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21 November 2010 Sunday

Quality seems to be the mantra of every translator. I have never met a translator who wouldn't swear that he or she produces above-average, if not perfect, quality.

So where do all those poor translations we've all seen come from?

The fact is that quality is an elusive concept and, while it's easy to label an incorrect or unidiomatic translation of poor quality, excellence is almost invisible.

And it comes at a cost.

One can argue that not every client needs a high level of quality. If there is a market for Chevies and Pintos, in addition to that for Cadillacs and Lincolns, why not a second-tier quality for translations? Because translations are not cars. While either a Chevy or a Cadillac will take you from point A to point B (with more or less comfort), a translation where "Do not look directly into the laser beam" is rendered as "Look directly into the laser beam" may have tragic consequences. An awkward style, a poor (but not incorrect) word choice, or a misspelled word here or there will not affect the usefulness of most translations for the intended purpose, but in advertising or literature (to mention only two examples), style is as important as content.

Which brings us to the main point: Quality does not exist in a vacuum; it depends on the purpose of the translation. While "quick and dirty" translations may be acceptable for some purposes as long as the correct meaning is conveyed, there are cases where only the highest quality will do. And knowledgeable translation buyers know that for that level of quality they must be prepared to pay Cadillac and Rolls-Royce prices.