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Lost in mirror translation

OFFI (Hungarian Office for Translation and Attestation) is a rather special actor at the Hungarian translation market. The law endows it with a monopoly on certifying translations of foreign official documents like birth and marriage certificates and university degrees.  So any office that requires certified translations of such documents generates an income for OFFI, which significantly contributes to its market leadership.

The Hungarian solution for the problem is untypical in market economies, though it is not necessarily anti-market in its attitude: as OFFI is 100% owned by the Hungarian state its activities can be classified as official. The only problem is the fact that OFFI is active in every field of the translation and interpretation business ranging from public tenders to corporate commissions.

When the Council of Ministers declared in a 1986 decree that certified translations can only be issued by OFFI alone, it also drew up a price list that accompanied the list of tasks defined in the document. This method was characteristic of late communism, but it could hardly be justified in a market economy. It is not surprising that the decree was partially abolished after the fall of Communism – meaning that since then OFFI has had the right to determine its own prices. Its system is complicated enough: the eventual fee depends on how rare the source language is, how elaborate and of course how long the text is. Although basic fees published on OFFI’s website are not significantly higher than market fees, the certified translation of special documents such as standard-form birth certificates may be three or four times higher than usual market prices for translation without certification.

An OFFI source justifies the higher price with the rigorous requirements the office has to meet. As it performs official authority tasks, it needs to employ a sizeable crew of foreign language editors full time, and these employees need to possess a maximal array of language skills as well as other competences in order to cover all areas of potential commissions.

“More than 50 people work full time in OFFI’s proofreading office, including experts speaking Mongolian. As far as the English language is concerned, there is a separate editor for technical texts and a separate one for legal ones”, a translator familiar with OFFI told the Budapest Business Journal. What is more, as a national organization OFFI has offices in 29 Hungarian cities, all requiring full-time employees.

Mixed to match

The problem is that life – and OFFI’s profile – is messy. It has to hire enough people to be able to satistfy its public functions at any time, but work is distributed unevenly. Thus, it also participates as a regular market player: it bids on public procurement tenders and it also tries to build a private clientele. This puts OFFI in a murky position as far as competition law is concerned. Employees of OFFI’s proofreading office, in fact, could wind up as translators of texts OFFI needs to certify.

It is probably to offset this imbalance that a separate directorate for business translations was recently established; however, allegedly no new translators were hired to staff it. The BBJ wished to ask OFFI’s managing director about this, but Lajos Vigh could not be reached by our deadline.

Market players feel that the presence of OFFI might be detrimental to their chances at public tenders. “OFFI is supervised by the Ministry of Public Administration and Justice, the ministry responsible for the government’s communication. It would be very practical to give it the government jobs,” one complained. “Public tenders seem to be tailored specifically to OFFI,” another translation firm’s head added, citing as an example the tender for the translation support of Hungary’s EU presidency, where bidders had to have at least two specialized translators in each of the main languages of the EU in their employ. “It was forseeable that only OFFI would be able to meet that particular expectation,” he argues.

Fish or fowl?

“The translation profession has tried to break OFFI’s monopoly several times, but failed”, Péter Varga, business development manager of the multinationally owned Hungarian branch of Euroscript told the BBJ. “It is problematic that the exact market position of OFFI has not yet been clarified”, he says.

But the biggest problem of all is that customers themselves do not see clearly what OFFI’s monopoly exactly covers. “There is a terminological confusion about what OFFI calls attested translation and what is called official translation in common usage”, Viktor Könyves, Marketing Head of Reflex Translation Services said. OFFI has the exclusive rights to certify private documents and international treaties. Official translations of documents such as  company charters are not included; nor are certificates written for authorities outside Hungary.

“Headmasters of foreign schools, for example, often ask parents for “certified translations” of school transcripts, although in fact they only mean approved translations. in the case of which a professional translator adds a clause that the original document and the translation contain the same information”, Viktor Könyves remarked.

Clarification attempt

Reflex cheekily opened its brand new office right next to OFFI’s headquarters in Bajza Street. “We offer free advice to customers heading toward OFFI, telling them whether they really need a certified translation or not, and we also provide them with a price which they can then compare to OFFI’s”. In other words, Reflex offers a virtual counseling service, where it explains to customers of OFFI in a Q&A form what kind of services they actually need. (This article was originally published in the June 3rd issue of the Budapest Business Journal)