The Rube Goldberg Approach to Translation

As a general rule I don’t have too much of an issue with doing test translations for new clients or agencies. Some really good agencies even pay translators for these tests. The logic behind test translations is pretty sound because it doesn’t matter what you have on your CV, the proof of the pudding is in the eating and the only way to gauge how good you are as a translator is to see a sample of your work.

Recently a translation agency made contact with me and, after the usual introductions, asked if I would like to work with them on technical translation projects. After much to-ing and fro-ing we were both satisfied that we could work together. I outlined my experience and specialisations, they described the type of projects they get and we both agreed that there was great potential for future work. Hell, we might even get matching tattoos. Rates and terms were agreed without so much as a whimper. Everything was going well until the issue of test translations cropped up.

The epitome of inefficiency - a Rube Goldberg Machine

The epitome of efficiency?

This agency had a pretty weird approach to test translations. Instead of a test translation at the start of our working relationship, which is the customary thing to do, they announced that they ask translators to complete short test translations for each project. The translator who produces the best test translation is then awarded the particular project. I read and re-read the email several times to make sure I understood what they were proposing, hoping that I had misunderstood. But no, when they received a job from a client, rather than contacting a translator who they had already screened, tested and knew was suitable, they would start a mini screening process before work could even start on the translation. I can imagine this being pitched to customers as a way of ensuring that “only the best translators are used” for their projects, and it’s probably well intentioned, but does anyone seriously think this is good practice?

Aside from the startling inefficiency of this Rube Goldberg approach to operations management, which disadvantages both customers and translators alike, things became even more interesting when I queried whether translators would be paid for producing numerous test translations over an extended period of time. The hitherto brisk and prompt exchange of emails suddenly ground to a halt. I never received a response and can only assume that it confirms my worst suspicions.



Translation agencies turning the screw on freelancers

Getting blood from a stone

Should translators be at the mercy of agencies? (Image: Colin Anderson/

When I teach translation technologies to my students, I always make the point that we are not just concerned with the nuts and bolts of how the technology works but also with the sociological, commercial and financial effects the technology has on the profession. Acquiring skills in translation technologies, so the literature goes, helps translators improve themselves by adding new skills to their repertoire and this helps raise their self-image and raises the status of the profession. Tools like translation memories eliminate the mundane, repetitive tasks which are the less palatable part of a translator’s lot and allow us to concentrate on the creative, challenging and ultimately more satisfying aspects of translation. All true to a certain extent although from a translation and linguistic point of view, I’m still somewhat sceptical about the merits.

One of the key effects translation memories have had on the industry is that they have brought about a re-evaluation of payment practices and translation rates. This is well documented (for example, here, here and here). Although it is rather unfair that we lose money if we use translation memory tools, most of us have come to terms with this, but I recently received an email from a relatively new client informing me that “given the current economic climate”, many of their customers are “demanding even bigger discounts for fuzzy matches” and as a result, they would be imposing a new pricing structure. This new structure involved even bigger discounts for customers and even less money for translators. What made the email so interesting and to be honest, more annoying was that it was a diktat; there was no question of negotiation or compromise. This was the agency’s decision and as a translator, I would have no choice but to comply. That’s what they think because I am going to exercise my right to choose never to accept work from them again. Or, to refuse to use Trados on any of their translations. See how they like that!

I’ve seen on other forums and blogs that this isn’t the only agency to chance their arm at squeezing a few more drops of blood from translators using the global economic downturn as a convenient, yet cynical, smokescreen. We shouldn’t be surprised because there is a long and ignoble tradition of translators being penalised for investing in the latest technology, which rarely comes cheap incidentally. I can’t be the only person who thinks that the price you pay for a service should reflect the quality of the service. So if you choose a service that uses the latest technologies, you should expect to pay more for it. It’s simple market economics really: the service provider invests in new technology and then factors this into their fees to reflect the improved service and ultimately to recoup the cost of the investment.

Of course you could always argue that by investing in technology, the service provider gains more business and, depending on the technology, will have a higher work rate and this will offset the investment. This is most likely the case with translation. But with these increasingly grasping discount systems, translators are seeing any commercial benefits being eroded. The discounts are effectively negating the whole point in getting the technology. Can you imagine paying a doctor less for using a shiny new scalpel than if the doctor used a rusty old hacksaw? Or would you expect to pay less for a meal cooked in a modern, clean kitchen than you would for something cooked on a hot stone at the side of a busy road? Unlikely.

The more altruistic among us would say “Ah, but greater cost efficiency and less effort is only part of the story. The real benefit is an improved product for the client”. Such improvements might include greater consistency in translations, better safeguards of accuracy and fewer formatting errors. But the other benefits for the client and in particular, agencies, include the reduced costs as a result of discount schemes imposed for repetitions and fuzzy matches, faster turnaround times and, more worryingly, less dependence on a particular translator. You see, once upon a time a translator who worked regularly on projects for a particular client became, over time, an invaluable repository of useful information, expertise and know-how relating to that customer and their documentation. A regular translator would accumulate the kind of knowledge you simply couldn’t get elsewhere. And with all of this information safely stored in the translator’s head, agencies and clients had to keep using the same translator if they wanted to ensure the same level of quality, consistency and expertise. With translation memories the translator is no longer the guardian of this expertise – it is segmented, formatted and stored in translation memories which can be sent to any number of other translators if the original translator is unavailable or ceases to be economically viable. So by using translation memories, the translator not only loses money but also loses job security.

You’d almost be tempted to stop using translation memories altogether and start using a typewriter.

Discounts for a fuzzy what? Pish!

The only fuzzy thing around here is me...


Fool me once, shame on you…

The issue of professional translators providing their services for free has once again reared its ugly, miserable, penny-pinching head again. Some time ago I wrote about a job posting on Proz asking for a specialised text to be translated for free. Now, according to an article in the New York Times, the professional networking website, LinkedIn, has asked it’s translator members whether they would be interested in volunteering their services to localise the LinkedIn website. Yes, you heard right.  A professional website aimed at professional service providers is asking it’s fee paying members to provide services for free.

I’ve never made a secret of the fact that translators are sometimes their own worst enemy when it comes to professional recognition. We translators regularly complain that we do not get the professional recognition we deserve and that the money we make is not commensurate with the amount of effort, training and commitment required to be a translator. This, as I’ve said before, is largely due to translators not standing up for themselves and for charlatans working for peanuts. But companies who are prepared to take advantage of translators and employ “yellow pack“, bargain-basement translators are every bit to blame. So it’s hardly a surprise that I’m not impressed by LinkedIn’s new venture.

Of course translation has its moments but the bunch of bananas at the end of the week makes it all worthwhile

"Sure, translation has its challenges but the plentiful supply of bananas and the chance to play on a tyre swing make it all worthwhile".

But hold on a minute, I’m detecting the slight whiff of hypocrisy here. Why have I never complained about Facebook’s foray into crowd-sourcing? Or Wikipedia for that matter? Like LinkedIn, Facebook asked it’s members to band together and translate their website into various languages for free. LinkedIn were even promising to credit the translators who volunteered so it’s not like the translators weren’t getting something out of it. But the reason I didn’t have a problem with Facebook is because it, like Wikipedia is a kind of hobby or recreational site and much like Wikipedia, they don’t really have a business model with which to make vast sums of money (if you’re interested in how web companies like the mighty Google make their money try reading “The Google Story“).

On top of this, the Facebook translation project was just an excuse to get users involved in the website – it wasn’t an excuse to save a few bucks. In fact the way Facebook went about localising its site ultimately proved more expensive than if they had just gone to professional translators in the first place (they had a review system for translations and even got professional translators to translate the strings “just in case”).

But the LinkedIn case is different from what I can make out. They are supposedly a professional site aimed at promoting professional relationships and respecting its members. They also charge their members a lot of money for their premium services. Would LinkedIn have asked its graphic designer members to design a new logo for free? Would they have asked members who are website designers to redesign the website for free? Would they have asked caterers to come around and stock the LinkedIn canteen with food for free? Unlikely to say the least. Yet somehow they felt comfortable asking the translators to give them a freebie. Maybe they have a point, after all we are just trained monkeys who speak a couple of languages real good.


Just what do you take me for?

I recently resurrected my Proz account out of curiosity and to check up on a new agency client who had approached me to do some work. Later, as I looked through the job listings I quickly realised that the vast majority of jobs, in my language pairs at least, pay absolute peanuts. There are two basic types of project on the likes of Proz: one where translators bid and suggest a price and another where the client specifies the price from the outset. I haven’t been monitoring these jobs for long but the rates being offered on Proz always seem to be at best half the typical industry rates… sometimes they’re a third. Obviously someone is taking these jobs and accepting these ridiculous rates but who? And more importantly why? How little do you have to think of yourself, your skills and your profession that you’ll basically prostitute yourself for a pittance? Maybe it’s the only way unskilled and unqualified translators can find work. I thought that maybe it’s just Proz that attracts bargain basement jobs so I signed up for Translators Cafe. Surprise surprise, the jobs are every bit as cheap and nasty as on Proz and on Aquarius too.

Then, the other day an email from Proz landed in my inbox with a job ad… well I say job ad but it wasn’t. Some cheeky so-and-so in Germany wanted 11 pages of gynaecology texts translated from German into English, wait for this, FOR FREE! What does she take us for? I mean seriously, what is the world coming to when someone can send an email to at least two professional translator forums (it appeared on Translators Café as well) asking someone to do a highly specialised medical translation for free without so much as the tiniest twinge of shame? The lady who posted the ad, you can see it here, kindly pointed out that “This is a great way for aspiring translators to gain more experience and practice“. A great way of taking advantage of gullible gobdaws methinks and heaven knows what she was going to use the translation for. I certainly hope it wasn’t being given to a paying customer. What really annoys me is that by the time bidding closed for this job, no less than 9 people had submitted bids! I keep trying to imagine the thought processes involved in seeing this ad and thinking “OK, I’ll do it. Who needs money anyway?” I believe the technical term is “jackass”.

Mr. Jack Ash, CEO of Havent a Clue Translation Services

Mr. Jack Ash, CEO of Haven't a Clue Translation Services

But once you get over the rage and righteous indignation, the whole incident and the lack of decent rates on forums makes you wonder whether these forums have a case to answer because it would seem that they are complicit in, or at least guilty of facilitating, the grave underpricing of translation services.

Now don’t get me wrong, I’m not saying that we should impose unrealistically high rates just because we can. I have just as much contempt for agencies that charge astronomical prices as I have for the cost cutters. I know of one high-profile agency who quoted over £250 for a 1000 word semi-technical document. This is well over twice the normal price and a damn sight more than the £60 the translator will see from this job. But if someone were to use these forums as their sole source of finding work, would they be actually able to earn a decent living or would they have to work 20 hours a day, seven days a week, just to make ends meet? Is it really possible for a translator to negotiate decent rates when they are involved in a bidding war with other translators? I like the forums for the sense of community they create but I’m really sickened by the exploitation that seems to go on and the sheer stupidity of some “translators” who think so little of themselves that they’ll put up with this.