Is it possible to provide professional translation services at an industrial scale?
One of the most revolutionary aspects of the Industrial Revolution was the achievement of scale. Scale is one of the most effective ways to reduce the price per unit. The bigger the scale of production, the less expensive the product or service.
Here’s an interesting question which I am sure has occurred to you before. Is it possible to provide professional translation services at an industrial scale? Is a professional translation services operation scalable without significant loss of quality? This is no doubt related to the question whether translation of documents from one language to another is an art or a professional activity (or both).
I worked for almost ten years for the world’s second largest software company. I started in the early 90s as a lowly document translator, progressed to Team Leader, Language Translation Specialist and finally Senior Language Translation Specialist.
The company translated hundreds of thousands of words (sometimes over a million) per software version to some 19 languages (from Spanish – European and Latin American – to Korean and from Catalan to Arabic). Language Translation Specialists were responsible for all linguistic aspects of the localization to the target language (localization involves customizing software and documentation for a particular country; it includes the translation of such things as fields, menus, forms, reports, etc. as well as changes to accommodate different alphabets, cultures and legal systems). My group was in charge for translation involving Latin American (LA) Spanish.
Now, LA Spanish may look very nice in a budget estimate, but let me assure you from the onset that it is not a real language. LA Spanish is an abstraction, it simply does not exist. There are very important stylistic and terminology differences among the Spanish speaking countries in the region.
Language translation specialists for each of the target languages were responsible for all linguistic aspects and worked closely with translation services vendors in the target countries.
It goes without saying that the only way to successfully translate hundreds of thousands of words to 19 different languages in a matter of months is to approach the whole exercise as an industrial process. There’s very little room for the “translation as art” school of thought.
The fact that we dealt with a very specific and limited field and that up to a certain extent we could control the source material was a huge advantage. Some of the key success factors were the provision of very clear and comprehensive glossaries and style guides to the translation services vendors and having in place a very efficient QA process for all translation projects. In a way, we had to limit the natural creativity of the professional translators working for us. We had to aim at having a unique translation per English term so as to minimize the possibility of error.
After all, language is convention.
But the single most important factor, the key to our success, was working with professional translation services companies.
Our translating vendors had to be able to provide scalability. They had to have the capacity to simultaneously translate hundreds of thousands of words into some 19 languages – such as Japanese, Korean, Thai, Arabic, Greek, Hungarian, Finish, Hebrew and Chinese – in a matter of months.
It is simply impossible to achieve that level of professional translation services working with a few uncoordinated independent translators or small single-language translation vendors.
Mission critical means that a professional translation service company has to be able to deliver the highest quality according to schedule, even if a translator gets ill, the systems crash or the building is affected by an earthquake. Scalability means that they have to be able to do it working with a 40,000 word project, or a 400,000 word project, or even a 4 million word project.
To the best of my knowledge, there are very few professional translation services companies in the world able to provide that level of professional translation services. During the course of my professional translation career, I’ve had the opportunity to work with a vast number of professional translation service providers and I can tell you that not all translation service providers can provide scale and quality simultaneously.