Translation Quality: Why Clients Prefer to Settle for Less
Why wouldn’t you improve mediocre translations?
Discussions of the importance of translation quality keep cropping up. There are countless articles featuring translation blunders and describing the consequences for the companies that used them. We’ve all cringed at mysterious or wacky translations featured on virtual walls of shame (Engrish.com is a prime example).
The translation problem isn’t limited to companies from overseas or big international brands, either. Domestic businesses suffer from the same disease, if often in a less drastic form. Small irregularities and clumsy phrasing add up to clunky translations, signalling a lack of professionalism. As a matter of fact, Grayson Morris just kicked off the series The Devil Is in the Detail on her blog Gold into Gold. She will be taking a closer look at some Dutch to English website translation slip-ups, what went wrong and what could have been improved.
Customers want to read content in their own language, so providing translations is an important and very visible part of customer service. Still, if you use second-rate translations as your calling card for international customers, how much quality of service can these customers expect? And how little do you value that customer base?
Having bad translations on your website and not being aware of that is one thing. But what motivates clients to prefer the status quo when we point out that they are using less than perfect translations? Why are some clients reluctant to listen to constructive criticism or suggestions on how to improve their translations (even if offered as free advice)? Why hang on to translations that reflect badly on them and their company’s commitment to quality? And what about that special type of client who will go and “improve” your translations after delivery?
Reasons that bad translation quality may be here to stay
What follows are reactions I have heard from clients when I broached the (admittedly touchy) subject of translation quality:
- Defensiveness: “No one has ever said anything like that about our English copy before!”
- Lack of (negative) feedback on the translation quality: “We’ve never heard any complaints about our translations.”
- Target group are EFL speakers: “Non-native speakers aren’t as fussy as native speakers. No need to spend more money.”
- None of the market players are native speakers of English: “We’re German – why would our customers expect perfect English from us? None of them are native speakers, either.”
- Grammar versus style: “That’s just a matter of personal preference and not necessarily a wrong translation.”
- Budget issues: “Our translation budget has already been allocated. There’s no money left to change existing translations.”
- Misconception of language skills involved (L2 translation): “I spent X years living in England – my English is practically native and I do the translations myself.”
- The needle in the haystack: “The bulk of the translation was done by a professional translator; the few DIY bits in between are barely noticeable.”
- Fitting in with the crowd: “This is how our competitors say it too.”
- Keeping up with the Joneses: “No one is going to actually read the translated website. An English website has become de rigeur, even though we only have domestic customers.”
- The (too) laid-back client: “If a few typos don’t bother me, why should our customers care?”
- Misplaced faith in larger LSPs: “A big translation agency did the original translation, so the quality must be stellar.”
- Suspicion of my motives: “I don’t need extra translation services. All I want you to do is translate the texts I gave you.”
- An in-house “expert”: Anna from Marketing checks and edits all translations. We trust her implicitly.”
- (It’s not us, it’s you: Maybe they just don’t want to hear it from me. Fair enough, just get a second opinion, please.)
- Have clients given you different reasons for rejecting your constructive criticism? Please share them in the comments.
What’s the moral of the story? Well, companies providing badly translated versions of their website or marketing materials have stopped short of the goal. They’ve understood that customers in international markets want to read information in their own language. Now they only need to be convinced that these international customers expect excellent localization and translations and not just inferior foreign language versions. Sticking to a lower-quality translation strategy with an eye to keeping expenses and effort low will always prove to be a short-sighted approach.
Perhaps this is especially a problem of translations into English. After all, bad English is the language of choice all over the world. Quite a few Germans seem unduly proud of their English skills and mistakenly assume that their language skills are sufficient for producing English translations or copy. Why spend money on something that you can easily take care of in-house? Translations are costly, no doubt. We want clients to see them as an investment instead of an unnecessary expense that should be kept as low as possible. Skimping on translations means skimping on customer service – and that never pays.
PS How to convince clients that making the investment in a higher quality translation strategy is worthwhile is the stuff of a separate post. The wide variety of reasons for not investing in first-rate translations means that there is no one-size-fits-all solution.