The translation industry is changing rapidly. One of the biggest drivers for change is Machine Translation (MT) technology which has entered the mainstream. 10 years ago nobody would have considered using MT in a real-work scenario. But now some translation companies are using MT in their production process, providing their customers with post-edited MT. Some customers are even using MT themselves and bypassing traditional translation service providers.
Another development which may change the translation industry is the emergence of online translation companies. Companies like Babylon, Gengo and OneHourTranslation (OHT) provide a fully automated ordering system. Customers can order translations online 24/7 without speaking to agents, completing the order process using a credit card. And at cheaper prices than translation agencies. Everyone has used (or at least knows about) online travel systems like Expedia, Travelocity and Orbitz. Before these systems were available, people would contact their travel agent for booking airline travel, using an inefficient and time-consuming process. The online travel systems have decimated the travel agency model. Will the online translation services have a similar impact on the traditional translation agency model?
The short answer, in my opinion, is no. Firstly, billions of dollars have gone into developing online travel systems, but I don’t see how online translations will attract the same level of investment. Moreover, translation is a much more complex product than air travel with many more parameters. There are many kinds of file types; different regional language requirements; data security issues. And although human beings are the ones flying the planes and manning the air traffic controls, air travel itself is a mechanized service. Translation on the other hand is entirely done by humans and is therefore not nearly as homogeneous as air travel. If two different people travel from New York to Berlin on two different planes, the end result is exactly the same. But give the same text to two different translators and you will often get very different results.
So should you be using an online translation service? Well it depends. Using these services is good in some scenarios and less advisable in others. We have tried out some of these services at GTS and I would like to share the experiences with you.
Minimum order policy. Most translators and translation companies have a minimum order policy. Translation prices are usually per-word, but what if a customer only needs to translate 50 words? Traditional translation agencies will not process an order for $7.50 because of overhead costs-the profit on the $7.50 job does not cover the costs and the translation company will lose money on the order. So they impose a minimum order. But the online services have no minimum order policy, so if you only need 50 words then you will only pay a few dollars. If you have very small orders then I recommend the online translation services. This also pertains to translation agencies themselves, who can benefit by using the online services in certain scenarios.
Reliability. If you need an urgent translation and can’t allow any delays, I would not recommend using the online services. They do not guarantee on-time delivery and are prone to adjusting the delivery time mid-course. The delivery times that they post are estimated and they reserve the right to change them. If you absolutely must have that court document in time for the hearing at 9AM, I would recommend that you contact a translation agency that you trust.
Translation Quality. I found the quality of these services to be inconsistent. Not to say that they provide poor quality. But when you order from a translation agency, a Project Manager looks at the material and assigns the work to the most suitable people. Care and attention to detail go into the work and into the quality control process. It is difficult to replicate that process in an online system that processes hundreds of orders a day. Translators are selected based on availability and selection is done using computer algorithms. A PM will do a better job than an algorithm when doing the job assignments.
Obscure Languages. As we all know there are hundreds of languages spoken in the world. And there are thousands of languages pairs that people need to translate. Getting translations in French, German, Chinese and Spanish is fairly easy because there are thousands of translators in these pairs. But what about getting translations in Lithuanian? Estonian? Maltese? Icelandic? When you order relatively obscure languages from an online service, it may take a long time to get your work. And I would not vouch for the quality, since the online service probably has very few translators for these languages in their database. Besides, why would I want to order a translation in Estonian from an online service in Japan? What added value will they provide?
No cash refunds and no money back. Once the online services charges your credit card, your money is gone forever. Even if you cancel your order, the most that they will do is issue a credit. But no cash refunds. And if your are unhappy with the quality of the work, tough luck. Most translation agencies only collect their fee after the work is delivered and offer a money-back guarantee if the work is not done to the satisfaction of the customer.
Have you used an online translation service? Please tell us what you think by leaving a comment.