Translators faced with the question of translation quality often find themselves in the same place as the late Supreme Court justice Potter Stewart when he was trying to come to grips with hard-core pornography: unable to formulate a definition but convinced that “I know it when I see it.” Even if you believe that translation quality, however it may manifest itself, is important, you have to admit that this is a really weak position from which to request higher fees or longer deadlines.
To make up for this lack of definition, all sorts of metrics have been developed in the big quest to find the unbeatable Q argument. Some assign numeric values to the translation – comparing numbers makes it look more scientific and objective. Others prescribe a certain process and award certifications to those who promise to follow the process – the idea being that the process guarantees a minimum of quality.
However, I believe that clients, with very few exceptions, really don’t care about this I-know-it-when-I-see-it quality enough to invest more money, effort, or time. I have heard too many times replies like “It’s just a maintenance manual, not Nobel Prize material” – meaning that they don’t want to pay what I ask or grant me the requested time frame. Even the quality certification or the quality metrics don’t translate to anything that they see as having a sufficient effect on the user experience to be meaningful within their cost-benefit universe.
So as a result, I am proposing simply to drop the word “quality” from the discussion about translation. I know, I know… especially in light of recent events like unpaid crowd-sourcing attempts and the rise of machine translation, many colleagues feel that the art and craft part of the profession and the concept of quality in translation is dangerously ignored. I don’t necessarily disagree, but I cannot see how I will be able to negotiate better pay or better conditions with my clients claiming more art and craft – or more quality.
Here is my proposal (and it came to me after reading about how to measure the value of technical communication – technical writers are often neglected by translators, yet so many of their issues are similar to ours): I am in the business of translation utilitarian text. When I edit translations, I try to make sure that I eliminate what I call “bumps and potholes,” text areas that slow me down because I have to re-read to understand, or refer to the source text, or try and pick apart the syntax. When readers of my translation can read the text without hick-ups and understand it perfectly, then my translation has worked well. It is usable. If readers have to stop, re-read, if they get the wrong information and make mistakes, if they abandon the text in favor of trial and error, or if they call (perhaps repeatedly) the customer service line, then the usability of my translation is sub-standard.
If we forget about “quality” and instead talk about “usability” or “utility” of a translation, we have a metric that should make sense to the client since it affects areas that cost money: higher pay with longer working hours if it takes their technicians longer to understand the text; repairs and liability issues if there are errors in the repair manual; higher demand on the call center if the user abandons the text in favor of calling; loss of revenue if the product becomes known as difficult to install/operate due to sub-standard documentation. While it is hard to argue with a client who doesn’t want Nobel Prize prose, it is easy to argue with a client (should it be necessary to argue at all) who doesn’t want top usability.
When I was reading up on some of the issues for this post, I came across a journal article by Suzan Boztepe entitled User Value: Competing Theories and Models, published in the International Journal of Design. It deals with user value of design, but there are, I believe, quite a few parallels to translation here, and some of her thoughts might help to solidify my own, somewhat cursory approach to replacing the emphasis on quality with a focus on usability. I am reproducing the utility part of one of her diagrams below.