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.