Donnie and Trixie have a serious talk about translation quality.

Donnie: Hey, Trixie! Y’know what the trouble with the translation industry is today? It’s those bottom feeders who are just ruining it for everyone.

Trixie: Why’s that Donnie?

Donnie: They’re a bunch of amateurs who can’t compete on merit. They seduce the customers by undercutting the good guys on price.

Trixie: Is that so, Donnie? So what do you think could be done about it?

Donnie: Well I reckon I could round up a bunch of willing volunteers to form a posse to hunt them down. we’d be a sort of global hit squad to get rid of them once and for all.

Trixie: Ooooh, that’s a bit extreme! These guys might undercut everyone’s prices, but bottom feeders are a protected species, Donnie! They’ve even got human rights. In this open global economy, they’re free to sell their services as they please.

Donnie: Ok. But I’ve got an idea! Let’s set up some sort of global translation marketplace, and we’ll only let the good guys in through the gate! The buyers will just come running for all us good guys… won’t they?

Trixie: Hmmm… Not so sure about that. So how are you going to sort out the good guys from the bad guys, Donnie?

Donnie: It’s really easy, Trixie! We’ll set up some sort of entry barrier… Now let’s see what might work… How about we only let in professionals who can afford to pay a fee? That’ll keep all the part-time, unmarried mothers from Bukistan and Maldonia out of the game. You know the ones who know a few languages and are willing to work for next to nothing…

Trixie: Unmarried mothers? Oh, dear… Do you seriously think they pose a serious threat to a $30 billion dollar translation market, Donnie? Anyway, I know a young woman in San Esperito who’s an unmarried mother. She’s studied some French. She’s definitely “part-time” and takes on the occasional translation job.

Donnie: Yeah! Those are the ones!

Trixie: She’s also a chemist with a PhD in molecular orbital theory. I believe her translation work from French in her field is highly sought after. Would you exclude her from your marketplace then?

Donnie: Oh… I see what you mean.

Trixie: And then, Donnie, I know a lot of aggressive little translation companies who only get bottom feeders to do the translation work. They’re usually not willing to pay professionals what they’re worth. These companies will only be too delighted to pay a fee to get into your marketplace and pass themselves off as quality providers. The higher the fee, the more willing these sharp operators will want to join, ‘cos the fee keeps out the little guys. Some of these little guys are highly qualified and really expert translators. Wouldn’t you want them on your team?

Donnie: I see… Ahhh! So now I’ve got a much, much better idea! Maybe we could just let in translators who’ve got recognised translation qualifications!

Trixie: Sounds good. Some translator qualifications are really great and are tough to get. But if you want to give your customers a wide choice of really good language providers, that might be a bit of restrictive. Your system would favour a first year graduate with a translation diploma over a translator who’s had 25 years professional experience translating for patent attorneys – but no diploma! Wouldn’t he be an asset to the customers of your marketplace?

And then, of course, a “qualifications” system would exclude all the translation companies. What about Peggy? She’s got a small translation company and produces great work from what I hear. She doesn’t have any formal translation qualifications herself, but she knows the business and is smart enough to select translators who are up to scratch.

Donnie: Oh, you’re right again, Trixie. But that gives me another idea! Her company is an EN 15038 certified company. The company as a whole had to pass an on-site inspection to get that certification. Wow – that was an ordeal! Let’s only take on LSPs who are certified!

Trixie: The European translation standard is full of great ideas, Donnie – how to select the most appropriate translator for each individual job and basic guidelines on how to manage the translation process. It even incorporates the basic principles of “quality management” to reduce the chances of stuff going wrong. But it really only applies to organisations and wasn’t really designed for independent professional translators – so you’d exclude the freelancers. For some jobs, it makes sense to choose a big team which is certified – but for others a good freelancer might be a more appropriate and cost-effective choice.

Donnie: I guess you’re right, Trixie. But hey! You’ve given me a much improved idea! Here’s one that will work for both freelancers and translation companies. We could make it that they have to be a member of some recognised professional association for translators. These professional bodies must have some sort of screening process to keep out the low quality operators.

Trixie: Great thinking, Donnie! Peggy’s translation company is a corporate member of our local association. Let’s call her and ask her what she thinks… Is that you Peggy? Would membership of a professional organisation be a good entrance qualification for a translation marketplace?

Peggy: Hi, Trixie. The professional associations are often a great source of talent, and are pretty important in the industry. But, I’m not sure if it is the solution you are looking for. In some countries there are no professional translator organisations and in many countries you only have to pay a fee to get in – so you’re back to the “let’s make ’em pay a fee” argument.

Trixie: In any case, the overwhelming majority of ordinary customers don’t really know about the existence of these professional organisations and many have a really hard time understanding the principles they stand for…

Donnie: Oh dear… There must be some way of separating out the good from the bad, Peggy? There must be some way of protecting our translation buyers from the scammers. If a fee won’t work, and if qualifications, standards and membership of professional organisations won’t adequately cover it, then what have we got? Have you got any ideas?

Peggy: Well, it’s just not a simple question, Donnie. The industry has struggled with these sorts of questions long before you and I were ever drawn. There have been all sorts of complicated proposals – different kinds of examinations, quality standards, local, regional, national and global professional organisations, quality measurement metrics and so on and so on. They all capture part of the problem, they are all relevant factors… Back to you Trixie!

Donnie: But that’s it! I got it! I understand it now – it’s a multi-factor problem! We just need a mathematician to boil all the different factors down to a single value so we can give each translator a quality rating – a score which will tell the customers which are the good guys and which are the hopeless ones! Then everything will be clear and the customers can choose the appropriate translation provider from along our scale. Perfect!

Trixie: It’s an attractive proposition, Donnie. Customers would just love that! Oh, but if it were only so simple! Your idea is based on the presupposition that it’s even possible to measure translation quality along a single continuum!

A few minutes ago, you had the insight that it’s a problem with multiple factors, but you’re still trying to sort translators into good and bad. It’s just like translation itself, Donnie. You know yourself, that for any sentence there no real correct translation. The translation tends to change as the circumstances and the context change.

Donnie: Of course! You are so right, Trixie. Customers really cannot understand that, can they? You spend 10 years learning a language, doing a degree, then by the time you’ve spent 3 or 4 years doing some translation work, you only then begin to get an idea of how it all works. Ha, ha! By the time you’ve been doing it for 10 years, you realise that your problem solving skills are at least as important, if not more so, than your language skills! So I guess we can’t really expect our customers to have a deep appreciation of what translation quality means, can we?

Trixie: You’re right, Donnie. Rather than thinking of good and bad, it’s perhaps more useful to consider whether the skills of a language service provider are appropriate to the task. There are many factors that determine translation quality – but these factors are dynamic; they move against each other and their values change depending on the circumstances.

Donnie: Whoa! That’s a bit hard to understand Trixie. Give me something simple so I can grasp the concept…

Trixie: Here’s an example, Donnie. My unmarried mother friend from San Esperito is probably not be the best choice to handle the translation of a business letter or a commercial contract from French to English. She’s smart, but she just wouldn’t have a good handle on English business and legal terminology – it takes a long time to pick all that stuff up. However, she follows the scientific literature in her own discipline in several languages, and she would certainly make a candidate worth considering for the translation of a French scientific paper in her field.

So what rating would we give her? A low one because she can’t do justice to a simple business letter? Or a high one because she is at the top of her subject field? A score half-way in between doesn’t seem to make any sense at all! Her appropriateness as a translator is not fixed – it depends on the circumstances of the job.

Donnie: Oh dear. All these different factors are so messy, Trixie. How can we communicate all this to the customer so they can make a good choice? It all seems so terribly complicated – won’t the customer get all tangled up?

Trixie: Translation buyers may be ignorant about the detailed factors that go to make up translation quality,Donnie, but they are not stupid. They just need a simple way to make sensible comparisons between different providers across a few standardised factors.

This is the problem OpenBorder is trying to tackle. It’s not rocket science, Donnie – but it is magic!

Donnie: Oh, but I just love magic Trixie! Tell me! Tell me how do you do the magic?

Trixie: Ok, here’s the magic, Donnie. For it to work, OpenBorder’s system has to be really smart – and really simple. It needs a few relevant factors (but not too many):

  • A way to describe the translation method the provider uses that buyers can intuitively understand (you know, the sort of QA system different providers use: revised, unrevised, certified, big team, small team or solo freelancer and so on – each approach has its merits);
  • What genuine and relevant subject expertise or experience the provider is able to offer for a particular job – not that all jobs require specialist knowledge of course;
  • What previous buyers have said about the provider’s customer service – buyers can really relate well to that;
  • The time and date the provider can deliver the job into the customer’s timezone – a delivery from a translator in British Hidalgo at 2 in the morning the day after the job was needed might not be an advantage;
  • What the price is (expressed in the customer’s own currency of course, so he can make valid comparisons);
  • What procedures are in place for the times when things go wrong, and how things can get fixed quickly without complicated litigation – we’re talking about a robust dispute resolution system.

Donnie: None of these factors measures quality by itself, Trixie. So is it the relationship between them that does the trick?

Trixie: You got it, Donnie! That’s the magic bit in OpenBorder’s system. Buyers have constantly changing needs – one day they’re in a hurry, and the next they need an expert or some other combination of factors. One day they’ll pay double to get what they need quickly and the next time they’ll be prepared to wait a bit longer, want a more moderate price and a bit more QA. Matching customers’ needs with providers who are appropriate to the task so that the customer gets what he needs is a rather different way of looking at translation quality, don’t you agree, Donnie?

Donnie: Some customers will always want to choose the provider with the lowest possible price, won’t they? But on OpenBorder I guess they’ll have to make their decision in the light of how the other non-price factors stack up against those from LSPs who are asking for a higher price. If they chose the bottom feeder then they’ll be doing it with their eyes wide open.

Trixie: That’s it Donnie! Buyers are not going to pay more unless they can see that there is some real value there. That’s why we don’t have to be worried about the bottom feeders – like other creepy crawlies, they will always be around. On OpenBorder buyers will find an open market where they can make sensible, informed choices, based around their needs – not just on the price.

And we translators get to compete on merit, on a more even playing field. We also get to win customers who give us the sort of work we can do most profitably! But that’s a story for another day…

1 The OpenBorder site is here. The functionality described here is not up and running yet. It’s coming…

2 Illustrations from “Freddy”, Charlton Aug-1959, in public domain at

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4 Responses to Donnie and Trixie have a serious talk about translation quality.

  1. Pingback: Donald and Mickey have a serious talk about translation quality. | Truth about translation |

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  4. Halina says:

    This is hitting home the problem translation buyers face while trying to find a translator. Similarly, as in any other area of business, they have little to go by while trying to determine the quality of the service offered. Not having any other criteria to evaluate against, they tend to go to the lowest bidder. It doesn’t help that the market is oversaturated and permeated with the unscrupulous operators. They all claim the highest quality, of course, so how do you sort the wheat from the chaff?

    There’s one aspect that is missing from this discussion, which is: checking out a potential translator’s work beforehand (which applies only to the language you understand) and communicating with them by voice or if possible, face to face. This can provide vital clues as to their abilities, which cannot be easily established by email alone. I made an attempt to describe this dilemma in relation to the Polish translations in these 2 pieces: and

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