Tuesday 7 December 2010

Home truths

I’d been putting it off for ages. Home improvements have always made me feel nervous and emotionally vulnerable. More to the point, major renovations invariably cost an arm and a leg, so there are the financial considerations as well. However, when my veranda roof started to leak in the summer, I knew it was time to take the plunge. When it comes to DIY, I’m all fingers and thumbs, and even from the modest heights of a veranda roof  I suffer from vertigo, so I got on to the builder straightaway.

When my joiner came to look over my veranda, I had a rough idea of how much I wanted to splash out. I listened carefully as he explained all the pros and cons and the various options available to ensure my roof would keep me dry for the next two decades. Even opting for the solution that most closely suited my pocket, that is, using cheaper materials and methods, would still add an extra 50% to my ballpark figure. At the back of my mind, I flirted with the idea of using someone cheaper, but of course, there’d be no guarantees about quality. In the end, I plumped for a more expensive alternative, not least because it was the most durable solution. More than anything, it would settle my shaky home-improvement nerves and give me peace of mind.

The same cost-benefit principles are not solely restricted to the world of home improvements of course, they are pretty well universal. The principle of cutting one’s coat to suit one’s cloth applies just as equally in the translation business too. I suppose it depends on how the principles are applied.

To reduce my costs to a bare minimum, I could have decided to embark on the roofing work myself, but the time and effort - not to mention the stress - would have precluded me from doing anything economically productive. I might know the basics of how to cut with a saw or wield a paintbrush, but it doesn’t mean I have the years of training and experience to use them effectively. And to be quite honest, I would have made a complete botch job of it. Ultimately, the best and cheapest solution would be to employ a professional who’s trained and qualified to do the job, even though it might seem expensive at the time. This division of labour is a basic economic truism: I buy bread from a baker because I'm pretty useless at baking and I employ an accountant because he's much better with figures than I am. 

Sadly, when it comes to translation work, some people in business seem to think they can defy these fundamental laws of economic interdependence and take it upon themselves to do the work themselves. 
Not long ago, I was asked to give a quote for a translation job. I sent them my normal, bog-standard industry rates, only to be told by the prospective client that they were “over the odds”. Some weeks later I was contacted by the same client asking if I could revise the text they’d had translated into English themselves using … wait for it … Google Translate.  Of course, it was completely unintelligible and the subsequent costs of the revision ended up being greater than the original quote!
Another imaginative enquirer who was intent on slashing their costs told me they were unwilling to pay for highly repetitive words like “the” and “and”. Okay, I said, no problem, I’ll just leave every word of three letters or less out of the final text and you can figure out where to put them in afterwards. That would be like telling my roofer not to bother with the 200 screws or so that held down the roof, I’ll fix that myself. It would be just my hard luck if the roof panels flew off in a sudden gust of wind....
Needless to say, I never took on the translation job.

I’m sure there are examples in other service industries where a cheapskate attitude to other professions prevails. Myself, I’ve seen enough shoddy translations to know that we translators are particularly susceptible to a downgrading of our professional appreciation.

Oh well,  whilst companies are losing valuable foreign business on account of their short-sighted vision, I can at least go to bed at night safe in the knowledge that my veranda will be dry for a long while to come.