Posted by: patenttranslator | August 28, 2012

“Le bon marché coûte toujours plus cher” because a penny saved is not always a penny earned

This French proverb is usually translated into English as “you get what you pay for”, but I like the French version better because it has a slightly different meaning. It means literally “inexpensive things always end up costing more”.

Many things that have been kind of mistranslated from a foreign language already became a part of the culture in another language and if you try to correct the mistranslation, you will be called an ignoramus because nobody knows the original in a foreign language.

For example, the standard translation for the famous sentence by Victor Hugo “On résiste à l’invasion des armées, on ne résiste pas à l’invasion des idées.” is “You cannot fight an idea whose time has come”. That is pretty close and quite clever, but where is the invasion and where are the armies? After the invasions of Iraq and Afghanistan, Victor Hugo’s sentence is extremely timely, while the English translation sounds like a bland advertisement for iPhone because the most explosive elements have been removed from it. Even English speakers who don’t speak French can see that something is wrong. I wonder what Victor Hugo would say about this translation.

But since I already wrote about commonly accepted mistranslations for example in this post, my post today will be about something else, namely about the relative cost of a real translation versus the real cost of what one could call a fake translation.

If you buy fake Rolex or fake Viagra online for next to nothing, (let’s say for the sake of the argument that you do need a Rolex watch or Viagra, although I sincerely hope you don’t need either), you are probably broke and impotent, as well as not very smart, to put it mildly.

People buy a Rolex watch because, expensive as it is, it keeps its value and it empresses people who tend to be impressed by things that are shiny and expensive, which is to say most people. But fake Rolex watches don’t have any value, and they will impress only dummies who can’t tell the real thing from a fake. Smarter people will spot a fake right away. And if you want to buy Viagra because your equipment does not work as it used to, you should definitely buy the real thing too because the cheap fakes sold online will not help you much since the blue pills contain mostly sugar. That’s why they are so cheap!

I think that people who buy cheap translations are about as smart as people who will buy a fake Rolex or fake Viagra because as the French proverb implies, most of the time the cheap substitute will not serve its intended purpose. And this is true in particular about translations.

Yesterday I saw a translation job offered on Twitter. It was for translating a description of a German restaurant, about 3 thousand words, to be translated into English. Several translators tweeted that they would like to see the text first, one translator offered to do it sight unseen for a hundred dollars, another one for 50 dollars.

The lowest bidder then snagged the translation for a whopping 50 dollars. I spent only three or four seconds glancing at a few tweets, but that will not stop me from considering the probable genesis as well as the resulting fate of this particular translation.

Since a very good translator will translate about 500 words per hour provided that it is a translation in a familiar field, a good estimate of how long it would take to translate 3 thousand words would be about 6 hours, including proofreading. A simple calculation will tell us that 50 dollars : 6 hours = 8 dollars and 33 cents, which is about a dollar above the minimum hourly wage in this country.

To me this means that the text will not be translated be a translator who in fact translates for a living and is able to pay his or her bills with money received from clients for this work, especially since unlike employees, freelance translators are often without work for long periods of time.

There is only one way to reduce the time required to translate something like this: you run the file through Google Translate and then you edit it. It would probably take between 1 to 2 hours to edit the junk that will be obtained after Google Translate is done with the file. The result of this editing will probably not be very pretty, but it should be good enough for a client who paid 50 dollars for this translation.

I suspect that what I am describing above did in fact happen. After all, even people who I call Zombie Translators in this post and people who I call Subprime Translators in this post would probably charge more for this translation because they need to make some money as they too have bills to pay.

Now let us consider the effect of a translation committed by a Zombie Translator or by a Subprime Translator will have on the business of this particular restaurant.

The person who ordered the translation, a native German speaker who is probably unable to tell English that can sell the restaurant from English that will put an English speaker off, will probably use the English translation on a website, and maybe also for a menu or a brochure.

We have all seen dozens of incredibly poorly translated websites and brochures into English and other languages. These types of translations scream at potential customers one thing and one thing only:

“Stay away from this establishment because the people running it are morons who don’t know what they are doing!”

Let’s say that the person who ordered the translation of 3 thousand words for 50 dollars saved about 400 or 500 dollars on the translation because he or she got it done at such a low cost. After all, a penny saved is a penny earned, right?

But since it is so easy to go to the website of another restaurant, how many English speaking customers will this German restaurant owner lose, presumably over a period of a number of years depending on how long the translation stays on the website, as a result of a cheap translation?




What I just described above gives a new meaning to the English saying “penny wise and pound foolish”. And yet, this is something that happens hundreds of times every day in just about every translation field in the translation business.


  1. Well said 🙂 My grandma used to say, “Wer billig kauft, kauft teuer”–almost the same as the French proverb. If you spend (only) a little, you will end up spending a lot.


  2. Genau.

    There is also a Japanese proverb that says 安物買いの銭失い (yasumono kai ni zeni ushinai) which means that you are wasting your money if you buy cheap.

    Except that as far as I can tell the Japanese tend to go a little overboard. They will buy only things that are really expensive, almost regardless of the quality. At least this used to be the case when I lived there in mid eighties.


    • I prefer the saying “只より高いものは無い”.


      • Well, I would say 只より高いものは無い is a totally different saying.

        You see, if you are in need of something and ask for it, it could be the most expensive deal can make. If you don’t need it at all or if you can satisfy your need by other means, you won’t pay too expensive.

        So, 只より高いものは無い is a saying quite diffferent from that of 安物買いの銭失い.


      • Wenjer:

        He didn’t say it is the same saying, He said he prefers the saying 只より高いものは無い, although I am not sure either what he really meant. This Japanese saying is impenetrable if you only use grammar and logic. You have to know what it means.

        I found this translated into Russian as “бесплатный сыр бывает только в мышеловке”, which is a really clever Russian proverb that means “free cheese can be found only in a mousetrap”.

        The closest English saying would be “there is no such thing as free lunch”, I think, but the Russians went one step further.

        Can you think of a similar German proverb?


      • Ah, ha, “Kostenlosen Käse gibt´s nur in der Mausfalle”.

        That’s a clever Russian saying! And I thought it was German. Thanks for pointing this out!

        No wonder “Billig kommt teuer”, because you buy cheap or get something for free and you find yourself sitting in a mousetrap.

        I guess I must look for a similar German saying in Bertolt Brecht´s writings. I don´t find a similar one in the moment.


  3. Rather like dressmaking or the custom car business: Easier to start from scratch than take on a do-over. Whatever the case, I think you are preaching to the choir.


  4. “Whatever the case, I think you are preaching to the choir.”

    Parce que ça me fait du bien.


  5. Steve, I come back to Taiwan since 2 days and feel like a zombie, but not a zombie translator, just a kind of subprime. 😀

    Yes, you are right. Billig kommt teuerer. We buy pretty expensive in Taiwan, like what you point out as it used to be in Japan, regardless of the quality, just because we want to be something. So, I guess we need a more precise definition of being cheap. Do you have an idea for it?


  6. Hi Wenjer:

    Добро пожаловать на Тайване.

    The definition of cheap is in the mind of the purchaser and in the mind of the service provider.

    As far as I am concerned, any translator who works for less than moi works way too cheaply.

    However, I am not going to disclose my rates here so that my competition could underbid me. I had about 4 potentials (potential job offers) so far this week, and only one of them came through.

    I must be careful about my trade secrets, my rates in particular.


    • I was not asking for disclosure of your trade secrets. I was asking a definition of being cheap. And the one you gave satisfies me fully.

      However, there are always high and low rates for different jobs. So long we don’t have to bid at any proZtitition sites, we stay happy translators which, I believe, all of your close readers are.


      • Interesting points.

        I agree with all of them.


  7. I think “Penny wise and pound foolish” is totally different, more like “Faire des économies des bouts de chandelles.”


  8. Totally different from what?

    From what I am saying at the end of my post?

    You did not read the whole post, did you?

    I must try to keep them shorter. They are probably too long.


  9. Hi, Steve! Just like Wenjer, I am again in Montevideo since only two days, back from seeing my grandchildren in Miami (returned with Isaac – the hurricane, in case you think I let down my hair over there – biting at my heels 🙂 and also feel a bit of a subprime translator right now, but never a cheap one….(I hope). Allow me to contribute to your collection and add the Spanish version of the saying, which comes quite close to the French: “lo barato sale caro”. (freely translated, Cheap stuff ends up costing a great deal).


  10. Thank you for your contribution. The same saying seems to exist in every language, nobody seems to care …

    What is the difference between a Miamian and a Montevideoan in 25 words or less?


  11. Montevideans speak in Spanish and practically don’t need AC, while Miamians use (awful) Cub-Spanglish + adore freezing at the movies. 🙂


  12. Well, then, I would probably prefer Montevideo to Miami.


    • LOL. All our developing-country faults aside, I am sure you would.


  13. All countries can be divided based on the category of development into three categories:

    developed countries, developing countries, and countries that seem to be permanently frozen in the stage of arrested development.

    (I just made it up but it is so true, isn’t it?)


    • It sure is. As it is with people, I am afraid….. Have a nice weekend!


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