Go forth and diversify!

Translators - Go Forth and Diversify Your Services
The American Translators Association (ATA) used to have a coffee mug with the slogan I was looking for. I don’t know if the “Coffee Mug blue w/white logo ($8)” from the current ATAware merchandise still has it. I couldn’t find the picture, but it doesn’t matter. The coffee stains have always been part of the header image above, and the inscription reads just as well in plain black on white: “The translation is not a commodity”.

This non-commodity attitude is something I can strongly identify with. In her “Translation: Getting it Right”, downloadable in many language versions from the ATA website, Chris Durban (she coined the phrase, as far as I know) doesn’t explain about commodities or fungibles, but another ATA brochure – “Translation. Standards for buying a non-commodity” – does. Besides many points of difference mentioned there (type of document, subject-matter expertise, the intended readers or target group, purpose, etc.), it was the quality of translation and service which for me always mattered most.

As I was updating my German website last week, I tried to explain the idea of the relation between translation as a non-commodity and quality of translation. Many clients appreciate quality of service (e.g. delivery time, readiness to accommodate last minute changes, etc.), but cannot easily judge translation quality by itself. More often, it is the clients of our clients (“the intended readers or target group”), who can tell the good from the poor.

As Bernd Pitschedsrieder, the former German CEO of VW, once cynically said, “the worm must taste good to the fish, not the fisherman.” I don’t envy a sales manager who sells worms to fishermen, but he probably knows how to explain the difference between various species. For a translator, making a pitch to a potential client and promising to deliver the right quality for the “fish” (the client’s customers, business clients, partners, audience, users of technical documents, recipients of financial information) is a problem.

Liar, liar! Pants on fire! Who can afford to tell the truth about translation quality…?”, asks Paul Sulzberger in his conversation with Luigi Muzii on how translation providers should (or should not) communicate quality to their clients.

I will get back to Luigi Muzii, his latest “Quirks” and his understanding of translation technology (the “Big Wave”) in one of my next blog posts, so stay tuned. This post is about something different. However, Luigi’s statement brings me back to the main point: “When every translation provider in the market attempts to stand out from the crowd by claiming that they deliver “quality”, it’s no wonder that buyers find it hard to tell the difference between them. Promising to do “a good quality job” is hardly a unique selling proposition, is it?”

No, it isn’t, and the bad news is: this is only the first problem. The other one is related to the statement on the mug that I was looking for: “Translation is not a commodity”.

On one hand, we argue against measuring everything by the same yardstick. On the other hand, we claim, unisono, to deliver products that are invariably and intrinsically good. We promise a uniformly superior quality. Why so?

A good news after the bad is: I know a simple solution to both problems. I know quite a few translation providers who resolve these contradictions simultaneously, whether fully aware of any contradiction or not.

In recent offerings from several Russian translation agencies and freelance translators I was struck by a price differentiation for various quality grades. There were quotes for “business class translations”, “premium translations”, “standard translations”, “basic translations”. Thought provoking indeed:

Tranlsation quality and rates

After spending a dozen or so years as a translator of marketing materials and an interpreter for CEOs, CFOs and marketing consultants, I was struck by the fact that it never occurred to me to offer translation of varying quality, at various rates. But perhaps I worked for the wrong trainers.

If you take the three classic project variables, i.e. cost, time and quality, it is only the first two which get usually tuned and tweaked. It seems reasonable to me not to have any uniform price (I, for one, don’t have any). I also know translators who quote two rates – for standard and express delivery.

Translation - can it be both cheap and fast and good

Fast, cheap, good. The client is invariably called upon to “pick two”. But why not grade the third variable, i.e. quality?

In so doing, we would communicate that quality matters. We could offer various quality grades as proof.

If Luigi Muzii is right when saying that “buyers have difficulty differentiating between good and poor quality work“, we could proactively help the buyers with our structured value proposition. We could show how to differentiate and be discerning. We could offer various products with different price tags and make our “non-commodities” more tangible. Allora, we can “signal” (Luigi’s terminology) translation quality better.

Tony Soprano on translation

What the heck I thought, why not? Tony Soprano is not only a made man, he’s a made marketing guru. There are books like “Tony Soprano on Management: Leadership Lessons Inspired by America’s Favorite Mobster” and many others which I probably should read next. There are business trainers and economists I’d certainly need to work for to learn about diversification.

But even without a little marketing help from Tony Soprano and his friends, I think it is a good trick to push the price up, not down. An extra mile that we promise the client to go is certainly worth a few more cents for a word. Quote .15 for your “regular style” translation, but tell the client your “premium class” is only .5 more. Marketing-wise, wouldn’t it be a viable business model?

Add garbage, go forth.

But let us get serious for a change. The question is how to grade. The labels “business class, “professional grade”, “standard” or “basic” do sound euphemistic. There must be something else besides “quality translation” (wrong signal!) and “subprime” (such is a perfidious word). There certainly is a better classification.

Back in the nineties, the EAGLES working group (Expert Advisory Group on Language Engineering Standards) made a rough distinction of translation quality and set four generic levels:

1. raw translation that conveys the information core of the original text, may contain some minor grammatical or syntactic errors without impeding the understandability of the target text and could be used e.g. for translations of large amounts of scientific abstracts;
2. regular quality translation that achieves full and grammatically correct transfer of the information and presents reasonable linguistic fluency, might be somewhat flawed in terms of register accuracy (style) and could be used for technical manuals;
3. extra quality translation that achieves both fluency and idiomatic accuracy, is properly adapted to the cultural context of the target language and is typically used for advertisements and literature;
4. adaptation that is not the direct translation of an original text, but the re-authoring of newspaper articles and some types of advertisements , it can also present extreme cases of pragmatic text translation to overcome cultural barriers (see “Methods and the role of revision in academic and professional environments of translation” by Georgia Kostopoulou).

Another differentiation of translation quality is my favorite. It is found in Chris Durban’s ATA brochure I mentioned in the beginning of my post. Chris Durban differentiates between for-information translation (“accurate yet unpolished work… can generally be produced faster and more cheaply”) and for-publication translation (used “to sell or persuade, or if image is important to you”) (see “Translation: Getting it Right”).

There are other distinctions and differentiations, the main thing is they are all about varying degrees of quality and various quality levels. Translation is not a commodity, after all. If we have differences, let us differ. But diversify? I might be fond of rhetorical questions, but these are not rhetorical ones.

I have been doing extra quality translation + adaptation (see above) for many years. Time to change?

I don’t diversify (yet). Do you?

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  1. Kevin Lossner’s avatar

    There you go again, my friend, helping me clear out cold-congested lungs by making me laugh so hard with your graphics that I cough my way to a clean-drawn breath. And Luigi, well… since TM Europe he’s been the mark of a very special standard of communication for me 🙂

    It’s an interesting thought, though, this differentiation. You’ve planted it well in my head now, and I’m quite curious to see what grows from it. I think I could have some fun with this.


  2. Catherine Christaki (@LinguaGreca)’s avatar

    Thanks for the very interesting article Valerij. You reminded me of clients who have asked me in the past to offer lower quality work so I could charge them less. Examples include, for-internal-company-use only, student paper that shouldn’t be very well written and of course the all-purpose general-not-in-any-way-technical translation.
    How do you make your mind work less hard when you translate? How do you appease your conscience if you deliver a translation that you haven’t checked enough with inadequately researched terminology?
    As translators, we try to learn new things and skills all the time so we can get better in our work (and subsequently charge more for it). Why would I tone down my skills to lower my rates? That’s what the likes of Google Translate are for.

    The only diversification I can think at the moment is this: There are different kinds of translators.
    1. Amateurs (they charge from nothing to very low rates, fine for crowdsourcing or subtitling pirated movies, translation for them is a hobby)
    2. Inexperienced translators (e.g. recent graduates, low rates but with a strong theoretical background, they know where to look for terminology etc. but their work needs to be proofread before delivery/publication. Fine for low-profile translations).
    3. Good professional translators (fair rates, some years of experience, trustworthy).
    4. Great professional translators (very high rates, highly specialized, everybody wants them but few can afford them; and from what I’ve heard they are always busy!).

    In the words of Judy Jenner: ‘Be the Mercedes-Benz/Porsche/Ferrari of translation, not the Kia’. So the aforementioned types of translators would be:
    Amateurs = Lada
    Inexperienced graduates = Toyota
    Good professional translators = Chevrolet
    Great professional translators = Mercedes

    Is there anyone who doesn’t want to be a Mercedes translator when they grow up? 🙂


  3. Shai’s avatar

    I, for one, think that offering various quality levels is a mistake from a business stand point that with time will most likely hurt the profile of our profession even more.
    Similar to what Catherine has wrote, I find it hard to imagine how a professional translator can reduce their usual quality and then rise at again at will. To me, lower quality doesn’t mean a simpler cognitive process (i.e. easier “work”) but rather less attention to details and/or caring less about the project and/or working in fields one doesn’t have enough specialized knowledge in, a kind of slackness if you will, and this is a slippery slope that can lead to all kind of undesired effects on the translator’s mindset, business approach, self-value, reputation and more. In my opinion it even sends the opposite message by portraying the translation as a commodity. After-all, commodities have pre-defined quality (purity, craftsmanship, materials) while skilled services require, well, skills (and knowledge, continued education and so forth) and a skill level is not something that could be lowered or raised by a flip of a mental switch. Even in the commodity world you almost never see someone explicitly saying that they offer just a bad/mediocre quality compared to others, it is just inferred.
    Imagine asking your lawyer to cut some corners and charge less because you just need X results and you don’t care if you can actually get 2X results; or from your doctor to charge less and prescribe the minimum amount of treatment that will help you get back on your feet rather than the best treatment that he/she recommends that will make you feel as healthy as possible.
    There might be a room for different service levels (e.g. translation, translation + proofreading by a colleague, etc.), but the message should be clear – the core “quality” (as in care, attention and the level of skill used) of the process is always the same. A translation agency might be able to offer different quality levels because they can choose amateurs, inexperienced or just mediocre translator, but this will likely backfire on them in the long run, but by then the damage will be done. This will also not be the first instance in which translation agencies work against the interest of their marketplace and hurt it by introducing questionable practices that serve only one purpose – maintain or increase their profit margins – by treating the translation as commodity themselves. Many nowadays are already trying to plant the notion that translation cannot be “perfect”, it can never reads fluently in the target language, it can only be just adequate, flaws are and should be expected because this is what “translation is” – thus laying the ground for using cheaper translators while pocketing the difference without having the client complain.


    1. Dan Newland’s avatar

      Great point, Shai.

      In the 20-year career that I had as a journalist and newspaper and magazine editor, this was the point that I always made to budding writers, who, when I criticized their writing would say, "Oh, I put a lot more effort into my creative work or 'into articles that count.'" My response was always that the day-to-day, the hard, ditch-digging work of putting out a daily newspaper, for instance, was very much like the daily training and roadwork of a boxer. If that boxer really expects to ever take the world title, his daily training has to be every bit as serious and impeccable as the work he does when he climbs into the ring to meet the challenge of his rival. And the same is true for every writer and translator. It doesn't matter whether the job is describing a new home applaince or turning out a Pulitzer Prize-winning work of non-fiction. If you don't put out the best work you know how every time you set word to page, you're simply fooling yourself if you think you'll know how to do that "when the time comes." Those who argue that there are different quality levels to suit different needs in the world of letters (be it writing or translation) are merely admitting their own mediocrity, ignorance, lack of professional pride and, in the end, lack of talent. 


    2. Chris Durban’s avatar

      Interesting post, Valerij — and surely the best possible argument for charging hourly rates, no? Assuming we’re talking about good clients, that is. (And is anyone actively seeking bad clients?)

      By charging an hourly fee, you’re stating very clearly to the client that you’re willing to harness up your skills for whatever it is that the s/he needs at that particular moment (which I figure is fair enough), no haggling. Good clients are fine with this. (Note: we can discuss Luigi Muzii’s clients later).

      Here’s an example I’ve cited elsewhere:
      Last year I was asked to summarize & translate a radio interview given by the CEO of a company targeted in a takeover bid; since this was going to be used at a business strategy meeting around lunchtime, I had about two hours to deliver. Rush rush rush. Later that afternoon, I was asked to translate the same interview verbatim since it had to be filed, in full, with the SEC. Five hours later, that second translation was done. Same source texte, different uses, different deadlines, different criteria.

      I billed seven hours, which seems only logical (no?). The translations were both fine, according to the feedback I got. (I happen to be speciaized in this area, and was tracking the deal so felt fairly confident.) And the client wasn’t a penny-pincher; they knew what they wanted and I was happy to give them that at my price.

      Moving right along, a few weeks ago I read the interview you mention and had intended to respond directly but got sidetracked.

      For me, the flaw (and it’s serious flaw) in Luigi’s reasoning and crazy sweeping statements is that he takes the bottom of the bulk end of the market, where he has apparently been trapped for the past decade or so, as the only market segment that exists.
      I believe he is very sincere in doing this and agree that it must be extremely frustrating. But that makes no difference: he’s wrong. The man has blinders on. Full stop.

      Back to your post.

      – Agreed that it’s hard to make a pitch on something as general as “quality” to a potential client. Solution: you stop talking about it and *show* them what you can do for them, either by using a text of their own or by pointing them towards something you’ve done for somebody else in a situation they can relate to. Some of the best specialized translators have nice little narratives like this on their websites; you don’t have to name client names, but if you narrow your focus to what you can do well (and areas where you know there’s demand) it’s not hard to craft hooks that will enable you to plant your harpoon and haul them in. Pleasantly, of course.

      – Which brings me to specialization. Pitching for work as described is precisely where the specialized freelancer is light-years ahead of the generalist, and even more so of the generalist translation broker. (Life/translation really gets tricky when you want to be all things to all people).

      I suppose I should also put in a plug for suppliers who sign their work: that way the show & tell is out in the public domain, i.e., “if you want this sort of quality, I’m your person”. Enables good clients to find you. (As you know, I’m a big believer in transparency.) Curiously (or not) bulk providers steer well clear of identifying themselves alongside any of their work… and that includes the guy touting copper, silver, gold and platinum-level service that someone mentioned to me the other day…


    3. Luigi Muzii’s avatar

      Thank you everybody for quoting me. If there is anything more annoying in the world than having people talk about you, it is certainly having no one talk about you.


    4. Luke Gos’s avatar

      I’ve recently been toying with the idea of charging separately for additional layers of self-proofing, editions and such like. Still have to give it more thought. I remember thinking about “premium” explicitly but that mostly had to do with the level of guarantee provided and even more so the attendant customer service entitlement. In short, I don’t really like budget purchasers with fussy, premium requirements. My thought was that in a certain price bracket I wanted them to take the translation and go away unless there was a real concern. My novel marketing idea is one in which I spend an entire with a small text, doing nothing else. A day would be a block of hours, a bit how interpreters price their services. Getting paid by the hour would allow me to do more research into the subject matter, the client’s brand and corporate identity, get a feel of this and that, as well as setting myself in the optimal mood and other optimal conditions. Essentially, copywriting lite.

      Also, what you need to take into consideration is the relationship between customisation and correction. Correction these days more and more resembles the standard adjustments in goods and services and less the fact that there actually was an error in the translation. A client who is only entitled to such adjustments in the case of an error will claim error by default. You want to reframe that, get the client off the idea of pointing out mistakes or errors that don’t objectively exist, which keeps him from questioning your professional standards, while at the same time getting paid for your time. The latter is possible only really through a service structure that allows time-limited consultations with time and effort varied according to the rates charged.

      Finally, I disagree with EAGLES on some things. Register is not something that begins to matter only when there’s not a trace of grammatical or syntactic imperfection (good luck finding objective standards for the lesser stuff and especially for balancing those and the need for naturalcy). Fluency and accuracy are also a bit more complicated than that list seems to imply. Finally, “idiomatic accuracy” is, IMHO, an oxymoron. But I’m not a theorist.


    5. Dan Newland’s avatar

      @Luigi: Thank YOU, Luigi, for always providing us with such outlandishly great material to quote. 



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