Why do institutions complain that they do not get the translation quality they need?

The answer to this is that two things have happened, and one hasn’t.

Until early 2012, there was no obligation for public bodies to publish tenders for ‘low-value’ contracts (currently under RSD 3m). They would often invite three one-man agencies they happened to know to give offers. Since they picked translators they knew and trusted, they got the quality they expected, even though prices were often quite high.

The first thing that happened was a change in the Law on Public Procurement to conform to European standards. Now, they had to publish every procedure, which meant that anyone could bid. In a time when there is almost one unemployed youth for every one employed, offers of ever lower price and quality have resulted: if you have to sit around doing nothing all day, then you may as well do some translation for a starvation price than not. Don’t get me wrong, the new rule was excellent, as it ensured transparency and free competition. These are fundamental principles of a successful market economy, principles that are desperately needed if the Serbian economy is to grow. But they are not enough on their own.

The second thing that has happened is a steady increase in the volume and importance of translation. Globally, the translation industry is the only one that has grown without pause throughout the years of crisis. In Serbia this is partly due to an opening economy after years of isolation, and partly to the gathering impetus of EU accession. Now, a single free-lance translator or two are no longer able to deal with, say, a ministry’s workload. This has placed the focus on companies that can effectively manage growing numbers of translators using modern technology and to international standards.

Outsourcing translation management to dedicated companies is logical, as a specialised private company can usually perform much more effectively and efficiently than a government department. This is a trend that has occurred all over Europe over the last few decades.

What has not happened, at least not yet, is a corresponding growth in the skill of contracting authorities to hold tenders that can assure quality, and not just low price. What we see is that almost no tenders are well designed to procure quality services, and that almost all of them contravene important principles laid down in the law. Most tenders are based on price only, and of course, if cheapness is all you ask for, then cheapness is all you’ll get. If you simply tender for ‘a roadworthy car’ on a price-only basis, don’t be surprised when you get a second-hand Zastava and not a new Ford (let alone a Mercedes).

The purpose of tendering is to secure the best value for taxpayers’ money. In the approach to EU membership, poor translation can have serious consequences: delays, errors or loss of confidence. These can be costly and embarrassing. Many institutions suffer from this situation and struggle to obtain good translation. Sadly, some of them conclude that effective tendering cannot be made under the law, and use ambiguities or forbidden measures in an attempt to ‘set up’ the result for a service provider they believe can do a good job. Sad, and unnecessary.
The Law on Public Procurement is a good, modern, European-style law. Under this law, it is quite possible to tender fairly in a way that excludes fraudulent or frivolous bidders and balances price and quality.

UPPS/SATC is founded to address this issue among others. In the coming weeks, we will be publishing some articles examining procurement law and practice, and making some recommendations.

Copyright 2015 SATC