Some translation clients and many translation brokers, those companies that sell the bulk of Japanese-to-English translations outside Japan, appear to mistakenly treat translation as a commodity; step up and order 100 pages, much as you would order 100 barrels of crude petrol or 100 tons of wheat. Numerous translation brokers say that they have thousands of translators; one even amazingly boasts of having 194,000 “vetted” translators, whatever that might mean. Not much, I am afraid, beyond their expectation of a high level of credulity on the part of their target client demographic.
If the world of translation were to be like that, things would be much simpler. Alas, they are not, and things are not at all simple. The reasons are various, but let us focus on the ways in which translation is not the commodity it is too-often treated as.
There are no generally applicable metrics to judge translation quality. Unlike commodities, translation quality cannot be judged by standard evaluation methods. Whereas the chemical properties of petrol are definable and measurable, translation requires highly skilled translators, not only to execute the translations, but also to evaluate the quality of already-executed translations, be they the products of other human translators or the output spewed from a machine translation system.
Lack of ability to stockpile reserves. You can stockpile petrol. With translation, however, when highly skilled translators are not needed for one particular translation demand, they will migrate to other assignments. And companies positioning themselves as translation companies and claiming to “have” translators at the ready are guilty of more than just stretching the truth. In almost all cases those companies are merely purchasing translations from translators not under their control and will usually need to scramble to find a translator when they receive an order, because they do not and could not “have” a reserve of translators; and, of course, most have no translators of their own at all.
The translators producing translations for you are not interchangeable. It takes many years to become a skilled Japanese-to-English translator; studying Japanese language in a university can be very valuable, but is rarely sufficient.
The translator not only must acquire familiarity with the source language far exceeding textbook learning, but also must acquire field-specific knowledge. That process usually takes years, and the above-noted 194,000 “vetted” translators have surely not embarked on journeys that would lead to such knowledge.
One translator cannot be dropped into a position of another to translate something outside of their field of expertise without risking serious quality problems. Translators are simply not interchangeable components in the translation process. They, like translation, are not commodities.
There is no manual defining the process of producing a high-quality translation. People aiming at being translators can go to a university to learn a foreign language and even participate in a translation program and graduate with honors, but still be quite unable to master the skills required to produce high-quality translation.
As impressive as fluency in two languages might be, it does not make someone a translator. Translation is an essential skill separate from language fluency and must be acquired by translators, who are certainly not replaceable with translators who only know the two languages they purport to work between.
There is no assurance that a particular individual aiming at becoming a translator will have what it takes to succeed. Some people acquiring a foreign language will never succeed at translation. With due respect to professionals in fields such as law and medicine, the risk of failing is surely greater with translation than in those fields, particularly since, as noted above, there is no manual to describe definitively how to produce good translations. And, of course, there is a good amount of nature mixed in with nurture in the development of a skilled translator.
Translation is people. It is as simple as that. There are myriad paths into the field of translation, but none of the ones followed by skilled professionals lead to—or should lead to—the position of being a commodity or producing commodity translations. Translation is much more complex and fraught with uncertainties than the translation brokers boasting of owning all the translators in the world would like you to believe. In short, translation is not a commodity.