The quality conundrum

The quality conundrum

Can standards be improved without losing out?

Are you always entirely happy with your work? You might not be getting complaints from clients, but when you come across something you’ve translated after the event, if it is sent back for some changes to be incorporated, or if you want to use it as an example, or even if you come across it in a bookshop, can you put your hand on your heart and say you’d do the translation exactly the same way? If you’re anything like me, there’s a good chance you’ll notice some slight error or oversight, or wish you’d phrased something a little bit differently.

The problem is the eternal battle between wanting the best possible translation and having to get it finished and delivered at a fixed time: perfectionism versus pragmatism. Personally, I am a perfectionist who has had to learn how not to be one. A pragmatist by choice and training. My natural inclination always was to want things to be perfect, but, as a young journalist, I learned quickly that a story that didn’t make the deadline didn’t get in the paper. The real trick was to do the best possible job in the time available.

I brought this with me into translation and so far it’s served me reasonably well. As a quick typist, I found my productivity was relatively high from the start. I was also helped by the fact that translation wasn’t a career I trained for, which meant I hadn’t been educated with an idea of the “perfect” way to do the job. This helped me to be adaptable and to develop working methods to suit myself, including a double revision process.

And yet…as I have become more professional, finally taking a translation qualification and trying to learn more about all kinds of aspects by associating with colleagues, I have realised that perhaps I need to do more. In the new world of translation I am entering, where quality is the key, my old standards may not be good enough and it could be time to swing the pendulum back towards perfectionism. I certainly find the niggling errors that do creep through in my work from time to time very annoying. Stamping them out, though, is a problem and the various ways I can see of achieving this all bring their own difficulties.

1. Slowing down. This would involve taking more time over each job, particularly the editing part. It is feasible, but it has one obvious drawback: loss of earnings. Perhaps I have become accustomed to earning more than I have any right to expect, but it’s difficult to contemplate taking a pay cut, even in the name of quality. There is also the question of whether it would actually make any difference. Counter-intuitively, I often find that my best and most effective editing is done under pressure. It’s when that pressure isn’t there that the mistakes often start to creep in.

2. Technology. I already run a MemoQ spellcheck and quality check and another spellcheck and grammar check in the final file format if possible. Spellchecks, of course, pick up obvious typos, but they won’t spot them if what you have written is also a real word. Translation tool quality checks are really mostly about consistency, although they do also pick up problems like mistyped numbers. The difficulty with the MemoQ one as it has developed, and with Xbench, another tool many people swear by but which I find very user unfriendly, is that they throw up many false positives, which leads to a “crying wolf” factor, making me more selective in using them and less inclined to take notice of what they say. I’ve also bought another tool recently, called PerfectIt. I’m only just beginning with it, but it seems to have a lot of potential. PerfectIt finds mistakes other tools don’t look for and is particularly good for checking things like whether you have written the same word with and without a hyphen in the same text or whether you have punctuated lists consistently, although I am still discovering its functions. Despite the fact that running these programs also does take a little extra time, and some of them cost money, I find them to be a good investment for the improvement in quality that can be achieved.

3. Outside editing. This is what I would love to be able to do. I have no doubt the biggest improvement to the quality of my work would come if I could hire a colleague to edit my translations. Unfortunately, this would have an even greater impact on my earnings than simply slowing down. In both cases, of course, one way round this impact would be to put my rates up. However, any increase would have to be very substantial if it was going to cover the cost of an outside editor and it’s not really something I can contemplate for my existing clients or in the foreseeable future. There is also another problem associated with this, which concerns speed and flexibility. If I am going to hire an outside editor, I would also need more generous deadlines, as I would have to take my colleague’s availability into account. It’s an attractive idea but a logistical minefield.

4. Sample reviews. This would involve working with a colleague to review samples of each other’s work, not before they go to clients but merely as an exercise. It wouldn’t catch mistakes, it would merely point out the type of errors I might be over-inclined to repeat, so I could be more alert in checking for them. Its limited effectiveness is one drawback. Another is the fact that the idea is that it should be done reciprocally, without payment. That means the job is always going to have a low priority and it might be difficult to actually get it done. This is one I’m currently working on with a colleague, but the project hasn’t yet gone very far.

5. Two-tier pricing. This is an idea to get round the loss of earnings concerns mentioned in some of these points. It means that when quoting for jobs with direct clients I would give them two prices, one with outside editing and one without. On the face of it, there seems to be potential there, but I still have my doubts, the biggest of which is whether any client, particularly in the Spanish market where I largely work, would choose to pay a higher price for something I’ve already said they could have cheaper. It also raises an ethical problem: is it really right to offer two different standards of service?

As you can see, this is a problem to which I have yet to find the answer, although it is something I will have to deal with as I try to improve the quality of the work I offer to clients. I would be very interested in any thoughts you may have, so please leave your comment below.



  1. I would highly recommend the outside editor/reviser approach (but find someone who is good!). I work with a colleague in the US (which has the added advantage of ensuring I avoid, where possible, UK-specific terms), and I’ve learned so much from working with him, and avoided many mistakes in my translations!

    • I’m sure you’re right, Tim. So my questions to you would be: how did you make the leap from not doing it to doing it? (By that I mean did you suddenly put your rates up by the cost of paying the editor overnight or did you take a financial hit?) And how did you go about finding a good editor?

      • Early on in my career I landed a job translating an 80,000 word book. I was a novice translator and wasn’t confident to have my work published without it being proofread first. Because of the deadline, I had to put together a team. A couple of the translators were mediocre, but one was brilliant, so I got him to do most of the revision of my work too. So I kind of stumbled on him by chance.

        I’ve used a reviser/editor ever since, so for almost all my career, my rates have factored in the use of a reviser/editor. I’m therefore not the best person to ask about how to make a transition.

        I should add that I don’t use a reviser for every text I do. It depends on several factors: the type of text, the difficulty, the deadline (especially with sports reports, where there simply isn’t time), the type of publication, whether my client will read the translation and is fluent enough to spot places where I’ve misunderstood (many of the research articles I do are for former colleagues at the translation faculty who will read through my translation), etc. I factor this into the pricing and the deadline.

        For instance, I recently worked on a Catalan academic paper about the author Joan Oliver (aka Pere Quart) that used a very literary style of Catalan, as well as extracts from police archives written in 1930s Spanish. There were so many potential stumbling blocks that I felt compelled to have an extra pair of eyes look through my translation.

        Rewind a couple of weeks, and I was translating an article about the origins of Mediterranean Lingua Franca and new evidence of a strong influence from the Occitan-Catalan group. The paper discussed similarities in morphology and vocabulary, all of which I was very comfortable translating. For this job, I was happy to submit a translation not revised or edited by a third party.

        Finally, when working for international financial institutions (the same would apply for translation agencies), they have their own internal revision and editing workflow, so I know my translation will be looked over anyway, although on a couple of occasions one such client allowed me to work with my own reviser after I explained the benefits of our workflow.

        Having said that, when I first started working with an IFI, its rates were far higher than what I was earning from the agency work I was doing, but I was aware that they’d be very demanding, so I used the extra money to hire a reviser anyway just to make extra sure my translations were at the level required by such a client. I’d recommend that any novice translator working for a premium client should do the same: you’re getting paid more, and it’s a client that you could be getting work from for years or decades to come, so even if they do in-house revision, invest in your own reviser until you become an expert in the subject matter. First impressions are important!

        • Useful insights, Tim, thank you. The transition is the difficult thing, but I’m definitely going to make a start on it next year.

  2. I’ve been wrestling with lots of these questions myself and each of your points could probably fuel an entire post in itself. A few thoughts:
    Financial: whether or not getting in outside help with editing is financially viable is something you can look at by running the numbers. How much would paying for revisions cost? How much would you have to put your rates up to cover it? Could you optimise other processes to make up for potential loss so that you don’t have to put your rates up? (For example, I’ve switched to dictating 90% of my translations this year and that’s represented a huge time gain for me.) Might it be a short-term investment that would pay off in the long term through higher rates or just being able to produce better quality in the same time? Also, consider different kinds of revisions: are you more worried about having misinterpreted tricky aspects of the source text (in which case you would want a full bilingual review) or are you more interested in getting the flow of the target right (in which case a monolingual proof read would be enough)?
    In terms of two-tier pricing, I wouldn’t write it off straight away. I think you need to find a way of communicating the idea that all your translations meet a certain (high) standard, which would be your standard rate, but that you also offer a gold-star quality-assured package that includes a professional proofread. Obviously, most clients aren’t going to need or want to go for this, but some might appreciate not having to outsource proofreading if they were planning to do that anyway, and others might need it for legal reasons (think, the ISO translation standard). Dennis Brown’s company PacTranz offers just this: Maybe you could explore this for one or two clients (perhaps initially on just a small project, and at your own expense, just as an experiment to see if it’s something you could reasonably offer).
    QA: I am a huge fan of PerfectIt, which I began using on a big editing job but quickly realized how useful it is for cleaning up target translations, especially on long documents. I love how customizable it is and that I can have different stylesheets for different clients. Well worth the investment. Another one I’m planning to check out is the Good Citations reference checker. There are lots of other tools and tricks that professional editors use that I’m slowly trying to learn, including macros in Word and wildcard search and replace. If you are mainly translating publishable text (as opposed to strings of code or something like that) then it makes sense to focus on the QA tools that writers and editors use as much as those that translators use. Louise Harnby’s blog is a goldmine of free or cheap tools and tricks: and so is I am not always good at taking the time to import the final monolingual version of texts back into my CAT tool to make sure that the TM has the polished version, but I’m trying to change that habit. I even run the dreaded Grammarly on target translations because even though probably 60% of what it picks up are false positives, it often throws up a US/UK spelling issue or missing Oxford comma etc and it only takes a couple of minutes to run.
    Sample revisions: I think this kind of informal collaboration is definitely worth exploring as a low-cost and sociable way of keeping us on our toes and improving the quality of our translations. In fact, I would go so far as to say that we should spend less social networking time retweeting SEO tips and more time doing this sort of thing.
    I’ve emailed you some other ideas, by the way. And thanks for bringing up all these issues, which I think many of us start thinking about at a certain point in our careers.

    • Thanks very much for your comment, Victoria. I will certainly check out the references you’ve given and try to adopt some of these ideas. And I will give your e-mail the proper reply it deserves when I have a few minutes.

  3. I do have a few words to say about technology and speed, but quality is – and always has been – the central driver of every important advance we make in this field.

    I can’t speak for every translator, of course, but quality has certainly been the principal differentiator in my work, whether it dates back to my translation of physics and engineering articles published in the peer-reviewed physics/engineering journals, or my herculean efforts (not always appreciated by my business partners, alas, who would stand in pure horror as I was perfectly willing to fire a major client who thought speed always trumped quality) to enforce a quality-focused approach while running a high-end boutique translation company where (some) customers thought however they defined their needs outweighed whatever quality controls we had in place to protect them.

    They were wrong, of course. The customer – alas – is not always right.

    First in the quality domain is to be forever focused on being better informed – and expert – in your specialization.

    I realize that this is hardly news, but it always bears repeating.

    Formal training is ideal, especially up to at least the undergraduate college level, which provides you with enough background to conduct your own research into specialty areas.

    Even within physics, I have had certain decades where my emphasis was on solid-state physics and lasers/optics (most of my work here was published by the American Institute of Physics, either in journals or as books) and later with nuclear physics and engineering, where the work was used with the U.S. National Laboratories under the U.S. Department of Energy in support of actual U.S.-Russia cooperative programs to limit the spread of nuclear materials under the Nonproliferation Regime.

    Of course, every single translation is edited and reviewed at least twice in the scientific academic community, with that feedback then provided back to you. These materials constitute the scientific record, and as such, are one link in a very long chain of research that began before you were born and will continue very long after you have passed into whatever other ethereal domain awaits us after we have shuffled off this mortal coil.

    Even today, I work in an environment where all the translators are rigorously tested every six months, all our work is reviewed, and every single item is actually graded upon publication. Talk about rigorous standards! (And yes, you will be booted off your contract if you fail a single test.) This may seem extreme, but it’s crucial, because the translations are being used in critical national security programs, and inform decisions at the highest levels of government.

    So in addition to subject-matter expertise, the whole notion of being reviewed and revised is the sine qua non of quality translation.

    In my view, trying to engineer around it – and I’ve watched translators heroically defending their efforts to do just that for over 25 years – never, ever works, and the results jump out at you in what can only be described as a form of pure ugliness on the printed page.

    These are not translations – they are the errant scribblings of people who do not know what they do not know.

    How could they possibly know, when their work is compared to that produced by people who have been on a steep and hugely beneficial learning curve of review, revision and constant learning for the last 20 years?

    Not one of these translators (that I know) has come even close to passing even one of the government tests I mentioned above. Not once. This is not my claiming any form of superiority, of course – it’s actually the opposite – it’s a product of my learning from my colleagues every single day over a 25-year period. You have to appreciate just how enormous that collective impact really is.

    In practical terms, it may be that you will have no choice – ultimately – other than to raise your rates in order to harvest the bountiful goods that await you from your reviewers. And that includes not just stylistic, elegant and optional-rendition improvements, but entire shifts in your views on how certain expressions are even rendered, and where you’ve been “misreading those all along.”

    There was a recent French-to-English book translation scandal by a “high-profile translator” where the huge gulf separating what a translator “thought” the text said, and what it was actually attempting to communicate, that illustrated this perfectly. I am of course not suggesting you fall into this category, but I do think it’s useful for illustrative purposes.

    A shortcut on this path are the master class workshops offered in the “Translate in the…” series for Fr<->Eng., soon to include Es<->Eng., and potentially De<->Eng in the future. But these are just starting points (or wake-up calls, depending where you stand on the continuum.) 🙂

    In terms of technology options, if you have a bit of interpreter DNA in you, and you’ve mastered your subject areas to the point where you could simultaneously interpret them, there are options in voice-recognition technology that blends seamlessly with CAT tools.

    You get a terrific multiplier in word output per hour (typically a factor of 3 to 4, depending on your facility with the spoken word and familiarity with the tools), although of course these are still draft translations, must be edited, and do not absolve you of the need to still have them reviewed by an expert colleague.

    Happily, the three- or four-fold increase in draft translation output per unit time can solve your cost dilemma on the reviewer cost front. YMMV, but this is certainly an area worth considering. If you’re interested, I’d suggest that you join the “Translators Who Use Voice Recognition” group on FB, where all the dictating translators congregate to share tips and technology workarounds.

    Sorry for the endless post, but this is topic where I’ve spend a considerable amount of time in my own career working to help translators, including running my own master translation workshops (at no charge) to illustrate the crucial role of collaboration in improving one’s own translations.

    I certainly recognize that much of this may already be obvious to you, but I do hope it will at least be beneficial to your growing readership. 🙂

    • Thank you for your comment, Kevin. I promise I don’t need convincing of the need for quality, it’s more a question of ways and means, and some of the comments on this post are giving me new ideas. For me, the book translation scandal was a definitely warning of what could happen, although I firmly believe my research is better than the translator’s in that case, but it also has to be said that markets are different and Spain, where I mainly work, is not an easy place to convince clients that quality is worth paying for. Having said that, I don’t see "doing nothing" as an option and I’m planning to put together a package of various changes in my approach which I hope will improve things in both the short and long terms. Being in contact with some of the best translators in the business is certainly a great help.

  4. Hi Simon,
    I just want to add that I use PerfectIt at various stages of my work flow. Some technical documents go through PerfectIt in the source language before I start. And I run export my an almost finished translation onto a two column word doc, run some of my own macros and then run PerfectIt. This is excellent for translatons not in word.

    • Thanks, Jenny. I see I’ve got some learning to do as I know very little about the use of macros.


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