There are times when we are more interested in content than quality. You might be researching facts about another country, maybe to start a business there, take a holiday, or buy an investment property. Perhaps you have lots of foreign emails through your business or social media, or are interested in cultural aspects like food, art or music. These situations can involve lots of information, some useful, some not. You don’t want to pay top price for a high quality translation before you know whether you need it. Maybe near enough is good enough. If so, there are some inexpensive options available.
TRANSLATION AS UTILITY
Translation is becoming an increasingly industrialised process with all of the usual features that industrialisation entails: high volumes, a price-driven market, trade-offs between cost and quality, the use of low-paid and possibly under-qualified workers, and shifts to cheap production environments (for example, in developing countries). If you want really cheap rates then there are agencies that trade in millions of words per year, in the same way as commodities markets would ship around bushels of wheat or sacks of coal.
These bulk dealers will be delighted to help you for unbeatable prices. While they will frequently refer to their ‘team’ of translators, in practice they seldom hire anyone permanently and instead source translators for each job from the same worldwide pool of freelancers that everyone else uses. No Australian-based translator can compete with the prices on offer, at least not on a consistent basis and still stay in business. Quality can vary widely according to the language pair involved. As always though, you get what you pay for.
MACHINE TRANSLATION (MT)
Most people are aware of cheap and/or free online machine translation programs such as Asia Online, Babelfish, Bing, Google Translate, Collins, or SDL freetranslation. You can also find a list of machine translation programs and some of their features in this Wikipedia article.
There is nothing cheaper than free, but naturally the quality and consistency are what you would expect; there is no quality guarantee and (logically) no after-sales service. And don’t forget that many MT sites will keep the text you input and use it in their research and development – partly to improve their free services, but mainly to enhance similar premium services intended for paying corporate customers.
Whichever the case, it is normally one of the conditions of use that your stuff will go into big corporate data bases; there is nothing to stop these companies from sharing and profiting from that data, because once you have given it to them, they legally own it. So be very careful about translating anything personal with these online facilities.
MT & POST EDITING
Some global translation agencies are developing their own private machine translation services that offer more security. The cheapest option is to leave the machine-translated output unchanged (or ‘raw’) like Google does; for an additional charge the raw output can be checked by human editors (a process called ‘post editing’ – see this Wikipedia article for a rundown on the different types).
The people who perform the post editing will ideally be native speakers of the target language, and hopefully have topic knowledge (if applicable); however, they won’t necessarily be professional translators, or understand the communicative principles and goals of translation, and may not even be fluent in the source language. It is unrealistic to expect that budget post-editing can miraculously transform MT quality, when it’s only the machine itself that has actually ‘read’ the source text in the first place!
However, with appropriate optimisation (specific language support resources, competent post-editing), Machine Translation can be a cost-effective solution, especially for assessing material to decide whether a professional ‘human’ translation is necessary. Just don’t forget to ask for proper guarantees about the security, confidentiality and ownership/ sharing of your data as well.
THE WATCHWORD: CONSUMER BEWARE
I would never discourage you from seeking the most economical solution for your needs. For example, if you encounter a mystifying Latin phrase such as ‘caveat emptor’, it makes sense to put it into a free online translator rather than contact your local translators association and pay a professional to do it for you.
Nowadays you can get cheap or free services concerning almost anything, from health, dieting, exercise, and medicine to legal matters, investment, and education. Common sense tells you to be careful about when you can take short cuts, and when you need something authoritative and professional. Cut price translation is no exception, because you also know that a high proportion of ‘incredible’ offers are exactly that: scams by unscrupulous operators who won’t be around to fix things when they go wrong. Where important decisions are concerned, you cannot expect to get what you need cheap or free.
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