Translation Grades are Coming: Insights from Dr. Arle Lommel, CSA Research

Both ISO and ASTM are separately working on incorporating translation grades into their standards for translation quality assurance as early as 2023. And with the introduction of translation grades, we’re sure to see a change in the way we talk about buying and selling services and in the way purchasing decisions are made. Dr. Arle Lommel, Senior Researcher with CSA Research, tells us that translation grades protect both buyers and LSPs. Grades encourage transparency, so buyers know what to expect from suppliers, and suppliers know what’s expected of them from buyers. 

Dr. Lommel warns that we run into problems when we confuse translation quality levels with translation grades.

So, one of the challenges that we face today is that quality tends to be defined in terms of some absolute ideal. You know, we have this notion of what the perfect translation would be, and we’re supposed to aspire to that. But in point of fact, often that ideal isn’t what’s actually needed, and so it can lead to overinvestment in production. 

You take, for instance, somebody who just needs to convey information about how to solve a technical problem, and they don’t need the same level or the same kind of attention that you would give if you were translating Faulkner into German. So, we tend to talk about quality levels today to try and get around this, but that still has the implication that something’s good and something’s bad. Whereas the perspective of modern quality management is that quality is determined by whether something is fit for purpose and meets requirements.  

To use one example from agriculture, if we look at eggs, there’s three grades of eggs and they’re determined by certain primarily esthetic features of the eggs. And the highest grade, Grade AA, is what if you run a Michelin 3-star restaurant you’re going to be using because you want that egg to look perfect. But if you’re producing, you know, bulk omelets that are going to be sold in gas stations or petrol stations, you want to use Grade B because it’s cheap and it gets the job done. That doesn’t mean that those Grade B eggs are bad. They’re high quality if they meet the requirements. And similarly, you can have a Grade AA egg, and if the shell’s broken, it’s a bad quality egg, even though it was an example of a high grade egg.  

So, we have to make this distinction between levels and grades. If we’re going to get past this notion that really ends up wasting time and effort that we have to aspire to some abstract notion of perfection.

“The perspective of modern quality management is that quality is determined by whether something is fit for purpose and meets requirements.”

There are three translation grades: high, medium and low. Dr. Lommel explains.

High Grade has the highest requirements in two areas: Correspondence, which is, roughly speaking, accuracy in terminology – so, is the translation saying the same thing as the source and is it using the right terms to do so? – and the other axis is fluency – is it using the proper language? Is it well-formed? Does it read well? So, when we talk about High Grade translation, typically we’re talking about something that’s going to sound pretty much like it was written in the in the target language and that it meets all requirements for accuracy at a very high level. 

Then we have Medium Grade, which allows a little bit more slippage. Maybe the language isn’t perfect, but it’s understandable and the point gets across. Maybe there’s some minor errors in correspondence. Nothing that’s going to create harm or lead to problems.  

And then we get Low Grade, which can tolerate a lot more problems with the language, more fluency problems – the correspondence might not be terribly great. Now, I will say, you know, you may ask, well, who in the world would want Low Grade? But we use this all the time. The bulk of translation produced in the world is Low Grade. If you go to Google Translate and you say, I just need to know what’s on this website to know if it’s relevant, that’s Low Grade translation. And hey, that’s okay, it’s high quality if you can figure out what this website’s about and do your job.

But wouldn't a buyer prefer an LSP to provide the highest quality and the highest grade all the time?

Well, yeah, you always want high quality in the sense you want what’s going to, again, meet your requirements. Whether you need the highest grade is another question. So, let’s take a concrete example. Let’s say that you are in charge of translation for a legal firm, and you’re located in France, and you have a court deposition that was made in the U.S. If you’re going to file this court deposition as evidence in a French legal case, you need High Grade translation. No question. In fact, you’re going to have somebody probably scrutinizing every comma, and there’s going to have to be adaptations made for common law versus civil law. And it’s going to be a very intensive process, and it’s going to carry a very high price tag. And this gets at part of why you might say, well, you don’t always need High Grade because it’s expensive, it tends to take time.  

Now, to take the same legal firm, if the lawyers just need to review this thing internally, they’re not going to file with the court, they could say, “Hey, we’re going to accept Medium Grade. We need to know that we’ve got the content basically right, but it doesn’t need to be perfect. We’ll tolerate some noise and whether it’s really been adapted for civil law so long as we can use it.” And then the same group might take the same text and say, “We don’t know if we even need to waste our time with this. We’re going to pay for Low Grade translation so we can look at it, tell what it’s about, and either say, okay, now we need to invest in High Grade, or no, let’s toss that out, it’s irrelevant to our court case.”  

So, all of these grades play a role, and often you make the determination based on price as one of the factors, speed, typically the lower grades are going to be quicker, and your risk factor. We haven’t mentioned that yet, but if something is high risk, you’re going to want High Grade translation to mitigate that, but if there’s a low risk situation, you can probably settle for Low Grade and save money and time.

The big question is, how will translation grades impact the way we buy and sell translation services?

Yeah, well, to use, I think, a good example of this. You know, most buy-side procurement departments they want to ensure that something meets technical requirements and then they’re going based on price. And if they don’t have a clear statement of technical requirements or grade, and it’s just based on price, then they’re liable to be hoodwinked, for lack of a better word, by a company that says, “Oh yeah, we can give you top quality English to Japanese translation for $0.04 a word,” whereas if there are grades involved, then you can push back as an LSP or as a buyer and say, “You know, $0.04 for top grade Japanese doesn’t seem likely, mate. Something’s wrong here.” And if the grades are there, and then, heaven forbid, but say the company goes with this company offering cut rate, then they can push back and say, “Hey, you promised this and you are not making the grade, so what are you going to do about it?” I think that that kind of pressure would very quickly drive some of these shady characters out of the market because they realize they can’t do that hoodwinking if there are grades involved.

“The real value of the grades is early on in the discussion.”

The real value of translation grades, it seems, is in their capacity to quickly get buyers and LSPs on the same page.

The real value of the grades is early on in the discussion. From the perspective of an enterprise that’s creating content, if that enterprise knows what grade it wants and can go to an LSP and say, “You know, I need this translated, Medium Grade is great. What price can you give me?” They have knowledge. That sends a signal to the to the LSP that, oh, you know, we can give a certain sort of quote versus, if somebody comes and doesn’t know this and says, “Hey, I just need a translation, make it good enough.” What does that mean? 

And so, in those cases, there’s an incentive for the LSP to quote for High Grade because they don’t want to be at risk at the end of the day, if they’ve quoted a low price, given something, and then the requester says, “Well, this isn’t good enough, I’m not paying for this.”  

So that’s where grades come in, early in to start that discussion, and then you might nail down specificity, but it’s a way to short circuit a whole lot of discussion that usually goes on to get you just where the grades are going to get you anyway. 

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