Turnaround, turnaround, turnaround. You’ve probably heard those words more times than Brad Pitt has eaten in movies. I understand, I really do. Everything’s moving at breakneck speed, the translation needs to be done, proofread, and certified by yesterday. Everyone needs to be a fast translator these days.

But how fast is too fast? I bet no one from a client’s perspective has ever asked that question. But it’s something you need to address if you either want to be or hire a fast translator. Not everyone is up to the task, and it’s not always preferable to go hypersonic unless it’s mission-critical.

  • How do you avoid the common mistakes translators make when going fast?
  • How do you know if a translator or agency is capable of handling fast translation duties?
  • What’s reasonable to expect from a fast translator?
  • What should a fast translator avoid missing?

Grab your best coffee, your comfiest beanbag chair, and get ready!

This post was updated in June 2021

A fast translator is still a translator

Translation is the science of transferring meaning from one language into another. This is not always as clear-cut as non-translators may think. People who speak one language may believe that there’s a mathematical formula to translation, where meaning gets magically converted. In fact, that’s a mistake many bilingual people make as well! But, trust me, nothing could be further from the truth.

Translation requires a deep knowledge of both the source and target languages. That means understanding grammar, common usage, being up-to-date on idioms and changing cultural norms. These things make turnover more complicated than it initially seems.  In particular, a fast translator must take special care to avoid the path of literal translation.

This means that this magical belief in “word in, word out” gets thrown out the window; a fast translator must still follow the same strict, painstaking attention to detail and observance of context. They must be able to deliver the goods while maintaining a good translation process.

This also depends on the type of translation that is being attempted. Not all documents are created equal — a legal brief may be easier to translate than a novel with a unique register. This means acquainting yourself with the many types of document translation to manage timeframes better.

Proofreading is not just a fancy-schmancy word

Proofreading is another key aspect that gets overlooked when looking for a fast translator. As the final step of the editing process, proofreading ensures that every piece is in place for the final product. Therefore, a translator’s skills are commensurate to their ability to deliver a piece that’s got every quality rubric checked.

Proofreading is something that comes naturally to every translator when they’ve got time. But I assure you, the more time is of the essence, the more probabilities for error rear their ugly heads. It’s very common for work by a fast translator to have egregious errors because it hasn’t been proofread enough. This makes any project look bad by association.


I ain’t afraid of no ghostwriting

Let’s take the ghostwriting industry, for example. This growing trend finds writers creating books for clients (from a rough outline) and giving up their right of authorship. This is the way some authors are able to come up with several books — or more — per year. Think about it like the Ford assembly line, but for creativity. A very popular example of a series that’s been ghostwritten almost entirely is the Hardy Boys. Around ninety years after its inception, books continue getting churned out.

Two other examples are James Patterson, who gives detailed outlines of books to co-authors and Tom Clancy — the latter usually gave them credit. Prominent cases are dime-a-dozen; usually, any celebrity biography you’ve read has been done by a ghostwriter.

The ghostwriting model doesn’t end with just the books, though. Clients are looking to maximize profits and break into new markets on a constant basis. This leads them almost invariably to the audiobook and multi-language market. That’s when the search for a fast translation becomes a dominant force.

Content mills for ghostwriting are now dime-a-dozen. There are even open job searches on freelancing platforms where clients clamor for ghostwriters. The second most popular related search is for translators — if it’s for multiple languages, even better. Everyone is claiming to be able to do fast work, but needless to say, quality generally suffers. The third most popular search is you’ve guessed it, for proofreaders in the translated language.

The proofreadin’ posse

In general, I believe that most clients are looking for quality, fast, efficient work. It’s no slight against them, also, that it’s a fact that most service providers are none of those things. Some clients are shrewd enough to go with that already, so they go with the following model:

  • Clients find someone to produce material (like a ghostwritten book) fast.
  • They find a translator or team of translators to convert it into different languages.
  • Then, they hire a proofreader or a team to check that those in the second step have done their job satisfactorily.

I’ve done a considerable term as a proofreader, so I speak from experience; most who claim to be a fast translator are just a fast literal translator. They may also be using computer-assisted tools to a degree where it’s a bulk-Google-Translate job. Those who don’t may also be committing the cardinal sin of not localizing correctly. Some will write a translation in Castilian Spanish when the intended market is Mexico. “Spanish” does not mean the same thing everywhere.

That’s not all, of course. In the frantic shuffle to deliver the fastest turnaround time, other errors may crop up. Even those translators who are genuinely well-meaning rarely have the time to adequately correct their work before deadlines breathe down their neck. If you’re working with a freelancer, these issues may get compounded. Normally, they may say yes to large jobs because they don’t want to lose out to other bids. This may leave them short-handed to complete all the steps of the translation process.

The rate race and some workarounds for the fast translator

How does one get around these possible issues? It’s not all bad, thankfully! The American Translators Association has a very interesting article on the future of freelance translation. Lowering rates, a premium on speed and clients unconcerned with quality have devalued part of the trade. Stiff competition in freelancing platforms has made it hard for newcomers to the scene to discern what’s what.

Clients who choose the correct agencies and outsourcing platforms will have an easier go at it, though. This is specifically because these platforms curate their content and their talent. They may have higher (but competitive) rates, but it’s what I see as a fair tradeoff for quality. In a market that rarely requires official certification, there’s an oversaturation of would-be translators who don’t know their stuff.

And I understand — not every client has the time to become an expert in the translation business. Generally, it’s easy to trust every vendor at their word, guided by the promise of lower rates. That’s what we want, right? Quality service at very low prices? The thing is, it’s remarkably complex to be a good translator. Not everyone can do it, even when they speak two languages fluently and eloquently. There’s a lot more than just knowing the words, and most people don’t know what they don’t know.

The Dunning-Kruger effect has been well-researched. It refers to people’s unconscious bias about their own abilities. Many will label themselves knowledgeable in a field not out of malice, but out of a misguided belief that they’re good. This is especially prevalent in freelancing platforms where hundreds of vendors in the lower tiers claim to be translation aces.


How to get over this and get an accurate fast translator

The easiest route? Find a curated outsourcing platform that will provide good rates and quality-assured talent. That way, you can ensure you’ll have the desired results every time. It’s also the surefire way to get over the aforementioned Dunning-Kruger effect. Some advantages of curated platforms are:

  • Turnaround times as fast as you need. You pay a little extra for closer deadlines, but it’s a solid investment.
  • Quality-assurance. That means your translations are not only fast but proofread by a team of editors. That leaves translators the ability to concentrate on their trade and the finishing touches are up to the editors.
  • Money-back guarantees. Don’t like the final product? You get your money back. Simple. This should be the standard with any translation service you procure.
  • You get pros who know their stuff. Their skills are vetted by a team of industry experts.
  • Rates are slightly higher, but not prohibitively so. You don’t quite pay a premium for premium results. That’s a pretty fair trade for clients and professionals.

Of course, you won’t have results assured. This also doesn’t mean that there aren’t great freelancers around. Translation is an industry that lends itself to quality freelance work for those who want to pursue it. What makes the whole process easier is knowing what to look for. If you’re going with a freelancing platform, try to go for highly-reviewed talent with good rates. Be careful, though, of $5 “translators” who claim to be able to translate your book in two days. If it looks too good to be true, it is. Even if they’ve got a million 5-star reviews.

Closing thoughts about the fast translator life

Being a fast translator is both achievable and desirable for translators and clients. This doesn’t mean that speed should be pursued at all costs on both ends of the spectrum; knowing and maintaining acceptable guidelines, processes and indicators should be your guiding principle.

Need the fast recipe for success? Submit a project with us and we’ll get the job done better and faster than anyone else!