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Translation rates, quality and experience: a “golden” combination

19 Dec

This new blog post will be about a “golden” combination of rates, quality and experience. Although a lot of things have been already said and written, my case is quite unique, since I didn’t pay attention to things I speak about frequently.

Generally speaking, people tend to ask for referrals. Although I don’t like to compare translators to plumbers, I will now do exactly that.

Last year I bought a car (a used one actually). As any car owner, I soon realized that certain parts started to vanish (someone unscrewed the fuel tank lead, etc.). The first thing I thought about was to just drive to the closest car service center where experts would take care of my six-year-old car. But it was obvious (for me only, as it turned out) that the price would be twice higher than the price offered by self-trained (and single) amateurs.

So I called my friend who had a very old Soviet car. As far as I saw, he managed to breathe new life into this scrap (I think you all saw similar shows on TV).

I asked him to refer me to any electrician who could help me install the equipment. Well, the first impression was quite standard. You see a man in dirty clothes, with dirt and litter all around in the garage.

The next moment he takes your car and your keys, driving you to the next semi-legal “trade center” where sneaky dealers sell you any car parts almost under the counter. A very unpleasant picture. Okay, it was my choice.

All went well. I paid the price and went off. Real problems started about two months ago. First the lamps stopped flashing when the anti-theft system was activated. Then the rear left door could not be locked any more. It is only natural that the “expert” whom I called the next day did not want to see or hear me.

Finally I had to go to a car service centre and pay extra money for maintenance. In the end I summed up two amounts and realized that I paid a standard rate of any car service centre in my city. They told me it was absolutely his fault, since he did not fixed one wire which was critical to the operation of the equipment.

What lessons did this situation teach me?

First, you have to put quality before price. This is a very important remark, otherwise such situations will occur more frequently. As one translator put it, translation budgets are a tiny fraction of overall product launch budgets, for instance. So there is no sense in haggling over 10-15 cents per word, since this would still be a very tiny amount compared to the quality loss you could face.

Second, people who don’t market themselves (in my case – people who don’t care about their impression they leave on the clients) ain’t experts. They are amateurs, sometimes quite talented ones. They don’t market themselves properly, which means they have only one differentiator – P-R-I-C-E. Which in its turn means that they are destined to stay in these dirty garages for the whole life.

And third, I’m very grateful for this lesson. I would have never written this article if my anti-theft system had worked properly.

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Several ways to never face payment term change (well, extension) as a freelance translator.

12 Dec

Today I am going to speak about a very unpleasant situation when your client changes payment terms arbitrarily. I will also share my experience when dealing with this situation. I feel I’m forced to write this post, since I have come across the problem recently (for details see last paragraphs of the post).

First of all, I would like to say that any translator sooner or later is literally destined to face the problem. Your client may be a top-notch translation agency, with all 5s on the Blue Board. This also may be a direct client of yours you have been “serving” for several years now (this is a rare case though). Anyway, any serious professional was going to stay there for more than a year needs to have some info on how to prevent this situation from happening.

First of all, you have to screen your clients rigorously and thoughtfully. This is the first step you have to take when you are contacted by prospects. I would strongly recommend you not to take gmail.com or similar emails seriously. You may of course answer them, but it is highly improbable that this will end in any lucrative cooperation. The thing is that people can claim whatever they like and/or want using this free-of-charge-instant–registration-instant-access email address. In this case you’ll have to take the words at face value. A very bad start.

Once you get an email from people who once bothered to pay for a website, you can start negotiating terms and conditions. In case this is a translation agency, see their rating at, say, proz.com, or numerous Linkedin groups discussing translation agencies payment practices. There you can also see comments about the rates these agencies pay to translators. My experience is that the most “generous” agencies are located in Europe and North America, while agencies from China or India tend to use price as the main differentiator/competitive advantage, which means that the latter are constantly searching for cheaper translators. By the way, since the price they offer is rather attractive, they can win a lot of voluminous projects (thousands of pages, for instance). Usually low rates paid to translators are accompanied by longer waiting time for your payment and more frequent cases of non-payment.

Please do not forget  about such thing as an upfront payment. This is a very good indicator that the client is a serious one. Sad but true: upfront payment is a very rare case.

A formal contract/PO/confirmation email are a must when you start cooperating with a new client. There you have to indicate the price, payment terms, scope of work, etc.

A good indicator is the name and position of the person you are speaking to. Serious clients don’t hide their identities.

In my case the agency that changed payment terms arbitrarily seemed to be a very reputable company, with a separate website, good rating, friendly PMs, etc. The problem occurred when I contacted their accountant for more details about my payment shortly after the end of the project. She unilaterally extended the agreed payment term. The thing is that I had agreed the initial (=shorter) payment term with the CEO of the company. There was an apparent miscommunication (I believe) between those two positions. But who cares! In a friendly manner I reminded the accountant about my position and the written statements of her CEO. The result was that I was paid on time. Moreover, I am now aware of actual payment term of this company, which is far from acceptable; I don’t think I will take future projects from them. I believe they have lost a loyal professional always ready to go an extra mile. Yes, this is a two-way street – without professionals they won’t make money.

Can my bilingual secretary/spouse/nephew do this translation?

23 Apr

This post is going to be about a rather controversial question. During the last weekend I read a lot about translation industry, blogs of well-known translators who literally rock the industry.

It seems a lot of translators have been contacted recently by certain direct clients who right from the start said that they didn’t need a translator at all. The only reason why they didn’t give the file to their bilingual secretaries or relatives was because he or she is too busy to take this assignment. That`s exactly why they just have to outsource it. Otherwise they would happily tell their personal assistants to do the translation. Why not? She speaks French fluently, her English is seems to be impeccable.

Logical consequences of this situation are twofold. You (as a contractor) feel that you have to talk them into hiring a translator. I’m not speaking about any person in particular but language professionals in general. You have to find certain words to persuade them that in case they have serious material to be translated, they have to deal with serious people. This is sometimes quite difficult to do. CEOs, CFOs, different heads of departments, etc.  feel that no one is going to teach them how to do business. Now that’s the stance!

Second consequence (a logical one as well) is that price in this case becomes a very sensitive issue, due to general (sometimes absolute) lack of understanding what it takes to produce a translation of a highly technical document.

Why is it so? One of the reasons is that the market is inundated with the exact type of translators – expatriates who suddenly decided that they were translators, people who spent two years in Mexico and then suddenly thought they were able now to translate INTO Spanish, people who studied a foreign language in school. As they have nothing in terms of experience, it is natural that they use price as the main differentiator in order to enter the market. Vast majority of those amateurs will leave the industry very fast, but this little time they were there would influence the industry a bit. One more client will fall into this trap of perceiving translation as a mere leisure activity.

A few years ago I was contacted by a friend of mine who then worked in a company trying to import agricultural equipment here in Ukraine. The reason he contacted me was that they had a pile of manuals (in English) they had to translate into Russian/Ukrainian. These manuals were full of highly technical information, diagrams and graphs, tables, etc. I don’t want to mention this rate they offered me. It took me five seconds to see the first page of this manual to tell him that they would fail unless they multiply their budget by 10.

During the next three months I heard the same story from my colleagues in the city – they all were contacted by the same person (employee of the company responsible for “getting it done” – another buzz phrase such clients would use when talking to employees). I’m really sorry for this person because he was told to do something that people could not do for centuries.

This company still operates. I think they bought the equipment and had all documents translated. Sometimes I dream about seeing the face of this CEO when he eventually contacted right people and was told the price. Cognitive dissonance in its earnest form.

Recommendations: hire professionals. Don’t let your success in business overshadow the way the nature puts things right. People use wheels for centuries in order to transport things, so why do we sometimes try to invent a square wheel? There is nothing wrong to haggle a little. You can have a discount when the amount of words you have to translate is a six digit number. But like any discount, this should be a tiny fraction of a translator`s per-word rate.

As usual – have a nice day!

Market of translation services, or clients to avoid.

17 Apr

What is the market of translation services? A lot of people believe that this is a solid, easy to recognise number of people and clients. Many think that you can always count people who want to buy this service at any given time, as well as people who can provide this service.

Sometimes scientists simplify things in order to prove a theory. When they want to measure speed at which a car is moving, they usually assume that the car is a dot moving along a trajectory. This helps them calculate speed, distance travelled, etc.

If we want to speak about translation market we sometimes have to assume that this is a solid number of people on both sides. But today I don’t want to simplify this situation. Let’s have a full picture of what is going on in the industry. People who want to see a complete picture have to tackle this issue.

First of all, there are at least three clusters of translation markets. The first one includes so-called affluent countries – the US, the UK, Sweden, Australia, etc. Companies and clients here can and are generally willing to pay decent rates to translators.I will not tell you a great secret that all contractors want to work with clients from these countries.

The second cluster includes countries which are less affluent – countries of Eastern Europe, Latin America, some Arab countries. Clients from these countries usually pay normal rates. Still some problems may occur – delayed payments, bank fees not paid by a client, etc.

The third cluster of countries includes such countries as India and China, Russia, Ukraine, ex-USSR countries. Much to my regret, clients from these countries pay flow rates, ask for too much in return, plus their project managers are less professional (in case we speak about agencies) than project managers from countries of the two above clusters.

Naturally enough, it is sometimes a nightmare to collaborate with agencies and (rarely) direct client’s from this third cluster of countries. If you want to reduce your percentage of non-payments, I would strongly recommend you to stay away from agencies in these countries. Direct clients have to be examined thoroughly before accepting any project.

Please do not understand me incorrectly: I am from one of these countries (Ukraine). That’s exactly why I can speak about this issue with confidence. I know this style of doing business from inside. I would also recommend you to thoroughly select agencies from these countries. Sometimes you just have to hire someone from a country you want to penetrate with your business products or services. You just can`t find right companies in your area. Then hire a freelancer!

As years go by, translators develop this sense of selection. We just know that this client is bad/good one. We can instantly tell you who will pay and who won`t.

I’m sure that there are a lot of agencies in India and China which treat their vendors accordingly. It may be that I just haven’t met them yet.

Have a nice day!

Marketing in the industry: best practice, worst practice.

16 Apr

Marketing is all around us. You have entire departments at universities which do nothing but produce marketers of all kinds. Thousands of books are published every year about marketing, although a good half of these books claim they are not about it.

Youtube is full of videos of people promising you a constant influx of clients in case you apply their methods of attracting clientèle.

These books, videos, training materials seem to be too generic though. You can of course pick certain methods and gimmicks, but the information they convey is too simplistic sometimes.

When a client is search for a language specialist, he/she actually starts somewhere. It is interesting enough how certain translators are more visible to clients than others.

What are these marketing methods you are expected to feel and see in action when searching for a freelancer who will provide you with linguistic support?

First, it is the pitch of a translator. The first thing you will notice is that too many translators claim they offer quality, affordability and timely delivery (synonyms are also used, but the basic meaning is clear). I am pretty sure your wish to contact this particular type of freelancer vanishes away when you read the same words on the profile of the tenth translator within 5 minutes. It is absolutely normal! When they claim these things, they are telling their potential clients they can be replaced at any time. The fact is that this is absolutely true. Common features include the fact that they claim they can take any text of any type or nature. They also (usually) compete using rates as their main differentiator (strange, as people always can find someone who will be 1-2 cents cheaper than he or she). This type of pitch also suggests that the person in question is planning (sometimes unconsciously) to find another full-time position elsewhere, since he/she is not serious enough about his marketing efforts. Why bother, if you don`t plan to strive for professionalism seriously?

A much smaller group of freelancers use different approach. First, their pitch stands out. It is either creative, or solid. They are able to attract people`s attention. Second, their rates tell their story (see other posts published here for more information about rates). They don`t want to contribute to general decline of the profession. they keep on insisting that you have to pay generously to get quality. it does not come to you just because your service providers claim they offer it.

They have a healthy portfolio which also tells the story.

Translators who belong to this group of service providers tend to attend industry-related events, or events which are in direct relation to their specializations. There they usually find their direct clients, being neither too pushy nor too timid to produce their business cards.

A lot of people will also contact potential clients using personalized emails. This is a good way to start. You choose a list of companies who are potentially in need of your expertise, and then you use it to market yourself. OF course, your cover letter should reflect your professionalism. This is by no means spam, since you contact people who can be interested in your services.

The first thing to remember: contractors must market themselves to clients. A generic pitch is not enough. Truth is that clients have to be “gelled”. You can always see the “quality’ of a particular translator by means of his marketing efforts (or lack of them). Forget about price. This is the third question to ask.

As usual – have a nice day!

Long Live Machine Translation!

8 Apr

We believe that if men have the talent to invent new machines that put men out of work, they have the talent to put those men back to work.
John F. Kennedy

February 16, 1996. Kasparov lost his fifth game to Deep Blue computer. I remember this news; although I was 11, I played chess passionately, that`s why this news could not escape my attention. They showed a big black box and said that this was the winner. They BTW also showed owners of the winner – IBM managers.

The computer we had there within our hobby group in 1996 was much smaller, like a today`s tablet. It was also less powerful and  “smart”, still, you could practice some simple moves and basic chess openings. But none of us could seriously think of a computer winning a chess match until we saw the news. It literally ignited fierce debate about the future of chess and the human race within our group of teenagers.

I haven`t touched a chessboard since that time. Why?  This game is too slow for me now. But I do remember this debate: will machines, desktop PCs or smaller devices ever be able to replace us, humans? The answer came from another passion of mine – languages, namely translation.

First let me shock you: they will.  They are doing this right now. For the last 10 years I see more and more people relying on different off-line and on-line tools helping them obtain a very rough translation of this or that text. So basically these tools do the job they are intended to do – they help people grasp the meaning of the text.

In case these tools produce something that remotely resembles a meaningful material, why not hire an experienced editor? The reason why this idea fails is that any decent editor (when asked to do PEMT – post-editing of machine translation) will charge his/her normal translation rate. To regret, the condition of any text Google Translate will produce now is far from sound (you can run any piece of text through GT and see the results). So, this editor will have to simply re-translate the text. In other words, your costs of hiring a person to copy`n`paste your text into Google Translate will be added to the cost of actual human-led translation (bear in mind that Google Translate has some limits on how many words you can translate at a time. You will have to allocate resources to this task as well).

Some editors/translators will go further – they will double their rates (you don`t have time to argue; you are too lucky to find someone to edit this nonsense. Why not use this advantage?)

The most hidden secret: translators happily use machine translation when they have lengthy tables with almost identical information in each cell.  They gladly use Google Translate when they have these endless spare parts lists. But a big BUT! You have to distinguish between this absolutely controlled and ‘humanized” machine-assisted translation from uncontrollable production of letters by a machine which previously simply collected fragments other people indicated as equivalent (this is what Google actually does. It translates nothing, in fact). Operators run cranes, so why not? Still, they don`t let cranes build up something on their own.

So, long live Google Translate! You help experienced and seasoned professionals drive amateurs away, since they produce something you can get free-of-charge.

My recommendations: 1) stay away from agencies which post jobs about “post-editing” of machine translation. This is another way to deceive both translators and you, my dear clients. 2) Encourage your employees use Google Translate! If you need a quick translation of two words in Japanese, go on-line!  But don`t allow statistics ruin your marketing campaign. 3) Accept the future: MT (machine translation) will sooner or later replace humans for the most of dull everyday tasks.

Still, let me remind you that Deep Blue won only once, on the fifth try.

As usual – have a nice day!