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.

Controversial approach: “penalties” for low rates?

Beware of the translation industry “bottom-feeders”

Last time I checked, we lived in a free-market economy. As freelance translators, we provide services and expect to build a solid reputation and earn enough money to live on through our work. But what happens when we come across “bottom-feeders” who mess everything up?

I am not speaking about the aquatic animal that feeds on the bottom of the ocean, but about translators who choose to accept virtually any price for their services. By doing this, they “earn” their living but affect the whole industry by contributing to the fall of the price for translation services. They also affect quality even if they don’t realize it, because experience, quality, and price are interconnected.

By messing up the variables within the cost-time-quality triangle, they pose a threat not only to themselves (by undermining their own career), but also to the industry as a whole, including translation buyers, who generally try to reduce translation costs. This is a dangerous tactic from the translation client’s point of view: perhaps the cost will be reduced, but will the quality be the same? If so, kudos to you for driving the price down while maintaining quality. Your profit margin will be larger. If the quality isn’t the same, there is the danger of affecting the prospects of your company in the long run due to the questionable quality the “bottom-feeder” delivers.

During my career, I’ve come across many translators who choose to work for half my rates, sometimes for a third or even a fourth of them. So naturally I ask them why they are doing that and how they expect to earn enough money to support themselves. Most of the time, their answers are puzzling and confuse me even more.

Some of them are university graduates trying to break into the industry. With no practical experience in translation, they are willing to accept virtually any rate in order to get a foot in the door.

Others prefer to work in-house for a translation agency that charges, for example, 10 cents per word for translation and offers them a mere 1-1.5 cent for their work. They like the “security” the agency offers and are usually too busy with their “mass production” to think about quality.

Some are trying to establish a freelance career but are not that good at negotiating with clients. They are afraid that, by rejecting a couple of low-paid jobs, they’ll be thrown out of the game.

There are also those who don’t believe in themselves: they think they are not “good enough” (nor will they ever be) to charge a certain amount, so they settle for a much lower price.

I can understand these concerns, but I don’t understand the point. I mean, what’s the point in working their butts off, most likely producing sub-standard texts, and not getting the (financial) credit they deserve?

How do they expect to excel in their work if they believe that there are no alternatives, if they are afraid of taking the next step, if they think they are not good at what they do or they are unable to convey the value of their work to their customers?

In theory, the generally accepted value of any service is based on the illusion of the value of money in a specific region of the world. At least, that’s what a nice political economy professor used to tell us during my freshman year at university.

If we accept this theory, we can charge a dollar per word or a dollar per 1000 words. If I value my own work, if I believe it’s top-notch, I’ll probably go for a dollar per word. If I don’t value my own work, if I am unsure, if I have no alternative, I’ll go for a dollar per 1000 words.

In essence, there are a lot of translators out there who don’t value their work. In fact, there are more than I ever would have imagined. My guess is that the problem of “bottom-feeders” in the translation industry is more of a quality issue: if they think their work lacks the necessary quality, then they’re happy to receive a third of the price of another translator who thinks s/he produces high quality translations and expects to get paid accordingly.

On the other hand, it takes two to tango, so behind most “bottom-feeders” there is usually a “translation company” trying to drive the prices down for its own purposes (usually for a bigger margin). I’ll try to analyze this side of the coin a bit more in an upcoming post.

On a lighter note…

By Alejandro Moreno-Ramos