Amateurs playing among the pros?

With the 2014 World Cup and the 2016 Olympic Games to be held in Brazil, the country has been investing tons of money and effort to attract tourists and, hopefully, be prepared to welcome a huge number of non-Portuguese speakers. Needless to say, translation has been a key element in reaching out to the foreign sports lovers and tourists in general.

Last year, a website aiming to market the 2014 World Cup to foreigners was published by Embratur, a government body created in 1966 specifically to foster tourism in the country. We could only expect it to provide top-notch content to foreigners, which should naturally include appropriate translation and marketing copy in English, right?

Well, the reality proved to be different.

The poor material posted by Embratur in 2012 is no longer available, but I still wanted to write about it because this sort of problem is very common. This issue has been present for ages all over the world and, unfortunately, will keep happening as long as people use lame procurement processes.

If you haven’t read my previous post about the Brazilian Federal Supreme Court’s “trilingual glossary,” I suggest you check it out, since that case has a couple of elements in common with Embratur’s endeavor: (1) both are great initiatives and (2) both failed at their main goal because a huge part of the message couldn’t get across due to awkward or overly literal translations and poor terminology work.

Now, where do they differ? Unlike the trilingual glossary, which was put together with the collaboration of amateurs (i.e., non-translators), the amateurish English translation of Embratur’s website was indeed prepared by a genuine translation agency in Brazil.

My goal here is not to comment on the numerous mistranslations found on that website or to look for mistakes in the new one. It’s not about which English words are the best equivalents for such and such, or how much of a foreign accent pervaded the text, or how many translation and terminology inconsistencies could be found throughout the copy…

I’d rather focus on what I believe to be the most important lesson we can learn from this mishap, by looking into the reason, the root of the problem, and answering this question: why in the world would a respectable government agency spend loads of public money on extremely poor language services?

In a great text on language services procurement, Nataly Kelly describes what the general pattern looks like–which I summarize below, focusing on what I find to be the main points:

When procuring language services, government bodies often rely on employees who are inexperienced in working with this type of service, but rather are typically in charge of buying commodities. As a result, these procurement officers tend to treat language services as a commodity and include in public tenders only the basic requirements, such as languages and price, but overlook essential details: “experience actually providing the services, understanding of quality issues, and solid relationships with vendors.” On top of that, these contracts frequently impose unrealistic timelines (and I must add this: huge work volume). Even with no prior experience delivering this type of service (remember: experience is rarely a requirement in these contracts), language service providers apply for these public tenders, seeing them as great opportunities. Lacking a good understanding of the market, these service providers tend to overlook real costs and bid low, hoping to win the contract. The lowest bidder wins the contract, and, as expected, the winner is one of those providers with little or no experience in the type of services requested and doesn’t understand all the costs involved. Now it’s time to get the work done… In order to meet the impracticable deadlines and stay within the nonsensical budget, the winner asks subcontractors, who are usually freelancers, to lower their rates and work more than they typically do.

The piteous results come as no surprise, and you can find all sorts of explanations in Rafa Lombardino’s latest article, Doing it right the first time around, Christos Floros’ Beware of the translation industry “bottom-feeders,” and three texts of my own: Common scenariosFood for thought, and Controversial approach: “penalties” for low rates?.

To wrap up, I’d like to complement Nataly’s explanation by raising a few points:

  • I believe there are indeed experienced service providers who, unfortunately, don’t have “quality” high on their priority list. For these, delivering massive texts in any language combination, within ridiculous deadlines, and earning peanuts (and paying “peanut fragments” to freelancers) is part of their daily chores. They want more and more volume, and that’s how they make money.
  • Chopping up a huge text and assigning bits and pieces to ten, twenty, or thirty translators, and never carrying out proper harmonization and review work is another capital sin these service providers often commit.
  • In Brazil, due to some cultural anomaly, service providers most often “impose” a low rate on freelancers–take it or leave it. And there’s always someone who takes it. And guess what? These are either inexperienced professionals or those who play on the who-cares-about-quality team.
  • Another disturbing fact (common in Brazil and most likely elsewhere) is that many freelancers think so highly of themselves–or care so little about quality–that they translate from their mother tongue into several foreign languages. I’m not saying that is NOT acceptable, but the margin for error in this scenario is much, much higher. (I’ll need a whole new post to properly explore this matter.)

Unfortunately, it’s common to see translation agencies coming to Brazilian online forums to ask Portuguese native speakers for quotes like this one:

Again, a dangerous combination of tight deadlines, huge volumes, translations into several foreign languages, and bidding for “dream” government contracts…

All that said, what I believe translation clients should take from this short case study is what not to do when procuring language services. There are other ways that actually make sense. A fellow translator, Beatriz Figueiredo, has just published a blog post about another method of hiring translation services in Brazil, recently adopted by a few government agencies. I’m excited she has agreed to write a guest post soon.