Thursday, February 19, 2009

Lost In Translation

Recently I attended a small Fair held at the Government Center that showcased the vendors that were available for translation services. The County requires that all documents that need this service be translated from an approved list of vendors that offer that service. After they are translated, they are then granted final approval by the Translation Verification Team (TVT).

Since I have used these services several times a year for one of our publications, I decided to drop by this Fair and ask some questions since I had questions I wanted to clarify in regard to this service.

When a document is translated, it is in a form known as the "Source Language", this is the original format, a document in English. If a translation is requested, an estimate is given based upon the words in that source language. So if a source document has 3,000 words in English, we might get an estimate back for 3,600 words in Spanish, which is known as the Target Language. There is usually a 20% increase from English to Spanish when translating because of the nature of how the language flows.

When we have been getting our estimates back, as per the contract the County signed, the per word fee (usually ranging from 15 to 17 cents per word) is based upon the target language and not the source language. That means that the vendor is charging about 20% higher fee than if they based their word estimate on the source language.

I asked every vendor at the Fair who offered document translation services how they charged and almost all of them used this model of charging per word in the target language except for one, who charges per word in the source language. Not all of them had the same reasoning behind their model, one said it was a "value-added service" and most others didn't know at all. The vendor that did charge in the source language had the best reason, transparency.

Being charged 20% higher from one language to another bothered me a bit, but I figured that if it works one way, from English to Spanish, then from Spanish to English, the exact opposite must be true, there should be a 20% savings of words based upon that reasoning. I was wrong once again.

I took an old document that was originally in English and did a word count, 2498 words. I didn't count each word, I used the word count tool in MS Word. I then opened up the document that it was later translated into and it was 3025 words in Spanish (a 21% increase). I then took that same Spanish version and asked for an estimate from our vendor to have that Spanish document translated into English. They sent back an estimate that for 3800 words, a 20% increase.

I wondered how a 2500 word document could bloat up to 3800 words. My only conclusion is that this system is broken the way it is being run now. The fox is watching the hen house and is taking a 20% grab every time it is asked to watch on top of the fee it is being charging already.

Had the original contract reviewers been a little more stringent and required any vendors who contract for document translation services to charge in the source language then a lot of money could have been saved.

For instance, this article is 565 words in length, translated into Spanish it would cost an estimated $107 for 632 words. If it was translated by the word count based on the source language, it would have only cost $89.25.


Original English (19 words)
Authors like cats because they are such quiet, lovable, wise creatures, and cats like authors for the same reasons.
– Robertson Davies

Spanish Translation (Vendor) ($3.64) (25 words)
A los autores les agradan los gatos porque son criaturas muy tranquilas, adorables y sabias; a los gatos les agradan los autores por las mismas razones.
– Robertson Davies

Google Translation (Free) (19 words)
Autores como los gatos porque son tales tranquila, amable, sabio criaturas y gatos como autores por las mismas razones.
– Robertson Davies

Babelfish Translation from Spanish to English (Free) (32 words)
To the authors they please the cats to them because they are very calm creatures, adorable and wise people; to the cats they please the authors to them for the same reasons.
- Robertson Davies

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