The past 15 years or so have seen a relentless drive toward lower prices across a number of fields, and translation is no exception to the rule. If anything, per-word prices have taken a severe beating, leaving many people to wonder if this tumble down the stairs is ever going to stop. There is an easy answer to that: when too many good people opt out of the proverbial race for the bottom, the thing which most clients desire more than anything else simply can't exist. And as this trend solidifies, quality disappears from the scene. At this juncture the true cost of buying for pennies suddenly becomes clear. And it doesn’t come cheap.

While buyers of translations have different priorities depending on their place in the organisation, the closer you get to the people who will be using the translation, the more likely you are to hear the clamour for quality. It’s not that procurement managers are averse to quality, it’s just that they mostly get measured by the savings they can secure for their company on paper without considering their hands-on colleagues further down the chain. You might call this compartmentalised buying. It is wise to bear in mind, however, that quality does come at a price for a reason. So if an LSP feels compelled to accept a price below a certain point, there are only so many ways they can recoup their costs. One of the easiest is to go with translators who may not be what the client needs. Holistically viewed, however, a dollar saved on translation can easily transform into ballooning costs down the line as company employees spend days trying to shape a cheap translation into something half decent or even scrapping the work they have paid for altogether in favour of their own translation.

The less you think about the nature of quality, the easier it is to fall into the trap of buying cheap. So let’s really think about what quality is for a moment. To begin with, one inherent aspect of quality is that it cannot be rushed. Indeed, the very essence of quality is tied into a level of accomplishment that belongs in the realm of refined expertise. It is the result of focused attention and is brought forth solely by people who know their metier and the outcome they are seeking. This being the case, quality is the natural result of continued application and sustained intent. Expert translators are in essence working from a mental imperative to produce to the highest level that they are capable of. If they were to do any less, it would be a breach of their integrity. It is the combined efforts of the mind and the person, a crystallisation of high-frequency vibration, that is subsequently perceived as quality work. The thought is literally embedded in the product, giving rise to a palpable feeling of something solid and whole – a piece of work that is imbued with integrity. By the same token, integrity is a deeply integral part of trust, the subject of the first Values article called TRUST.

Like so many other trades, translation is a craft that takes years to command, yet alone master. Once translators reach a certain level of accomplishment, they are naturally secure in the knowledge that they are producing work of enduring quality, and for this they must be fairly paid. For many years I have made it a personal habit not to argue with experts about pricing (except in the case of large assignments where bargaining is often necessary due to special client project prices). There is no point. In my experience, if you give expert translators what they ask, they will often give you more than you ask in return. In fact, I find that the best translators are in general eminently reasonable in their assessment of their own worth. Add to this the fact that working with experts is a joy in its own right. They are in command of their domain, spotting things which it is the exclusive preserve of experts to discover, and make the LSP shine through their singular effort. This goes on to spark a new turn of the cycle on the back of the praise which clients invariably lavish on translations that come out of that rarefied sphere where experts reside. Once you have experienced this different level of attainment, quality is not an option but becomes an imperative. You become hooked, as it were, desiring ever to be in the presence of greatness. The interesting thing is that a focus on quality in one area spills over into others, creating a ripple effect on its own. Though invisible to the naked eye, this adds value to areas you may not even have thought of. So is quality then “expensive”? There is an answer to that and it’s something everyone has to realise for themselves in their time.

Philip Philipsen

Philip Philipsen:
Philip is married with two sons aged 4 and 7.
When he is not at work, he is particularly fond of reading and good food. A graduate of the University of Copenhagen, he also spent three years studying at universities in Tokyo and Hong Kong. If dreams could speak, they would tell of his cherished desire to travel the world with his family.