This is not a news blog or an advice blog or any sort of company blog. It's more of an opinion blog.

Tuesday, 29 April 2014

Don't Flatten the Quality Scale

Lawyers already are there. How can you measure the quality with which a law suit was won?

They have two things to show: results, and client service.

You could always grade a lawyer's writing prowess, rhetorical skill, you could put him on some scale of intelligence, adroitness, courage, book smarts and streets smart. Everybody does, to some extent, but put people want results and many also want service (or experience). The other things either project something in connection with these two expectations or just help establish an emotional connection.

Then there's the economy of scale and the economy of scope for where those two matter, such as with huge corporate clients who need all sorts of things done into all sorts of languages and don't care to just recruit the inhouse translation department they need. And security, which, again, is a specific projection of the expectation of results, although sometimes it's also a gluteal protection device. As in, you can't be liable if you hired the best and even the best could not deliver. Culpa in eligendo won't work. Plus, huge firms — just like huge agencies — have the deep pockets in case they need to be sued.

But quality of the actual, core work... uhhh. Subject change attempt detected!

And the same is menacing our own translation sector, especially the so called bulk segment of it, as some of our colleagues graciously refer to large volumes, short deadlines and low prices.

Isn't there QA, you may ask. Sure there is. But, honestly, ask yourself, and I really mean it, is the quality of your work really about keeping the tags in place in a CAT tool, remembering to convert the numbers and such like? To some extent, yes. But that's more like tidiness. Sort of like sweeping and vacuuming in an art gallery. Perhaps terminological consistency refers to something substantive, though. But who said and at which point, in the first place, that QA is or should be about applying some sort of debatable quality measure to the evaluation of youor work as opposed to just making sure there are no embarrassing trivial slips in the material the client gets? Anybody get the difference between quality assurance and quality control?

People may also say quality can't be measured in a fully objective way. The follow-up is: So why bother trying. We'll discuss the consequences in a minute.

Some other people may say that with a professional quality is a given. This may sound attractive to you at first, but if it does, then you need to exhale, inhale, whatever, count to 10 and think again. Let me give you a pointer:

As someone who actually knows something about translation, would you say that quality is a 0/1 thing or is there a scale, let's say from passable, through decent and good, then excellent, to near-perfect (perfect doesn't exist)? Obviously there is a scale! But when quality — rather than a certain minimum level of quality — is taken for granted, then it becomes a yes or no matter, a 0 or 1. And that can take two shapes depending on where the threshold is set:
  • Adequate or not. No hope of premium for being good. No point becoming better. No perspectives of advancement, other than acquiring more years of experience and eventually bigger names for clients.
  • Perfect or not. If this flatters you, think again. The bar's there not because your work is held in such high esteem, it's because your client thinks he deserves nothing short of absolute perfection, or absolute satisfaction. Or something less absolute, but you get the idea.
Either way, if you allow the quality scale to become flattened, the quality of your work will not be respected. And you won't be paid for it because it's immeasurable. Besides, why pay more for even a verifiably superb job if only adequate was expected? All the more, why pay good rates for a job that's lacking perfection if you were allowed to dictate perfection as the only acceptable standard?

And if you say that properly understood quality is immeasurable — meaning the quality of rendition between languages and the capacity so to render highly skilled writing — then apart from the question of why the client should need to pay for something that can't be measured (along with an illusion of thus not properly receiving it), we'll be left with QA as the only semblance of a quality standard available. The rest will simply be the quality client service. And turnover, and quantitative experience.

QA as quality means checklists, with tag consistency and number formats being the sole measure of quality of our work. Expect being asked to address inquiries or even complaints alleging all sorts of 'inconsistencies' such as selecting a context-appropriate word or form. For example, when you translate one-word headers from English or French into a language that has noun cases. And obviously these, i.e. one-word English segments, are discounted or excluded from your scope of work and untouchable as CM's or 100% matches. Can words describe how this degrades our profession?

With client service as the measure of quality, chance is emphasis would fall on responsiveness and flexibility. In a saturated, competitive market responsiveness just might entail picking up calls at 2 a.m. on a Sunday and flexibility actually agreeing to take that work. You probably already know a thing or two about Friday evenings and Saturdays. Alternatively, 'responsiveness' could mean preserving or reconstructing the source formatting pixel-for-pixel because that's what the client 'needs', and flexibility doing the footwork personally, to heck with your advanced degrees, published works and what else!, or, for that matter, the fact the client — or agency — could and should use a secretary or intern for that kind of work. Except that the freelance translator just might be the cheaper or less qualified resource. (Somebody who isn't paying for your time, can't be guaranteed to respect it, anyway.)

Without a quality scale, our work will be judged, and our rates driven, by client service, QA checklists, turnover, sheer quantity of experience, and verified avoidance of actionable slips. And that means a low-key job, basically data entry.

A progressive scale of translation quality is necessary for our profession to be respected.

Also, if you are a highly qualified translator, especially one who can verifiably deliver higher-than-average quality, you should move up rather than keeping the less experienced or plain average colleague down. Entry level is not your place after 10, 20, let alone 30 years in the workforce (or business, if you prefer).

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