Adam Blau 04 May 2015

Lost in translation

Lost in translation image

“Good words are worth much, and cost little,” said the famous poet and orator, George Herbert. Be that as it may, this does not seem to be the case for local governments, such as Sheffield Council, which has recently been brought under fire for spending exceedingly on interpretation and translation services.

Called out by communities secretary Eric Pickles for ‘wasting taxpayers’ money’ after spending almost £700,000 on translation projects in three years, Sheffield Council was thrust into the spotlight as the public debate on local government translation spending has gained momentum.

In fact, there’s a lesson to be learned from previous public interpreter agreements that have gone sour. Such was the case with Applied Language Solutions- an external translation provider that secured large sums of government funding in return for interpretation services in 2011. The agency was unable to deliver the goods due to many of their employee’s refusals to accept dramatically reduced salaries.

The debate comes at a time when local governments struggle to find a balance between two paradoxical considerations: on one hand, the local authority’s statutory obligation to provide translated documentation that simplify bureaucratic processes for non-native language speaking immigrants; on the other hand, the local authority has an obligation to taxpayers to reduce spending and at the same time, encourage immigrant communities to learn English.

A dilemma indeed.

When it comes to human interpreters, which are required to ensure effective communication between a local authority and citizen, a provision of translation services usually outweighs the cost of immigrant integration. Such is the case in children’s services, where local government is likely to cover interpretation costs due to the broad ramifications and sensitivity of decisions.

Even so, when it comes to large scale content translation projects, such as publications, websites and forms, there are a few strategies local governments can take into consideration to stymie excessive spending.

A translation service provider should be chosen based on their expected Return-on-Investment (ROI), which is the language service provider’s ability to provide the most cost-effective price with the highest quotient of technical feasibility. To maximize ROI, local authorities need to verify the accuracy, speed and cost of each potential translation provider.

Accuracy - Local authorities can ensure they are getting an accurate translation by verifying, in advance, the quality assurance processes the translation provider has in place. Whether this means a structured hierarchy of editors and proofreaders, peer and client reviews, or an aggressive vetting process for hiring translators, government should always keep in mind that a project turnover that has less errors will mean less time and resources spent on future translations and documents will be more clear to the immigrant community reading them, reducing the need to seek outside clarification.

Speed - Time is money. Translation services for local governments are no exception. As governments tend to move slower than private businesses due to procurement standards, it is crucial for local governments to evaluate their expected translation project time frames and properly research how different providers can offer different solutions that may quicken their government’s unique processes. By anticipating due dates, various technological solutions and submitting projects in advance instead of at the last minute, local governments can maximize chances of completing large projects on time, with less errors and untimely at a lower cost.

Cost - Keeping the overall translation costs low is an undeniable and obvious factor that local governments must consider - that starts with the initial budget allocations and continues throughout the entire procurement process. However, authorities must be careful not to sacrifice translation quality for a cheaper vendor, as translation mistakes can end up costing more than intended through the need to re-translate.

Even worse, unrealized mistakes can lead to larger problems resulting from the documents’ use. Instead, cost-conscious authorities looking for the best overall translation value should negotiate set project rates early in the bidding process with the translation providers, considering factors like extraneous fees, cost-per-word schedules and volume-based discounts.

Whether a local authority implements just one, two, or all of the above strategies, translation costs can be lowered without implementing a no translation across the board policy.

As far as integrating immigrants who don't speak the language - increased translation services reduces queues at government offices and the need for interpreters. It also increases the chances of people completing forms and reading government issued notices and instructions which drives costs lower in the long run to service a thriving immigrant population and help their absorption into British society.

Adam Blau is vice president of sales at OHT Enterprise, a One Hour Translation company.

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