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Nov 27, 2010

Subprime

One of the links in my blogroll - Patenttranslator's Blog - is becoming a favorite for its strangeness and irreverent insights. I don't remember where I found it, but as patent translation is one of those activities that I usually pursue recreationally, I probably bookmarked it thinking I would learn the occasional interesting, new thing about patents. Instead I've enjoyed music video links with each post which often have no discernible bearing on the matter discussed but which make good background music as I read the text. Yesterday's interesting post was about agencies who send out silly sign-up forms for folks like you and me to become part of the great feed lot of translating cattle waiting to be slaughtered by translation consumers hungry for low rates.

I see this time-wasting nonsense a few times a week. Mostly I ignore it , though on rare occasions I might bite if the letter is from a specialist agency with subject matter of great interest. Such agencies are relatively rare, however. The sheer inefficiency of most of this is appalling; too few use web technology for collecting their data, and those that do usually have horribly designed forms and databases. (I speak here as a user of these forms and as a former developer of database-backed web applications.) Even the better ones like I know from outsourcers using OTM (see the form on the demo site here) can be exhausting if you deal with all the subject area specialties (and try to navigate the categories), though the basic input is straightforward.

Patenttranslator (PT) suggested that the PMs that send out these cattle call information requests have way too much time on their hands. I would add that some of them are not too bright or not entirely honest. I had a request from one fellow in the US last week who said that he had seen my resume and might be interested in services for a patent project and wanted me to sign an NDA and provide him with a bunch of information including my resume, which he claimed to have read. Smooth move Ex-Lax!

How you deal with these inquiries is a matter of confidence between you and your priest. Those of us who have been around a while can usually sense when it's worthwhile to acknowledge this form of spam and when to ignore it (most of the time). Why would I give a rat's tail about the database of some bunch I don't know and don't have any particular reason to know as they beg for my data and please-don't-forget-to-include-your rates? You show me a specific project that interests me and I'll show you a relevant rate that fits the project's parameters. Most anything else is a waste of time.

In his commentary, PT introduced the concept of the subprime translator as a target group that should and probably does take an interest in these cattle calls, because they have time on their hands and no more profitable way to spend it. "Subprime" doesn't necessarily mean bad translators. But I find the term interesting in this context, and some of PT's associated comments got me to thinking that there is potential in that word to describe some of the high-risk behavior of LSPs who package and resell services from way down the food chain like others packaged and passed on junk loans until banks and other institutions started suffering a bit of a melt-down a few years ago. The sort of melt-down I've seen in the historical slag of past translations from a few major direct clients who used to deal with Top Ten Volume LSPs.

Some of these LSPs who make elaborate marketing promises for multiple levels of review and other crap they probably never bother with in reality probably have a lot in common with the sharks who sold subprime loans to borrowers who never understood the hook that was being set. Translation consumers (individuals, companies and organizations who pay the ultimate bill for the work) are too often unaware of what really goes on with their projects. Some are unaware that the databases (translation memories) with their company's data may pass through more hands in the course of a year than an "entertainer" at a busy Hamburg port brothel and that the hygiene practiced at such places probably exceeds that being practiced with their critical technical and marketing text.

Time and again I am amused by the purveyors of subprime translation projects who contact me here in Germany expecting me to embrace offers that good Indian translators I know (yes, there are good ones in my pair!) would not consider. Well above the three cents a word that everyone likes to bitch about, but marginal at best for generalist work and an utter joke for a project that requires the special scientific knowledge one can usually find only with a qualified engineer or chemist. Even if they do find a hungry engineer with the language and writing skills one almost never finds with engineers and that person is eager to do skilled work at a receptionist's pay, this is no more a relationship with a future than the encounters in the aforementioned Hamburg establishment.

So if the translators and the end customers are getting screwed in these subprime relationships, cui bono? The pimps as usual.

Fortunately, in my experience, this does not describe all of the MLV landscape, which is usually populated by diverse and interesting people, at least among SMEs. The serious ones worth working with add real value and can educate their customers to understand how this works so that they pay the rates needed to support viable results. One interesting organization that I know even follows a strategy of basing its offers to translators on a share of the gross rate from which the known overhead and target profit share are deducted, so depending on the particular deal negotiated with an end customer a translator's proposed compensation may vary widely. The intention behind that is certainly honorable and reflects good business planning at the MLV level, but I do wonder whether the translators taking everything that comes their way at whatever price are keeping an eye on their fixed overhead costs. I personally find it tiring to see fixed rate offers for which I have to calculate constantly whether it's worth getting out of bed and putting on the coffee. The MLV relationships that really work for me are the superprime ones where my target rate is respected and I don't care if the agency has a 300% markup, but where my time and effort is clearly respected and appropriate surcharges are offered for anything rushed or unreasonable before I have to bring those matters up. I've also noticed over the years that these MLVs usually practice the best hygiene with their customers' data, and even over years I see little unacceptable content infecting the TMs.

But how shall the translation consumer tell the pimps from these princes?

1 comment:

  1. Oh Kevin, thanks for the great laugh! This line is fantastic: "... translating cattle waiting to be slaughtered by translation consumers hungry for low rates." And thanks for letting us know about PT; sounds like a very interesting blog, perhaps sort of the new Masked Translator? And we think you have coined a term here -- or did PT?-- the "subprime translation projects." It is quite sad that they exist, and the only way to eradicate them is if no one exists them, but the parallels you draw are spot-on and funny as usual. Very witty.

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