Jan 9, 2014

Games agencies play, part 3: blind commitments

Many of us know this late-afternoon scenario:
Dear Mr. Lossner,
We have a translation request for 3 PDF documents with a total of 2500 words to be translated into English. Please let me know quickly whether you can deliver by noon tomorrow.
My response to something like this is usually something to the effect of "What the Hell are you actually asking?" I always smell a trap of some kind, because usually there is one. I've been there many times with this particular project manager. You would think that after several years he would understand after several years of playing this game together that I do need to know what the task really is before I can respond in any reasonable way. But unlike other business partners of mine whom I can trust to make a reasonable assessment of effort and work out reasonable conditions in advance with an end client, this guy is one of those who lives on a wing and a prayer and the hope that some sucker will promise the unreasonable. My response?
That would depend on the text and its format. Would you mind letting me have a look so I can answer your question?
Shortly thereafter I received the three documents. I've dealt with some idiots who will declare something to be too confidential to assign without a commitment, but I tell those jokers to go straight to the Hot Place where they belong. This one will at least trust me to look at something before I can tell him if I can translate it. And what did I see? A nightmare of sorts.

Document #1: a certificate with graphics and a complex layout, perhaps 30 words in total.

Document #2: an extremely complex tabular form with a cell structure that would take me perhaps an hour or two or more to reproduce the single page. No OCR program will deal adequately with that form, which included strange nested borders I don't even want to try to describe. The text in the form comprised perhaps 100 words, maybe a bit more.

Document #3: seven pages of reasonably complex layout on letterhead, with tables, footnotes and a lot of formatting in the body text. The least bad of the three, but probably at least an extra hour of editing and checking due to the formatting.

Oh yes... all of these were scanned documents with a few "shadows" and artifacts of the kind known to be troublesome for OCR.

I replied that feasibility would depend, of course, on the customer's willingness to pay the rush rate given that we were at the end of a long business day as well as the willingness to compensate me for the full effort of layout, which could possibly exceed the actual translation costs. I know from past exchanges that layout and graphics inclusion would be wanted.

The expected response arrived soon after: the inquiry had "taken care of itself". I expected as much; indeed, I guaranteed that response by mentioning rush charges, because this particular client has a policy of never applying rush charges no matter how unreasonable a deadline. Their problem, not mine - natural selection will deal with such policies in due course. I really like these people as people, but like too many "service providers" in the translation sector, they stubbornly refuse to accept principles of responsibility and sustainability, so when they tell me they have assigned a staff member to devote three months of full-time effort to a data processing task which could be accomplished in somewhat under an hour if the software and the task were properly understood, I accept their wise contradiction of my suggestion to do otherwise and just smile. And I watch the sand running in the hourglass.

I remember a Heinrich Böll story I read in high school about a crazy office manager who ran around exclaiming Es muss was geschehen! Eventually something did happen. He dropped dead at work. The unthinking, often panicked way that people like the PM with the three PDFs often do business so often reminds me of Böll's story.

"Partners" like this may be very nice people, but with their persistent refusal to provide those with whom they do business the basic, obvious information to do that business properly, they are a dangerous contagion, a risk to the health of your business. They are themselves walking dead, wandering blindly in search of an inevitable final resting place.

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