What takes so long? Balancing quality, time and cost in translation

In a world of increasingly fast-moving, demanding and competitive business, the need for speed is usually closely associated with revenue and expenditure: time is money after all. This goes hand in hand with the ever-growing requirement for quasi-instantaneous translations, regardless of size, genre, language direction and style. But are these needs compatible with translators? What is speed in the context of translation? If speed increases, what happens to quality and cost? These questions are beyond the scope of this blog, but, as a point of departure on the topic of time, I’d like to address an all-too-common question asked by clients on linguist output: what takes so long?

In short, there is no simple, quick and one-size-fits-all answer. The rule of thumb is that translators can complete 2,000-2,500 words per day (eight hours). You may ask: well, the average person types at 40 words per minute, a professional at 65 to 75 words, but at translator at 4 to 5 words, why’s that?

Comparing apples and pears

At first glance, this appears to be a justifiable question. However, in an attempt to answer this, we cannot compare apples and pears; the two are miles apart. Translation speed does not equal typing speed. On the one hand, 2,000-2,500 words is not just for translation; it amounts to a finalised product; that is, translation, revision and editing by the same linguist. On the other hand, freestyle writing enables us to project our own thoughts, build our own sentences and manipulate our grammar and terminology to achieve our aim. Depending on the translation theory to which you subscribe, translators do not have the luxury of the ‘self’, nor do they have the authority to manipulate, change, and, with the exceptions of creative marketing texts, express their own ideas. Rather, they are bound, to an extent, to the source text, and are ‘forced’ to recreate the work of another, in a style prescribed to them.

What does translation involve?

To start with, texts vary in difficulty (not only genre and technicality, but also style, terminology, idiosyncrasies and cultural references), they can be written clearly and concisely, or ambiguously and verbosely; they can be submitted electronically or in hardcopy, with tables and graphs, images and pictures. Sometimes they include references to a company-specific culture, which linguists will be unfamiliar with and alienated from – with little help to be found from style guides, glossaries and experience in the industry. Furthermore, and this is a non-exhaustive list, translators consult reference material and conduct research, not necessarily to find ‘the right word’, but perhaps to verify their translational decisions. Other factors include: translation memories, good and readily-available dictionaries, information and terminology on subject-specific content, errors or uncertainties in the source, but, most importantly, the languages at play – are they similar or polar opposites? All of this, and more, runs through a translator’s mind. They do not simply read and write, but must understand the text at its deepest semantic, intentional and communicative level, at least if they are to make a good job of it!

Haste is waste

Rendering a translation that sounds like an original, is void of calque, which works as a standalone, independent text requires skill, analysis, and a thorough understanding of the languages and cultures. This can only be achieved with sufficient time. Allowing your linguists time to carry out research and preparation will ensure a quality and reliable translation that yields the desired results, as opposed to one produced by writing the ‘first thing that comes to mind’.


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Gary studied French, German and Spanish as an undergraduate, and then went on to complete an MA in Translation and Interpreting studies. Since leaving university, he has held positions in licensing, project management and account management, and also works as a freelance translator. In his spare time, he likes to play the piano, travel and keep fit, as well as socialising, of course!

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