Jul 15, 2011

The high cost of linguistic incompetence

Time and gain we hear the warnings. Sometimes we utter them ourselves in a desperate attempt to squeeze a bit more margin out of a difficult project we hope to undertake. But is it really true that top quality translation is critical in today's fast-paced, globalized world? Or is understandable 'good enough' as the MT crowd and many a high volume, low quality zookeeper LSP would have us believe? Are we looking out for a client's interests by charging more to cover the cost of careful work and checking by another skilled linguist, or are we just greedy, hungry, whining perfectionists out of touch with real business needs?

My Munich correspondent, English and Italian to German translator and business IT specialist Aniello Scognamiglio once again brought some interesting research to my attention. BBC News recently published an article detailing the work of Charles Duncombe, an online entrepreneur in the UK, who found that a single spelling mistake on a web site can cut sales in half. It makes one wonder about the possible impact of correct, but ineptly expressed language, or even language which flows well in one culture, such as the UK or India but not in another, such as Canada or the US. Half! That's a lot of money potentially.

If I were into online selling, right now I would be creating various microsites and test pages to see for myself how sales would be affected. But I don't really need to do that. It's been done, and the results have been discussed a number of times by people like Pat Flynn (who publishes the Smart Passive Income blog). These other amateur studies have involved not only language but also elements of design, but the relationship to Mr. Duncombe's research does not require an advanced degree in psychology or marketing to understand. Think of your own experience.

I was checking the website of an esteemed colleague two nights ago as I wanted to refer someone requiring an expert in physics who translates from German to English. I know this person's project management work reasonably well, and I trust her quality. Yet I swallowed hard when I noted the word "Germn" on a page discussing her high quality language services. How would a stranger react? Closer to home, a fellow translator who contacted me privately with some questions about technology for audit-compliant archiving (something I dealt with in my time as a consultant and application developer at EASY Software AG) kindly pointed out some stupid mistakes I had made in a text I translated quickly into German myself and posted on a site which I use as a repository for my online terms and conditions. While this may be of some help in my present situation where I continue to ward off business to allow myself to recover some "life" after considerable changes in my private situation this past year, this sort of thing is not healthy for a business long-term.

When I see information such as that from Messrs. Duncombe or Flynn, I cannot help but realize that the 200 dollars saved by paying someone 10 cents per word to translate a 1000 word web site rather than the exorbitant rate of 30 cents a word to get a translator with copywriting skills and a good quality assurance process is lost again many times over when customers remain unengaged by the language of the site or are put off by its errors.

If you are one of those translators who can't spell or who frequently makes mistakes or slings language like sludge after midnight, think about what you are costing the client. We all want top rates, but we must deliver and demonstrate the value to earn them. Do I do this? I could weasel the answer here by making comparisons, and I think my customers would generally answer "yes", but I know when I see a marketing text weeks later that I could have massaged it just a bit more and added some brilliant twist that might help sell yet another machine at € 500,000 a pop. Or when a fuzzy match pops up from my TM and I see a typo that I read over and missed. There's usually room for improvement with anyone and any organization, and smart customers in the right niches are aware of this and its potential payoff. And they are willing to pay for the value they will receive, the value that we should deliver to earn more than a bag of peanuts.


  1. The cost of linguistic incompetence can be high not only in terms of customer insatisfaction but also have dire business consequences.

    When I started a job as a translator at an aerospace company, they had stopped a full assembly line in Indonesia because the parts, when cleaned with acid, were etched to the extent that all part tolerances were exceeded.

    It took two months to find out that it had been a translation error - the original stated that parts should be dipped into the acid for ten seconds, and the translation stated that they had to be in the acid for ten MINUTES!

    Can you imagine what it costs to stop an aircraft assembly line for two full months?

  2. www.patenttranslator.wordpress.comJuly 17, 2011 9:20 PM

    That's a lot of money potentially.

    That must be typo, right? You forgot the word "lost".

    But you know, everybody commits a typo once in a while.

    The problem is when the whole translation is a typo, and as we know, there are a lot of translators out there who really should be doing something else for a living.

  3. Those are some fascinating statistics. However, I agree that even the best translators will hardly be able to deliver 10 000 word websites fully translated without a single spelling mistake, you know. Also, not sure if it's about how much you pay the translator. I can read my own translation 10 times over and probably won't see my own mistakes. It's more a question of whether you take the trouble to invest in a good proofreader.

  4. There is no doubt about what the appalling true cost of errors can be (as stated by 'Technical Translator' above).

    Nevertheless, we have to consider the regrettable standard of English at street level and beyond these days (if I were paid £1 for every typo that my German-born wife finds in Rupert Murdoch's British flagship The Times then it would be party time).

    I wonder to what extent 'Joe Average' really cares when shopping online?

    At the same time, consider Mr. Dunscombe with his figure of -50%. He runs a referral portal http://www.justsayplease.co.uk/ and I would imagine that his quote by the BBC will not have done him any harm by way of publicity.

    Kevin: your points on quality are, as ever, laudable, but do you really think that this figure of 50% is realistic?

    (Ad to kart) ;-))

  5. Chris, I think the 50% figure is certainly plausible for errors which are noticed by the user. Not the absolute error count. If I am a half-literate who can barely spell I might not notice most errors and might cheerfully buy. But if with my lousy education I see that the "experts" who want money from me are so sloppy that even I catch the errors, well then I might just look at another site and see if I can find something that makes a more trustworthy impression. And in the case of the babelfished crap that we see on many sites for hotels and restaurants, what I don't understand I am far less likely to book. Occasional comments I hear from friends and neighbors not known for their intellectual obsessions seems to support this.

  6. I also believe that quality of translation has very tangible effects on clients' business, but the only dimension of quality you mention explicitly in this post is spelling.

    Being strict about spelling mistakes may be correct, but surely, especially with the language pair German and English, it's a distraction from much more interesting and challenging issues in information packaging, pragmatics and style which clients need to be made much more aware of and which are the real reasons this work needs to be done by highly skilled humans.

  7. Ben, the BBC report was focused on the spelling, and given the rather dramatic effect noted, I can hardly see it as a distraction. Even if it's only half as bad, or a quarter as bad or less, the cost of lost business is far beyond that of a good translation :-) Could style, etc. play a bigger role? Most certainly. As can the color, shape, size and placement of buttons and a zillion other things.

    We live in a world where too many people think that a quick pass through Babelfish is all that is needed for their amateur-designed site to "go international". In that situation, it really doesn't matter which end of the stall you begin mucking out. The point is, the shit has to go.

  8. I think it's a distraction because so-called Rechtschreibfehler are often just about the only quality of language many of the people I deal with are aware of. Not sure about Germany, but the Austrian school system relentlessly marks pupils' writing efforts mainly in terms of error counts. I work mainly for scientists and engineers and that is more or less where their education about language stopped. The last thing I want to do is identify myself as an ally of this crappy system, which they have all suffered under and which they have learned English despite the efforts of.

    I see my mission much more in spreading the word that texts also have, well, positive properties as well as just an absence of errors – and that it's possible to talk about these things reasonably.

    Two of the customer comments I treasure – both because they reflect authentic perceptions of my work and because they seem to reflect a struggle to find words for those perceptions – were »umgangssprachlich-unkonventionell« and »leicht und flockig«, in both cases because I had transformed stilted German engineerspeak into decent normal English. And yet both originals were fine for a German audience, because the way you win the trust of German or English-speaking experts involves different pragmatic approaches. Now it's these kind of people I like, and want to do business with: they are just about ready for an interesting conversation about these things.

    The people who blithely use BabelFish, on the other hand, may be nice blog fodder, but I don't expect to recruit too many customers directly from that pool. There may be lots of things that work better than broken English, but if it didn't work at all, I don't think globalization could have gotten as far as it has.

    Anyway, the BBC report may well be cobblers; maybe the guys over at LanguageLog will give it a once-over for us ;-)


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