What is quality?
The question of what quality is seems simple, but it is not. The translation industry has long relied on intuitive ideas about translation quality that do not always meet the needs of clients. When we talk about “high quality” or “low quality” we are conceiving of quality in terms of an inherent or transcendental quality: translations are either good or they are bad.
It is true that, except under the most unusual of circumstances, translations must meet certain minimal requirements for accuracy (does the target text say what the source text does?) and fluency (is the target text linguistically well-formed and understandable?). If they do not meet these requirements they are unlikely to meet any requirements for translations.
The insight of the discipline of quality management is that quality consists in whether or not a product meets specifications. A product that is considered a quality product in one circumstance might not meet expectations in another environment. For example, a screw used to assemble a bookcase in the home might be considered to meet quality requirements if it would be expected to hold its position and not rust for ten years under normal use. But this same screw would not meet quality expectations if used to hold together the components of a space probe’s engine where extreme forces would be expected.
Many problems with translations arise when the expectations of the requester (the person who has requested or paid for the translation), the provider (the person or company that creates the translation), and the end user (whoever will end up utilizing the translation) do not align. These mismatches can occur in small details (such as using the wrong terminology) or larger aspects. For example, if a requester wants a translation of a formal document from English to German but the provider returns a document that uses the informal du forms (which would possibly offend the end user) instead of the formal Sie expected for such documents, then the translation does not meet quality expectations, even if the translation might be perfectly good if intended for a youth audience.
Very often these requirements are implicit in the expectations of the various parties or the requester may not even be aware of important issues. In many cases these assumptions will be right, but in other they will not be. As a result, it is vital that all parties make their expectations explicit and that these expectations match the requirements of the end user.
Defining translation quality
If we accept that quality requires some notion of expectations, we can then provide a working definition of translation quality:
A quality translation demonstrates accuracy and fluency required for the audience and purpose and complies with all other specifications negotiated between the requester and provider, taking into account both requester goals and end-user needs.
This definition captures important aspects of translation quality:
- Translations must have required levels of accuracy. For many texts, demands for accuracy are very high, but for others translators may be given considerable latitude in how they express the ideas from the source text.
- Translations must have required levels of fluency. While translations are generally expected to be highly fluent, in some contexts a more “literal” translation that is not very fluent but which reflects aspects of the source language may be expected. In other cases, information is more important than fluency, and translations that exhibit spelling or grammar errors may be acceptable if they convey needed information in a timely manner.
- Accuracy and fluency expectations must be defined in terms of the intended audience and the purpose of the text. In some cases the audience and purpose of the source and target texts may differ: for example, an translation of an intelligence intercept from terrorists will have a very different intended audience and purpose than the original communication. The purpose may have profound implications for accuracy and fluency: if a translation has a short “shelf-life” (e.g., it contains critical business intelligence), accuracy may be important but fluency may be sacrificed as long as the needed information is received in time.
- A translation must comply with all other specifications negotiated between the requester and provider. Such specifications include timeliness of delivery, confidentiality, format, and other requirements. While these aspects may not be readily apparent in the translated text itself, they may make the difference between an acceptable translation and one that will be rejected.
What is notable is that this definition does not state that translations must meet some abstract notion of perfection, but instead that they must meet requirements. For example, if an ancient Greek poetic text is translated for fifth graders, the specifications might call for the use of prose forms and simple words, while specifications for the same text translated for PhD students in literature might call for the use of verse form and specialist vocabulary with footnotes. Neither translation would be inherently bad, but if they were swapped, neither would meet quality specifications, even if they are perfectly good translations for their intended use. In the quality management perspective, quality is a functional attribute of something, not an inherent quality with moral implications.
How does MQM work in a quality management perspective?
Previous quality assessment methodologies either tried to define a single metric for all translations or were narrowly defined for a single purpose. As a result the numbers they produced could not be correlated with specific needs.
In contrast to these one-size-fits-all models, MQM does not specify one metric. Rather, it defines a large variety of issue types.