Jun 13, 2011

How not to seduce good translators

Last Saturday I received the following missive from a translation agency located in a town near Düsseldorf, Germany:

Sehr geehrter Herr Lossner,

über das Verzeichnis sind wir auf Sie aufmerksam geworden. Bottomfeeders Sprachenservice GmbH ist ein etabliertes Übersetzungsbüro, das qualifizierte Fachübersetzungen in fast alle Sprachen der Welt erstellt. Zu unseren Kunden zählen namhafte Wirtschaftsunternehmen, wissenschaftliche Institute und Einrichtungen des öffentlichen Dienstes. Gerne würden wir auch Sie zu unserem Übersetzerstamm zählen und langfristig mit Ihnen zusammenarbeiten.

Gerade Ihre Sprachkombination mit Ihren Fachgebieten ist für uns sehr ansprechend.

Wie Sie sicher verstehen, müssen wir unseren Kunden attraktive Preise anbieten, um eine hohe Auftragsquote zu erreichen. Dies ist natürlich nur dann möglich, wenn auch unsere freiberuflichen Mitarbeiter günstige Tarife anbieten. Nur so können wir eine gute Auftragsauslastung realisieren, von der wiederum unsere Übersetzer profitieren.

Wie hoch ist Ihr Wortpreis im Ausgangstext? Bieten Sie ab einer bestimmten Textlänge Rabatte an und wenn ja, in welchem Umfang?

Sobald wir uns preislich einig geworden sind, würden wir Sie gerne noch mit einer kurzen Probeübersetzung (ca. 20 Zeilen) beauftragen. Dies ist eine im Rahmen des Qualitätsmanagements festgelegte Vorgehensweise.

Wir hoffen auf eine positive Rückmeldung und würden uns sehr freuen, langfristig mit Ihnen zusammenzuarbeiten.

For those of you who can't read German or prefer not to, the compelling message is:

We found you in the directory. Bottomfeeders Sprachenservice GmbH is a well-established translation agency producing professional translations in nearly all the world's languages. Our clientele includes well-known commercial enterprises, scientific  institutes and public agencies. We would like to count you too among our regular team of translators and work with you long-term.   
Your language combination and specialties are particularly appealing to us.
As you surely understand, we must offer our customers attractive rates in order to achieve a high order volume. This is, of course, only possible if our freelance collaborators offer low rates as well. Only in this manner can we achieve a good volume, which in turn benefits our translators.
How high is your source text word price? Do you offer discounts as of a certain text length and, if yes, to what extent?
As soon as we have agreed on rates, we would like to assign you a small test translation (of approximately 20 lines). This is part of a defined quality management procedure.
We hope for a positive response and would be very pleased to work with you long-term.
My rather spontaneous response to this honor was
Sehr geehrte Frau B,

es tut mir leid, aber auf eine solche Ansprache kann ich leider nicht positiv reagieren. Wenn Sie Dumpingpreise benötigen, suchen Sie bitte in Bangladesch. Die Ziele meiner Kunden sind vorrangig gute Kommunikation und rechtssichere Arbeit sowie geeignete technologische Umsetzung und zügige Abwicklung. Preis ist ziemlich nachrangig, und Ihre alleinige Betonung des Preises lässt vermuten, daß Qualität und Fachqualifikation eher eine Nebenrolle spielen. So ist das jedenfalls der Eindruck Ihrer Worte.

Ich bin stets soweit ausgelastet, wie ich sein will, und zwar mit interessanten Projekte meiner Wahl bzw. langfristigen Kundenpflegearbeiten für zuverlässige Partner. Geeignete Projekte haben immer die Chance, Interesse zu wecken, aber so 'ne Geiz-ist-geil-Philosophie kommt bei mir einfach nicht an.
For the non-Teutonophiles:
Dear Ms. B,

I'm sorry, but unfortunately I cannot react positively to such an approach. If you need price dumping, please look in Bangladesh. My customers' goals are primarily good communication and legally secure results as well as appropriate application of technology and timely processing. Price is rather secondary, and your sole emphasis on price leads one to suspect that quality and professional qualification play more of an ancillary role. That is, in any case, the impression made by your words.

I am always as busy as I choose to be with interesting projects of my choice or long-term work to support customers for reliable partners. Suitable projects always have a chance of interesting me, but this "cheap is cool" philosophy simply doesn't work.
I found it particularly amusing that these bottom feeders are in Germany, a country where most of my contacts with agencies emphasize better values. Even when my contacts are with cheapskates who don't give a fig about quality, they at least talk a better game. This particular "vendor manager" in the virtual sweatshop reeks of amateurism.

Recruiting is a bit like seduction, maybe a lot like it. I have it on good authority that if one wants to attract a partner worth having, it's best not to talk too much about oneself, at least not in an opening line.
Hey baby, I found your number in the telephone book. I'm a well-established professional who can translate almost anything your little mind can imagine (except fashion). My customers include famous companies and scientific institutes as well a whole lotta government gigs. Whatcha say? Wanna crawl under the covers with me and make some beautiful words? (Long-term, of course, since we all know a relationship with someone as Heaven-sent as me is forever).
Does that work for you? Probably not. And if it does, I want to see the results of your AIDS test first. Anyone who falls for a line like Ms. B delivers must be desperate to the point of extreme incaution.

My correspondent, having established what she perceives me to be, thinks that all that is now necessary is to haggle over the price. But unlike the tired, old joke, she fails to show a modicum of respect by asking if I would work for her for some appallingly high price. I'm still waiting for someone to offer me a million euros for a quickie translation; I have a great response prepared for the first one who does.

I shared the inquiry and my response with a few colleagues to ask them if they felt I had been to harsh. Apparently not. If one soft-spoken respondent had given the advice I received to that wimp General Sherman, the United States would not be burdened with its troublesome Southern politicians today. He, too, has no big problem with translation work being "exported" to the developing world by companies who care little for communication quality and customer safety, but like me he wishes they would go quickly and directly there and not bother us by ringing our doorbells like so many delinquent children.

It is really not our problem that bottom feeding agencies like this one have proliferated like rats on a garbage heap and are now gnawing at the cables in more respectable establishments and invading corporate boardrooms. When the food supply of clients where purchasing clerks are the key decision-makers for quality-critical elements such as translation grows scarce, the rats will turn on each other (as they have done) and eat each others' flesh. The red ink at Lionbridge for so many years in the past decade is just one example of this. I would think no more of stepping into the price wars between these lowball losers than I would of involving myself in the drug wars of the gangs in the areas of Southern California where I grew up.

I would like to contrast Ms. B's failed seduction with a successful one some eight years ago. The agency principal called me one day to chat, sounded me out about my specialties, work experience and general philosophy. He said he wanted to try me out with the idea of working together long-term if we were both satisfied. He offered a paid assignment, and when early in the relationship, his British reviewer had a fit about my work, calling it literal Germanic crap or some such thing, we discussed the matter at length, and when I challenged him to ask the customer which worked better for a US audience, he passed on both my original translation and the revision and never questioned my competence again after that. And the price? Oh yes, we did agree on one. It was OK at the time, now it's actually at the very bottom of my rates, but I've been so thoroughly seduced by excellent project management, reliable payment practices, respect and mutual support in many matters that I not only don't care, I actively help recruit new clients (for languages I don't do) and refuse to charge for doing so most of the time, because I get a great feeling from helping a friend and his team succeed in a tough, competitive environment.

I suspect there might not have been much difference between what Ms. B was willing to pay and what I take from this other agency. But the latter knew all the right dance steps, when to lead and when to be led. I have a great time working with them, and I never feel used. And when something warrants a special charge, I say so, and there isn't a problem. My other partners offering double and triple the rates of my old partner are often as fun or respectful, but while they might now take up most of my schedule, they cannot break the loyalty I feel to a partner who underpromised (never spoke of big volumes or any of that horsefeathers) and overdelivered with a truly productive long-term relationship.


  1. Funny, I got that exact same e-mail on Saturday and was still debating whether I should answer at all and if so how. I'm kind of tempted to use a version of your answer but you might sue me if I do...

  2. Gut gebrüllt, Lowe! I had to laugh while reading your response. "Geiz-ist-geil-Philosophie"... Awesome!

  3. Dear Kevin, you must teach a class or webinar/workshop on how to write excellent responses to these kinds of requests. Brilliant, brilliant.

  4. Interesting, Anke. Our dear friend in Maidenhead suspected that others would be spammed with the same nonsense and commented that it would be amusing if Ms. B received the same template response from everyone. I agree, so I herewith grant permission to anyone and everyone to send her a verbatim (or modified) copy of my response in English or German. Let her figure that one out :-)

    One friend thought that I overreacted a bit, because the agency might have been willing to pay a good price after all. But that's really not the point. I don't care if she's willing to pay 5 cents, 10 cents, 15 cents or 50 cents per source word. I firmly believe that a conversation that begins with this focus on price will lead nowhere good, and even if I were a beginner with no clients I wouldn't bite that hook. There are too many respectable agencies out there that show a plausible interest in things that matter more. Some are price sensitive to be sure, depending on what market segments they work in, but they do make an effort to talk about something other than cost. Even the worst of us translation whores should have more self-respect than to deal with such a bunch.

  5. I used your "template", Kevin, and this is the response I got:

    "Vielen Dank für Ihre Antwort. Es tut uns Leid, dass Sie den Eindruck erhalten haben, dass wir Dumpingpreise benötigen. Auch wir legen äußersten Wert auf Qualität zu angemessenen Preisen.

    Wir hoffen, dass wir Sie zu einen späteren Zeitpunkt wieder einmal kontaktieren dürfen und wünschen Ihnen bis dahin alles Gute."

    Did you get the same one? That would be funny in way...

  6. @Anke: I was going to say "no", then I found exactly the same response (verbatim) in my spam folder. War of the templates, perhaps?

    I also got some backchannel info from a PM at another agency the other day that indicated the range that *this company* pays for translators in another language combination. It's appallingly low, so the guess about "dumping" looks like it's right on target :-)

  7. Back in the year of 2008, there came an agency who wrote me in the same tone through the workhouse. I quoted my rate and got the same template as reply.

    It happened that a PM at the end client´s called me 9 months later and had a half an hour chat with me. After a 2-hour conference with their representation in Taiwan, I become and stay their translator for DE/EN>ZH. My rate was accepted and stays. It is quadruple of what the agency would like to pay.

    Molière said, "Writing is like prostitution. First we do it for the love of writing, then for some close friends, and finally for the money." We translation streetwalkers or pieces of meat in show boxes in St Pauli (highly decorated at a workhouse)? Pah!

    Xosé Castro Roig is perfectly right when he makes the conclusion that "it's better to invest three months in finding a good client who pays you 100, than to find a bad client who pays you 50 tomorrow. You'll likely have to turn five mediocre clients away before finding one good one."

    Self-respect is the key to keep power plays away from us.


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