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.