Is Translation a Commodity or a Service?

Commodity or Service?

With the advent and rapid advancement of machine translation, most anybody with a computer and Internet connection can perform translations with spectacular results.

Even beyond Google Translate, which is an amazing advancement in computer assisted translation itself, there are online databases such as ATA and NCTA that offer thousands of language combinations at the fingertips.

Since there is no concern for grammatical or cultural accuracy and there are no requirements for a detailed editing and proofreading staff, these translations are offered for an inexpensive price.

A customer seeking such a translation is looking for a standardized solution, and the question they would ask the translator would likely be “What is your rate?” instead of “What services do you provide” or “Can you accurately translate this text into xyz language taking into consideration the cultural nuances and technical data included in the text?”.

Since a strict application of machine translation services does not require creativity or intrinsic artistry, the translation services are a “package” to be bought and sold just like any other off-the-shelf item. In this case, translation is relegated to the commodity world.

Understanding the Difference Between a Commodity and Service

In the simplest sense, a commodity is something that can be bought and sold. The item is standard, but may have slight variations. For example, a box of cake mix is a commodity. The mix could be for chocolate cake, angel food cake, pudding cake, etc., but it is still a box of cake.

When you go to the store and buy a box of cake, you have certain expectations of what you will receive regardless of what store you are shopping at, and you have an expectation of how much you are willing to pay for it. On the other hand, custom cake creation is a service. You will pay for varied elements of performance.

For example, you might pay more for a cake with pudding in it, or with chocolate chunks. Then, you will consider the layers, the type of icing, the intricacy of the decorations, and so forth. In short, a commodity buyer typically pays a set price for a set item, but the concerns of a service customer are what will be done, how will it be done, and what are the details involved in the tasks that will be performed.

In the translation services world, customers purchase simple machine translations as a commodity, however, if you are looking for translation accuracy, you need to be concerned with subject-matter expertise, cultural-context, regional variations, and many other variables. Since these essential variants must be specified in the translation order, and prices are altered based upon those choices, this level of translation most definitely falls under the definition of a service.

Why Choosing a Service Instead of a Commodity Matters

While a box of cake mix may not make a lot of difference to most people, the accurate translation of your life’s work, an essential contract, or life-and-death information such as biotech or medical data does. In the world of translation, there are times when all you need to do is state the target language: French, German, Japanese, Spanish, etc., but when accuracy is an issue, there are times you need to do so much more.

  • The target language has significant cultural differences from the source language. Since cultural language context dramatically affects the interpretation of information, it is essential that the translator be able to add cultural context or adjust the wording to allow for cultural sensitivities. Not every language has the same nuances, and what is acceptable in one language may be highly offensive in another.
  • Your information contains subject-specific data that may not make sense to somebody unfamiliar with your field of study or business. Field-specific acronyms, abbreviations, buzz words, understood variables, and the like are nearly impossible to translate with current computer software. Consider the English acronym for Paid Time Off (PTO). Since you translate “paid time off” with different words with different beginning letters, or even symbols, the letters PTO would make little sense for somebody in another culture, and the target culture might not have an acronym for the translated words. If, however, you expect the recipient of the information to learn the acronym for their job, study, or other application, then there is a need for further context.
  • Your target audience may have a regional variant of the main language. A human translator with linguistic and cultural fluency would know this, but a computer program likely will not. Consider India, where a translation into Hindi may address a majority of the nation, but there are those who only speak their regional language. While Bengali, Telugu, Marathi, Tamil, Urdu, Gujarati, Kannada, Malayalam, Punjabi, and other regional languages contain many of the same foundations, there are also cultural and linguistic differences that would make a single translation for “India” hard to understand. The same is true for “Spanish.” The Spanish in Puerto Rico is different from that in Columbia, El Salvador, Mexico, Spain and so forth.
  • Your work contains literary devices. One of the main shortcomings of computer translation is its inability to detect and correct for nuance and word play. If your information contains key information that involves something beyond the standardized metaphors and allegories that might be in a language database, then you are going to need a human translator who can find the correct translation for the intent of your words.
  • Your text contains new information, theories, or words. There are times in research when an author might go beyond the standard or accepted norms in the field. A story might use incorrect punctuation on purpose, you might develop new formulas, or new words become necessary to describe a unique concept or creation. These are times that a computer translation will be unable to render translation accuracy.

When considering the translation of your work, you must address the idea of commodity and service. You may not always use those terms, but certainly you have considered the concept of price versus value.

Purchasing a commodity package which does not address internationalization, is indifferent to the varied grammatical and syntactic properties of the target languages, and disregards contextual divergence may be cheaper in the short term, but it may cost you more in edits, or worse, in the end.

It has often been said that the test of a good translation is whether or not it was not identified as a translation; that is the difference you get with translation services.

This post is written by Robert Stitt, a content writer with Ulatus.

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