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What You Don't Know about your Translation Supply Chain Can Hurt You
(Published June 19, 2020; last edited March 8, 2021)
Executive Summary: Products such as smartphones can be made very well in countries where the manufacturing costs are a fraction of what they are in the country in which the products were designed. This does not apply to some services, and Japanese-to-English translation is a good example of a service that is not amenable to outsourcing to China. The reasons include language (Japanese and Chinese languages belong to distinctly different language groups), lack of accountability, and security, the last concern being significant in translations for patent prosecution or litigation matters.
Concerns ranging from mistreatment of workers to environmental impact are often heard about the geographically remote supply chains that support numerous industries in first-world nations. Although the supply chains for service industries such as translation are not the subject of such concerns, the globalization of the translation business in recent years has brought about heavy reliance on low-paid translators in remote locations that elude direct monitoring and control. The concerns about translation industry supply chains are considerably different than those in, for example, the mobile phone industry, but they are valid supply-chain concerns nonetheless.
Why the Translation Supply Chain Matters
Translation users might wonder why they need to worry about their supply chain. The answer is simple.
Almost all Japanese-to-English translations large translation consumers order in the US are sold by companies that merely purchase the translations and resell them to you, very rarely adding value themselves.
If you are in a US law firm, you are almost certainly ordering Japanese-to-English translations from companies that totally lack the ability to translate your documents (or any documents) themselves and often cannot even judge the quality of the translations they purchase for resale to you. Even if they feel the need to improve the quality of the translations they purchase for resale, they almost always need to outsource that task as well, since they do not have that capability themselves. They are in almost all cases better characterized as broker-agencies, rather than as true translation companies, since they lack the basic capabilities to add value and are selling translation as a commodity, something that translation decidedly is not.
Who Actually Does Translations from Japanese to English?
If we limit this question to translations ordered in Japan, the answer will be translators in Japan in most cases. In other translation markets, however, the picture is radically different. One good example is the huge market for Japanese-to-English translation for US civil litigation, this being chiefly discovery documents.
What Globalization Has Done to Japanese Discovery Document Translation
Many US law firms order large volumes of English translations of Japanese-language discovery documents from several large translation broker-agencies in the US. A very small number of these entities appear to sell most of those translations. We know this from seeing the certification letters attached thereto (more on this below). In the past, the majority of such translations were purchased by the US brokers from translators in the US or other anglophone countries and resold to the law firms. The appearance of translation brokers in places like China, however, has drastically changed the universe of players.
The Change is Clearly Evident in the Reduced Quality
We often encounter English translations of Japanese discovery documents when interpreting for depositions of Japanese witnesses. From having access to such translations, we can say two things with confidence:
- The quality of Japanese discovery document translation has fallen off significantly in recent years, and
- a great proportion of such translation is now done in China and India, with almost all being done in China.
Why Does the Country of Origin Matter?
Language ability. The accepted wisdom of translation professionals and informed translation consumers is that a translator should translate into their native language. Almost no translators in China can claim either Japanese (the source language) or English (the target language) as their native language when they do Japanese-to-English translation. Like machine translation systems, these translators have neither the source language nor the target language as their native language. Essentially, these translators are competing with machine translation systems and are producing translations that are no better in many cases and often worse. If you would not (and you certainly should not) give a translator with Polish as their native language the job of translating from French to Turkish, you should not expect a Chinese translator to execute a high-quality translation of your documents from Japanese to English.
The fallacy of similarity between Chinese and Japanese. The notion that a similarity between Japanese and Chinese makes the task of Japanese-to-English translation easy for Chinese translators is simply wrong. To be sure, the writing systems have similarities that can be sensed by even people ignorant of both languages, but so do the writing systems of many mutually unintelligible languages in Europe and elsewhere. The languages themselves, however, are not related; Japanese and Chinese belong to two distinctly different language groups.
Field-specific knowledge. If the translation consumer (a law firm or other user of the translation) has no way of learning the identity of the translator, there is no assurance of subject matter comprehension on the part of the translator from which the overseas translation broker (recently mostly in China) purchased the translation for resale to the US broker for subsequent resale to their end client in the US. The only way you might learn whether the translator understood the subject matter they were translating is after the fact, when it might be too late and when you have already paid for and used the translation.
Security. There should be no need to explain why sensitive documents for US litigation or patent prosecution should not be sent to China.
Translation Brokers Very Often Don’t Themselves Know Who Did the Translations They Sell You.
Not only are you, as the translation consumer, in the dark about the identity and abilities of the translators executing translations of your documents when you order translations of discovery documents from large translation brokers in the US, because of the commonly seen outsourcing to China, the brokers themselves will very likely not know who executed the translation, beyond knowing the name of another translation broker in, for example, China from which they purchased the translations for resale to you.
Meaningless Certification Letters
Most translations of discovery documents sold to law firms by large translation brokers in the US are accompanied by something that is characterized as a certification letter, purporting to attest to the accuracy of the translation.
In what appears to be the overwhelming majority of cases we have seen, certification letters are signed not by a translator, but by an administrative worker at the translation broker-agency. This person is seldom a translator of any languages and, for reasons noted above, often does not even know who the translator was. The certification letter is thus often nothing more than an unwarranted act of faith by the translation broker; sometimes, however, it is a deception.
An Alarming Increase in Falsified Certification Letters
Perhaps worse than having a non-translator without the capability of judging translation accuracy attest to translation accuracy is receiving a certification letter with the name of a fictitious translator or, even worse, the name of a real translator who had nothing to do with the translation and did not even realize their name was being used without their permission.
In one such case we have experienced, an attorney presented to a witness a very poorly translated document with a certification letter purporting that a translator personally known to us executed the translation. Taking a look at the translation, however, its extremely poor quality immediately told me that it was not done by that translator. We sent off an email to the translator and discovered not only that he was not involved in the translation, but also that this was not the first time that the translation broker-agency had engaged in this type of deception. The translation entity involved is one of the several large players in the Japanese discovery document translation business.
In yet another more-recent case, a translation certification letter bore the signature of a Chinese translator in Chinese orthography but the accompanying English text in the letter cited a different name of an apparently Japanese translator. This was at best a serious mistake, but more likely was a deception. You should not be sending your sensitive documents to such an entity for translation.
Engagement with the Translation Provider
Most of the above-noted problems are allowed to occur because translation providers are treated as black boxes and, indeed, wish to be treated that way. If you seek out translation providers that will allow you to engage with them concerning the specific identity, capabilities, and locations of the translators who will translate your documents, you have a better chance of avoiding having your documents sent to an unknown translation broker in China by your translation provider in the US. Sadly, the major translation brokers serving the translation needs of litigation involving Japanese entities are highly unlikely to welcome or offer such engagement, beyond non-verifiable characterizations of "their translation team" (which they almost never have, as noted above).
We might note at this point that Kirameki:
- has its own inhouse translation capability, with a decades-long track record;
- never uses translators it does not personally know and know the abilities of; and
- would never consign translations to an unknowable entity in places such as China.