An impossible project. Or: why hire a professional translator.

Behind the cut you will learn all about my friend Nayem, an impossible translation project I was asked to consider, things that you really need an extra investment for, such as hiring a professional or applying the financial pressure. Even if it costs money.

Twitter is a fascinating service.

Remember being excited about email, the first time you came across it? How it let you communicate quickly with no time lag, even with people all the way across the world?

Remember your first exposure to a mailing list? Mine strongest (although not my first) was Lantra, where professionals in the fields of language and translation met up and talked about the business of translation, computing needs of the multilingual user, words that needed a quick definition, and politics. It was a great bunch of people, and the discussions were enlightening (except when they weren’t, of course.)

Then the list grew too large for conversation and my life got too busy for filtering out the noise, and I quit, somewhat sadly, and rejoined the not-entirely-digital world.

Twitter has much of the same magic. It lets you listen to short bursts of information from a carefully curated list of people. VERY short bursts: you have to keep your comments down to 140 characters or less. It’s a perfect frame for wit, and for shortened links. It allows fascinating discussions, and has evolved conventions for talking to people (start your message @denashunra to talk to me) and including others in the conversation (put @shunradan anywhere in the message to include Daniel), for focusing on an issue (use # before a word to make it searchable – to make it into a clickable link that leads to a search throughout twitter for anyone who used the same term with a # before it.)

It is a mighty nifty system.

One of the things that happens when you use Twitter for a while is that you meet like-minded people, either because someone you know mentions or addresses them or because you run into their twitter feed elsewhere, and they add you to their reading list (a.k.a. they follow you), which tends to expand your Twitter conversations and world, much in the pattern of a system of roots.

One of my dear Twitter friends is Nayem Kabir, who lives in London and tweets sensible, amusing, agreeable, challenging, and otherwise interesting things. I am very, very fond of Nayem, and we correspond outside of Twitter, too – please make a note of this, because I want to be absolutely sure he comes across as the intelligent person that he is.

So, yesterday afternoon I tell Twitter that some idiot contacted me asking that I translate 130,000 words within a week for $0.05 per word. And Nayem gets back to me with the following:

@DenaShunra being asked to do 130k words must be flattering, no? Can’t you increase the price to reflect cost of additional translator?

I responded thusly:

@nayemkabir there are no professionals who would be willing to work at rates that low. Anywhere. Students don’t have the experience needed.

But let’s unpack that:

Nayem’s a business-minded gentleman, and that’s perfectly reasonable. In business, everything needs to be scalable, and many things can be bought.

However, translation is not that kind of work. An average translator will produce 3,000 edited words in every 8-hour day. Producing 130,000 words would take about 44 working days, or two months of work. It seems to me that $6,500 is a bit low for two months of full-time work, but perhaps London prices are lower than… no, scratch that. I know that prices in London are much higher than here. There’s no way a professional with any kind of training and experience would work for that kind of pay, especially since it’s gross – before taxes.

But there’s more.

Remember the deadline for this project? One week? Assuming that I find eight people to share the load with, and they each work at just-slightly-over-normal pace and a rather-seriously-lower-than-normal rate, this is a team that could produce the required number of words within the required deadline.

Only the terminology would be erratic, because each of the eight translators would say things a tiny bit differently.

Have you ever read a thesaurus? Of course you have. Not cover to cover, but enough to know that words can have similar meanings. Assuming we have an agreement, contract, deal, transaction, accord, settlement, or pact. And that the source language talks about a breach, infraction, violation, transgression, or tort (which is very different, but happens to have some similar undertones and therefore uses very similar words in the source language in question).

Now imagine our eight translators, each coming up with a different combination of the violation of the settlement or the breach of the pact. Each translator will use a different set of words, and if the client receives the end product in this state, they will be entirely unable to figure out what the document (which used consistent terminology in the source language) actually meant.

Well, that’s what editors are for, right? So along with the eight translators working full-time for a week (with no time off for weekends or emergencies), let us hire a harried editor, who will review the finished documents at the end of every day, perhaps issuing directives or glossary lists to our translator team. Let us imagine the editor as being in another time zone (say, in Thailand; I know of an excellent translator/editor there.)

The editor’s comments come back every morning, the translators read & internalize them, do their 3,000 words a day, review them, send them off to the editor and – wait a minute.

Those $0.05/word didn’t include editing, did they? But that’s ok, the editor is only doing a part-time job, let’s take the full loot – the whole $6,500 – and divide it into nine pieces. One for each translator, one for the editor. It’s for a week of work, so $722 each should be sufficient, right? (It comes to less than $13 per hour or $40,000 annual gross pay, which means that our freelance translators and editor will be paying social security and healthcare and state and federal taxes over that, and bringing home considerably less than the $722 for the week, basically dropping this team of professionals deep into “you’d make as little if you were pouring coffee” territory).

Wait. Not so fast. I checked out the agency offering this chunk of translation work’s credit standing, in the usual manner. And what do you know? They’re not so hot. I’ll have to take the risk that they will either neglect to pay or pay veeeeery slowly. The translators and editor I hired don’t care if I get paid or not, they want their money, right? So I have to account for that risk, somehow. Say, by taking a bigger share of the initial $6,500 than I give my translators.

Only, oops. Who would be foolish enough to do professional work for low enough rates to make that risk worthwhile?

Nayem has an idea.

@DenaShunra charge $0.085 per word & hire language students from a local university at $0.02 per word. Students would love such one-off work

Oh, really? I respond to him that

@nayemkabir and anyone stupid enough to work at 2 cents a word SURELY can’t translate up to my specs.

Again, let’s unpack that.

The client says that $0.05 is as high as it goes, but let’s run the same project through our whatif machine and see how it comes up with these figures.

Now we have language students trying to be translators. They have little experience and can’t work the full week, on account of going to classes and having finals and such. They also don’t have the experience that professional translators do, and therefore produce 1,500 edited words a day. That means we’ll need 16 of them. I’ll still go with a professional editor, receiving 1/9th of the budget, but the editing will be more intense, because our avid language students have not necessarily had the experience with contract law that a professional legal translator has. So there will be lots of changes. And double the legitimate vocabulary variants.

So our editor gets $722, each of the 16 students translates 8,125 words and receives $160 (gross. I can’t pay them under the table), and I take $3,218 and all of the risk, and spend a whole week doing nonlinguistic project management, making sure everyone has actually done their share of the work, moved the files to their next step, being in contact with the client (and with projects like this, clients always have additional requests and questions, which someone has to take the time to answer.)

The resulting document will not be as good as I’d like, because the editor (being only human) has missed some nuances, and I haven’t read the whole thing because two of the student/translator people turned out to be duds and did not deliver . When the client calls to ask about them, I’ll have no clue what the item being question was supposed to have meant, because I am not the translator (I’ve been project-managing, remember?) and the translation appears rather bad to me. Oops. The client uses this mishap to refrain from paying me for this translation – which now has to be redone, because the documents have to be filed with a court – and I end up about $3,200 out of pocket, having done no translation (despite being a skilled and experienced translator) and lots of project management (which I do well but unhappily. I really much prefer to translate, which is why I am a translator, rather than a project manager. Well, that and the fact that PMs have to wear nylons to work. But I digress.)

I tell Nayem

@nayemkabir translation is a profession, it takes time to gain the required experience to produce a translation good enough for evidence.

And in my next 140 character message I tell him

@nayemkabir if it’s important enough to pay a lawyer for, you want to get your evidence right – and missed nuance can cost millions.

You’d think he’d say something along the lines of “oh, well, I guess that really is an unreasonable request,” right?

Nope. Here’s a mashed-together series of tweets (that’s the real word for Twitter messages), one after the other:

apologies if my tweet was ignorant (I have a feeling it was). I didn’t mean to cause offense Dena. I know of million (even.. ..billion!) $ firms where “interns” have drafted major pieces of research/work which was then checked & signed off by an expert. Finally, talented students don’t do such work out of stupidity, they do it out of a desire for work experience. Example? Go to go to ANY top tier law firm and ask what their 20yr old Paralegal’s and interns do. I guarantee you’ll be surprised.

See how much you can get into a Twitter conversation?

Nayem’s point is well taken. An intern is certainly likely to be the one who puts the names into standardized forms, motions, and contracts. They won’t be the ones drafting new clauses, though – and if they do draft anything, the lawyer who signs off on their work is the one liable if the error costs a client money. That’s what their errors & omissions insurance is for.

Translation – especially legal translation – is much more like drafting from scratch than like filling out forms, though. It is all about making documents in a one language legible in another. Often, a judge in the U.S. will be trying to interpret agreements made in (for example) Hebrew, in Israel. There will be as many different interpretations as there are parties to the law suit, and the outcome – all millions of dollars worth of outcome – will depend on how the Hebrew contract is understood. In other words, on the translator’s translation of that contract.

With a serious amount of money resting on it, you want the most accurate, careful, considered document that a translator can produce. Not a 16-student hodgepodge. Right?

Btw – I’m merely trying to think “out of the box” but you are ultimately the expert. Perhaps this is one area where the room for error is so small that it can never be “outsourced,” in which case, I’ll keep schtum! :-)

Happily for experts in the world, translation is in no way “the one area where room for error is so small that in can never be outsourced.” When things matter enough, you put in safeguards for them. Like hiring a team of people whose full-time job is to guard the door of a bank. Or like hiring editors, proofreaders, formatters, and reviewers. Or like taking your blood test and MRI results to an expert, for a second opinion, before surgery. Or – if you like your hair cut just so – it is like choosing a hairstylist you know for sure will cut your hair well, rather than heading to the nearest hair-styling school for a cut that may be cheap but chancy. Or going to a fine restaurant rather than an unkempt diner to celebrate a fancy occasion or impress an important contact.

It’s expensive, but it’s worth it. And when you do that hiring, your goal is to find the best, most competent, most effective team of guards, editors, proofreaders, formatters, reviewers, radiologists, or other professionals.

When someone takes a case before a judge – be it a civil case or a criminal one, be the stakes bucket loads of money, liberty, or public safety – the point of due process is to bring before a decider of fact (be it judge or jury) enough evidence to make entirely clear that your side is correct. If you pay for an attorney hundreds of dollars per hour to think up a good strategy, it makes no sense to endanger the implementation of that strategy by someone who is less than thoroughly professional.

As for Nayem, I promised I’d explain my point of view in a blog post, and after a bit of thought he wrote the following:

@DenaShunra I’m not looking forward to your scorn but probably deserve it following my earlier tweets! Do send me the link to your blog post

– which I have done (and hopefully, he’ll comment, below).

No scorn, Nayem. There are far too many people who think that translation can be done by anyone who speaks the language. And indeed, it can! But if you want good translation, if the result really matters, contact a professional. And if you don’t know a professional, contact me – I’ll find a great one for you. One of the professional organizations I belong to, the American Translators Association, has even issued a whole booklet explaining how to get it right.

As for the client wannabe with the 130,000 words, Hebrew to English, within seven days, for 5 cents a word? The job is being advertised again today. They want it within six days now.

I guess it will be a learning experience for everyone.