Translation: commodity or service?

Often, the first thing people want to know when they need a professional translation is how much it is going to cost. This is clearly a crucial question, but one which becomes more nuanced as we start delving deeper into the nature of translation.

In short, there are two approaches to understanding translation in business: the ‘commodity’ approach and the ‘service’ approach.

Those who think that ‘translation is a commodity’ believe that there is such a thing as a ‘perfect’, or at least ‘standard’, translation of a given text, and that the only differentiating element, therefore, is price. Just as with raw materials or low added-value products which can be easily substituted, if a translator or LSP undercuts the next supplier, they’ll make the sale to someone who sees translation as a commodity.

By contrast, those who think that ‘translation is a service’ will bear in mind other factors than price alone. They will also take into account quality and speed (or flexibility, at least) and will expect something more than just a low price.

Service, in the context of translation for business, means
• Delivering on time – arranging a deadline and sticking to it – nothing is more annoying than not receiving a document, however short it may be, within the agreed timeframe.
• Having a linguistic expert available for quick consultation – the ability to call or email a linguistic expert is one of the greatest sources of added value in the translation industry.
• Reacting quickly to all linguistic needs – this requires a professionalism and a level of experience which only a good translator or LSP will guarantee.
• Being able to obtain related services – the key thing here is to ask whether a provider integrates things like desktop publishing into the service they offer.

Translation services in business are all about confidence. As with any business partnership, one must be able to have complete confidence in the other party. If you have to work with what you get and defend it in front of your boss or a client, it’s wise to make sure you have chosen a professional, top-quality service and not just the cheapest around.