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