Posted by: patenttranslator | June 19, 2013

A Few Pretty Obvious Points About Claims of Multiple Stages of Translation Quality Control

Translation agencies often state on their websites that they pride themselves on delivering superior quality with every one of their translations because every translation undergoes a strict quality control check consisting of at least 5 quality control stages. A few seem to be happy merely with 3 stages, although some may claim as many as 7 stages of quality control. To my knowledge, 7 claimed stages of strict quality control is the limit at this point in time.

The more languages they translate, usually in every subject and every direction, the more strict the “quality assurance checks” become in their own advertising of their own incredible dexterity and expertness. To believe the marketing spiel on their websites, a translation agency translating any subject from and into 150 languages (not an uncommon claim) is a like a huge, quasi omniscient computer brain linking together eminent linguists and other professionals in every field known to man, thus ensuring perfection.

And all of these eminently qualified professionals, armed with advanced scientific degrees, at least an MA if not a PhD, eagerly work for these translation agencies. Let’s say that a translation agency uses 5 level of strict translation quality control as stated on its website.

This would mean that 5 professionals would need to participate in the preparation of every single translation. Translators know that checking is good. We may not be able to check our own work very effectively because people are often unable to see their own mistakes. That is why I always proofread my own translations next day, or better still after a couple of days. I am not sure how exactly the mechanism works, but I do know that the passage of time removes the block that prevents me from seeing the typos and inconsistencies in my translations. And when I proofread translations done by other people, I almost always find a couple of typos if the translation is at least a few thousand words long.

If 5 different, highly qualified professionals would need to be involved in a rigorous quality guaranteeing process, then 5 highly qualified professionals would need to be paid accordingly for their work.

But since the typical profit margin of a translation agency is 50%, once the remaining profit is divided between all the members of the quality guaranteeing members, each of whom is a seasoned professional and thus not exactly cheap, how much would be left for the translator who in fact first translated the document?

Between 10 to 20 percent would be my guess. So for example for a translation that cost 1000 dollars, if the translator receives 200 dollars and the agency would get to keep  the usual 50% which is 500 dollars, this would mean that the 3 remaining members of the team (a second translator, equally qualified as the first one, a PhD subject specialist who is also fluent in both languages, plus an additional multilingual genius to be on the safe side) would split between themselves the remaining  300 dollars.

The calculation does not work. Either the agency would have to forego a healthy profit margin (which means that in the long run it would not be able to stay in business), or the subject-qualified multilingual genii would need to be paid peanuts or work for free.

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Most translators would also know that the calculation has no chance of working also on the logical level.

The assumption behind the theory of multiple stages of rigorous translation quality control is that the translation is being improved with every additional stage.

But this assumption completely ignores the fact that the most important ingredient of every good piece of writing, including translation, is creativity.  A second level of quality control will help even the best author, including a translator, to eliminate typos, omissions and inconsistencies. But five levels of rigorous quality control would most definitely murder and mutilate beyond recognition even the best translation as different proofreaders and checkers would be introducing their own ideas and personal preferences into the mix.

The same principle of creativity holds true for instance also about cooking, which is why the proverb “Too many cooks will spoil the broth” exists in so many languages. Do you know a famous restaurant that happens to be run by 3 to 5 famous chefs? You don’t, of course. There can be only one chef in a good restaurant, the rest of the people working in the kitchen are called cooks and they mostly do things like chopping onions, while the chef gets most of the money and all of the glory.

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When I was a child, I had a book of short stories by the Czech writer Karel Čapek called “The Misadventures of Doggie and Pussycat”, two four-legged friends who were always getting into some kind of trouble in spite of their best intentions. One of the stories is called “How Doggie and Pussycat Baked a Birthday Cake” (Jak si pejsek s kočičkou dělali k svátku dort).

Although Doggie and Pussycat were the best of friends, they had different ideas about the best ingredients for their cake. And because they were such good friends and they wanted to bake a really, really good cake, they decided to use all of them. Pussycat put in milk, chocolate, sugar, nuts, cucumbers …. (and four mice). Doggie put in sausages, bones, hot sauce, lard and sweets, cinnamon, cottage cheese, semolina porridge, gingerbread, cabbage and raisins.

Fortunately for Doggie and Pussycat, when they left the cake to cool off a bit, a vicious (and stupid) neighborhood dog greedily devoured the entire cake while it was still hot.

The mean dog was sick fourteen long days because the Doggie’s and Pussycat’s cake was really horrible.

And so would be even the best translation should it really be subjected to 5 to 7 rigorous quality control checks by 5 to 7 different proofreaders.

Fortunately for clients, these multiple stages of rigorous quality control exist only in the minds of creative marketing specialists who can write the content for the website of any business, including the websites of translation agencies, even though they may know nothing about the business per se.

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Responses

  1. […] Translation agencies often state on their websites that they pride themselves on delivering superior quality with every one of their translations because every translation undergoes a strict qualit…  […]

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  2. Thank you for taking the time to point out that 5-step QA (let alone 7-step!) on a translation is utterly ridiculous, both as a concept in general and as a business plan for agencies. I love the thought of all these between five and seven people with MAs and PhDs painstakingly poring over the same poor defenceless translation. The first one making changes, the second one disagreeing with said changes and changing them back, the third one…well, you get the picture! :) Sometimes we (not you, obviously!) blindly accept these ideas as ‘progress’, so it is great to have someone like you around to debunk them Steve!

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  3. Thank you for your comment.

    But these obviously ridiculous claims must work on some clients since they are repeated almost verbatim on so many websites of so many translation agencies.

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    • Yes, I imagine that is because these claims sound superficially impressive, and there are so many agencies out there they are trying to attract business by getting into this QA arms race.

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      • And like every arms race, the Quality Assurance arms race is also based mostly on lies.

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  4. […] Translation agencies often state on their websites that they pride themselves on delivering superior quality with every one of their translations because every translation undergoes a strict quality control check consisting of at least 5 quality control stages. A few seem to be happy merely with 3 stages, although some may claim as many as 7 stages of quality control. To my knowledge, 7 claimed stages of strict quality control is the limit at this point in time.  […]

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  5. Thanks Steve, your posts are so spot-on!! :-) I have always wondered why a translator’s job should undergo umpteen “quality checks” by an army of supervisors as if we were unlikely to produce a decent job on our own, while the same is not expected from other professionals…
    I especially love your point on creativity, 100% agree – it’s key to our profession, but too often overlooked.

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  6. Thanks, Alisa.

    I think that translator’s creativity and individuality should be recognized and acknowledged at least as much as for instance the great genius of an innovative, trail-blazing chef who is celebrated on TV screens because for the first time he used avocado in a meal that never contained avocado before.

    I am not a chef, but it is possible that I might have thought of avocado too.

    OTOH, how many creative chef can translate Japanese patents?

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  7. Steve, your description of how agencies purport to offer all these levels of quality checks reminds me of those pyramid schemes and it is equally as ludicrous I dare say…. !
    But I agree completely as I know from experience that when I proof-read other translators’ work I have to keep myself from implementing changes which I know are based purely on style…
    For my own translations I do exactly as you mention and leave them for one or (better) two days before I proof them and I always manage to spot what I could not see while I was focussing on the translation.
    And when I cook I don’t want anyone else in the kitchen. ;)

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  8. “And when I cook I don’t want anyone else in the kitchen.”

    Not even just to look?

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  9. In my experience people never ‘just look’ when you’re cooking….;)
    (and don’t get me started on scavenging dogs…!)

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  10. “(and don’t get me started on scavenging dogs…!)”

    I have no idea what whether you are talking about a certain kind of translation agency, or a man wanting something from you when you are in your kitchen …. or could it be a translation of an Italian idiom?

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    • no actually I was referring to my dog, a Jack Russell who seems to be always hungry.
      I would not refer to translation agencies in those terms and as far as I can recall I have never called a man ‘dog’…! ;)

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      • OK.

        I am relieved that the explanation is so innocent.

        The thing with dogs is, you have to train them while they are still puppies not to beg for food.

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  11. Of course, the other obvious weakness in the model under which agencies subject translations to “quality checks” is that in many cases, they are paying the quality checker even fewer peanuts than the translator, so it’s relatively likely that said quality checker, being an incompetent (you pay peanuts, you get monkeys), will actually introduce errors into the translation that were not previously there. Thus, in trying to market an approach that purportedly guarantees a higher level of quality, agencies can actually reduce the quality of what’s delivered while increasing what they charge to their clients. How’s that for backwards logic?

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  12. Yes, I believe that the situation with “quality checkers” you describe is quite common.

    On top of that, if for example the agency or client is not happy about something in a translation and another translator is asked “to fix it”, the second translator often has a clear agenda, namely to discredit the first translator in order to get his gig for himself.

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  13. This will be a marginal reply in terms of your serious – and scathing – analysis.
    More important for me, I’m (almost) embarrassed to have to confess was your reference to “Jak si pejsek s kočičkou dělali k svátku dort”.. It must have been a book from my childhood too but in any case it was definitely a feature of my daughter Tara’s childhood when I returned with her to live in the Czech Republic in 1996 (after we had made short visits together to Czechoslovakia in 1973 and in 1992).
    Why its still relevant to me right at this moment is that she very recently gave birth to her first child, a daughter, and, even before she was born, she had asked me to send her that specific book, which of course I did. Yesterday, on my daughter’s birthday, I skyped with her for the first time since her daughter was born on May 21st, 2013 at 10:35 PM at the Birthing Center at St. Luke’s Roosevelt Hospital in Manhattan, weighing 7 pounds 10 ounces and 20 inches long and got to have a good look at my energetic little granddaughter Adela but, alas, I did forget to ask Tara whether she had started reading the book to her yet :( !!

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  14. I am a great admirer of Karel Čapek’s work, I read every book he wrote and saw all of his plays, some on TV and some in a theater.

    His language is mostly untranslatable, including or maybe in particular his short stories for children.

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    • I sent Tara the Czech text of Josef Čapek’s book. She went to school here and then later also studied Czech at Oxford where she became a “Scholar”. Unfortunately she had to give up her studies to take care of her dying mother in NYC :(. Her Czech is still better than mine. When I was uprooted as a young child in 1948 and shipped off to England I forgot all my Czech almost immediately and despite living here again now for 17 years and being involved in many activities including practicing and teaching Shiatsu and creating an Alchemy Museum and running it for a number of years my Czech has never returned in full strength.

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  15. Unfortunately, children forget a language that they no longer use as easily as they learned it. I had a childhood friend who learned German every summer because he was staying with his grandparents and his grandmother spoke only German, and then forgot it during the rest of the year. By the time he was 15, he forgot all of his German.

    When I lived in San Francisco in early nineties, my son, who was very young at that time, understood and could speak Chinese because his babysitter was Chinese and he spent a lot of time surrounded by Chinese kids and adults.

    But he too forgot all of his Chinese once he did not need it anymore.

    I wrote about it in this article:

    http://patenttranslators.com/native.htm

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    • “Children forget a language that they no longer use as easily as they learned it.”
      I can vouch for that myself :(. When I was dragged off from Czechoslovakia to England in 1948 after the Communist coup by my English mother who had been working for the British Council in Prague and was thereby “compromised” I forgot ALL my Czech almost immediately and my adult family who also comprised my mother’s sister who had also been living in Prague and her Czech husband who had to escape to get out were able to speak to each other in Czech when they didn’t want me to understand. Even though as an extremely precocious nipper I had been totally capable of translating something that my aunt had told me from English to Czech – for example to pass on some information to her housekeeper Stazi whom I adored and vice-versa. Thinking of Stazi brings more than one tear to my eye now, as I write her name well over half a century later..

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  16. Steve, you nailed it, as always. I won’t even get started because the whole issue gets me going and I don’t want to get whopping mad on a weekend :)! Thanks for the Myrtle and Stewart video, I am a hopeless animal lover.
    And here’s the Spanish version of your phrase: “muchas manos en un plato, mucho garabato”. (freely translated, “many hands in a plate, a jumble create” or something like this, trying to maintain the rhyme)
    Cheers, and have a nice weekend!

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  17. Thanks, Nelida.

    Anybody knows the same proverb in other languages?

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  18. troppi cuochi rovinano la cucina
    Italian version :)

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  19. I think that the wiki links above are mostly translations, not legitimate proverbs in respective languages. The Japanese one is not a proverb, I think.

    A related sayings I like the best is “Too many chiefs and not enough Indians”.

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  20. Spot on, as always. It seems like all those ISO certification issues just added yet another layer of obvious lies and bureaucracy at the cost of common sense and honest and hard work. Anyway, I’ve always felt sorry for the greedy doggie. He might have been starving. I can see a beautiful and prolonged lawsuit involving criminal negligence, a counter-claim of theft, big fat damages…

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  21. “Anyway, I’ve always felt sorry for the greedy doggie.”

    I have to disagree with you here. He was a mean, greedy dog who got what he deserved.

    However, filing a lawsuit for the causes listed in your comment is always a good idea, especially if it involves a lot of key evidence that needs to be translated.

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  22. I enjoy reading your articles. I too am annoyed at the multilanguage companies that claim to provide “perfect” translation in a hundred languages.
    It is obvious that it is not economical to have 5 or 7 “quality checks” and if they somehow are manage to, then they are just spot checking the document at best.

    Like

  23. […] implemented strict and highly effective quality controls” (including mendacious claims of several layers of Acheckers@, usually from 3 to 7), Awe are ISO-certified” (which makes absolutely no sense to anybody who actually knows […]

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