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Schrödinger's Quality; Alive AND Dead

Posted By Jeyin Lee, Thursday, July 28, 2016
Updated: Tuesday, August 30, 2016

(Originally Posted on August 6, 2015)

By Chris Carter

Managing Director of aLanguageBank

We’ve become very capricious about quality. Of two minds. What is quality? If the answer is confusing, maybe it’s because we send out mixed messages. Or at a minimum, our own opinions conflict with themselves.

We often hear or see a language service company (LSC) ignore quality in their work just to be aggressively profitable. Some companies try to be the low-ball bid to take a viable contract from us. “Eventually the client will get tired of their bad quality and they’ll learn their lesson.” Maybe. But you still aren’t getting any revenue during that lesson. We complain about the low barrier of entry into our industry and the companies that don’t care about what they’re doing or the poor quality work they provide. We know that bad LSCs bring down the whole industry. And these guys are sub-standard. In fact, we even try to create standards for quality. ISO and ASTM are looking at standards that define not just process, but quality; what is enough quality, and what isn’t. We want companies to earn the right to be part of that Quality Club that we create. But don’t such standards just create a binary – quality versus not quality?

At the same time, we know that translation is more art than science. Some linguists could keep tweaking and improving their work forever. When clients raise questions or complaints about a deliverable, we often have to defend against stylistic changes or poor in-house reviewers. We tell our clients that quality is not an absolute. Some LSCs even charge different prices for different processes that reflect different levels of quality. For many years now at conferences we have talked amongst ourselves about “fit-for-purpose” translation. And we also take advantage of different levels of quality performance when we source linguists. We may pay less to less experienced translators. And if the client didn’t specifically ask for a court-certified interpreter, then we won’t spend the extra money to hire one when a non-certified interpreter will do. After all, we want to save money too.

Economics professor George Akerlof, won the Nobel Prize in 2001 for his work on information asymmetry. He showed that when an industry produces varying degrees of quality, where the provider knows how to determine the difference before a sale, but the buyer doesn’t, then all buyers will cautiously assume an ‘average’ quality regardless of what they get. This encourages low-quality providers, which leads to lower average quality, which leads to lower average prices. It is known as the “race to the bottom”. In both price and quality. And it is caused by that information asymmetry.

We understand that quality is a spectrum, and that it’s subjective. And we try to teach that to our clients to decrease our industry’s information asymmetry and to reduce commoditization. But then we complain about cheapo translation companies or competitors “disrespecting” quality and language. We might even say they are disrespecting the people that need and depend on those translations. They’re cutting corners to make a buck. We may justify our outrage by blaming this movement on the giant corporations, or on venture capital greed, or on outsiders who don’t even speak another language. But buyers don’t care who they are. How many LSCs, in their marketing, say that they use a two-round or even a full TEP process for QA? And how many actually do it? There isn’t anything wrong with innovation, unless others are using it to leave you behind.

So do we have a right to complain? I think so. We should keep educating our clients about the quality spectrum and fit-for-purpose processes. Bad LSPs bring down the industry, but only if the client didn’t know that they were buying “bad”. Akerlof’s information asymmetry says that when quality varies, the client needs to know what they are buying before they buy. We shouldn’t try to teach clients which processes fit which quality level. Honestly, they don’t care about details, they just need a solution. But if they’re at least aware that there is more than one solution, then they will start to learn how to decide which one to ask for. This sounds obvious. But surprisingly, far too many buyers out there still see quality as an absolute binary. And I’m getting tired of waiting for many of them to “learn their lesson.” It’s easier to just tell them.

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