FIT President Henry Liu on ways to increase translation quality and value

November 12, 2014 by

FIT President Henry Liu on ways to increase translation quality and valueHow can we ensure that our work is not viewed as a commodity? What practical steps can we take to demonstrate the value of our work to our clients? And how can we increase the quality that we provide?

These questions were among the topics tackled by Dr Henry Liu in his presentation in Wellington, New Zealand on 17 October 2014, entitled “Cadillac vs. Chevy, what are translators and interpreters missing?”

As the President of the International Federation of Translators (FIT) and former President of the New Zealand Society of Translators and Interpreters, Henry shared his considerable skills and expertise with the packed room full of translation and interpreting professionals.

Are translators interchangeable?

Getting quickly down to business, Henry began by examining why translation is viewed in some quarters as a commodity. The key issue here is whether translators are interchangeable. If one translator is easily replaced with another, and both are paid by the word, the main differentiating factor will be price.

If you only want to get from A to B, why pay for a Cadillac when a Chevy will do? In this environment, competition is high and prices will be low – and translators are unlikely to be happy.

President of the International Federation of Translators, Henry Liu

President of the International Federation of Translators (FIT), Dr Henry Liu | Photo ©

The future of the profession

Before looking at ways to address this problem, Henry first discussed the future of translation and interpreting. While a quick show of hands indicated that expectations for the future were positive, we were also aware of the looming threats to our profession.

Translators have already been replaced by machines in some parts of the market, and Google Interpret is less than 5 years away. As well as increasing public use of Google Translate (for travel, communication with visitors and foreign workers, etc.), the rise of English as a second language means many organisations are thinking twice about hiring translators and interpreters. As technology and increases in efficiency make numerous goods and services cheaper, the perceived, relative cost of translation and interpreting rises.

Significant opportunities

However, it is not all doom and gloom. On the positive side, translation volumes are higher than ever before, and our markets are expanding. There are significant opportunities to work in niche markets, and native English speakers are in demand. Localisation is another growing field, with greater awareness among international companies of the need for market-specific communication.

Quality and value

So, how can we work around the issues and turn the opportunities to our advantage? A solution put forward by Henry was to communicate the quality that we provide in a way that raises its perceived value. A much-pondered problem with this is the difficulty in defining translation quality. Henry’s suggestion was that, from the client’s point of view, quality is what meets the client's needs – which may not necessarily be in in line with our own standards.

Many clients are happy with lower quality, while some are looking for quality that is much higher

Many clients are happy with lower quality, while some are looking for quality that is much higher

Specification mismatch

Henry explained that there are some companies that care about quality and are happy to pay for it. In the diagram he presented, with quality on the horizontal (x) axis and the number of clients on the vertical (y) axis, these companies are represented by the blue curve on the far right. Then there are companies that do not care so much about quality and do not want to pay for it. These clients are represented by the red curve on the left.

The problem is that most of the work that we deliver is in the middle of the quality scale (the green curve) – whereas the majority of clients fall at one end or the other, wanting higher or lower quality than that which we provide. So, according to Henry, our work is often over spec, and sometimes under spec.

Not a commodity?

Henry went on to discuss value, which he defined as what the client is willing to pay. Like quality, value is subjective. When our work is seen as a commodity, its value falls. So how can we address this? One way is to change the unit of billing. Rather than charging by the word or the hour, we should consider negotiating fees per project. High-profile, high-stakes projects are higher risk for the translator or interpreter, and this can be reflected in the fee.

How clients judge quality

Another interesting point was the fact that non-translators cannot accurately assess translation competency. But of course, they can judge – or misjudge, based on what Henry called “surrogate markers”. These may include factors such as punctuality, the impression you give or the spelling in your email. As well as being competent, we also need to be perceived as competent. Mastering these markers can help ensure that our clients value the quality we provide.

Improving our market position

What can we do to ensure that our work is highly valued? Well, as Henry explained, niche matters. We can learn rare languages, or undertake dual training to become both a translator/interpreter and subject-matter expert. Many professionals with dual training find it easier to attract clients and command higher fees. Henry encouraged aspiring practitioners to bear this in mind, as well as looking for an apprenticeship after graduation or finding a mentor.

For practicing translators, Henry recommended honing our copywriting skills and working with specialist editors. He emphasised the importance of visibility, especially regular, face-to-face contact with clients, and the need to work to clients’ specifications. Henry also urged us to keep abreast with developments in technology and make these work for us.

For interpreters, Henry suggested reading and listening widely, following the news in each of your languages, and looking into additional training in speech and drama. Dressing professionally is key, and he also recommended recording your interpreting when possible. This can provide useful feedback on how you sound and your skill level, and can help you smooth out your accent.

How about you?

I found Henry’s advice very practical and am planning how best to apply his ideas to my work.

And how about you? Do you agree with Henry’s take on translation quality and value? Do you have any other suggestions to ensure our work is not viewed as a commodity? Let me know in the comments below.

Henry Liu

Image source:

About Henry Liu

Henry Liu is the President of the International Federation of Translators (FIT) and a former National President of the New Zealand Society of Translators and Interpreters. A consultant interpreter in English, Chinese and French specialising in legal and diplomatic interpreting, he has interpreted at the highest professional level for heads of state and other dignitaries. Henry has also advised government departments on interpreting and translation policy, access and quality issues. He is a member of the New Zealand Cross Bench Committee on Legal Interpreting and was appointed by the Chief Justice of New Zealand as Special Advisor to the Chief Justice in 2012.

By Jayne Fox BSc MITI, German-English translator. 
For German-English medical translation – and translation of corporate communications.

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About the author: Jayne Fox is a German-English translator specialising in corporate communications for sci-tech and health care. She works with German and Swiss organisations to help them communicate effectively with international audiences.

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  1. lukegos

    Looks like a good capture of the basics, and communicating the basics is probably the best approach to the problem right now, as it may be a little too early for more than that for the average translator. I am somewhat put off by the soft/relative approach to quality and the client-centred perspective, which has been the current trend in marketing for years now. It's important to know what the client will see as quality — and yes, those will be surogate markers, from the spelling in your e-mails to the client's sales results — but what we need is not just to discover what clients think they want, or whatever simplified heuristics clients employ in their satisficing routines (sorry for the jargon), but rather to show them what quality really is about — what quality really is about from our point of view, if you prefer. Thus, informing clients what translation quality really is, how you can measure it (if at all), and what results it brings, what's the relationship between it and the results clients want. We need some reference to objective professional standards and professional ethics, obligations and status here, as it's unthinkable that translation should be (and actually often is, including by translators) viewed as a pure services job rather than a proper profession.

    What is a particularly valuable observation is the quality curve with nothing in between the two extreme being quite all right. The trick here is not to drop the standards (obviously) or go for some sort of unnecessary refinement that takes disproportionate amounts of time to achieve but rather to find a way to communicate the good old value-for-money proposition. After all, the good doctor himself brought up Cadlillac vs Chevy, didn't he? In short, we need to come up with a sort of upper middle class or lower upper class presentation, avoiding both the cheap and the snobbish side.

    By contrast, translators generally seem to go for a timid lower middle class image, or a lower class image, while the supposed premium sector is overrated on various levels. It doesn't pay that well for the time invested, it costs extra time and hassle, and the translators aren't necessarily more spectacular (e.g. better writers) than those who have less affluent or open-handed clients.

    Plus, contrary to what some would have us believe, the value is already there, we only need to get credited for it. The low rates charged and offered by bottom feeders are an obstacle to realizing this and paying us according to that value, but the work done by translators does generate value — if in some cases only by unlocking it. Even where translators are interchangeable, the work still needs to be done by someone competent. Aren't dentists interchangeable? Surgeons? Car mechanics? CEOs? Lawyers? They may be even more interchangeable than translators but generally don't suffer from the same problems so much or at least it's my impression that they don't.

  2. Mandy Hewett

    Thanks for a good and useful summary of a very interesting presentation, Jayne, and some pertinent comments, Lukegos.

    Could I just point out that on the graph showing distribution of quality, the axes are the other way round. The vertical axis represents quality and the horizontal axis represents the number of clients. So the red line is a wider (more clients), flatter (lower quality) curve. The blue line is a narrower (fewer clients), higher (higher quality) curve.

    I think that as translators who care about the quality of our work we would like to see the whole graph with only a blue line but I also think we need to be realistic but without dropping quality below a certain line. How we decide where THAT line is on the graph is a very difficult question, as Henry and Lukegos point out.

    • Jayne Fox

      Thanks Mandy! I've been struggling with labelling the axes. 🙂 Originally I had it as you say, but then the graph would need to be flipped, as there are fewer clients wanting higher quality, and more wanting lower quality. And, for example on the blue curve, there would be a certain number wanting a certain amount of quality on the left of the blue curve, and then a larger number again wanting the same amount of quality on the right of the blue curve. That wouldn't make sense, would it?
      That's why I think it's labelled correctly.
      (Note to self - always ensure axes are labelled on the graphs themselves!)

  3. Paula Arturo

    Thanks for this interesting and insightful post, Jane!

    I loved that you addressed the issue of whether or not translation is a commodity. My ears hurt every time I hear translators referring to themselves as "sellers" and to their clients as "buyers" or "purchasers" because what that tells me, as a lawyer, is that they are entering into the wrong kinds of agreements for their service and probably accepting inadequate terms and conditions (like bulk discounts or waiving intellectual property rights).

    I find that direct clients or end clients (as many like to call them) are actually relieved at the concept of per-project fees. They don't really view our work in terms of price per word as we do (not all of them, at least). So, it's very easy to negotiate such contracts when a translation also requires legal-linguistic consulting or reports, especially with government contracts and international organizations. Henry's suggestion is perfectly viable in my line of work and I'm sure it probably is in many other areas of specialization as well. However, it gets harder when working with agencies or other translators. People who are in the business of translation seem to have a more difficult time factoring in other variables that affect price.

    That being said, it's great that someone with Henry's background would bring such ideas to the table and I hope your post motivates us all to adopt increasingly effective pricing strategies.

  4. Paula Arturo

    I just realized I misspelled your name. Sorry, Jayne!

    • Jayne Fox

      No problem at all - thanks for your comment, Paula!

  5. Hana Soban

    Nice post and good comments, overall. But let me add: translators often talk about themselves as part of "the industry". The use of the term "industry" is of course in its proper place in the context of economics and finance, but I find it has negative impact to speak about ourselves and our work using words that belong in the discourse that has nothing to do with the essence of our work, which is our role as highly skilled human beings whose mission is to facilitate communication. We provide a personal service, not packaged minced meat or bananas by the crate. How is a person different from minced meat or a banana?

    Brokering corporations that act as multi-language translation providers do not have a face. I know from experience, from both sides, that they are not interested in providing top quality because their reason for existence is solely to maximize profits and minimize costs. Whatever marketing approach they use - lately it is talk about high technology, clouds, etc. - is, in a nutshell, simply plenty of hot air.

    The most sophisticated software tools known today, and all standardised quality assurance and control processes included, are in fact only as good as the person standing behind them. We all know that.

    The quality of our work depends on the person's skills, training, knowledge of the field, experience, the person's talents and sensibilities. And we seem to have lost sight of the fact that what we do is for other human beings, not for corporations. No, we do not exist for the sake of numbers, but for the sake of other human beings, animals, plants, the good of the planet. By referring to ourselves as belonging to the "translation industry", by accepting the discourse of economics and finance as the one which defines us, we reduce ourselves to an economic and financial category. This too is how we commoditise ourselves. We should change how we speak about ourselves.

  6. patenttranslator

    "As well as being competent, we also need to be perceived as competent."

    What did he mean by that, I wonder.

    That the clients may not perceive us as competent although we know, or think, that we are competent?

    And what is "a competent translator" anyway. A competent lawyer or dentist is easy to tell because the lawyer will get us off with minimum damage and the dentist will fix a major problem in our mouth.

    But I can easily visualize a situation when a very competent translator may be judged incompetent and vice versa. The criteria can be very subjective.

    Maybe a big part of the problem is that competent lawyers and dentists get away with charging a lot more than competent translators. Unless we can ask for more and get more for our work, we may not be considered very competent no matter what we do.

    • Jayne Fox

      I found that point interesting, too. Henry emphasised that clients do judge (and misjudge) our competency, and make decisions based on this. As you noted: "I can easily visualize a situation when a very competent translator may be judged incompetent and vice versa" - so can I. And it's good to be reminded that the criteria clients use to judge our competency may be very different to the criteria other translators use.
      This doesn't make real translation competency any less important - far from it - it's just that perception of competency is also a factor.

  7. patenttranslator

    "And it's good to be reminded that the criteria clients use to judge our competency may be very different to the criteria other translators use."

    Material for many posts, on your blog or mine, probably mostly useless, but possibly interesting and hopefully entertaining.

    • Jayne Fox

      I'm sure you could come up with some very entertaining ideas! 🙂

  8. nan (@nanceomatic)

    I also found Henry's advice very practical. There's something that caught my eye from one of his advices.
    I'm a recent undergrad in Translation and I would like to get some more information about mentoring. From where I came from there is no such thing as a mentor. I took an apprenticeship (but a really short one, it consisted of translating a 12.500 words specialised text)
    I also moved to a foreign country, meaning that I have a new language to learn and master. All these is making it harder for me to re-enter into the translation market right away.
    Advices? Info about mentoring?
    Thank you Jayne!

    • Jayne Fox

      Hi Nan, working with a mentor sounds like a good idea. You could try asking one of the national translation organisations for help with finding a mentor - some have schemes in place, or they may be able to contact their members about it. IAPTI, the international association, might also be able to help. Good luck!

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German-to-English translator specialising in medical and technical translation and corporate communications
Welcome to my blog, Between Translations! I'm Jayne Fox, German-English translator specialising in sci-tech, health care & corporate communications.
I work with clients from around the world. From my location in New Zealand, I translate overnight for European customers.
See my websites for more information.
Sci-tech translation and corporate comms:
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Email: jayne(at)