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“Quality” Doesn’t Do The Trick

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.

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7 Responses to ““Quality” Doesn’t Do The Trick”

  1. Great concept, usability.

    I am a translatos in a company in the chemical industry, and our “application” part in technical data sheets are a challenge sometimes. Confusing syntax, non-specific termns… When prompted to ‘just do it fast’ I always answer that I want it to be understandable for the final user. What’s the point of translating it all if it is not of use to the reader?

    Excellent post.

  2. Bill Kirtz says:

    Good analysis, however you are simply substituting “ultility” for “quality”. What I believe is required is that the translation consumer actually care about what they are purchasing for their ultimate consumer. How then to strike a balance between “utility” and cost is the question on everyone’s lips. How much utility is enough utility?

  3. Demid Tishin says:

    Michael, thank you for the article – but I’ve got a few second thoughts:

    1) When you deliver translation to client both of you know that it’s not just some text in itself, but a text required to perform a given function. So if that function doesn’t demand top language and style, both of you are content with just ‘usable’ translation, which is cheaper and faster to produce.
    But time passes, and translation text remains there forever, and lives its own life.
    Are you sure your client’s contact person’s view on quality requirements is the same as the client company owner’s? Are you sure your contact won’t leave the company and be replaced with a person with different approach to transation quality? Are you sure company documentation standards won’t change? Are you sure the text won’t be viewed by important people who don’t know/care what was the initial function of the translation?
    What if they say: Who was the guy who did this translation job? Never give him any assignments!
    This is exaggeration but things happen, you know.
    So I strongly believe that besides ‘client-side’ quality there must be language-specific translation and documentation quality standards that should be observed by TSPs.

    2) The diagram you reproduced has ‘Avoidance of Sensory Unpleasntness’ under ‘Convenience’. Don’t you think that lack of ‘objective’ quality may sometimes cause that feeling? 🙂

  4. John Watkins says:

    Thank you for this topic, Michael. It is timely and I understand your perspective. The usability, of course, varies depending upon the end user. My perspective is, in many ways, the same as yours but a bit more customer centric. It is, ultimately, the customer who represents the end user. Their definition of quality varies greatly and we strive to achieve the respective definition. Sometimes, usability is remarkably utilitarian.ISO 9001 requirements are focused not on “what is quality” but “what does the customer require.”

    Great topic!

  5. peter manda says:

    I like the assessment of a translation based on how it reads and communicates the original intent. But, whatever metric you use, there are unscrupulous agencies out there who refuse to pay – regardless of the argument; quality or usability. How to avoid working with agencies that don’t appreciate your work, the usability of your text, the skills you have developed over the years, that’s a profound question. More important, however, is how do we define translation as a profession. Are we as translators entitled to the same level of respect as attorneys and physicians (whose texts we translate) or as professors of English?

  6. I think that the term quality here is used in the sense of the processes, measures, and certificates to signify value. Usability, on the other hand, is just the experience of the end-consumer with the piece. If it achieves its purpose, then its good.

    I’m also into copywriting, and in this business, we do not measure the quality of a piece per se. We measure usability in terms of how many people did what we wanted them to do (sign-up for a newsletter, purchase a produt etc…)after reading the piece. And frankly speaking, we do not know which ones are good until we publish them.

  7. Michael says:

    I’ve been away for a couple of weeks, and while in Germany I attended the conference of the German translators association in Berlin. There was much talk about “quality” there and many references to the various quality standards. I found it fascinating how systematic the approach was. What I took away from these discussions was that there seems to be a general agreement that “translation quality” consists of many factors, among them timely delivery, adherence to stipulations such as document formatting and file format, proper research, communication with the client about questions, etc. All those are factors that help a translation to be as close to what a client wants the translation to be. The language quality of the translation, what we would call “good” or “bad,” is only one of the elements of that total translation quality. Yet, when translators talk about quality among themselves, I would bet that 99% of them refer to that language quality only.

    When I wrote that “quality” doesn’t do the trick, I was talking about language quality. I believe that most of the other factors that people discussed in Berlin, timeliness, cleanliness, and all the other requirements, are never in question. Not that every translator does a good job there, but I don’t think anybody denies that it is part of a job well done to deliver it on time and according to specifications. Where we run into discussions is whether a text is good or bad or whether it could be better.

    So when I say that I want to abandon the term “quality” I am doing this to gain a better weapon in my fight for a better text, not because I think that quality is not important.

    First: I don’t want to throw standards overboard. The rules of grammar, spelling, syntax need to be followed. The text has to adhere to all measurable standards of textual correctness.

    Second: I have no interest in arguing with fellow translators about quality, i.e. which rendering of the source is “better,” when the only difference is our respective preference. As Jiri (@cetrainc) said on Twitter: “There is a notion of absolute quality favored by the translators and a notion of relative quality (usability) favored by the buyers.” The translator-favored notion of absolute quality is academic. I cannot use it as leverage with my client.

    Third: Quality exists where the translation is consumed. It exists as the degree to which it fulfills the client’s expectations, it exists to the degree it fulfills its purpose with the user. The latter is, in my opinion, a particularly persuasive argument with clients, much more so than the notion of textual quality. Hence my suggestions to talk about usability – but I am not stuck on “usability” if anyone can think of a better word.

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