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.

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.

Freelancer or translation agency?

“Many corporations prefer to work with large translation agencies so they only have to deal with one vendor for multiple languages. On the flipside, other corporations like working with very small businesses because of the uncomplicated interaction and lack of red tape.”
Dagmar and Judy Jenner

The profile of translation clients and their types of projects generally give us hints as to whether they’re better off hiring a freelance translator or a translation agency. How much text do you send for translation at a given time? What kinds of deadlines do you impose on translators? How many languages do you need your material translated to? Do you require services other than the translation itself?

In most cases, hiring a freelancer directly should cost you less than hiring an agency to do a translation. After all, agencies must pay their employees and infrastructure, and costs are expected to increase with a longer supply chain. Under some conditions, though, the translation agency approach may turn out to be more cost-effective than hiring a freelance translator. Most of the savings depend on the cost of your own time as a service buyer.

Let’s say you have an unusually large translation project with a deadline that would commonly be acceptable for a mid-sized text. A translation agency is geared to set up a whole team of translators, so they all work in their normal routine, at their normal rates. The agency often also arranges for text standardization and reviewing, as needed.

If you hire a freelancer to handle this large project alone, s/he’ll most likely have to deal with schedule disruption and overtime work, which usually translate into a surcharge on your end. Some translators hate everything about project management and prefer to work solo no matter what. But it’s common for freelancers to team up with one or two colleagues whom they trust and offer the same kind of “package” agencies offer. If they are truly professional and care about quality, one of the team members will be responsible for reviewing the whole text and checking for consistency and standardization. This step takes time and, again, usually results in extra charges. One of the posts under the cost-time-quality trianglecategory, “Common scenarios,” has a brief discussion on this and other related topics.

If you decide to set up a translation team yourself, imagine how much of your time you’d spend to recruit and select professionals, provide clear directions, follow up throughout the process, and manage their invoices and payments. You’d normally have to do all or most of this even when you’re working with one professional. Now multiply this work by the number of translators needed to complete the project. On top of that, someone would still have to be responsible for assembling all the pieces and turning them into a smooth and uniform product. This person can be you or someone else you will hire and pay extra for this task. Trust us: it’s not as simple as it sounds. What if you don’t even speak the language?

Similar situations arise when you have to translate a text into several languages, or when additional work is involved, like desktop publishing, text formatting, web editing, audio recording, video subtitling, and DVD authoring. Besides taking care of the project management steps cited above, you run the risk of one vendor having quality issues with another vendor’s delivery, and it may involve delays until all stages of production are harmonized.

Of course, some translators offer services beyond translation proper or may work together with professionals that complement their linguistic work, as Carolina and Bianca pointed out in the case of subtitling and video editing. Also, it’s common to see translators who take on projects that involve languages they don’t speak because they have established partnerships with other professionals who work with those languages. This might involve surcharges or not.

Your best bet is to explain all your needs in detail when you request a quote and see if your service provider is ready to deal with all the stages and languages involved. Resist the temptation to manage complicated projects and save yourself the headache and risk of achieving sub-standard results. Hiring qualified professionals to take care of your projects and having more time yourself to do something else will most likely pay off.