Traditionally, translation used to be defined as the art and skill of understanding nuances in a source-language text and transferring these nuances into a target-language text.
In line with this definition, given the rather large variability in terms of how well this transfer was executed, the translation market was divided into a bulk market, where nuances were rendered in a “good enough” way, and a premium market, where nuances were rendered, to quote Kevin Hendzel , “exactly, precisely, elegantly, authoritatively and compelling right.”
To succeed in that premium market, according to Hendzel, translators need deep subject-matter expertise and compelling writing skills, and I agree. For all texts where the “cost of failure is dramatically higher than the cost of performance” (Hendzel), such a skill set is immensely valuable and well worth a premium fee. It’s an investment for buyers that will pay off many times over.
But there is also no denying that the number of translators entering the market are ill-advised if they aim for deep specialization and expect that commensurate pay will automatically follow.
Because it’s not that simple. The translation world has changed tremendously and can no longer be defined in the traditional sense of “here is a source text and this is the target text”, no matter how deeply specialized the translator is.
The translation world has become much more complex.
Over the last two decades, a sizeable number of language-service companies (LSCs) have evolved into mega corporations with sometimes staggering growth rates. With their increasing dominance in the market, they have come to shape the translation universe through automation and technology tools. Which in itself is applaudable, no doubt. Yet in doing so, they have also come to dictate their terms and their processes, putting increasing price pressures on translators, even on highly specialized ones, driving them to produce more volume in less time and at less pay, which in turn results in lower quality, which in turn causes clients to be less prepared to pay more adequate fees, which in turn results in even more price pressure, and so forth. There seems no end to that vicious cycle in sight.
Due to their promise of maximum convenience for clients, these language-service companies have come to heavily influence general perceptions of how translations work. They have managed to convince client companies that all they need to do is send over their texts and then lean back, worry-free. Everything will be taken care of. Easy as pie. Just submit a text and you’ll get the perfect foreign-language text back.
It ain’t that simple though, and while client purchasing departments may be thrilled at the cost-saving schemes they have auctioned off to the lowest-price bidders, the actual users of the resulting translations at these client companies may be less thrilled. In the best of worlds, they may get translations that are basically accurate and basically reflect the nuances of the source text, but even so, they may still have to rewrite the final target texts all over, exasperated at the apparent inability of translators to deliver actually publishable material.
This is especially the case when it comes to corporate communications – texts where a company’s reputation and ultimately, its revenue, is on the line. And that’s a wide field, ranging from ads, press releases, employee communication, websites, brochures, crisis comms, blog articles, and more. Essentially any text that is intended to inform while at the same time inspire, engage, and motivate readers to action.
Many marketing people I have spoken with have expressed their dissatisfaction and were genuinely surprised to learn that there are professional linguists out there who can deliver way more than they thought — or have been told — is possible.
We need to move away from the traditional perception of the work done by human expert translators.
Translation comes from the Latin word translatio, which means “bringing something across/to another place.”
In other words: In translation, we are expected to take a source text and transfer it to another place — to an audience living in another culture and market.
According to that definition, and the way it is still taught in most places to date, translation is therefore all about decoding nuances and details in a source text and finding ways to adequately transfer these nuances and details in a target text.
And this definition used to work well for everyone involved — until recently, when this transfer of nuances started to be done by artificial intelligence, or “machine translations”, as they are generally referred to.
Where just a few years ago we would laugh at the sometimes jarring garbage produced by these “machines,” the quality is now increasingly passable. Not great, but sort of okay when handled professionally, meaning: Using professional, adequately trained machine translation software (not the free versions), and having the raw outputs diligently edited by skilled experts.
The reason why such output is often perceived as “okay” or “good enough” may be due to readers who are skimming more than actually reading, and to the enormous amounts of data processed plus the advances in AI, which have led to outputs that can be used with sometimes (!) only minor human expert post-editing.
One of the larger players in the machine translation space is the German company DeepL, which calls itself “[t]he world’s most accurate and nuanced machine translation” and goes on to claim : “DeepL’s neural networks are able to capture even the slightest nuances and reproduce them in translation unlike any other service.”
While this statement is purposely phrased in relative terms (“the most accurate and nuanced machine translation” and “unlike any other service”, so, not necessarily great, just better than other machine translations), the point is that their translation value proposition is all about capturing nuances and reproducing these nuances in another language.
Of course, capturing and reproducing nuances is indeed relevant. But only so for translation work in the traditional definition. It is not quite as relevant for services that go beyond traditional translation work.
Although, why would you want services that go beyond translations?
Today, the distinction between “premium” and “bulk” should no longer simply be a question of how well nuances are decoded and rendered in a target text.
Things have changed since Kevin Hendzel wrote his article in 2014. So, to revisit his definition from the beginning at this post, a premium translation services provider is no longer simply a person with deep specialization and writing skills.
If you have you ever worked with truly professional translators directly, and allowed them to enter into a true dialogue with you, you will likely have been impressed and amazed not only by their subject-matter expertise, as described by Hendzel, but also by how much they offer in addition to translation.
- A professional translator who is also a professional copywriter (aka transcreator) can help you rewrite and restructure your corporate messages to suit specific expectations in a foreign market.
- A professional translator with a marketing research background may be a great resource for beta-testing the questionnaire you want translated. Or even conduct the interviews for you.
- A professional translator will carry out a final check of your foreign-language landing page just before you go live with it, checking whether buttons, CTAs, copy, visuals — literally everything on that page — are aligned (don’t appear to have been cobbled together from myriad sources) and on-strategy (you’d be surprised how many issues I have caught in such reviews).
- A professional translator can help you with local competitor research, provide in-market support services and liaise with local contacts.
- A professional translator will spot factual errors, ambiguities, and inconsistencies in the source copy and discuss alternatives with you, helping you to improve your messaging both in your source (!) and target texts.
- A professional translator may bring up questions that nobody on your team had thought of.
And so forth.
How come? Well, good translators aren’t machines. Most have studied at universities for at least as long and hard as any lawyer or engineer, and have continuously supplemented their knowledge and skills with additional training and continued education. They are highly analytical, culturally fine-tuned, genuinely supportive, and have a wealth of experience that goes completely untapped if you reduce them to reproducing nuances. While the latter is still a challenge and should by no means be underestimated, these experts can offer so much more. They can provide real-life insights into other countries, cultures, and markets. They can make your brand sound authentic in another language. They can bring diversity perspectives into your communications. They can give you a real voice in your foreign markets.
So, the next time you want a translation that basically renders the nuances of a source text in a potentially “good enough” way, the machine-translation-plus-professional-expert-editor combo may work for you.
Yet when you need a premium service that takes into account what you actually want to achieve with your communication in a foreign market, speak to a human expert translator.
Not a company.
Not a machine.
Reach out and work with translators as your partners.
And expect to be amazed and impressed.
Note: I am connected to some excellent translation service boutique agencies and client companies that understand the value of their translators and treat them as partners. I would like to get to know more of them! So, if you are such a company or agency or a freelancer interested in being part of a community that gives translators more visibility, encourages them to gain more confidence in actively using more of their skills, and advocates fair payment and adequate terms of work, I’d love to hear from you so we can join forces.
What’s in it for you? Great texts and great partners!
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 source: Kevin Hendzel’s blog at kevinhendzel.com/it-was-the-best-of-times-it-was-the-worst-of-times-how-the-premium-market-offers-translators-prosperity-in-an-era-of-collapsing-bulk-market-rates/ (accessed 22 January 2022)
 As a user of machine translation software you will never know in advance how much editing will be needed in each case. The raw output may turn out passable, or read well yet be dangerously off, or just plain useless. There is no way to reliably predict a machine translation’s accuracy. So, there is also that to consider.
 source: www.deepl.com/en/whydeepl (accessed 22 January 2022)
 I have listed abilities that are more specific to my own profile as a transcreator with a marketing background, but accomplished translators in other fields will provide similar profiles in their respective niches.
 picture credit: Andrea Piacquadio, Pexels