In Translation, One Size Definitely Does not Fit AllTranslators and translation are not Commodities

(Published February 12, 2019; last edited July 4, 2022)

Executive Summary: When you need an accurate English translation of a Japanese document you can trust, the bulk translation brokers that regularly provide you with quick, cheap, and quite rough translations of things like discovery documents are not the place to go. You need more specialization and, more than that, you need a translation company that actually has translators and translation capability. Those are definitely not givens in the translation business.

Translation is not a commodity but is sold as such by the bulk translation brokers.

The same applies to translators, each having different capabilities, and the same can be said of companies selling translations. In general, entities selling Japanese-to-English translations can be classified into true translation companies with their own translation capability and a commitment to quality and security and bulk translation brokers that, upon receiving an order for a Japanese-to-English translation, seek out a translator (or, in some cases, another translation broker) from which to purchase a translation for resale to you.

Unlike fields such as automotive manufacturing, in which the entity purporting to produce something actually does the manufacturing or at least can judge the quality of parts manufactured elsewhere, bulk translation brokers seldom translate anything, nor can they judge the quality of the translations they purchase for resale.

Such brokers almost never have their own ability to evaluate the translations they purchase for resale; they need to purchase even that evaluation function, and the entire process of procuring a translation for you rests on a number of acts of faith on the part of the broker.

There are good reasons to select a translation source based on individual translation requirements.

Bulk translation brokers in the US these days commonly send your Japanese documents to China to be translated from Japanese to English. This does not bode well for the quality of the translations you will be sold, as discussed in an article on third-language translators. And if you ask the bulk translation broker to provide a certification of translation accuracy, you should remember that, as we have seen numerous times with Japanese-to-English translated documents used in depositions, there is no reason to expect that a document with a certification of accuracy will be any better quality because of an attached letter of certification. The letter is a mere formality and is yet another act of faith on the part of the translation broker. Because of sub-subcontracting, the translation broker will likely not know the name of translator who produced the translations they resell to you.

Informed selection of a translation provider is the answer, and that generally requires active engagement.

The telephone or email can be your friend.

Although the ability to simply toss your documents to a translation broker with the expectation of quality translations coming back might be comforting, it is often no more than a delusion, encouraged by baseless claims made by a translation broker, with the belief on the part of the broker that you will not be able to verify their claims. If you or your assistant have been tossing your documents to such places, you might give some thought to putting in a bit more effort to ensure:

  • that your documents are being translated by a specific translator who understands the Japanese original properly and writes understandable English, and
  • that your documents are not going to be sent to a place in which security is an additional problem.

The large bulk translation brokers that serve, for example, law firms in the US can resolve neither of the above-noted concerns. Firstly, almost none of them have any translators in their employ. This is widely known in the translation business, but apparently not realized by some clients. Secondly, our experience is that brokers will indiscriminately and without notice to their customers send customer documents to places like China.

If you have 500 pages of Japanese documents you need translated in one week and don't mind the quality and security risks, by all means send them to that bulk translation broker that you have been dealing with. Small specialized translation companies cannot and do not want to compete with such places.

But when you have documents that are important, from either a quality or security standpoint, please consider engaging with specialized Japanese-to-English translation providers that don't promise everything but do deliver what they promise, which is almost always a better translation than can be purchased from a Japanese-to-English translator in China or one in the US that ships your documents off to translators and brokers in China. Emailing a translation provider with a set of pointed questions is one way to try to ascertain their abilities or lack thereof. And while you are at it, you might want to call and ask to speak to a translator.