When a client needs translation, we always ask when they want it delivered. Sometimes, the client replies “as soon as possible.” This communicates urgency, but it’s not really helpful information.

When handling an urgent translation, we need to find a balance between speed, cost, and quality. As a rule, translation project managers try to hit the “sweet spot” and deliver a translation that meets budget requirements, arrives when the client needs it, and achieves a level of quality appropriate to the client’s needs. When speed needs to be increased, quality and cost can both be impacted.

What is “translation quality?”

Every language partner will tell you that their work is of the highest quality. However, what they mean is that they will achieve the level of quality that the client requires. According to the ASTM International Standard Guide for Quality Assurance in Translation, there is no “objective” measure of translation quality: “Specifications are defined in terms of the purpose of the translation and the needs and expectations of the end user.”

For example, if a client needs technical translation using controlled language, and they receive a gorgeously written tome worthy of Dickens, the project manager has not met the needs and expectations of the end user.  “Quality” is a moving target, and different types of translations use very different standards to measure it.

What is the relationship between quality and cost?

The variables that impact cost are:

  • Language pair.  Some languages are more expensive than others, because of differences in supply and demand and different costs of living for different countries.
  • Specialized/technical subject matter. A translator needs to be able to fully understand the text they are translating, and expertise in a specialized technical domain commands higher rates.
  • Size of the project. The number of words in the document or project is an indicator of turnaround time. On average, an individual linguist can translate 2500 words a day.
  • Type of media. Some digital media such as websites, CAD drawings, and software require processing to extract translatable content. After translation, an additional reformatting step may be required for manuals, maps, brochures, web pages, PowerPoint presentations, and other materials to accommodate the different “look” of the target language.
  • QA process. Our standard “publication-quality” translation includes translation by a native speaker of the target language, a second review/proofreading step by another native speaker, and a final in-house QA. “Basic quality” cuts out the second step. “Transcreation” for marketing and advertising copy, on the other hand, might require several review cycles.

Publication-quality vs. Basic quality

If you’ve received a document in Arabic and you immediately need to understand what it says*, you probably wouldn’t want to wait for (and pay for) a fully edited and proofread “publication-ready” document.  An accurate translation with a few typos and workmanlike prose would be fine. We recommend “basic quality” translation for materials that are going to be used for internal reference.  Basic quality includes translation by a subject matter expert and in-house QA, but not additional review and proofreading by a second professional linguist. Opting for “basic quality” reduces cost and turnaround time.

On the other hand, if a medical questionnaire needs to be in the hands of patients, or a contract for an important deal needs to be signature-ready on a certain date, quality is defined very differently. Outward-facing communications have far less room for error, and a two-step process is necessary. Project managers might use other strategies to shorten the turnaround time for a publication-ready translation. The costs of reshuffling priorities and putting in overtime or weekend work could be covered by a rush fee.  Or projects might be split across several different teams with steps done in parallel, with the project manager putting in additional effort during QA to ensure consistency. 

So, what does ASAP really mean?

Oftentimes the person who is calling with a last-minute translation request is acting on the directions of someone else. And sometimes, that person has said something vague like “I need it yesterday” because they haven’t got a clear sense of when it’s needed, either.  This is why we probe with a question or two. We want to find out whether there is a specific deadline. If there is, tell us!  It could be that our standard turnaround time will suffice.  If not, we can adjust our workflow to meet your needs. In the end, it’s no problem to create quotes with both standard and rush fees. We want our customers to feel confident that they are getting what they need, when they need it, at a fair price.

*clients might use Google Translate to get the gist of a document but it doesn’t work well for all languages.