Japanese Translation Bulletin No. 9 (July 23, 2009)
Translation is Not a Commodity
Wheat, sugar, and eggs are commodities; translation is clearly not. But it appears that some translation service providers are treating translation as if it were a commodity and hoping that this mistaken belief is accepted by their clients as well. We refer to the mass-production translation brokers who supply a large portion of the Japanese-to-English translations ordered by US law firms handling litigation involving Japanese parties. Clearly, translation is not a commodity, for a number of reasons that should be easy to understand.
Difficulty of Judging Quality
Commodities in the usual sense of the word are usually subjected to widely accepted quality standards. Judging the quality of a translation is not nearly so simple. It is virtually impossible for a non-translator to evaluate the quality of a Japanese-to-English translation, and that is a fortunate fact for those translation providers who add no value to the translations they re-sell, preferring to simply pass them from the translator to their clients.
Tiny Population of Providers Relative to the Demand
Our translation experience of more than 30 years tells us that it is reasonable to estimate the population of professional translators capable of producing quality Japanese-to-English translation of the type of Japanese documents commonly encountered in the discovery process at less than 1000 translators. When we allow for the time that many of these translators spend pursuing other activities, including other types of translation work, the gneth available population shrinks drastically, perhaps to fewer than 200 Japanese-to-English translators worldwide who could be called upon to provide high-quality English translations of Japanese discovery documents. This situation is amply demonstrated by the very common phenomenon of several translation companies attempting to subcontract to the same translator or another translation company to do a given job on which they are bidding. There are just not enough qualified translators capable of doing this work.
Difficulty of Increasing Production
With wheat or sugar, solutions to the problem of increasing production include acquisition and efficient use of more land. For eggs, the producer can purchase more chickens. Faced with the need for huge amounts of Japanese-to-English translation, however, the solutions often utilized result in a loss of quality. Regardless of all the hype heard in recent years about technology to aid the translation process, the weak link in any chain designed to produce a high volume of high-quality translation is the human translator, who is the only element in the system that can add value to the process. A producer of wheat can, given sufficient funding, purchase more land to raise production. All the funding in the world is not, however, going to enable a translation producer or re-seller to maintain quality while increasing the production level. The inevitable choice, made necessary of course because such translation providers rarely have much in-house translation capability, is one of outsourcing, and in too many cases this involves outsourcing to translators completely unknown to the translation provider before they received your order. Naturally, clients ordering translation usually do not suspect that this is happening. If translation were truly a commodity, this approach might work. If one translatorfs work could be replaced by the work of another translator, it might work. But it clearly does not work. Translation is not a commodity, and the products of two translators are rarely interchangeable.
Capable translators are not developed overnight. The response of some translation providers to this reality is simple; they seek translators who are less capable. There is a ready supply of less-capable translators that is being tapped daily by mass-production translation services. Some of these less-capable translators reside in India or China and have never had and will never have any direct experience in either the US or Japan. This is a recipe for failure to provide the quality you need.
Is There a Way Out of This Situation?
One of the systematic causes of the above-described problem is the long-held belief that one type of translation provider can and should be trusted to execute all varieties of translation. Yes, one-stop shopping seems convenient. In the real world of translation, however, translation companies know their limitations, but few admit to these limitations. Some excel in executing high-volume translation when high quality is not essential. Others excel at high-quality translations of documents for which you must have a translation you can trust, whether you are presenting it as evidence or using it as the basis for examination in depositions.
The rough translations can be handled by a number of translation companies who specialize in high-volume discovery document translation. As your discovery document triaging and rough translation tasks proceed, however, these same mass-production translation providers are not necessarily the ones you should be trusting with the more-important documents that you have encountered. On the contrary, you should consider the advantages of two-stop shopping, which allows each type of translation provider to do what it does well.
Rough translations can be obtained from the mass-production outfits, of course with the understanding that your documents might be sent to unknown translators in undisclosed locations. More important documents that you need to rely on can then be assigned to a translation provider who knows its translators beforehand, will not subcontract or sub-subcontract your work to unpredictable Third-World translation providers, and is committed to providing the quality your more-important document require. This is not that difficult a concept. The trick is breaking out of that one-stop shopping habit.