This was intended as a presentation/publication for the 2012 BDÜ Conference which I failed to attend for reasons beyond my control. Even though the article should have probably been included into the official publication, it might also be interesting for the general audience, too.
Viewing something from a different perspective sometimes helps to see aspects that were hidden before. Keeping it in mind, we’ll try to look at various types of translation and interpretation through linguistic service buyers’ eyes and classify the language services – again, from the linguistic service buyers' standpoint.
This line of thought was prompted one day when I analyzed the family budget (not exactly because our last sack of money was running out; it’s just that I wanted to get a precise picture of earnings and expenses). A few days of sorting out spreadsheets, stacks of receipts and haphazardly scribbled notes gave me a headache but hardly brought me anywhere. So I decided to group everything we bought into categories naming them by the types of need satisfied. The approach worked, and pretty soon I was almost through with the analysis of the family budget.
Here are the categories I managed to identify, with the last one added later as it was irrelevant to our personal situation:
4. Education, information, communication
6. Safety & health
7. Official fees
9. "Tickets to heaven”
The classification needs a short explication.
The “Essentials” category covers everything we can’t do without: food, clothing and shelter all fit here.
Things that make our lives easier belong to “Comfort”. We find lots of items here, including amenities, all kinds of domestic appliances, etc.
“Recreation” is a wide category encompassing expenditures for entertainment, vacations, or just something that makes us happy, like hobbies, or a visit to an expensive restaurant with exquisite cuisine.
Internet connection can be an illustration of an expenditure item from the fifth category: we extensively use Internet to learn, get information and communicate.
“Transport” – well, it needs no explanation.
Examples of expenditures for safety and health include bills for medical services and all types of insurances.
A good example of expenditures classified as “Official fees” is taxes – something we grudge about but still pay; in many cases, we only theoretically know what this money is going to be used for, and often we could have used the funds deduced as taxes much more efficiently.
The next category is quite interesting. One can expect that it’s solely populated with Ferraris and Rolexes; but a more thorough investigation will reveal quite a lot of other – seemingly ordinary – things there. When I asked my daughter what is wrong with the pair of jeans she bought recently, she said, “Nothing. It’s just that they’ve gone out of fashion." This category includes everything that can be tagged as prestigious, fashionable, trendy, etc. Five-star hotels and new gadgets, ringtones for mobile phones and ties – these are things that either make us different (or, more often, make us feel we are different) or create the illusion of belonging (to what exactly is not in the scope of this presentation).
In the final category, we find lottery tickets and the money that keeps bookmakers and casinos alive and kicking.
Incidentally, this categorization (in a table format, with data entered over a period of time) does help to assess one’s budget and find overexpenditures or waste of money.
Human needs change with time, vary from one location to another, and frequently depend on certain parameters such as age or professional background, as well as the general level of the social development in a particular community. Items may travel between categories, and we often see some that can be shared between two or more categories. To give a few illustrative examples, heating is probably not an issue for someone living closer to the equator; a computer can be used to get information or entertain oneself; a new car is comfort, transport and a bit of status all in one.
In my experience, this approach can be indeed useful if we want to improve the way we manage our personal budgets. First, it helps to see the distribution of our expenses over the grid, from absolutely necessary (at the top) down to absolutely senseless (bottom) and may lead some of us towards certain conclusions. Second, it shows that purchasing items serving different purposes, or, to be more precise, satisfying different needs of ours, can be a good idea. Next… well, I do hope it gives food for thought! At least, it did for me. To assist you, here are a few questions to ponder over. We’ll be returning to the questions soon, so take a moment to give your answers.
- What categories are material, and which ones we could do without?
- Which expenses and in which categories are optional, and which are compulsory?
- What category evokes the most negative feelings?
- What are the categories which you wouldn’t spend on if you could get away with it?
- What are the categories where you’d prefer not to cut down expenses?
- What are the most “expensive” categories?
Going back to the story, I suddenly got stuck. At that time, I outsourced a lot of work, and payments to the subcontractors were quite substantial. It’s them that I couldn’t immediately place. Do you have any idea as to which category payments to subcontractors fit into?
The answer is actually very simple but it didn’t arrive immediately as I kept trying to categorize it as a personal expenditure while in fact it isn’t. It’s a purely business expense. That’s where I had to start a new Excel file where I registered everything I spent as a business.
It turned out that, to a great extent, the structure of expenses for a business is about the same, and the actual difference is in the items bought. The “Essentials” category is probably one of the costliest and includes human labor (bingo! Payments to subcontractors are payments for human labor bought), raw materials, production means & tools, and/or components. We can easily identify comfort items and transport, communication expenses and status (just look at some companies’ headquarters!), and even tickets to heaven when a business recklessly launches on a new line in the vane hope of getting to the top.
It’s interesting that the businesses' perception of various expenses is basically similar to ours as individuals. No business can exist without the minimal essentials; businesses prefer not to save on health and safety, official fees are regarded as an inevitable evil, and tax evasion – or, in a more politically correct way, tax optimization – is a widely popular sport.
Here comes the crucial question: within the structure of business expenses, what category do linguistic services belong to?
The first logical idea to come to mind is that translations from different areas of specialization should belong to different categories. Let’s illustrate it with a few examples. People ordering translations of their personal documents to obtain visas; product description on labels for goods exported to other countries; installation and operation manuals for everything from egg-boilers to sophisticated industrial equipment - in all these cases translation is a part of standard procedures as stipulated by the law or relevant regulations. A scientist who needs a translation from a foreign journal buys information. Sometimes translation may belong to the category of safety – these are primarily medical, financial and legal fields where misunderstanding for any reason including wrong translation can cause serious damage. At the same time, one can hardly find a type that would qualify as entertainment, comfort or status. All in all, translation and interpretation services seem to largely fit into three categories – namely, “information”, “safety” and “official fees".
Still, the most common attitude of linguistic service buyers to translation and interpretation services they purchase is treating them as official fees with all consequences: confidence that the quality of translation doesn’t affect the quality of their products or services, attempts to minimize these expenses, etc. Indeed, at a car dealer, the last thing we take into account when choosing a car to buy is the quality of translation of the operation and service manuals. The situation is hardly different even with industrial equipment. Machinery is bought in a package with installation and commissioning services plus training of local staff, and the only valuable parts of the manuals are schemes and diagrams.
Many buyers of translation services are perfectly aware that end consumers rarely refer to the documentation and often don’t care much about the quality of translation as long as they can make out the sense of it – and it’s quite true in a number of segments, consumer goods being a good example. And that creates an impression of translation being a mere formality. Hence the logics: the money spent for translation is money wasted; nevertheless, translation is required by the law; so why not cut the expenses as much as possible?
And so we have approached the issue of rates: when and under what circumstances are buyers (remember, they are mostly businesses) ready to pay high for translation services? To make it more obvious, let’s put ourselves in the translation service buyer’s place.
How much are you willing to pay for information? That depends on whether you really need it and its importance. For certain cases, Google translation serves the purpose; on other occasions, every word may matter. Therefore, the rates for translations from the “information” group may vary a lot.
Would you consider saving on your own safety and health? Very unlikely – and therefore, the rates in the medical, financial and legal areas of specialization are generally high. Incidentally, that’s the answer to the eternal indignant question of why lawyers and doctors charge much more than translators do. Very simple: it’s not them charging but us being ready to pay anything they ask to doctors to stay or become healthy and to layers, for (the illusion of) safety.
“Official fees”… yes – saving whenever and wherever possible, in any possible way.
That was the picture my line of thought took me to in the midway – seemingly consistent, yet it nagged me as, well, not exactly wrong but, rather, as incomplete. For instance, I couldn’t find a nicely fitting place for marketing translations, software localization and a few other types. And then an idea crossed my mind that changed everything. Here it is:
We were looking at translation and interpretation services bought as independent items. That’s exactly what they are, but the result the client gets is what I would prefer calling the linguistic component of a product or service – an indispensable part of any product or service intended for international circulation. As much a part of a product as a trunk for a car, a cover for a book, a label for a bottle of wine; as much a part of a service as text messages for mobile communication, politeness for waiter services or user-friendliness for an application.
Many manufacturers and service providers prefer not to notice that the world has somewhat changed in the past fifty years or so. There was a time when goods and services were sold locally, for the community speaking the same language as the seller. Since then, businesses turned first international and then global. Many businesses are global by default – IT companies, in the first place. A new model of a famous brand is launched almost simultaneously in the USA, Europe and throughout Asia. A new version of software is released for the entire world. Institutional websites and press-releases are to be understood by as many linguistic communities as possible. Users everywhere should not have problems learning to use a new gadget, even if it has a very intuitive interface. Marketing materials translated into dozens of languages are just a way to inform potential buyers about the new product and convince them to buy it.
Here, translation does turn into something more important than it’s considered to be and becomes an integral component of a product. Yes it’s not always important: I can easily operate an iron without reading the manual, and have enough common sense not to leave it plugged when going out; but poor localization of software can make it unusable for other language communities. And generally, a poorly translated manual for a new branded car is as ugly as a scratch on the hood – but that’s in my view, and I’m linguistically biased.
And this is probably the decisive factor for the rates for translation: where the linguistic component is of importance, rates tend to increase. Let me give you a story told by a colleague and friend of mine. A client phoned him asking him (and his partner) to book a few days for interpretation at a conference due in about seven months’ time. It happened so that my colleague already had plans for that date and had to refuse. The client said, they either would have to reschedule the event for the date when the interpreters are available, or cancel it altogether. For the background: the conference is very specific, and my friend and his partner have been working there as interpreters for almost a decade. The client reasoned they won’t be able to find equally qualified interpreters for the event, and without the guys, the entire thing loses its meaning. This is what I call interpretation being an indispensable part of a service!
Well, it was an attempt to look, through the eyes of linguistic service buyers, at translation and interpretation as different types of expenditures. As we saw it’s a matter of perception – still, many things in our lives are not always what they really are but what we believe they are, and we should take the prevailing stereotypes into account before we start complaining about the miserable rates, raising our rates, or even when choosing an area of future specialization.Oh, yes, plumbers earning more than translators – but you probably know the answer already! Though we basically talk about a comfort item (at least, according to Hollywood, not a single survivor of an airplane crash died on a desert island because of the absence of a WC), a clogged toiled is regarded as a loss of an essential. Essentials are something we always pay for, like it or not – and that’s one case we would be willing to pay an urgency surcharge instead of taking time to find an affordable service provider!