Po’Mouthing – Oh, Look! A Wolf! How Did He Get to the Door?

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.

About No Peanuts! for Translators

No Peanuts! supports professional translators & interpreters in demanding & receiving fair pay for their work.
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10 Responses to Po’Mouthing – Oh, Look! A Wolf! How Did He Get to the Door?

  1. Irina says:

    Thank you so much for your article, I really hope it contributes to convince some protagonists in this business to change their attitude.
    I always check the rates on websites of agencies that contact me for the first time before replying and usually I see rates for clients below 0.10 Euro cents (which means the translator will get one third of this rate), no matter what language or subject, and turnaround times that are ridiculously tight (whatever it is – we translate it until yesterday and you’ll get a 50% discount for large volumes). No wonder that these agencies have to send out mass mails to find translators who are willing to work for such obscene rates.
    Agencies ask me every day via e-mail to translate texts of very large companies like Exxon, BP, Roche, Bayer and other multinationals and offer 6 to 8 US cents, offices of large multinational translation agencies located in the Eurozone want to pay in dollars and when I say that I want to be paid in Euros they tell me that their head office is in NY therefore they pay only in dollars, even if the enquiry comes from the office round the corner in my home town here in Germany.
    I made the proposal here to buy ad space in large daily newspapers to create awareness among companies for what they really get if they outsource translations to agencies . I doubt that companies know that their confidential documents are sent out via e-mail to dozens of translators until the agency finally finds one who is desperate enough to take the job for peanuts. I would gladly donate for buying ad space.
    I get very rude lately when I get “offers” like that, although this means that I don’t get work. And I pray that these agencies will not be able to survive – the sooner they die, the better.
    For example, Bono, the lead singer of U2, is managing director and co-founder of the private equity company Elevation Partners that owns SDI Media Group – rank 8 of the largest 25 LSPs worldwide in 2008. If you want to buy a pack of peanuts of the rate they pay, you’ll have to translate one word for every peanut (before tax), no joke.
    Let us unite, let us strike (if some French translators are reading this – please show us how to do it), we have to stop this downward movement of rates.

  2. Pingback: Translating for peanuts… « Translation at Aston

  3. Oystein says:

    Good article, but unfortunately just underscores what we already know. I’m glad I don’t have to rely on agencies and ProZ for the majority of my work, but direct clients might not be “direct” forever either…

    In her comment, Irina touches on what is necessary: Marketing and organization. Like in every other business. Translation, due to it’s heavy reliance on “hungry” freelancers, is so fragmentet that there is hardly any power on the supplier side (us translators). How would we organize ourselves? A worldwide union? We would definitely need the French help for that😉
    The marketing is key like for any other business. A million individual translators marketing their services separately means little, the agencies will still have the power. However, the way the market and technologies are going, the agencies may be putting themselves out of business, which could be both good and bad for freelancers. Organized marketing is necessary, evne on the level Irina suggests. Because the question is whi is going to pay for it. A “union” of translators, a grass roots movement, or big “coops” of translators organized as companies? I guess the latter is what many hoped/though agencies would be, but they add hardly any value these days, in my opinion. Well, no great solutions, but my 2 cents.

  4. Thank you !
    I support this movement. In fact, I wrote and published a book about 2 years ago.
    This was after I decided not to be any longer a ‘loan company’, or a ‘utility editor’, as explained in my book.
    I am proud to say I have succeeded in the translation industry by sticking to my rates (not cheap) and payment terms (not negotiable). All the facts described in my book, including elements from a private conversation with a top-Yahoo representative, are true.
    I have not felt the impact of the so-called recession at all and have kept myself busier than ever. I know from my actual situation, the good end client is still there.
    In fact, my friends and fellow translators said, after reading my book, I have established standards.
    Stop competing and unite!
    Cheers,
    Pascale

  5. Paula says:

    Has anyone seen the moviee “A Day Without Mexicans”? (“One day California wakes up and not a single Latino is left in the state. They have all inexplicably disappeared, chaos, tragedy, and comedy quickly ensue”).

    How about “A Week Without Translators” – All translators take the same well-deserved week off, and see how many tranzlation zites and agencies survive. It might even drive up rates.

  6. Excellent article, thank you very much. I am actually a Proz.com member and I figured that if I became a paying member I would start getting offered the good stuff. But the overwhelming majority of jobs posted there are an insult to my work ethic. I wish there were some standards as to who can call themselves a translator, as well as a minimum rate that has to be paid for certain jobs. I for one would not hold my breath for companies to realize that there are vast differences in quality that are closely linked to vast differences in price.

  7. Irina says:

    Great proposal, Paula! Let’ strike for a week! Globalization depends on translation as much as the bronze age depended on bronze, and a week without translators could create real chaos, even if there will surely be blacklegs thinking they can make a fortune in this week. Just think about the impacts on websites like Business Wire – where companies announce their company news as required by law – or other financial and stock market websites. If they couldn’t find one single decent translator when they have to publish their quartely business reports, they would probably start to rethink their strategy of outsourcing translations to lousy agencies. And most important, it would create awareness. 
    I just received a mail from a collegue who told me that Translation Directory – another one of these street-workers’ patches for translators – introduced a minimum rate (which is still a bad joke – 0.04 € cents/word ), so this subject is already getting more and more attention of translator website operators like proZ and the like because they fear to be recognized by good translators and clients for what they actually are: playgrounds for monkeys.
    Again, let’s generate public awareness. If people knew for example that about 20 % of the labels and information leaflets of medicines contain mistakes due to wrong translations, they would care, I’m sure. Reading funny translations in the hotel you spend your holidays is only funny if your life doesn’t depend on finding the emergency exit based on this text in case of a fire.     
    I’m planning a documentary about this subject, anyone interested?   

  8. Hi Irina,
    I am with you on this.
    Let’s discuss it further.
    Cheers,
    Pascale

  9. Elisabeth Moser says:

    I have been a proz member for many years, but really get my business by word-of-mouth and written some not so friendly mails to proz to encourage some ethics when allowing agencies to post. I get every morning plenty of mails from agencies asking me to translate or to do a test translations. First of all, I am beyond the point of having to prove myself. Secondly, I ask them what rate they pay. Anything below 0.10/word in Euros and 0.12 in USD is for me unacceptable and this is the absolute bottom line. I do work for some agencies that pay that much and more. They all have to sign my payment terms. I do not accept payment later than 30 days. These agencies that pay more may not come for every job because they may not have the budget but they come for some jobs. Over the years, I have accumulated a lot of repeat customers and work with many colleagues that it does not matter whether those agencies ask me to translate or not. I am just not motivated below this price. However, I know from pms at large agencies that they are forced to try to get the prices down, their quality is suffering tremendously, and customers start to complain. One of the well-known large agencies needs three proofreaders at time just to make heads out of tails. I think that costs a lot more in the long run then using a qualified translator to start with.
    Plus a word of caution to translators who may not be as long in the business:
    Bad news travels faster than good news. Do a rush job for one of those agencies at 6 cents per word and make some mistakes, use the wrong terminology, etc.. I assure you, they drop you faster than a hot cake.
    And another caution about 100% matches, fuzzy matches, etc. It’s all nonsense! I work with CAT tools at my own discretion and certainly not to benefit an agency. For many texts which I translate they are absolutely useless. First, it takes words out of context (ppt presentations for example) and then it does not consider the audience you are writing for. It’s just like when you interpret. The lawyer or the judge will possibly speak at a different level than a defendant. Education shines through and needs to be conveyed in proper language. CAT tools may be useful for certain types of text but that’s it. — so this were my two cents about a lengthy topic!

No Peanuts! doesn't pretend to be a representative democracy. We don't publish comments that denigrate our movement, attack our writers, or show disrespect for translators. All comments must be signed with first/last name and include a verifiable email address.

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