Jun 21, 2009

"Translators being treated like cattle"

The blog has been quiet for a while, because life and work have been very, very busy, but there is an accumulation of topics which will most likely find extensive expression as soon as I am well enough rested to form coherent sentences and structure them in logical paragraphs. Until then I suppose I'll tweet or twit or whatever it's called.

I've also not been in the habit of reposting or referencing the many discussions with which I am involved elsewhere. Mostly because the translation community is fairly small, and the bunch participating in translation blogs and online forums even smaller, and we often read the same stuff and understand the references without making them explicit. All rather incestuous and probably confusing to others.

I'll make an exception this time, not so much because this thread is in any way exceptional - it's really just another typical whine/rant about rates - but because I'm vain and want to re-emphasize my point. That's what blogs are often about, right? No one with a notion of free expression imprinted by a youth spent under junta rule can censor me here.

The title of the thread on ProZ is "Translators being treated like cattle". Like many such threads, the lines of discussion crossed the map as a kindergartner with a crayon would, so I got out my blue crayon and scribbled along.

Referring to extremely cheap translation work of deficient quality, a Canadian colleague made the following probably valid point:
There may be a market segment for this, but it is unsustainable. If you can get a gist translation at no cost through Google, why on Earth would somebody pay for a human gist translation?
I expanded on this in my usual peripatetic way as follows:
Indeed. You make a good point.

I'm not very impressed with the results of MT, but they are indeed not much worse and sometimes better than what I have seen from some persons who attach the label "translator" to themselves. Regardless of the person's formal qualifications or lack thereof, in the end what really matters is quality if the customer needs more than a dicey gist translation. And quality is a concept that is simply beyond the reach of many, including some who utter the word often. I must inevitably think of cases like an agency I know that is registered as compliant with EN 15038 but does not in fact document its processes and despite multiple passes of editing/proofreading (by non-native speakers of English) usually delivers translations with significant defects that have disastrous implications for a patent filing. Same old, same old - just another job. As long as the client doesn't notice and pays on time, everything is right with this picture, isn't it?

I don't often gloat. It's a nasty habit, and I think it's personally demeaning, even if one does have enough self-control not to let it show. However, I must admit that I am having a hard time at the moment not crowing a particularly delicious victory for quality and holding the line on rates... As I have mentioned a number of time before, my preferred business model involves a very large portion of work through agencies. I do this by choice, because good project management saves me time that I can devote to other things, and the chaos of some end customers tries my rather short temper. However, all agencies are not created equal, nor are all of them blessed with equal foresight and negotiation skill. Whenever I hear a statement like "you're our most expensive translator", I worry. I don't worry about me, because if they go elsewhere to get a bit more margin, they are free to do so, and their place will be taken by someone paying a higher rate overnight. I work with my set of agencies because I like the relationships; the price is usually secondary, and for the ones who grumble the most often not high at all. No, I worry about the future of that agency which is otherwise supplied with cheaper translators. You see, I'm really not that expensive, and my colleagues who deliver equivalent quality are usually priced far higher. There are exceptions to this, and I recommend these exceptions whenever I can, because I want my customers to have a bargain, even if that bargain is elsewhere.

But this continual focus on price, price, price by agencies is a form of suicide that many do not yet fully recognize and probably will not until the noose is tight and their feet are dangling without purchase. There is a particular category of translation which I do only a little of but which I particularly love because of my good memories of a small farm I once owned in Oregon. When something agricultural comes my way, I can hardly wipe the grin off my face, even if the text itself is a technical bitch. If it is marketing, I can often tap reserves of creativity that I forget about when I do other work like patents. I simply love the stuff. So I was happy to do it at my lowest rate from one of these companies that tells me I'm their "last resort" because I am "so expensive". What, pray tell, is cost really? Over the years I saw less and less of this work though my rate remained unchanged to this agency. Of course they used cheaper translators, but all English translations were rigorously reviewed by a native German speaker who often tried to correct my English. After I while I saw no more of this work, which rather saddened me. But I refused to budge on price. Why should I? My other clients generally paid much more.

Well, after seeing nothing from this end client for over three years and doing no business with this agency for something like two (mostly because we're busy, though also because they call us only as a "last resort" due to our "high rates"), I was approached by the end customer through an intermediary consultant. At first I thought it was a joke, and I admit I was quite rude and dismissive. (A neighbor boy recently came in to my office to ask if I wanted to walk the dogs with him and caught me in the middle of a telephone tirade to someone who wanted a short deadline and a discount. When I hung up I had the deadline I wanted and a punitive rush surcharge, and he went back to his mother - a fellow DE>EN translator - afterward and said "Mummy, your problem is that you're too nice. You need to be rude like Kevin and your customers will pay you more." I was rather embarrassed, though the boy was right.) This intermediary asked a lot of things that usually cause me to tell people to go to Hell, including free sample translations, a particular pet peeve of mine. I gave him four years worth of work for the client and offered my personal glossary for that company instead. No dice... he still wanted the freebie, which did *not* improve my mood. In the end I submitted the sample and came out on top of a field of carefully pre-screened candidates, screened by a man who actually knows what he is doing and does it at one of Germany's largest corporations. Now I'm looking at as much work as I want directly from a client whose products make me feel like a five-year-old at Disneyland, and I wish I weren't too fat and old to do a backflip.

What about the agency? Well, I called them, because at first I thought someone was trying to poach their client, and I thought they should know and have a chance to take active measures to keep the business. The problem though - as I was told by the end customer's consultant - is that they simply could not deliver the quality required for top-quality products. I liked that line. I'll remember it the next time I'm asked to translate for the Maybach line

The herd says that all the markets are price-driven. Tell that to the folks who produce Kobe beef. The herd says that the only way to stay competitive is to keep prices low. The herd is getting hungrier but still insists on this self-destructive principle. And the market takes no pity. Cattle are indeed for slaughter.


  1. "Cattle are indeed for slaughter." I like that sentence!!!!! :)

  2. RE: "Translators" and MT: As a "certified"-Pro, I am often asked to evaluate the translations of other translators seeking this "certification". On more than one occasion, the translations were so bad, I suspected that they had to have been created using MT. However, when I put the source text through several on-line MT programs, the results were significantly better than the "translator's" own efforts.

  3. I think that many aspects of Proz itself tend towards the enchattlement of translators. It functions a lot like a savannah watering hole or even a tar pit.

  4. @Rod: Well, when I see our Peruvian colleague C. and others openly inviting business on ProZ with a claim to be cheaper, I just shake my head in disgust. Service isn't about price, it's about quality and value for the money. I don't have to tell you that these "bargains" very often are not.

    @Jeff: No surprise there. I've heard exactly the same thing from others. I suppose it puts the MT argument into a different perspective. I consider MT to be unusable for serious purposes, because I have no confidence in the ability of humans to stick to controlled language. On the other hand, it is better than monkey work. So I suppose customers are better off using Google or Bablefish if they don't care about quality and want to hire a "professional" for pennies.

  5. I agree with you that many of the discussions about rates often tend to be tirades or an outlet to vent frustration or disappointment. However, do such discussions/threads, however repetitious, play a role in preventing the further decline in rates and hindering the mushrooming of even more “kitchen-table agencies”? Unfortunately, translators sometimes live in a vacuum of information and without these discussions, it is possible that inexperienced (and even some experienced translators) would never know they are being used, abused, and in some instances, outright lied to. Yes, the anecdotes get repetitive, but would things be worse if people were silent? I have tried in the past to start positive threads, but such discussions get few readers and quickly fizzle out, while so-called “negative” discussions, especially those with intentionally controversial subject lines (“…treated like cattle”, etc.), get way more attention. I too groan whenever I see another discussion about rates, but then I think - good for them!

  6. @ Jeff again: My biggest problem with the rate whining isn't that people engage in it. And I don't always agree with friends and colleagues who remind us that end clients and agencies read the discussions and might use them to their advantage. They might, but I really don't care. My objection is to people who are unable or unwilling to accept responsibility for their business and expect Big Brother (the government, professional associations, ProZ, etc.) to set rates and rules in their favor. Ain't gonna happen, Chico, you're on your own. Those who call for international "price standards" are either naive or stupid, possibly both. And they will continue to be exploited until they grow up and learn to negotiate or hire someone good to do it for them. And if they can't deliver services worth pulling them out of the tar pit for, well... McDonald's used to be hiring, but given the current economic conditions, I'm not sure any more.


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