Cost-based or accreditation-based procurement?

All that is related to public or civil service tends to be regarded in an extremely favorable light in Brazil. Civil servants are well paid, with salaries that are often higher than in the private sector, and they are always paid on time. There is even a new term in Brazilian Portuguese to refer to people who have turned the entire process of applying for a job with the government into an occupation. They are not merely candidates; they are concurseiros. This is not at all surprising in a country where a few “lucky” public officials are paid super-salaries of over R$300,000 per month – way more than a Supreme Court Justice.

Therefore, a contract with the government is coveted by all kinds of companies in a number of different industries, including the translation and interpretation industry. The thought of signing a huge contract that will keep a lot of people busy for a long time is indeed extremely appealing. Many translators work as freelancers and must tackle hunting for new jobs on a daily basis, but closing a deal with the government would make all that just go away. If translators found security in a government contract, they would not have to worry about marketing their services or prospecting clients. With the 2013 Confederations Cup and the 2014 World Cup just around the corner, there are huge expectations for new business opportunities here and everyone is dying for a piece of that cake.

One of the major problems, as TNC explained, is that the lowest price is almost always the key factor that will define a government procurement process. Her post lists several reasons why this is a bad idea, and I can think of a few others to complement her thoughts. The red tape involved in the process is one of them reasons – and it’s not for the faint-hearted. It could take months for companies to be paid for services rendered, and they in turn take months to pay translators as well. No self-respecting translator would submit to such demeaning conditions, and many drop out of the project midway because they have found something better to do. In this situation many contractors will just shamelessly feed their material into free automatic translation software and deliver the sub-standard results to their client. Finally, since accountability seems to be a foreign concept to many people in this country, government agencies end up paying for a service they do not ultimately get.

I imagine quite a few of those government agencies had terrible experiences with language service providers in the past, because in the last couple of years a new category of government procurement seems to have been used more and more often: accreditation. Agencies that need to procure language services provide a list of requirements that contractors must fulfill in order to become an accredited provider. Those requirements usually involve minimum qualification standards for the provider, terms and conditions of service, and other relevant details. Individuals or companies are welcome to apply, but only those who meet the standards are accredited by the agency and included in their roster. The agency also sets the rates to be paid to translators/companies, thereby eliminating competition based on the lowest possible price. In my experience, rates have usually seemed reasonable, and I do hope that is true for accreditation-based procurement in general.

This could be an interesting procurement alternative, but whether it will yield better results than the others is yet to be determined. It basically comes down to which standards are set by the translation buyer for accreditation. Those who are not well informed about the language industry most likely do not know which requirements will make a difference in the product quality and will end up accrediting inadequate service providers.

As for language services for the Confederations Cup and the World Cup, there is still not much information officially available, and translation and interpretation services seem to be handled mostly internally (something that can be worrisome, such as the disgraceful case described in another article by TCZ). However, given Brazilians’ penchant for procrastination, I would not be surprised to get a last-minute call desperately seeking a professional. Or am being I too hopeful?

Amateurs playing among the pros?

With the 2014 World Cup and the 2016 Olympic Games to be held in Brazil, the country has been investing tons of money and effort to attract tourists and, hopefully, be prepared to welcome a huge number of non-Portuguese speakers. Needless to say, translation has been a key element in reaching out to the foreign sports lovers and tourists in general.

Last year, a website aiming to market the 2014 World Cup to foreigners was published by Embratur, a government body created in 1966 specifically to foster tourism in the country. We could only expect it to provide top-notch content to foreigners, which should naturally include appropriate translation and marketing copy in English, right?

Well, the reality proved to be different.

The poor material posted by Embratur in 2012 is no longer available, but I still wanted to write about it because this sort of problem is very common. This issue has been present for ages all over the world and, unfortunately, will keep happening as long as people use lame procurement processes.

If you haven’t read my previous post about the Brazilian Federal Supreme Court’s “trilingual glossary,” I suggest you check it out, since that case has a couple of elements in common with Embratur’s endeavor: (1) both are great initiatives and (2) both failed at their main goal because a huge part of the message couldn’t get across due to awkward or overly literal translations and poor terminology work.

Now, where do they differ? Unlike the trilingual glossary, which was put together with the collaboration of amateurs (i.e., non-translators), the amateurish English translation of Embratur’s website was indeed prepared by a genuine translation agency in Brazil.

My goal here is not to comment on the numerous mistranslations found on that website or to look for mistakes in the new one. It’s not about which English words are the best equivalents for such and such, or how much of a foreign accent pervaded the text, or how many translation and terminology inconsistencies could be found throughout the copy…

I’d rather focus on what I believe to be the most important lesson we can learn from this mishap, by looking into the reason, the root of the problem, and answering this question: why in the world would a respectable government agency spend loads of public money on extremely poor language services?

In a great text on language services procurement, Nataly Kelly describes what the general pattern looks like–which I summarize below, focusing on what I find to be the main points:

When procuring language services, government bodies often rely on employees who are inexperienced in working with this type of service, but rather are typically in charge of buying commodities. As a result, these procurement officers tend to treat language services as a commodity and include in public tenders only the basic requirements, such as languages and price, but overlook essential details: “experience actually providing the services, understanding of quality issues, and solid relationships with vendors.” On top of that, these contracts frequently impose unrealistic timelines (and I must add this: huge work volume). Even with no prior experience delivering this type of service (remember: experience is rarely a requirement in these contracts), language service providers apply for these public tenders, seeing them as great opportunities. Lacking a good understanding of the market, these service providers tend to overlook real costs and bid low, hoping to win the contract. The lowest bidder wins the contract, and, as expected, the winner is one of those providers with little or no experience in the type of services requested and doesn’t understand all the costs involved. Now it’s time to get the work done… In order to meet the impracticable deadlines and stay within the nonsensical budget, the winner asks subcontractors, who are usually freelancers, to lower their rates and work more than they typically do.

The piteous results come as no surprise, and you can find all sorts of explanations in Rafa Lombardino’s latest article, Doing it right the first time around, Christos Floros’ Beware of the translation industry “bottom-feeders,” and three texts of my own: Common scenariosFood for thought, and Controversial approach: “penalties” for low rates?.

To wrap up, I’d like to complement Nataly’s explanation by raising a few points:

  • I believe there are indeed experienced service providers who, unfortunately, don’t have “quality” high on their priority list. For these, delivering massive texts in any language combination, within ridiculous deadlines, and earning peanuts (and paying “peanut fragments” to freelancers) is part of their daily chores. They want more and more volume, and that’s how they make money.
  • Chopping up a huge text and assigning bits and pieces to ten, twenty, or thirty translators, and never carrying out proper harmonization and review work is another capital sin these service providers often commit.
  • In Brazil, due to some cultural anomaly, service providers most often “impose” a low rate on freelancers–take it or leave it. And there’s always someone who takes it. And guess what? These are either inexperienced professionals or those who play on the who-cares-about-quality team.
  • Another disturbing fact (common in Brazil and most likely elsewhere) is that many freelancers think so highly of themselves–or care so little about quality–that they translate from their mother tongue into several foreign languages. I’m not saying that is NOT acceptable, but the margin for error in this scenario is much, much higher. (I’ll need a whole new post to properly explore this matter.)

Unfortunately, it’s common to see translation agencies coming to Brazilian online forums to ask Portuguese native speakers for quotes like this one:

Again, a dangerous combination of tight deadlines, huge volumes, translations into several foreign languages, and bidding for “dream” government contracts…

All that said, what I believe translation clients should take from this short case study is what not to do when procuring language services. There are other ways that actually make sense. A fellow translator, Beatriz Figueiredo, has just published a blog post about another method of hiring translation services in Brazil, recently adopted by a few government agencies. I’m excited she has agreed to write a guest post soon.

Localization and internationalization in a nutshell

Communicating in the web: spreading vs selling

Doing it right the first time around

In our earlier post, we talked about clients asking for discounts on “short” files, on “easy” projects, and on the promise of a long-term collaboration (the good old “volume” discount).

While each argument had its own counter-argument, the underlying notion was that professional translators―those who translate for a living, usually as their exclusive activity―invest in continuing education to offer an added value (their valuable specialized knowledge) and become truly accountable for their work, thus contributing to the success of their clients.

This time, let’s explore three additional topics that I often discuss with prospects.

  • “What’s your best rate?” ― My best rate is $1 per word. Oh, you meant my “lowest” rate? Sorry… You see, when I heard “best,” I immediately thought about what would be best for me.If I could earn $1 per word, I would be able to work fewer hours per week, take a longer vacation, spend more time with the kids, and maybe even retire sooner. I didn’t realize you meant the best rate for you…Why don’t we just do this: You send me the files you need translated, I’ll analyze the project, calculate how much time and effort it would take me to complete the job and then send you an estimate. I believe that would make everybody happy!
  • “I can find cheaper than that!” ― I’m sure you can, but does “cheaper” mean “better”? It usually only means you’ll pay less for a service, but there will most likely be consequences.What happens if you receive the translation and are extremely disappointed with the final result? Do you pay for the substandard translation service―fearing the wrath of a translator of questionable quality who will badmouth your company on-line―and then hire a proper translator to redo the whole thing? This way you’ll spend more than you had originally budgeted for and wait longer for the project to be completed.And that is assuming you can actually read the final result of the substandard translation. What if you hired a translator to work on your beautifully crafted message and have your words written in a language you cannot understand? Do you really want to wait and see whether your marketing materials, those important contracts, or the guidelines that your branches overseas need to follow have actually been translated correctly by the candidate who offered to work for the lowest possible rate?Why don’t you make an informed decision to go with the translator who is truly a great fit for your purposes? Don’t be carried away by the “average rate in the market” idea. Keep in mind that you’ll be getting what you pay for. And I’m sure you are looking for accurate translations that will help your product or service do well in foreign markets.
  • “We’re just a startup and…”  If you’re a small company that is trying to break into your own market, you should be in the best position to truly appreciate a good deal when you see one. Maybe you’ve just furnished your office and went with a reliable brand because you want your furniture to last. You sure had to buy computers and equipment to perform your activities, so you identified the state-of-the-art technology that will make your work easier, eliminate re-work, and increase productivity.When it comes to hiring translation services, please follow the same mentality. You know good deals don’t always come with a small price tag. Actually, if the offer sounds too good to be true, there may be a catch. The service turnaround is too fast? Quality may suffer. The price is very low? Odds are you’re talking to a beginner translator who may not have the necessary knowledge to convey your message accurately. So, why don’t you go with professional translation services and do it right the first time around?Actually, according to colleagues in the industry, including both translators and project managers, startups and small businesses are among their best clients in terms of communication and payment. Companies with this profile tend to appreciate the one-on-one exchange that is only possible when you’re working with your translator as a team in order to achieve a common goal. And, as a company working on a tight budget, you sure would appreciate when things are done accurately, within the agreed turnaround, and without any surprises along the way. Think of translation as an investment that will help your company grow and reach a whole new market. If you’ll make money out of it (even if the return on investment is not immediate), why shouldn’t the translator get his or her fair share for a service that was crucial for such growth?

As you can see, your decision-making process when hiring translation services isn’t limited to the price tag alone. What may seem like a great deal at first, with discounted rates and impossibly fast deliveries, will most likely be far from the results you wish for. Effective translations are produced by professionals who truly understand your needs. And you won’t find these above-average professionals charging the so-called average rates.

A “10% off” tag on knowledge and accountability?

Would you go to a lawyer’s office and say, “Hey, if I bring coffee and donuts to our meeting, could you drop your price down from $250 per hour to $175?”

You would never consider that, would you? Lawyers offer specialized knowledge of the law, help you navigate through legal troubles, and help your business succeed. So why should translators be treated any differently?

Since we don’t necessarily need a degree or license to work as translators, many tend to believe that translating is an informal occupation, a side job we can do in our spare time, you know, while we’re taking a break from our “real job.”

I can assure you that is not the case for most professional translators, at least not in the long run. I started as a translator back in 1997, while I was teaching English as a second language. However, after translation work put me through college, I decided to make it official and become a full-time translator, starting my own business and teaming up with like-minded professionals whose main purpose is to offer responsible language services.

“Responsible services?” you might ask. Being the go-between, transmitting somebody else’s thoughts and intentions in a different language, does come with a lot of responsibility.

Just as a lawyer represents you in court and before authorities, translators and interpreters represent you in your interactions with a target audience that doesn’t speak your language. Translators can make or break a project, contributing to having consumers either rush to the store to buy your product or laugh at your expense.

With that in mind, I’d like to go straight to the point: Why do clients feel the need to ask for discounts when hiring translation services? Here are the Top 3 arguments I’ve heard in the past fifteen years:

  • “The text is very short!” ― Translating is not about word count alone; it’s about content and context. Taking an example from David Bellos’ book “Is That a Fish in your Ear?,” the following headline is pretty short, but it takes considerable effort to be rendered in an intelligible way in another language and culture: GOP VEEP PICK ROILS DEMS. Anyone hired to translate these five little words must first know about American politics and be up to date on current events to produce something that can be understood by non-US readers.
  • “The text is very easy!” ― Information on sophisticated chemical processes is commonplace for chemical engineers. An article on advances in cardiovascular surgery is very accessible to most physicians. Building codes and regulations are right up a civil engineer’s or an architect’s alley. However, specialization is just one of the aspects that go into translation. What may seem easy in the source language might not be easily transferred to the target language. Do the same technologies exist in the target country? What are the terms and concepts being used nowadays in that market pertaining to the specific area? Are there any cultural sensitivities that need to be factored in? Even the simplest texts take research and tact to sound natural to readers in another language.
  • “If you give me a discount, I’ll assign more work to you in the near future!” ― Ah, the good old “volume discount”… More work simply means MORE WORK, period. If you go to a dental hygienist once every quarter, it means you like the service. Any dental hygienist would surely appreciate your loyalty, but they can’t offer you free sessions if you promise to come back periodically. If they did that, they would soon be out of business. The same is true for translators: If we give discounts for a small project on the promise that more work will come our way or―worse―discounts for a huge project because you think long-term commitment provides us with some sort of financial stability, we’ll be making less and less per hour and our bills simply won’t pay for themselves.

When we name our rate per word, page, hour or project, a lot goes into that calculation. Most professional translators have a pretty good idea about our daily output in the best- and worst-case scenarios. When we first take a look at your files, we can estimate how long it will take us to finish the job and how much it is worth, considering our background, specialization, and other important variables, which also include our own expenses in getting the job done well.

We spend years studying and investing in our continuing education and the fruits of that investment go into every single project we accept. We also spend a lot of time learning about new technology, which will make our work more manageable on several fronts, from easy accessibility to legacy material through redundant backup solutions (CDs, zip drives, and servers in the cloud) all the way to the consistency provided by computer-assisted translation tools (which record our progress and allow us to retrieve previously translated sentences and refer to glossaries we’ve built with preferred terminology.)

Our investments actually “translate” into the time savings that we pass on to you when taking less time to get your project done correctly, while being more efficient and accurate in the process. And all that comes with a fair price tag.

See you in 2013

This last quarter of 2012 hasn’t been easy on my schedule, so I’ve decided to take a break from blogging for the remainder of the year and focus on the issues I absolutely must address.

Remember you can still browse through the archives and post comments. 🙂

Here are the rewards I’ll give myself for completing my MA in Translation Studies, which has to be done in the next six weeks:

  • start 2013 blogging happily again (without feeling bad about postponing those school assignments),
  • implement new stuff on the blog, and
  • have more guest writers collaborating with new content (I’ve been exchanging ideas with a few colleagues).

(These sound more like new year’s resolutions.)

Gosh, this is the earliest I’ve ever said these words… but I wish you all a great holiday season and an amazing start to the new year!