Translation Service – A Commodity?

According to a definition by Investopedia, a “[…]commodity is a basic good used in commerce that is interchangeable with other commodities of the same type[…]”. The Wikipedia entry on the same term states: “The term commodity is specifically used for an economic good or service when the demand for it has no qualitative differentiation across a market.[1] In other words, a commodity good or service has full or partial but substantial fungibility; that is, the market treats its instances as equivalent or nearly so with no regard to who produced them.” A term close to commodity is “commoditisation”, which occurs when a product or service loses its differentiation.

Is a translation service a commodity?

No. Between two equally experienced high quality translators in the same field, there might not be much difference in quality, however, there will be between a translator with many years of experience and continuous education and a translator who has just graduated – or a so-called “translator” without any qualification (the job title “translator” is not proctected). Also, there will be as many translated versions of one and the same text as there are translators working on it: different theoretical approaches, different choice of words, personal style and preferences, etc. all lead to this. Of course, the variation will be more significant in prose than in a technical manual. Going back to the definition above, translations are not interchangeable.

Is translation perceived as a commodity?

Yes. Translators are often assumed to be living dictionaries who are able to process any given text at a clearly defined rate – per word. If a translator’s only value is his/her translation output in individual words, then one might be forgiven for assuming that a translation service is indeed a commodity. This perception is, in part, also fuelled by the translation community, more often than not though by translators with no drive for continuous education and investment in their professional future. Without the differentiation, the only way to obtain work and to distinguish themselves in the vast ocean of otherwise undistinguishable translation service providers is through a low price. In this case, translation really does come close to being a commodity: price is the main way of differentiation. There are other factors, too, that influence this assumption: While Google Translate and Bing Translator, for example, are great tools, they do add to the perception that translations are a word-for-word rendition of another language for which no other knowledge is required than that of the lexical equivalent of one word in the other language.

Differentiation in the translation market

If we want to quash the assumption of translation being a commodity and to differentiate ourselves in the market, we have several options:

  • Degree in translation studies or
  • A number of years experience (under supervision)
  • Specialisation in a limited number of fields
  • Continuous professional development
  • Membership in professional associations
  • Excellent service
  • Offering a solution to our clients
  • Asking questions
  • Declining jobs outside of our competence

It is unfortunate, that translation is too often perceived as a commodity instead of a service with different market segments (when exclusively looking at the price), but it is up to us to proof the assumption wrong through the quality of our service and our solutions.

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