Nov 25, 2008


This acronym, popularized by Heinlein in the 60's, translates to "there ain't no such thing as a free lunch". It can be applied at many levels to translations and the profession of translation.

I was reminded of it today when I looked saw a comment on the ProZ forums in a thread giving advice to a woman beginning her career as a translator. It has been running for quite a while, and numerous colleagues have made useful suggestions and given encouragement. Today I read a comment about how hard it is to start out because one is competing against so many experienced colleagues. I was a bit baffled by this statement, especially as it came from someone in a language pair I know to be in high demand and which also pays very well. So I took a look at the poster's online profile and found something like the following:

ExpertiseDetailed fields not specified.
Rates Slobovian to English -
Standard rate: 0.08 EUR per word
25 EUR per hour
KudoZ activityQuestions answered: 5,
Questions asked: 3 Easy / 150 PRO
Masters degree in translation
ExperienceYears of translation experience: 1.
Registered at Apr 2006.
About meI graduated in Slobovian before
successfully completing an MA
course in Translation.
Would you hire this person to do your translation? I certainly would not; perhaps she has built a good clientele through other channels, but given the complete lack of time investment to tell the world what she has to offer, I suspect not. So yes - it will be hard starting out that way, and it will be hard working that way even with years of experience most likely. How can you expect the customers who have the kinds of texts you enjoy and do best to find you when you don't tell us what those topics are. I'm a chemist among other things, and I love doing chemistry-related translations. I make that very clear in my public profiles and other marketing efforts. As a result I get a lot of work that I am highly qualified to do, and I love it. God only knows what kind of scraps will be offered to someone who makes no effort to find something better or tell the world what to offer. And that at unprofessionally low rates. Experts in Slobovian (not her real language) typically make double what she's asking from a good agency and triple to five times as much or more from direct clients who appreciate quality. Too many people who register with online translation portals expect a "free lunch" and wonder why the jobs offers don't come rolling in or why their quote submissions fail. One suggested remedy is to improve the speed of access to posted jobs through paid memberships, but this alone won't do it. The disgustingly obvious rule that applies here and almost anywhere else is that nothing comes from nothing, and you must be willing to think, learn and apply what you learn to take control of your business activities, or you and your clients may never be satisfied as much as they could be.

The principle applies to translation consumers as well. The opportunity costs of cheap or free translations are huge - far greater than the people pursuing this path realize at first. I won't start on this topic - it is covered with great thoroughness in free brochures from the ATA, ITI, BDÜ and other organizations. However, I think that we as translators can offer our clients an important service by educating them with regard to these opportunity costs. However, first we must understand them, and when I see "colleagues" doing free translation tests (stupid) before even discussing rates with a prospect (even stupider) and posting rates that I wouldn't pay to my cleaning lady, I don't think all of us are in a position to do this.


  1. Sounds like I should have learned Slobovian! Is it hard?

  2. I don't know. So far I've stuck to easy languages like German, Russian, Japanese and Sumerian. I just follow the going rates for various languages.

    BTW, Richard - I noticed that you do German, so you might want to check out the recently released BDÜ rate information I posted online in response to a typical whine session about rates. I just discovered your "fraud" blog - very intriguing! I've seen a familiar name there already which I had been wondering about :-)


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