Posted by: patenttranslator | November 22, 2010

Translation Quality – Common Myths and Misconceptions

Translation quality is a topic that is often emphasized on the websites of translation providers. A typical website of agency ABC or XYZ will usually include statements such as “we use only certified, subject-qualified, native translators with many years of experience”. It will also say that the translation agency has a translation quality control system, usually including 4 or 5 or even more steps of quality control involving 5 or 6 professionals who proofread the translation at different quality control stages.

Is it really true? Well, let’s think about it. Let’s say that the agency is paying a certified translator (if there is such thing, and usually, there is not because who would be doing the certifying … the City Hall?) upward of a hundred dollars an hour to translate a highly complex technical document from Japanese to English. The website information says that during the “quality control process, five other equally qualified professionals look for and find and fix problems in the translation of complex technical documents”. Let us say that the original translator is really a professional translator who has translated hundreds or thousands of equally complicated technical texts over a period of several decades. People like that do exist, although they are usually expensive. But who are the other five professionals looking over the translation? Can the agency afford to pay for the work of five additional, equally qualified professionals? How much would the translation have to cost if this translation quality process was really in place?

Common sense says that claims about an elaborate translation quality control system are nonsense. Just imagine 4 or 5 highly educated professionals, perfectly fluent in respective languages, well versed in the relevant sphere of technology and with twenty or more years of experience in patent translation trying to come to an agreement over combobulated, discombobulated and/or undiscombobulated wording of a poorly written and ambiguous Japanese sentence, which can be easily found in a typical paragraph of a typical Japanese patent. They would probably kill each other. The fact is, there is no need for an elaborate quality control system involving 3 or 4 or 5 or more stages of quality control if the translator who translated the document is really an experienced professional translator. The only mistakes highly experienced and qualified professionals are likely to make are minor mistakes such as typos, for instance by writing the numeral “3″ instead of “8″ when the original text is poorly legible. And that is also the only mistake that an agency’s proofreader is likely to catch, because the proofreader is never, or almost never, as qualified as the original translator, and because website propaganda notwithstanding, there is usually only one proofreader who almost never understands the source language if the language is, for example, Japanese. I can say this with confidence because I have been translating Japanese patents for more than 23 years and I have never had a meaningful discussion with a translation agency proofreader about the appropriateness of technical terms used in my translations. The reason is simple: they either don’t read Japanese, or if they read Japanese, their English is not sufficient to question my wisdom in choosing a certain technical term. When I work directly for a law firm, which is most of the time, patent lawyers sometime ask me about the reasons for a certain term or certain wording, and a few times a year I have to defend my decisions to them. But never to those fabulous, highly educated and competent “quality control” experts of translation agencies …. because they simply don’t exist.

In fact, many layers of proofreading are unlikely to “fix” a good translation and very likely to cause irreparable damage to a good translation as I wrote in another post. The choices that a translator has to make, and there are dozens of choices that must be made every minute, are very personal and by definition subjective. These choices reflect the level of the education and of the experience of the translator, as well as his or her personality. You could say that the DNA of the translator is clearly visible in his or her work. Just about every single choice that has been made by the translator can be questioned by another translator who may have, for instance, the same type of education and experience, but who has a completely different personality resulting in very different personal preferences. When I act as an agency, I often have an initially negative reaction to a translation that was done by another translator. But I almost never change anything in a translation that was done by a competent translator … just because I would have expressed something differently. The way I see it, my job is basically only to fix typos and minor omissions. And no matter how good a translator may be, there are usually a few typos and minor omissions that need to be fixed by a proofreader. If I have to change more than fix a couple of typos, it means that I will probably have to find another translator next time.

There are many myths and misconception about “translation quality” but the fact is, the quality is in the eye of the beholder. It is very difficult to define “translation quality”, and it is impossible to standardize a process that ensures this quality. What is needed, when judging a translation, is an intelligent approach. An intelligent person should be able to tell that a website describing a Quality Management System in six stages, complete with photos of smiling blondes, (on the websites of translation agencies these blondes often wear stylish glasses and they are usually accompanied by other young professionals who belong to different ethnic groups and look really cool and very competent), is basically just advertising propaganda that does not really say anything about the services that are being sold by a given business entity. But since so many websites of translation providers are designed precisely in this manner, with the same types of of stock photos of good looking young people who have never translated anything and never will and generic advertising blurbs custom-made for the translation industry, it must be an effective way to woo potential customers.


  1. Too many cook spoil the broth in ANY profession. I don’t know about Japanese, I translate into Italian, but I can tell you that the nightmare projects are those where the client/agency has to employ a “team” of translators and editors (because 350,000 words must be translated YESTERDAY – but WHY is everything so URGENT in our field?) OMG I said it. I am NOT a team player. Because these patchwork horrors need someone who IRONS them, and this someone is the one who should be ultimately better than all of the team AND has the most horrible part of the job. Sorry to contradict you, but highly qualified translators often accept a role of editor or proofreader because they don’t have enough time to translate or because they don’t have anything else at the moment, and this does NOT make them less qualified than a translator – I know many people who use this term very liberally, and they damage our profession for their lack of training, knowledge of the SM and acceptance of pitiful rates. More often than not, the less the competence, the greater the ego. I had a translator once who was almost suicidal for the fact that I “corrected” the Bible (pardon, her work; wasn’t that my job?) and claimed that her work could not be touched because her HUSBAND was an academic (HUH???).
    At this point, viva la Machine Translation or the CAT, but the ones who lay the basis or create the TM must be THE BEST. Starting well is paramount – the rest can always be deleted.


  2. “Sorry to contradict you, but highly qualified translators often accept a role of editor or proofreader because they don’t have enough time to translate or because they don’t have anything else at the moment, and this does NOT make them less qualified than a translator”

    Yes, large projects are sometime proofread by people who actually know what they are doing, if these are rush projects that must be split between many translators. But as I said, the result is often a total disaster anyway because too many cooks will always spoil the broth.

    I try to stay away from projects like that as much as possible.

    Best regards,

    Steve Vitek


  3. […] of these LSPs who make elaborate marketing promises for multiple levels of review and other crap they probably never bother with in reality probably […]


  4. I think the most beautiful in google, but have to abide by the rules of spelling


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