There are many variations of the joke “How many cops does it take to screw in a light bulb?” According to a European version which I remember from the seventies, the answer is “Three, one cop standing on a chair and holding a light bulb, and two cops turning the chair around.”
According to a contemporary American version, the answer is “None. They just beat the room for being black and then arrest it for being broke.”
According to claims from advertising propaganda often found on the website of many a translation agency, it takes quite a few translators to translate anything at all.
A typical claim of this kind is formulated as follows:
“We don’t use just one translator for our translations, we use several layers of quality control in which 2, 3, 4 (so far I have not seen the number 5 yet, but maybe you have) highly qualified translators are checking, double-checking, triple checking, and editing and improving the translation before it is approved by our final quality checker.”
This statement flies in the face of common sense. If it were true, it would mean that either the translation agency is paying 2, 3, or 4 highly qualified translators for something that can be done best by 1 (one) person, or that 2, 3, or more people work for free or for next to nothing.
Even though many translation agencies pay very little to translators who do the actual work, they generally have to pay them something. And even if you only pay a few pennies per word to the translator, the pennies would tend to add up quickly if you had to pay twice, or three or four times.
There is an English proverb that says “Too many cooks spoil the broth”, and examples of identical or similar proverbs exist also in other languages: Zu viele Köche verderben den Brei (exactly the same proverb in German), On n’arrive à rien quand tout le monde s’en mêle (“You get nowhere when everybody gets involved” in French), the Russian version says “У семи нянек дитя без глазу” (u semi nyanek ditya bez glazu = a child looked after by seven nannies is completely unsupervised, thank you Alia), and I like especially the Japanese version: 船頭多くして船山に登る [sento oku shite fune yama ni noboru = too many captains will steer the ship up a mountain].
A simple equation that could be used to illustrate the inverse relationship between the number of specialized professionals such as translators working on the same translation and the resulting quality of this translation can be expressed by Equation 1 below:
1 Translator = a translator, 2 translators = half a translator, 3 translators = total disaster (Equation 1)
[i.e. 2 translators would likely to do some damage to what was originally a good translation, 3 or more would simply destroy it every single time].
True, sometime it does make sense to use more than 1 person to perform a certain specific task.
For instance, it would not be a good idea to use only one pallbearer to carry a coffin. Dead people resting in a coffin on their last journey to the cemetery tend to be heavy because most of our body is made up of water and bones. That is why unlike when it comes to translating complicated documents such as patents, several people who are in good physical shape need to be involved in this particular task, usually 6 or more strong men depending on the weight of the body and of the coffin.
A simple equation that could be used to illustrate the relationship between the number of the pallbearers and the ease with which their task is accomplished can be expressed by Equation 2 below:
1 pallbearer + 1 pallbearer + 1 pallbearer + 1 pallbearer + 1 pallbearer + 1 pallbearer = relatively easy task (Equation 2)
[wherein all 6 pallbearers carry only 1 coffin with 1 dead body in it].
But most other specialized tasks are best carried out by a single person who is well qualified to perform a task and fully in control of the entire process, from the beginning to the end.
This is true not only about translation. Most people would agree that you need a single, really good professional to perform a single professional task really well. To illustrate this truism, let’s consider what would happen if the insane “the more specialized professionals working on the same job, the better” concept is applied to a couple of other professions.
For example, there is always only one 1 burger flipper who is in charge of expertly flipping the same greasy burger over a hot stove. Despite the low pay, comparable to what many translation agencies are paying these days to some translators, it is not an easy job and there is a learning curve to mastering this particular skill. But it is obvious that if 2 burger flippers were flipping the same burger, that would make even such a relatively straightforward task impossible to achieve. There would be burgers falling on the floor and hot oil burning the arms, legs and crotch of the poor burger flippers!
There is also always only one dentist who is drilling a root canal because 2, 3, or more dentists working on the same root canal of the same person would probably torture the poor patient to death and most likely do great bodily harm to themselves as well as every dentist has a slightly different approach to root canals.
To use another comparison, one could also say that using 2, 3, or 4 dentists to perform the same root canal on the same person at the same time would lead to the same result as if an escapee from a mental asylum pretending to be a dentist was using a chain saw on a root canal. The patient would die a horrible death also in this scenario, but at least he would die quickly at the hands of an insane person wielding a chain saw.
It is not a good idea to use several people for any of these tasks, right? So why do translation agency marketing managers use this kind of lunacy for advertising on the websites of their translation agencies? I believe that there are at least three possible reasons for this silly claim which is widespread in the so-called translation industry.
1. Many translation managers in the so-called translation industry themselves don’t really know anything about translating.
While it is probably also true that for example marketing managers of Burger King franchises don’t know that much about the proper way to flip burgers, they seem to be much more sophisticated than advertising managers in the so-called translation industry because I have never seen this kind of really stupid advertising (as in “we use 2, 3, 4, burgers flippers until the burger that is flipped just the right way for you”) at McDonald’s, Burger King, Wendy’s, or even at Jack In The Box or Popeys.
Only advertising managers in the so-called translation industry seem to think that if 2, 3, 4 or more translators were translating the same thing, the translations would be getting progressively better. They would be getting progressively worse, of course, but how are they supposed to know that when they have never translated anything themselves and never will since they don’t know any foreign language?
2. Many translation agency managers probably think that their customers are really dumb.
Some customers clearly are not all that smart if this kind of advertising seems to work on them. But is it a majority of them? I don’t know, but I doubt it.
I think that most people see through this nonsensical claim right away. And now they have my blog post to confirm their intuitive suspicions.
3. The claim is true because this is how some translation agencies in fact operate.
Every translation agency, (including myself, and I am not even a translation agency), is swamped daily with résumés from people claiming to be translators able to translate just about anything for next to nothing. So if you can find somebody who can translate for example a Japanese patent to English for let’s say 3 or 4 cents a word (and you can, if this person lives in Thailand or China), or from French to English (and that can be done too if this person lives in Africa), and then have 1 or 2 more persons of the same provenance who also claim to be translators “edit” the cheap translation for 2 cents a word, you got yourself a great deal because a real translator living in a Western country would have to charge several times just to be able to live and pay taxes than what was just paid to 2 or 3 “translators”.
The resulting translation will thus be massacred by 3 madmen who are using a chain saw on a root canal because none of them really knows much Japanese, or French, or English, or has any experience in the field of patent translation.
But as long as the client does not complain, who cares?