In her excellent article about translation rate trends, translator Rose Newell talks about what she calls the “quality levels farce,” meaning that quality levels offered by translation agencies are ridiculous. Rose argues that professional translators will never succumb to delivering translations of varying degrees of quality, so the very idea of quality levels is wrong. From a translator’s perspective, Rose makes perfect sense: many professionals will not want to deliver lower quality knowingly. From a translation agency perspective, though, I believe this is open to debate.
Different market segments
Car makers produce cars in different price segments. If there is a market for cheap, unsafe cars with few or no optional features, such as A/C, why would car companies miss the opportunity to benefit from it? Some customers are unable to afford a more expensive car. By the same token, translation agencies can cater to the needs of different customers by providing translations with different quality levels. If a client needs a translation as a formality and is certain no one will ever read it, it does not make sense to waste time and money on a high-quality translation for which the client will be billed at the highest rate. It is the client who decides what price/value combination makes sense, not the vendor. A good example is the local market in Russia, with an average translation agency rate of $0.06 per word for English to Russian translation. Because we charge more, we tend to work with local clients less than with overseas ones. There are people and companies who would like to work with us, but cannot afford our rate. They are even ready to accept a lower quality level that comes with a lower price, because they are certain that even at that level, our quality is still better than that offered by some competitors. If we have the capacity to serve them, I do not see why we should miss the opportunity. It is also unfair to ignore them. In the final analysis, the differences in perspective about quality stem from the fact that professional translators have no capacity to service low-end segments, whereas agencies do have such capacity.
What it means to lower quality
Continuing the car analogy, some translators will never agree to provide lower quality, for reasons of maintaining their reputations, just as BMW will never produce cheap cars. It is a matter of pride. But what about other car makers? Renault sells less expensive cars. They can use lower-quality steel or have cars assembled in countries with low labor costs. In the same vein, translation agencies can reduce quality and thus prices by working with less experienced translators who charge lower rates. Another way to reduce quality is by dropping editing. Rose argues that editing by another linguist does not make sense, and this is something I cannot agree with. Even best-selling writers have editors and proofreaders, because editing boosts quality. Obviously, translation by a top translator does not require much editing, but even top translators make errors occasionally, and editors are there to catch those errors. So there you go: translation with editing and without one are too different quality levels—a straightforward and transparent way for a translation agency to offer different service levels.
Even though top translators cannot imagine why someone would translate with different quality levels, translation agencies may have a different perspective. They would not want to miss on the market opportunities and see someone else getting rich by selling to the low-end market. There is nothing wrong with offering various quality levels of translation, just as there is nothing wrong with selling both entry-level and high-end PCs. That is not to say that I am necessarily happy about low-quality translations, but this is how things are in the world today. Clients in all industries have come to expect the ability to choose a price/value combination that makes sense to them, not to the seller. After all, it is all about giving our clients the freedom to choose.
Read more about the interrelation of quality and price of translation.