedural method can be applied to every type of translation, including financial translation, technical and medical translation, or translation of novels, etc.

Should a translator who is translating into Mongolian the latest Wall Street scheme designed to extract wealth from Mongolian nomads by selling them “interest only” 30-year mortgages with a “balloon payment” every three years to purchase top of the line Mongolian yurts use the same method as another translator who is translating the latest version of a software manual from Japanese to English?

And should the same standard procedural method be used also by a team of translators who are working on a new Bible translation, or by somebody who is working on a new translation of the complete works of Dostoyevsky?

I think that what the Mongolian translator would need in this case, in addition to a solid grasp of the concepts and the lingo of the Moneychangers, would be a good understanding of the economics and of the psychology of said nomads.

The people on the team of biblical scholars would need to be perfectly fluent in languages that were spoken in a certain part of the world a few thousand years ago, and they would also need to have a thorough knowledge of the history and culture of that region in ancient times.  A pretty tall order, I think.

On the other hand, the Japanese translator translating Version 3.04 of the latest software update would mostly need to know some Japanese and also to be proficient with Trados if the previous versions were translated using Trados. Application of the EN15038 quality standard or of the ISO 9001 quality standard is probably a good idea in this case if the Japanese or English of this translator is not all that great, or if he does not have much experience yet.

And the translator of Dostoyevsky would basically need to be a really good translator of Russian novels to English. I think that you in fact need to be born that way. It’s called talent. Neither the EN15038 quality standard nor the ISO 9001 quality standard would be applicable in this case.

Each and every one of these translators could use a completely different method because translation quality is not determined by the method, but by what the translators know and how well they know how to use what they know in a given field.

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  1. [...] Man eine Übersetzung Kauft: Kann Man Kosten Sparen und Auch Qualität Bekommen ? Is It Possible To Design a Procedural Method That Will Guarantee “Translation Quality”? Recovering the Dropped Ball (or, The Concept of the Professional Community) Transcollaboration: [...]

  2. I deal with technical communication and meet the ISO 9001 requirements quite often. (ISO 9001 is actually widely used in Europe too.) I have therefore had to do my share of thinking on whether such standards make any sense in the translation business. Sadly, the answer is often either a “no” or “yes, but…” As I see it, the ISO 9001 as such is not really a promise of quality, but a promise of documented processes. And processes as such do not guarantee quality. I have seen international translation agencies with highly sophisticated and documented quality assurance processes produce very low translation quality. And why does that happen? I would say because the time-pressure on their translators is unreasonable and the financial compensation is inadequate. In short: nobody gives a damn. Sometimes it turns out to be a charade where unreasonable requirements are met with empty words and agreements.

    I very much agree with what you wrote. My experience is that a “procedural method” for translation quality management will always fail, sooner or later. And it would probably have to be different from customer to customer. How many organizations have the capacity to tailor a quality system for each and every customer they have, really (not to mention implementing them)? I’d rather invest in good long.term relationships. Pay your bills in time, take up and resolve any problems immediately, be polite and respectful, be fair and pay for the work that that is done for you (adequately). So, do what your mother told you to do. :-)

  3. “I’d rather invest in good long.term relationships. Pay your bills in time, take up and resolve any problems immediately, be polite and respectful, be fair and pay for the work that that is done for you (adequately). So, do what your mother told you to do.”

    As a translator and as a translation agency, I concur that this is a method that really works.

  4. One more thing about certifications… The funny thing is that many corporations more and more often enforce for example the ISO 9001 on their entire subcontractor networks and chains. But they never bother to (or are just not able to) consider what that means in terms of translations. It is not really possible to apply the same rules to a medium-sized business manufacturing metals sheets or voltage transformers to a small translation agency.

    In some ways, implementing the EN15038 standard will mean that a small(ish) translation agency will have to adjust (i.e. lower) their service level to meet all the requirements in order to be certified. In theory, EN15038 may even force you to stop using some of your best translators. (And I’ve seen that happen in practice as well.)

  5. Which reminds me of another famous quality control method known from the Vietnam war as “we have to destroy the village in order to save it”.

  6. [...] Many translation agencies use complex flowcharts to explain to potential customers their intricate and unique Translation Quality Control Process. The marketing people who create these flowcharts probably know a lot about marketing, but I think that most translators will agree with me that these marketing types don’t really understand at all how translation really works. [...]

  7. Electrical voltage is something we take for granted – at least until we travel abroad. Voltage converters and voltage transformers allow you to operate your electric devices safely in foreign countries where the electrical outlet standards are different than your own home country. They have the same purpose – converting electricity from one voltage to another – but their function is slightly different. Some of your electrical devices don’t care which one you choose. Others, such as your cell phone, laptop or iPad, will be very unhappy if you try to plug them into the wrong one. ..

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