This morning’s email brings an offer from an Italian translation agency: “We are looking for a skillful translator at €0.05 per word. Are you available?”
My response: “Sorry, but no skillful translator is available at that rate.”
The agency shoots back:
Our customers asks for prices like 0.06/0.07 euro per word … and even less!! How can we survive if we pay more? On the internet, one finds a lot of translators (even incompetent ones, I realize!!) at such low prices that companies cannot understand when we ask for more. This situation makes me really sad! We won’t stay in business for long if this continues.
No, you won’t.
And maybe that’s not entirely a bad thing.
Please don’t misunderstand. We are well aware of the human and social costs that are exacted when a business fails, and we don’t wish bad luck on anyone.
At the same time, we’re not willing to go on pretending that agencies (and, with them, online “services” like ProZ, TranslatorsCafé, TranslationDirectory and their ilk) have been nothing more than innocent bystanders in shaping today’s translation market.
When a group of translators launched a petition against ProZ.com’s jobs-board policies in February 2010, many of their colleagues were disdainful: “I’ve never even used ProZ,” “ProZ has nothing to do with me,” or even “I always get good jobs from ProZ.”
In other words: It doesn’t affect me personally, so why should I care?
When we’ve criticized agencies, the responses have been similar: “There are all kinds of agencies, so no one is forced to work for the ones that don’t pay well” or “I collaborate with top-notch agencies that always accept my rates.”
In other words: ditto.
But the fact of the matter is this: Agencies have never made the slightest effort to come together to protect the translators on whom they depend for their livelihoods, not even within specific countries or specific sectors. Almost without exception, as individual translators have weathered the crisis, agencies have been missing in action.
In fact, when rates began to drop, many agencies simply adopted a new strategy: they began to compete directly with freelancers. Naturally, in order to continue to turn a profit, they had to reduce what they paid their own translators, but the advantage was that they could take a serious bite out of the freelance market. Downstream, that affects all of us. (If it hasn’t affected you yet, trust us. It will.)
End clients, who continue to be convinced that agencies offer “added value” when compared to hiring a translator directly (a myth, except in a few, very specific cases), have learned that they have enormous power in the price wars, and now they demand lower and lower rates. Many agencies have simply decided to comply. ProZ-and-company assist them by providing a ready forum where low-rate job offers are instantly distributed to tens of thousands of hungry translators. There’s no responsibility and there are no consequences.
The result of years of saying “yes, yes, yes” to every absurd, unfair demand on the part of clients has brought agencies to the painful question that many of them face today: “How can we survive?” Having taught clients that putting downward pressure on rates is an effective approach, many are now shocked: “We won’t stay in business for long if this continues.”
In fact, the response of translation agencies to the crisis has been, generally speaking, a total disaster. Why do we say so? For the exact same reason why, when you go to the national forest, they tell you not to feed the bears. If you do, the bears quickly learn to stop waiting patiently for handouts. Instead, they break into your food locker. They rip your tent to pieces. They start demanding food when they want it rather than letting you decide when to provide it. In other words, they get aggressive. And dangerous.
Just the way that agency-and ProZ-trained clients have become dangerous.
Of all the comments in this morning’s exchange of emails, one is especially revealing: “On the internet, one finds a lot of translators (even incompetent ones, I realize!!) at such low prices that companies cannot understand when we ask for more.”
There’s certainly no arguing with that assertion. Thanks to ProZ, TranslatorsCafé, TranslationDirectory, and similar “services that enhance the lives of translators”—all of which insist they have “nothing to do” with the drop in translation rates—it is undeniably true. It’s true thanks to agencies as well, which advertise low-end rates right on their own websites, allowing potential clients to believe two things: 1) that price is the most important factor in assigning a translation and 2) that translators can actually live on one-third of the already rock-bottom rate the agency is promising.
The point here isn’t to put down agencies, though. The point is to hold up translators. We would enthusiastically endorse any initiative on the part of agencies to organize their colleagues to reverse the damage they’ve helped create and to place renewed emphasis on quality and experience, on the sustainability of the entire profession (and not just of individual businesses), and on living wages for translators.
Meanwhile, we invite translators to stop trying to compete with the lowest common denominator and to stop comparing their business practices with those of the worst elements in our field. If clients can’t tell the difference between competent and incompetent translators, why would you want them as clients? If they don’t understand why a professional translator costs more than an amateur, why not just wish them luck with their amateurs and move on to someone who deserves to be taken seriously?
In the end, we all know what bears do in the woods, and that’s the only thing they’re buying.