Good, Fast, Cheap, Pick “x” for Translation

Lost in translation

Or live with the consequences. As many conversations as we had on content, I don't believe we talked about developing marketing content in different languages. Although a few times I hinted at how little consideration translation and interpreting work get in the US, at least in my experience.

Which is the reason why as an English major, I decided that becoming a translator was not going to be viable business option early on. Think about the argument people make for creative writing, and add the perception that if you speak two languages, translation is not that big of a deal.

You know you get what you pay for in that case.

If you pick cheap

Since enough agencies tried to haggle on rates with me and so called proofreaders saw an easy way to make money by tweaking my translations saying the same thing, only a bit differently — and getting paid more than I in the process — I'll address the cheap part first.

In a recent post, Umair Haque mentioned MyGengo, a company that "offers a simple way to get good-quality, low-cost translation services." Dave Davis makes some really good points about that business model in an extensive comment, which I hope you will read.

He concludes:

Artificially low "market rates" for labor (below living wage) drives those with that skill out of markets by necessity. In many areas, we're losing expertise, skills and ideas as the best drop out or retire. So the newcomers are forced to reinvent wheels, and necessarily drop balls. Everyone suffers until they get up to speed, at which time someone cheaper shows up and it all starts again.

Tell a person that the experience and skill they put into creating marketing content in another language is worth pennies. In that case, it's not worth the effort.

Some may make the argument that there is free with Google translate. Yep, there is that. Good luck with it. Let me know how it goes. Bootstrapping surely has a base limit no-one should attempt to lower.

The most advanced automatic software translation tool available now for freelancers and agencies is Trados [hat tip Michael Walsh] and even some of its web pages and the results are always a complete nightmare.

Can good and fast coexist?

It depends on your goals. When you have a really skilled interpreter, that translation is coming out fluidly, and creative copy that sells needs to be fluent in the language it sells into. In the same way as you pay for a winning creative concept and writing, you should be prepared to pay for that skill in another language.

MyGengo does seem to put control in the hands of the buyer. You can buy good enough for a bit less. With the understanding that if you want the very best, that takes more thought and time — both of which cost more.

I've been in enough project overruns to know that saving a few dollars may end up costing more in lost business in the long run.

Knowledge and value

To write about a topic knowledgeably, there is a learning curve. Who pays for it?

This is the reason why often companies that have offices abroad have their own staff do the translation, instead of farming it out. Being in the business helps with understanding how the business works locally, how locals talk about it, what they search for, etc.

The best translations take into consideration the concepts you are trying to get across and carry those over to the other language with the characters, and words they need to connect with intended audiences.

Examples where human skills are critical

Let's start with the organization's Web site. This is the marketer's main conversion hub. Crisp copy that gets the point across when people land there from searches shows whether you're a global company, or just a multinational.

A multinational would take you to a Web site that may or may not look like the main business site, possibly with a different URL, and the looks and feel and navigation decisions of a different marketing team. Your customers and prospects may know both languages, and be more comfortable completing a transaction in Spanish vs. English, for example.

Think about contract or joint venture negotiations, research and development (R&D), proposals, distribution deals in other countries, even press releases with partners abroad. I worked with Swiss German, French, Japanese, and British companies — yes, even Britain and the US have their language differences — a human gets the job done without costly misunderstandings.

How about social media?

Content in social media is often conversational, and while you can plan much of it wit the help of an editorial calendar, some of it will be spontaneous and opportunistic. You may plan the blog post, and have it translated. What about the comments?

Think @ replies on Twitter, or initiating tweets in a foreign language. There's a good discussion here about Twitter and translation. If you find it challenging to tweet in your language, what will you say in a foreign one?

Automation tools will get the context wrong. There are nuances in conversation that dictionaries don't pick up. Trust me, after 1,200 hours of simultaneous interpreting, 7,000 hours between written and consecutive translation, I can tell you that dictionaries are useful when you know how to carry across the meaning. 

Then there are false friends — words that sound the same in different languages, and mean something completely different. For example, you can say you're embarrassed in English, be careful about being embarazada in Spanish, though. Tone will get you in Chinese.

For years, I worked alongside an American lady who translated from and into Italian. She was by and large alright. However, not being native, she stumbled with simultaneous interpreting a little. During a medical lecture on nutrition, she used the Italian word "preservativi" to translate preservatives. Thankfully, the audience was game for a good chuckle (as will Italian readers of this blog) and no puppies were hurt in the process.


My money is on developing a relationship with translators who understand or are willing to learn the business, and have enough experience under their belt to know how to do that efficiently. Consider them copy writers, because that's what they'll do. Depending on what you need translated, you may go with good enough. I vote for human.

Where are you putting your money?

[no sock puppets were hurt in the making of this vignette]



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0 responses to “Good, Fast, Cheap, Pick “x” for Translation”

  1. Your last paragraph hits the nail on the head. As a small business owner (French to English translation and copywriting specializing in marketing and financial communications), we get the best results with clients who treat us like members of their in-house teams. We sit in on even the very earliest preliminary briefs, work in parallel with the creative team on concepts, visuals, and colors, and make sure that the “translation” aspects of the project are built in from the early stages. Often, we are able to take a brief in French or work from a rough storyboard in French to create copy directly in English, a process that is sometimes more effective than translation. However, I think that communications professionals have been so badly burned by botched jobs from the mass translation market that they think *all* marketing translations are inherently bad. This is not the case. If you involve your translator from the outset and put your money where your mouth is (which means you pay for their time and expertise, not just for the words they are translating) you can get excellent results.

  2. Great post, Valeria, I can honestly say that I’ve never even considered language translation for my content, which is said because I’m a native Spanish speaker. Thanks for the tips. 🙂

  3. I’ve dabbled in translation issues in the past year. Gearbox Magazine has run just one bi-lingual interview thus far. It would not have been possible, were it not for the generous assistance of a good Twitter friend.
    Earlier this month, my wife and I found ourselves in Germany and spending a day with Mitsubishi enthusiasts in Stuttgart. It was an incredible day and I would like to share the stories of our new friends, but I feel I would do them a disservice if I were to have their German stories translated into English. These stories must run bi-lingually, imo.
    I will likely end up paying for translation services, as this is going to be too much text to ask a friend to handle on our behalf, so I’ll be looking for inexpensive, without too much risk of lost in translation issues.
    Moving forward, I know I need to dedicate myself to a schedule with my Rosetta Stone software (every bit as brilliant as they suggest, by the way) so that I, myself, can become competent in conversation, reading, and writing auf Deutsch. I feel I owe them that much.
    Timely topic, Valeria. Looking forward to more on the subject (and I’ll be checking out some of these links today for sure)!

  4. Please also take a look at the American Translators Association’s client-education resources:
    Translation: Getting it Right
    Translation: Standards for Buying a Non-Commodity
    Both are available on the ATA homepage (bottom left).

  5. As the global nature of public relations expands, content has to be global and be understood by many different people. It is so important to understand the cultural diversity of regions. While Beligians and Dutch can understand each other there are nuances that often cause misunderstanding or at least a few smiles. It all comes down to the person not a program. The skills of the people are what make the difference in bridging the gaps. Making the investment in people capital is well worth it.

  6. @Sara – I used to edit a medical results publication in 3 languages and I am keenly aware of the challenges of fitting Italian or French into the same page that fit English 🙂 The problem, as you point out, is that often people have a hard time investing in good translation services, which means crisp copy writing in the end. Thank you for the resources. Much appreciated.
    @AJ – maybe you just write in both languages so seamlessly that the thought doesn’t occur to you 😉
    @Brian – German is a really good example. It was my minor in university, and I can read it and understand some, even after years of neglect. Fluency is a whole other conversation though. I have heard that Rosetta Stone is a superb product. A former colleague learned Cantonese when he adopted a little girl from China.
    @Gabriele – how do you like that? And she was such a lovely older lady.
    @Anne Marie – not to mention slang and regional/local terms. Investment is a good term and can be a hard lesson. Think how much has been lost in the markets for the last two years that could have been invested on people.

  7. Valeria, translation is really copywriting, indeed.
    I collected tons and tons of horror stories by reading some “english versions” of my prospects’ websites, indeed, and I often had a hard time persuading them that those home-made, automatic, cheap translations could not but harm their business!
    In case you don’t know it, there is a blog about this kind of stuff, (for your english-speaking readers, the name of the blog comes from the italian “da paura”, meaning sort of “horror english”)

  8. We have used the services of an online translation service named Tomedes – . They have 1000’s of translators worldwide and they manually picked the best matching translator for the requested translation. They provide an instant quote based on the language pair and the expertise required.

  9. Valeria and all,
    Indeed a very timely topic that will not go out of style for a while! This post covers many of the issues that are at the core of translation services and their commoditization. As mentioned here, reasons abound.
    Allow me to direct you to two articles that I wrote. One about “The Perils of Using Automated Translation on Your Website” published by Marketing News Exclusives from the AMA – available at
    And the second article from our newsletter addresses false friends – available at
    Thanks for contributing to the on-going education effort.

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