The English writer, critic and social thinker John Ruskin is reported to have once stated that:
“It’s unwise to pay too much, but it’s worse to pay too little. When you pay too much, you lose a little money – that’s all. When you pay too little, you sometimes lose everything, because the thing you bought was incapable of doing the thing it was bought to do. The common law of business balance prohibits paying a little and getting a lot – it can’t be done. If you deal with the lowest bidder, it is well to add something for the risk you run, and if you do that you will have enough to pay for something better.”
Image by Thomas Lefebvre
In other words, you cannot expect to pay very little and still get a lot in return. Or, in common parlance: ‘you get what you pay for’. The principle Ruskin formulated is known as the common law of business balance and it describes a mechanism which one can argue is as true today as when he first spoke about it in the nineteenth century.
So how does this idea apply to translation services and in particular German translation services in the twenty-first century? After all, surely we have moved on from the business world Ruskin wrote about more than a hundred years ago? It is true to say that learning a foreign language is no longer the exclusive preserve of the privileged few; in the UK and other developed countries, we all have the opportunity to learn a foreign language when we are in full-time education and, indeed, we able to do so as an adult learner afterwards.
Nowadays most reasonably educated people can ‘get by’ in at least one foreign language. Most of us also travel more freely, we interact with other cultures on a daily basis and through the internet, we are connected to the whole world. So does this make the work of a translation service redundant? Or, does it at least mean that the service should be much simpler and, by definition, cheaper? The short answer is that it does not: there is a world of difference between being able to order a meal or ask for directions in another language as compared with accurately translating a highly-technical business document. A professional translator can bring to the table the linguistic sophistication, cultural awareness and technical expertise that most of us lack when trying to communicate in another language.
Without that degree of expertise provided by a professional translator, the resulting document would not be fit for purpose in a business context. The same can be said for any of the instant translation apps which are now widely available. Such programmes can at best help you grasp the gist of a document in another language, but they cannot produce a result of the quality you would want to put before a client or a customer.
A Good Example of Bad Translation
You need to look no further than the cascade of spam emails that clutter your inbox for a good example of a bad translation. Most spam originates outside Europe and invariably the content has been translated from another language either by someone who lacks the necessary expertise or, more likely, using a free software package. The resulting content is consistently clumsy and lacking in coherence. A poor translation inevitably fails to add any value to your online content other, perhaps, than unintended comic value.
Of course, we expect spam emails to be badly written, in fact, that helps us to identify them. But what about more legitimate marketing and informational materials? Product descriptions, instructions, reviews, mail shots and business letters are all vital tools for any business with a product to sell or service to provide. For a business hoping to trade outside its home territory, it is equally vital to be able to access an accurate professional translation service. Anything less than this does nothing to enhance the image of your business in the eyes of your customers and potential customers.
We return once more to John Ruskin for a pithy exposition of this point: “There is absolutely nothing in the world that some man cannot make a little worse and sell a little cheaper.”
Sourcing a Good Translation
We have an advantage over business people operating in Ruskin’s time, however. Through the power of the internet we can quickly research and identify providers of any product or service that we require, including translation services. Through the same research process we can weigh up reviews and customer feedback about the companies we are considering dealing with and we can make a comparison of any number of companies’ translation prices.
For many of us, the price will be the key deciding factor when we are selecting a business service, in this case a translation service. But should cost be the sole arbiter of this decision? Your catalogue, instruction manual or blog post is a carefully-formulated strand of your overall marketing strategy. Customers will judge you by the quality of your written communication, be that online or hard-copy. Can you really afford to skimp on the quality of your translation and potentially risk reputational damage with your potential overseas customers?
One shocking example of this was reported by a woman in Canada who proudly took delivery of her new sofa only to find on the label that the colour was described as ‘n-word brown’. Naturally, she complained to her supplier about this appalling racial slur. The retailer checked back through the supply chain and found that the manufacturers in China had made their own translation and used the only English-Mandarin dictionary they had to hand, which happened to be a very old one from less-enlightened times.
How Prices are Calculated
For one-off or occasional translations, most German translation agencies will quote a per line rate based on a fifty-five keystroke line. Other agencies present their charges on a per word basis. Discounted rates can often be quoted for bulk orders. A number of other factors will also affect the rate quoted:
- Text Size
- The format in which the text is made available
- The urgency
- The time and day of the week on which the translation has to be made.
- The formatting tasks that must be performed in addition.
The final price you pay for a translation is, thus, not just governed by the number of words in your document. The degree of difficulty in translating the document accurately is the key factor. Translating a section of a procedural handbook for a manufacturer, for example, is much more technically demanding than the translation of an everyday business letter. Both may have a similar word-count, but the process of translation for the technical document is much more challenging and time-consuming and is of necessity more expensive.
In essence, the more technically sophisticated the work that is submitted for translation, the more demanding is the task for the translator. Such items often require additional research and invariably require a translator with a high-level of experience and expertise. Similarly, literary works require a high degree of sensitivity and a feel for the nuances of both languages if the work is to be translated successfully.
The format of the text provided for translation can also affect the degree of difficulty of the task. Text submitted in Word format, for instance, is far easier for the translator to deal with than text which is embedded within an Excel spreadsheet or a PowerPoint presentation. Again, the extra time required for formatting can affect the overall cost of the translation.
The Training of a Translator
There is no prescribed course or professional qualification which one must complete before setting oneself up as a translator, which is why it is always advisable to ask about the background and expertise of the translators employed by any agency you are considering using. At the very least a professional translator should have a first degree in the target language.
On top of this you should also ask about the level of expertise the translator has in your particular field. Literary translations, for example, will ideally need a translator with a qualification in literature and in-depth experience of literary translations. Or, in the case of scientific or other technical works, a translator who is well-versed in working with the terminology of science is required.
Many successful translators have a background in another discipline: law, medicine, engineering or research and development, for instance. Translators with this kind of background tend to specialise in translation work within that area of expert knowledge. As an aside, do not confuse a translator with an interpreter; they are two very distinct specialisms. An interpreter deals only in the spoken word. He or she has to have a high degree of fluency in the language used, but they do not have to worry about spelling or even, to any great degree, with grammar. Translators, on the other hand, stand or fall by their mastery of both spelling and grammar.
Image by Vadim Sherbakov
Assessing a Quote
Ideally you should obtain three quotes before going ahead, particularly if you are new to using a translation service. You then need to assess which one best meets your business needs. It is all too easy to assume that the cheapest quote offers the best value for money and is the one to go for, but this may not automatically be the case. Conversely, you would perhaps assume a higher price is a guarantee of higher quality work. Whilst the ‘you get what you pay for’ principle generally holds true, you still need to dig a little deeper to confirm that what you are being offered is a quality service.
A quote that is significantly lower than any other you have obtained needs to be weighed up very carefully. The Germans have a very useful hybrid phrase called ‘dumpingpreise’, which literally translates as ‘dumping price’. This refers to the practice of selling a commodity for less than its true value. This is can be done for a variety of reasons. Two of the most common dumping price strategies are firstly for the quote to act as a ‘loss leader’ to get in new customers in the hope they will stay, and secondly to undermine the competition and, ultimately, put them out of business.
Another, more worrying, reason behind an apparent dumping price is that it is an indication of a grossly inferior service. A quick trawl of the internet will show you the range of per line or per word pricing structures most translation services will charge for a basic translation. If you then take into account the add-ons that will need to be applied to that basic price because of, for instance, the degree of complexity of the document or any quirks in its formatting. We discussed these earlier in this piece.
If a quote comes in significantly below the rough figure you estimate from the process suggested in the previous paragraph, it would be wise to treat that quote with caution. A quality translation takes time and time has a cost. It, therefore, follows that when the agency cuts back on the time employed in order to reduce the final cost, this will inevitably result in a lower quality finished product.
Translation Agencies and Globalisation
We live in a globalised world and we all have easy access to each other via the internet. As a consequence of globalisation remote-working is often the norm so that, although the agency you are speaking to may be based in your own country, many of the translators it employs may be based elsewhere. In many cases this may be in a low-wage economy on the other side of the world. This may not be a problem in itself, but it does raise legitimate questions about the qualifications of the translator and concerns about the fact that he or she may not be a native speaker of either English or your target language. For this and other reasons, we at Twigg’s Translations only render translations between German and English.
Translation Services and Copyright
It comes as a surprise to most people that translated works have a place in copyright law. In most countries a translated piece of work is regarded as derivative of the original. However, the translator is eligible to apply for copyright for the translated work that he or she has created. This is particularly relevant to literary works where the translator exercises a great deal of creative input to ensure that the translation maintains the literary merit of the original in the target language and is not just a sentence for sentence translation.
In practice, the issue of copyright is normally resolved in advance as part of the contract between the author’s publisher and the translation agency. However, the translation is regarded in UK law as an entity itself and copyright for the translation remains with the translator, but with a right of use arrangement for the author and publisher of the original.
Line prices for translations from one language to another vary between €0.50 and €4.00 per line. The final price will depend upon the level of difficulty, formatting issues and the degree of urgency. Naturally as a customer you never want to pay over the odds. Equally you will always want to know how the price you have been quoted has been calculated. This is why you should always sit down and talk through your particular translation requirements and the nature of the work with your agency.
Any translation service worth its salt will willingly take the time to discuss potential projects with a customer. This will allow you to explain the context of your work, your preferences and your timescales. Furthermore it will be of particular help to the agency in determining a fair price if you send them sample pages of the work you need translating.
For a reputable translation service there are no unit prices and no unit customers. Every customer is an individual and every piece of work is unique. Our pricing page.
Tel UK: 0845 591 2970