The cost-time-quality trade-off in the translation industry

As with project management in several areas, cost, time, and quality are three major components in the management of a translation project. They’re interconnected and in constant tension. Translation clients can’t expect to adjust one of the factors without affecting the others. You should understand these variables and be aware of how they interact in this field to get the best value for money.

“Value for money (VFM): utility derived from every purchase or every sum of money spent. VFM is based not only on the minimum purchase price (economy) but also on the maximum efficiency and effectiveness of the purchase.”

  • Cost

In the translation industry, this variable can be seen from either the translators’ or the buyers’ point of view. Translators’ rates are what professionals charge to do the job, whereas the client’s budget is the money allocated for the task. Needless to say, clients and translators don’t always fully agree on this issue: customers usually want to reduce costs, and translators—as with any professional—will seek to be well compensated for their work.

  • Time

This one is quite straightforward: it’s the amount of time allocated for the translation project to be completed. Other common ways of referring to this variable are “deadline” and “turnaround time.” Although it’s usually seen from the client’s perspective (“I need this text by X”), it’s certainly the translator’s concern as well (“I need Y hours/days to deliver this text”). And that’s another area in which tension can arise.

  • Quality

Defining “quality” is usually controversial and depends on the perspective you use.

Common sense dictates that quality in translation means that the final product is accurate, grammatically correct, and in compliance with the client’s instructions (register, use of glossary/style sheet, etc.). However, translators can render a text in different correct ways, depending on the client’s purposes: you can get a very elaborate, polished translation, such as those intended for publication, or a text written without much in the way of style concerns, such as those for understanding only.

Although some might say that the “understanding” end of the spectrum equals poor quality, it’s sometimes all you’re looking for. If your specifications are agreed upon beforehand, and the translator complies with your instructions, s/he will have delivered a high-quality service. Here’s what Chris Durban and Alan Melby say about it in their text “Translation: Buying a Non-Commodity”:

“Sometimes all you want is to get (or give) the general idea of a document (rough translation); in other cases, a polished text is essential. […] In every translation project, the buyer and the translation service provider (translator or translation team) should agree in advance on a set of specifications to be followed while carrying out the project.”

Now, looking from a different perspective, sometimes “quality” is used to refer to the professional’s credentials, expertise, experience, and the like. Nonetheless, it doesn’t mean that all beginner translators are doomed to deliver poor services, or that every experienced professional is always impeccable. One thing is for sure: everyone expects that more experienced translators deliver better quality—and charge accordingly.

Common scenarios

After my attempt to define the three major elements that influence a translation project, I’ll analyze the most frequent situations that translation clients may face and what they should expect. Of course, none of the “equations” I propose here are true all the time. They’re all hypothetical scenarios that are likely to happen, based on what’s commonly seen in the market.

To begin with, I believe in the following premises:

  • (a) Shorter deadlines impose more pressure on translators—with less time to do careful research and revision/proofreading, they are more prone to make mistakes and produce less polished texts.
  • (b) Lower rates are often charged by novice translators or those who have no option but to work for extremely long hours to make a living. Conversely, more experienced professionals usually charge higher rates, which are, more often than not, proportional to the quality level of their services.

That said, the situations below are what I consider the most likely scenarios in my field.

Time as a fixed variable:

Provided you have time on your hands, this is probably the ideal situation from the client’s perspective. The longer the time you give to your translator, the higher your probability of achieving better quality and negotiating lower rates.

Unfortunately one of the most common scenarios involves tight deadlines. This is when rush fees apply. When translators have a shorter time to work on a text, they’re more inclined to charge more, usually because they have to work after hours and/or reschedule their priorities to focus on your service. Under these circumstances, some professionals outsource part of the project (in these cases, translators are usually expected to ask for the client’s green light before sharing any material with a third party) and are (ideally speaking) responsible for editing the final version and making sure it’s smooth and consistent, as if written by a single person. When time constraints are overwhelming, this revision phase might not be carefully carried out, most likely resulting in poorer quality. Needless to say, two or more professionals cost more than one, and the extra work involved in coordinating a project is time consuming as well.

Time and rate as fixed variables:

The scenario translators dream about is having plenty of time to carefully work on the project while being well remunerated—not to mention that motivation is an extra element that tips the scale in favor of high quality.

This is the worst-case scenario everyone wants to avoid. As I said, the low-rate factor alone is an indication of dubious quality, and a short deadline might increase the risk of mistakes and poorly written texts.

Well, I tried looking into my crystal ball, but it’s not easy to predict the quality of a translation under these circumstances. While low rates most likely reduce the translators’ motivation or the priority they give to a project, a long deadline may help them improve the quality. The second case is even more delicate: if the deadline is too short, a better rate can allow the translator to prioritize your project or hire a reviser, for instance. In extreme situations, however, there’s only so much a higher budget can do.

The bottom line is plan ahead. Giving a translator as much time as possible is perhaps the most appropriate way to get the best value for your money.

Last but not least, if you have no time, no money, and no concerns whatsoever with quality, well, machine translation is there to serve you. Use at your own risk!

There’s certainly a lot to be discussed in relation to the cost-time-quality trade-off and how all these matters interfere in your translation project. Check out other pertinent articles at

* * *
Bianca Bold


1 Comment

Filed under Translation

One response to “The cost-time-quality trade-off in the translation industry

  1. Pingback: Weekly favorites (May 14-20) | Adventures in Freelance Translation

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s