The thorny issue of quality

One of the highlights of the recent ITI Conference was Chris Durban‘s “Mystery Shopper” talk – a recycled version of a talk she gave earlier this year at a conference in the US.

The Mystery Shopper experience was a report from a little experiment Chris had carried out in 2001, where she posed as a translation buyer and commissioned a number of short translations from different freelance translators and translation agencies.

Chris made a point of being “the perfect customer”: she gave a detailed brief (the key message being that the translation should be of a very high quality), the translators were given the opportunity to set their own deadline and rate, and she also stressed that she was available and happy to answer any questions.

The first thing that surprised her was how low the quoted prices were throughout. The next thing she found unsettling was that none of the translators in her mystery shopping sample came back with any queries at all. They simply delivered their translations – of which not one was usable!

Her conclusion, in her own words, was: “Boy, being a translation buyer is really rough!”

Second time lucky?

In 2010, Chris decided to repeat the experiment. The one main improvement was that this time a few of the translators came back to her with queries. Some of those queries were slightly less intelligent than others, but some were very valid questions.

Chris, who is clearly a “glass-half-full” sort of person, was encouraged by this and felt it was a sign that things are improving.

The quality of the translations themselves was also slightly better than in the first experiment – apart from the one that was taken straight from Google Translate! (And Chris was not shy about naming and shaming the perpetrators, both the agency and the individual translator behind this.)

Nevertheless, the issue of quality in translations – and the fact that the end client is often not in a position to judge the quality of the product he is buying – remains a serious concern for the industry. How can a client who really wants a good job be sure he gets a good job?

Translators have an image to build and protect

Chris’s crusade is for translators to take ownership of their work – by signing it with their name. She sees the anonymity predominant in the industry as a key cause of the problem. Translators should be encouraged to stand up for their work – which of course also means owning up to it.

As Chris put it: “I am confident in the quality of my work” is a good message to put out to the world. And what better way of saying that than by putting your name on it.

At the end of her talk, Chris threw down the gauntlet – quite literally – in the form of a gardening glove and challenged all translators to start signing their work, as of tomorrow! It is something we can all start doing immediately and it doesn’t cost anything either.

In practice, of course, there are a number of reasons why this may not work. We can all put our name at the end of the Word document we send back to our client. But whether that means our name will then appear on the finished product is another matter.

And, Chris herself admitted that putting your name on web copy, for example, is a tricky issue because the content changes and may well be messed about with by the end client at a later stage. So, if you do manage to get your name on it, you’d be well advised to keep checking back and, if necessary, ask for your name to be removed!

With printed material, again, it very much depends on the type of work you do plus, perhaps, how close you are to the end client. For books or, say, catalogues for art exhibitions it seems to be common practice to include the translator’s name in the prelim pages. Indeed, in my experience, publishers often do this as a matter of fact without needing to be prompted to do so. On a job I did recently, they even offered to include my website address (and I had only been doing the editing for this one).

But for brochures or adverts it is unlikely that the translator will be able to get their name on there anywhere. After all, copywriters don’t usually get a chance to put their name on the material they’ve written either. Who knows, there might be a similar campaign going on in the copywriting community! Perhaps we should join forces!?

12 Responses to The thorny issue of quality

  1. Thanks for the report, Betti! Very interesting stuff. I am a big Chris Durban fan and completely share her views (and practice them) of high rates and high quality. However, I’d like to see myself as a bit of an ethicist, and I don’t think public shaming of the guilty parties is appropriate nor ethical — but that’s just me. Signing translations is a good business practice that we could all get started. It would be strange in the beginning, but maybe it will catch on. Perhaps adding electronic signatures would be a good option? We would also add the date and state that the translator is not responsible for future changes/revisions?

    And BTW, the report on the low quality is just shocking.

    • Thanks for your comments, Betti.
      Since I’m a big Judy Jenner fan, I’m going to jump in here myself :-)) :
      “However, I’d like to see myself as a bit of an ethicist, and I don’t think public shaming of the guilty parties is appropriate nor ethical — but that’s just me.” — JJ
      Judy, could you elaborate a bit here?
      I’m pretty sure I disagree strongly, and yet I have a very strong commitment to professional ethics.
      Background: as Betti noted, I explained my translation needs to each supplier contacted (premium quality, expert available to answer any and all questions).
      Not only were all totally, 100% confident that they could supply the red-hot quality I required (they *volunteered* that information; there was no gun being held to their heads), they all actually stated how delighted they were to work for such a great client.
      As one critic of my “signed work” suggestion has pointed out, “once I’ve sold the translation, clients can do with it whatever they want.” Well, OK; here I paid my money and got my texts.
      And then I compiled the work into a table and distributed it to fellow linguists, so that everyone could see with their own eyes what an “ideal client” got.
      Note that I wasn’t gunning for anybody in particular. In fact, the first time around, I actually figured I would get five quite good translations and had envisaged some kind of method for pulling out the very best of the best. But as reported the results were nowhere near that level. They were sobering.
      For me, the unethical behavior was very definitely on the vendor side, when LSPs (agencies and freelancers) made claims in their advertising materials (and to me, as a buyer, on the phone and in emails) that they produced systematically outstanding work.
      What happened? I got stuck with a non-native speaker using GoogleTranslate who was in no way an expert in finance (I repeat: I had been contractually promised a human translator working into his own language who was a subject-matter expert — I’d paid extra for that). In another example, I purchased a text that had been through two reviews and was still very obviously done by someone who hadn’t a clue. My questions, as a potentially worried but not freaked-out client, were answered only three weeks down the road, and only because I insisted (pleasantly) that the agency respond. I mean, really.
      Not to repeat myself, but signed work does bring all this out into the open.
      But to assuage any sensitivities you will note that I have refrained from citing the sub-par suppliers here. 🙂

  2. Betti

    Wow, that was quick! And thanks for the comment. Yes, it is indeed shocking. Admittedly, it was a relatively small sample. But still…

    I was surprised too, that Chris named the agency and the translator who had simply delivered a Google Translate piece. Though, I think in this case it’s probably justified. At least the agency should have picked up on it! So they’re really as guilty as the lazy freelancer.

    Looking on the bright side though, hearing stories like this reminds me that quality-conscious translators still have quite an edge over the competition. 🙂

  3. Although I wasn’t at ITI conference this year, I have heard Chris talk about this subject before. The practical difficulties involved – actually getting your name on a piece of work and then making sure the translation isn’t fiddled with – lead me to the view that the key is rather the underlying mental attitude and the discipline this brings. “Would I actually sign this? Is it good enough?” This approach can be applied regardless of whether the text is going to be published with your name next to it (although that is nice when it happens).

  4. Reading this really made me feel I missed the best talk of the conference. Sigh… But at least I did manage to buy Chris Durban’s book at the coffee break.

    I am all for signing my work, but I am left wondering how one could do this when using CAT tools. It isn’t always practical — indeed in some areas of translation nigh on impossible, especially when multiple translators have had a hand in the translation of a software manual, to mention just an example! But for the sake of the argument, let’s suppose I translated a manual from start to finish, I wonder what the reaction would be if I started adding “translated by Lucie Brione” to something which typically doesn’t mention the original author in the first place. Technical authors seem to be in the same predicament as translators in that respect. And wouldn’t it raise issues of copyright?

    For this reason I like Oliver Lawrence’s approach of “Would I actually sign this? Is it good enough?”.

    Lastly, I find the results of the Mystery Shopper exercise quite shocking. How on Earth can we expect the public at large to have any trust in our profession? This reminded me of cowboy builders… I am also left wondering in a chicken-or-egg kind of way if low pay breeds low quality, or low quality breeds low pay. And where does the pressure on price come from? From the agency themselves? There was no mention of how high or low the quotes were the second time around.

    Anyway, very interesting stuff!

  5. @Lucie You are quite right, it is sometimes nigh on impossible, but I don’t think it’s matter of signing EVERY piece of work we do. For example, Chris made it very clear that signing translations of websites was not a good idea. I choose what I want to see my name on and it’s definitely not every letter or every software manual, definitely not share jobs either. But when I get a nice tourist brochure (printed), the proceedings of a conference, anything for publication, then I do ask to have my name on it if I am the last person to validate any changes to the text. Admittedly, it doesn’t happen very often but it does happen and I have a copy of each one of these publications on my bookshelf.

    I have also found that some agencies don’t even think of asking for this kind of acknowledgement, so now I suggest it and it sometimes works. Hopefully it will catch on. It does change the way you see yourself and the work you do for the better.

    @Judy I was taken aback at first by the fact that Chris was naming names but in context it made perfect sense. Having been at the receiving end of this type of bad practices at a time when I was trying my hand at agency work, I must admit I was actually tickled pink. I would go as far as to say that not naming the LSPs would have probably felt uncomfortable to an audience of freelancers on a never-ending quest for information on good and bad agencies. Chris obviously had other reasons for naming them and good for her, I’d say. I had visions of Chris Durban as a guest presenter on “Watchdog” and “Rogue Traders”! (2 UK TV progs dedicated to consumer issues and forever naming and shaming companies with bad practices).

  6. Betti

    Many thanks for all the comments, everyone! I like Oliver’s suggestion that the signing is more something we do for our own benefit – to reinforce that we are confident about the quality of our work. Just as Chris put it in her presentation.

    You’ve all given plenty of examples where the “public” signing doesn’t really work. But also examples where it does. So, maybe we just need to be aware of opportunities where it is appropriate for us to ask for our name to be included somewhere.

    On the issue of “naming and shaming”, I’ve thought about this some more, and I do think that, if we ever want to stand a chance in this struggle to raise the image of our profession, we also have to be prepared to point the finger at unscrupulous “cowboys” who besmirch that image. They need to know that this will not be tolerated!

    I think Lucie’s comparison to the building trade was quite apt. Perhaps we could look at what they are doing to tackle this problem in their industry and copy some ideas from there?

    Maybe we could assemble some tips for translation clients on how to protect themselves against “cowboy” LSPs? Something like this, but adapted to translation:

  7. Nick Somers

    The pig-in-a-poke nature of translation buying is well known, so is the fact that it’s basically a matter of luck whether a customer hits on an acceptable translator or not. When I think about it, however, pretty much all of my customers who accept my request to be named are already clued up. They know – through experience, trial and error, or feedback – what they’re buying. So perhaps this signing business might be an incentive not only for translators to get it right but also for customers to think about who they’re dealing with.

  8. Interesting post, thank you. Makes me think I should get out of my Continental backwater more often and listen to such presentations in person.

    The notion of signing one’s work is an interesting one. I’m not sure it’s really practical or desirable in all cases; the inevitable meddling that many end clients engage in makes me very wary of having my name associated with final result. I need only think of a certain pet food company for which I translated many product labels and brochures. Nice people, prompt payers, great products. But whenever I would see them at a trade show it took some work to keep the smile on my face when I saw how even little things like ingredient names were “improved” to remove unnecessarily correct information or persuasive claims about product quality. I would have written them off years ago if one of their products hadn’t played a big role in giving my old dog another three years of life when he was suffering from arthritis, but I don’t ever want my name on work I cannot control.

    I do of course sign my work on many occasions when it needs to be certified for legal purposes or for official submissions for a visa application or university. It might be interesting to do this more often in selective cases, sending a certified copy to the client as a quality measure (as well as a reference copy in case there is subsequent tampering leading to a complaint). I suppose translators who do not do official certifications might create their own “quality stamps” and do something like this, though care would have to be taken in some jurisdictions (like DACH) to ensure that these stamps are not taken to be official in any way.

  9. Betti

    Just thought I’d share this with you:
    Tweeted by Percy Balemans (@pikorua) earlier this week:

    Dutch translation of Amnesty International’s 2011 Report is now online, signed by the translator:

  10. Although I’m coming in very late on this, I just wanted to add that I think it’s perfectly ethical, and in fact a very positive move, to name and shame translators and agencies who provide bad work. The important thing is to be completely sure of your facts before saying anything negative, and in this case Chris clearly was. It seems to me that it’s no different from naming and shaming a provider of poor-quality goods or services in any other field.

  11. @Chris: thanks for chiming in, dear Chris. I am also a big Chris Durban fan, and sorry for being so late to the party. I’ve been swamped. I appreciate you taking the time to explain your thinking, and the results of your research are indeed shocking. And agreed, the behavior of the LSPs is indeed completely unethical and I can completely see your reasoning for exposing them. That said, I would still have chosen to keep their names private — perhaps because naming them in a T&I forum won’t do potential customers any good, as they weren’t there .:) Just a different approach, but I am glad you made this sensitive issue public, and I agree: transparency is good. It’s just that public shaming makes me uncomfortable and I don’t know if it has the desired results, but I respect your decision. Looking forward to our round table discussion at the ATA! 🙂

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