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

Food for thought

Keep in mind the premises and scenarios presented in my last post while you read more thoughts, examples, and parallels inspired in real-life situations involving the cost-time-quality triangle.

    • One of the forces behind the triangle is precisely the relation between the translators’ income, rates, and working hours. The less language professionals charge, the more they have to work to make ends meet and, most likely, the longer the hours, too. Let’s think of a simple analogy: would you go to a dentist who charges peanuts and have him/her work on your root canal treatment at 9pm knowing s/he has been working almost non-stop since 7am?

    • Translation is a mentally strenuous activity. Professionals who are pleased with what they earn and can afford to work just the right amount of time per day (before their brain starts pouring out of their ears) are more able to focus on their texts, do proper research, revise the material as many times as necessary… Needless to say, all these factors influence quality for the better.

    • In the book The Entrepreneurial Linguist: The Business-School Approach to Freelance Translation, Dagmar and Judy Jenner draw an interesting parallel between selling cars and translations. They first describe the status quo of BMW:

“[T]he German carmaker BMW certainly does not compete on price. Quite the contrary: the prices are very high, but the world is largely in agreement that the company’s cars are worth the price tag because they are well-made luxury cars. The company’s defining characteristic is quality, not price. BMW has perfected the art of differentiating its products by creating the ultimate luxury vehicle. Potential buyers understand that high quality comes at a price, and know that a BMW costs more than a basic Toyota.”

The authors then conclude that a professional translator who has invested time and effort in education, experience, and professional development should strive to make clients understand and appreciate his/her services “for their top-notch quality rather than their price.”

    • Some translators won’t take on rush projects no matter how much you offer to pay. As most of us rely greatly on word-of-mouth marketing, some professionals are more concerned with the quality of their work and their reputation. After all, once a text is out there, very few people will remember—or even know—its production conditions. You might hire a translator saying: “I just need to get the gist of it by tomorrow morning. All I need is something readable.” That’s your need, fine. You pay X times the regular rate and have the translation delivered overnight. Just as any human being working long hours under pressure, translators are more subject to errors, and the text might not be very fluent or smooth. Fine again. However, your boss, business partner, or client might look at the translation, ignoring the conditions in which the text was produced, and think: “What a sloppy translator!” This might be enough to stain a professional’s name, even though s/he delivered the product just as you requested. But let’s not generalize: it doesn’t mean that every rush project is full of mistakes, or that all translators who accept working in these conditions don’t care about their image.

On a lighter note…

By Alejandro Moreno-Ramos

Common scenarios

After my attempt to define the three major elements that influence a translation project, I’ll analyze the most frequent situations that translation clients may face and what they should expect. Of course, none of the “equations” I propose here are true all the time. They’re all hypothetical scenarios that are likely to happen, based on what’s commonly seen in the market.

To begin with, I believe in the following premises:

(a) Shorter deadlines impose more pressure on translators—with less time to do careful research and revision/proofreading, they are more prone to make mistakes and produce less polished texts.

(b) Lower rates are often charged by novice translators or those who have no option but to work for extremely long hours to make a living. Conversely, more experienced professionals usually charge higher rates, which are, more often than not, proportional to the quality level of their services.

That said, the situations below are what I consider the most likely scenarios in my field.

Time as a fixed variable:

Provided you have time on your hands, this is probably the ideal situation from the client’s perspective. The longer the time you give to your translator, the higher your probability of achieving better quality and negotiating lower rates.

Unfortunately one of the most common scenarios involves tight deadlines. This is when rush fees apply. When translators have a shorter time to work on a text, they’re more inclined to charge more, usually because they have to work after hours and/or reschedule their priorities to focus on your service. Under these circumstances, some professionals outsource part of the project (in these cases, translators are usually expected to ask for the client’s green light before sharing any material with a third party) and are (ideally speaking) responsible for editing the final version and making sure it’s smooth and consistent, as if written by a single person. When time constraints are overwhelming, this revision phase might not be carefully carried out, most likely resulting in poorer quality. Needless to say, two or more professionals cost more than one, and the extra work involved in coordinating a project is time consuming as well.

Time and rate as fixed variables:

The scenario translators dream about is having plenty of time to carefully work on the project while being well remunerated—not to mention that motivation is an extra element that tips the scale in favor of high quality.

This is the worst-case scenario everyone wants to avoid. As I said, the low-rate factor alone is an indication of dubious quality, and a short deadline might increase the risk of mistakes and poorly written texts.

Well, I tried looking into my crystal ball, but it’s not easy to predict the quality of a translation under these circumstances. While low rates most likely reduce the translators’ motivation or the priority they give to a project, a long deadline may help them improve the quality. The second case is even more delicate: if the deadline is too short, a better rate can allow the translator to prioritize your project or hire a reviser, for instance. In extreme situations, however, there’s only so much a higher budget can do.

The bottom line is plan ahead. Giving a translator as much time as possible is perhaps the most appropriate way to get the best value for your money.

Last but not least, if you have no time, no money, and no concerns whatsoever with quality, well, machine translation is there to serve you (more on this topic to come). Use at your own risk!