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Crushing the mushroom: Why translation should be ‘reassuringly expensive’

Even as I write this I know you are not going to believe me, but there are people out there who think translation is simple and should therefore be cheap, a bit like chips.

While its true there is always someone who can do stuff for less, no one in their right mind would skimp on the translation, right? I think you better sit down.

Why is this happening? Well firstly because doing the translation (or, more accurately, the ‘trans-creation’) properly is an expensive business. I’ll explain why later. 

The second reason though is more insidious. Many clients don’t believe their agency has any special skills or experience to make them better qualified to translate than anyone else.

Once that thought takes hold there seems no good reason for a business not to use their own multi-lingual Jenny Esperanto or what’s his face in sales who happens to be from the country in question. The logic being that they will take more care, do a better job and do it for less

Better for less sounds too good to be true and that’s because it is.

What brought all this front of mind was a recent experience in which a client ‘corrected’ our Arabic translation of a brochure. This is a client we’ve had for years I might add and knows our translations track record.

We then had to write back and explain that we’d been using the formal (and more correct) forms of address but would revert to their preferred informal copy style as they wished. 

We won the day but you can see how this happened. Our client can’t speak Arabic and he knows I don’t, so he sought reassurance through someone who can. Not someone qualified to translate our work mind, just someone who can speak the lingo

Well, and here’s the nub of the problem, some clients go further and bypass their agency altogether. As far as they are concerned they are just cutting out the middleman; saving cost. When in fact what they are doing is spending time, money and effort in the original creative process and then taking risking it all on potentially dodgy, cheapskate translation.

So why do agencies make translation so expensive in the first place? And if you don’t think it is expensive you aren’t paying enough.

Excellent translation is expensive for two reasons. First, to do it right you need to use a local creative person to ‘transcreate’ in their mother tongue. Someone who gets the tone of voice being adopted, understands the sentiment, and gets the big idea. Someone who then translates so none of this is lost but is sympathetic to the nuances of meaning lying like booby traps in the mother tongue. Someone who knows that ‘crush the mushroom’ in French is a good transcreation of the English ‘put your foot down’.

It is expensive, secondly, because you need to be 100% sure the transcreation is as good as you can get.  So you pay a third person to back translate. Then, if there are anomalies, you sit the two of them down to discuss their different interpretations while acting as final arbiter before signing it off.

Well that’s the way we do it. It might sound obvious but there’s more to great translation than knowing the French for cliché.