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What You Don't Know About your Translation Supply Chain Can Hurt You

Executive Summary: Many aspects of the Japanese-to-English translation supply chain you are probably using remain purposefully hidden from you. The result usually negatively impacts quality, makes it impossible to determine just who does your translation and where it is done, and also presents security concerns.

Concerns ranging from mistreatment of workers to environmental impact are often heard about the supply chains that underpin a number of industries. Although the supply chains for service industries such as translation have seldom raised such concerns, globalization of the translation business in recent years has brought about heavy reliance on cheap labor in remote locations that elude direct monitoring and control. The concerns about translation industry supply chains are considerably different than those in, for example, the mobile phone industry, but they are valid supply-chain concerns nonetheless.

Why the Translation Supply Chain Matters

Translation users might wonder why they need to worry about the supply chain. The answer is simple.

Almost all translations you and other translation consumers order are sold by companies that merely purchase the translations and resell them to you. If you are in a US law firm, you are almost certainly ordering translations from companies that totally lack the ability to translate your documents (or any documents) themselves and often cannot even judge the quality of the translations they purchase and are reselling to you. Even when they feel the need to improve the quality of the translations they resell, they most often outsource that task as well, since they do not have that capability themselves. They are in almost all cases better characterized as brokers, devoid of any translation capability of their own.

Who Actually Does Translations from Japanese to English?

If we limit the question to translations ordered in Japan, the answer will be people in Japan in most cases. In other translation markets, however, the picture is radically different. One example is the huge market for Japanese-to-English translation for civil litigation (chiefly discovery documents) or for patent prosecution in the US.

What Globalization Has Done to Japanese Discovery Document Translation

US law firms order huge amounts of Japanese-to-English translations of Japanese documents from several large translation brokers in the US. A very small number of these brokers appear to sell most of those translations. We can verify that by looking at the certification letters attached thereto (more on this below). In the past, the majority of such translations were purchased by the brokers from translators in the US or other English-speaking countries and resold to the law firms. The appearance of translation brokers in places like China, however, has drastically changed the translation landscape.

The Change is Clearly Evident in the Reduced Quality

We often encounter English translations of Japanese discovery documents in depositions of Japanese witnesses. From having access to such translations, we can say two things with confidence:

Why Does the Country of Origin Matter?

Language ability. The accepted wisdom of translation professionals and informed translation consumers is that a translator should translate into their native language. Almost no translators in China can claim either English or Japanese as their native language. Like a machine translation system, these translators have neither the source language nor the target language as their native language. Essentially, these translators are competing with machine translation systems and are producing translations that are no better in many cases. If you would not (and you certainly should not) give a translator with only Polish as their native language the job of translating from French to Turkish, you should not expect a Chinese translator to execute a high-quality translation of your documents from Japanese to English.

The fallacy of similarity between Chinese and Japanese. The notion that a similarity between Japanese and Chinese makes the task of Japanese-to-English translation easy for Chinese translators is simply wrong. To be sure, the writing systems have similarities that can be sensed by even people unknowledgeable of either language, but so do the writing systems of many mutually unintelligible languages in Europe and elsewhere.

Field-specific knowledge. If the translation consumer (a law firm or other user of the translation) has no way of learning the identity of the translator, there is no assurance of subject matter comprehension on the part of the translator from which the overseas translation broker (mostly in China) purchased the translation for resale to the US broker for resale to the end client. The only way you might learn whether the translator understood the subject matter they were translating is after the fact, when it might be too late and when you have already paid for and used the translation.

Security. There should be no need to explain why sensitive documents for litigation or patent prosecution should not be sent to China.

Translation Brokers Very Often Don’t Themselves Know Who Did the Translations they Sell

Not only are you, as the translation consumer, in the dark about the identity and abilities of the translator executing translations of your documents, when you order translations of discovery documents from large translation brokers in the US, the brokers themselves will very likely not know who executed the translation, beyond knowing the name of another translation broker in China from which they purchased the translations.

Meaningless Certification Letters

Most translations of discovery documents sold to law firms by large translation brokers in the US are accompanied by something that is characterized as a certification letter attesting to the accuracy of the translation.

In what appears to be the overwhelming majority of cases, certification letters are signed by an administrative worker at the broker. This person is seldom a translator of any languages and, for reasons noted above, often doesn’t even know who the translator was. The certification letter is thus nothing more than an act of faith, and sometimes it is a deception.

An Alarming Increase in Falsified Certification Letters

Worse than having a non-translator without the capability of judging translation accuracy attest to translation accuracy is receiving a certification letter with the name of a fictitious translator or, even worse, the name of a real translator who had nothing to do with the translation and did not realize their name was being used without their permission.

In just such a case, an attorney presented to the witness a translated document with a certification letter signed by a translator personally known to me. Taking a look at the translation, however, it’s extremely poor quality immediately indicated to me that it was not done by that translator. I sent off an email to the translator and discovered not only that he was not involved in the translation, but also that this was not the first time that the translation broker had used his name without his permission. The translation broker involved is one of the several large players in the discovery document translation business.

In yet another more recent case, a certification letter bore the signature of a Chinese translator but the accompanying English text referenced a name of an apparently Japanese translator. This was at best a serious mistake, but more likely was a deception. You should not be sending your sensitive documents to such an entity for translation.

Engagement with the Translation Provider

Most of the above-noted problems are allowed to occur because translation providers are treated as black boxes and, indeed, want to be treated that way. If you seek out translation providers that will allow you to engage with them concerning the specific identity, capabilities, and locations of the translators who will translate your documents, you have a better chance of avoiding having your documents sent to an unknown translation broker in China by your translation provider in the US.

We hasten to add at this point that Kirameki never uses translators we do not personally know and would never consign translations to any entities in China.