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.

Communicating in the web: spreading vs selling