Badsplaining,the Translator’s Curse

Writer James Fell recently shared a Reddit challenge on his Facebook page to Badly Explain Your Profession. The responses are inventive and hilarious, but they made me think about how we translators explain what we do. Hang around any translation forum or group long enough, and sooner or later the conversation will turn to complaints about the misconceptions people have about our profession, like the notion that any high school kid who’s taken a year of French can be a translator.

But really, whose fault is that? I have a nagging feeling that there aren’t any translator contributions to the Badly Explain Your Profession thread because we’re already using all the bad explanations as actual descriptions of what we do.

Here are two examples of another popular meme a while back, where people explained their jobs as seen through different eyes.

Note how these two translators depict the “reality” of their work. According to these helpful images, not only do translators have a simple job that anyone could do, we are incompetent boobs who get overwhelmed by the type of simple job that anyone could do.

“Badly explain your profession”? Please, we badly explained before badly explaining was cool. For people who are supposed to have a way with words we’re remarkably expert badsplainers.

I know, I know, these memes are just meant to be funny, and they are. But it would not be remiss to balance the scales every now and then. So to that end, allow me move to the opposite end of the spectrum for a minute and take a page from Donald Trump, uber-promoter in-chief:

Make Translation Great Again

Translation is a tremendous profession, tremendous. It’s projected to outgrow all other sectors by 2020, because we think bigly and we act bigly. We also have huge support, people love us. They’re standing in line to join. But you gotta have what it takes. It’s about words, of course, huge, huge amounts of words, millions of words a day. But mostly it’s about action. Build that wall of words and make the client pay for it. Because there is money in it. Believe me. Big, big money. Most professions don’t even make a fraction of the money we spend on printer ink alone. It’s sad. But mostly it’s about winning. Winning so much your competitors get tired of you winning. And we’re winners.  Believe me.

A tad heavy on “alternative facts”, perhaps, but I think we have a good start here, yes? So let’s open it up to suggestions. Colleagues, let’s break the badsplaining curse. How would you describe what you do?

Missteps and missed opportunities

pebbleRunning your own business feels like a steady jog uphill. There is no finish line (unless you retire or sell out I guess), only a view of the next mountain when you’ve reached the top. It’s been an enjoyable run so far, and I love what I do. This is the time of year when it’s traditional to count your blessings (for Thanksgiving, if you live in the US) and think about goals for the coming year. First, though, I need to sit down and shake some of the rocks and twigs out of my shoes that slowed me down and caused a few missteps this year.

I missed out on gaining a corporate client

That is, I missed out on corporate-client rates because I wasn’t paying attention. An acquaintance referred a friend of hers to me, saying she had been translating some materials for him as a favor but she didn’t have time for it anymore and she thought he needed a professional. I assumed it was an individual who just needed some personal papers translated, and because I was busy I said “sure” without asking any further questions. The client contacted me via a personal email and I gave him the rate I charge to private individuals and agencies.

Turns out he is a CEO and the work was for his company.

I suppose none of the parties involved here communicated very clearly, but since it’s my business the burden was clearly on me to ask more questions. Great client, great relationship, but I want to kick myself really hard every time I think about it. Fortunately there have only been a few projects so my shins aren’t too bruised.

I wasted the biggest networking opportunity to land on my doorstep in years

One of my goals for the past few years has been to attend a translation conference, and this year the ATA conference was in San Francisco, only 4 hours from where I live. As fate would have it, though, I had been on the road almost constantly for family reasons during the months before and I was travel-weary. So I figured I would sign up for the Saturday only and make it a one-day trip.

Big mistake. Saturday was the last day of the conference, and there was definitely a tail-end feeling to the place that day. The vendors were supposed to stay until 2:00 p.m., but by the time I walked in at noon a good chunk had already packed up and left.

Also, because my mind had been on so many other things I had failed to prepare properly for the day by contacting people beforehand and setting up appointments to meet and say hi. The ATA had a fantastic app for just that purpose; you could find a fellow attendee and then connect via twitter, for instance, but I had just bought a new phone, had not installed twitter yet, and found out I couldn’t do it there because didn’t know my password by heart.  The people I did meet on the fly were all very nice, but clearly tired from days of networking and ready to go home.

So one suggestion for the conference organizers would be to not make the one-day option the last day of the conference, but my most urgent suggestion is to myself: please go prepared next time. Even the one-day option is not cheap, so if you’re going to do it, do it right.

I spent too much time on the wrong projects

This one is partly a matter of personal preference, so just humor me if you can’t relate at all. I’m starting to become leery of editing offers. I don’t like editing work to begin with, and since agencies have a pretty low ceiling for hourly rates I make much less on these kinds of jobs than I do translating (part of the reason why I like charging per word). Generally, I only take editing jobs if it’s a new client and I want to get in the door, or if it is a very good client and I don’t want to reject too many offers.

However, I’m starting to suspect that some agencies simply don’t want to pay my translation rates (anymore) and are trying to save money by having me edit the work of cheaper translators. On top of that, it seems like these types of jobs are becoming more and more complicated and time-consuming, with endless last-minute questions during my nighttime hours or being asked to re-enter my edits in the agency’s intranet software. It’s annoying, and a missed opportunity in the sense that I could have spent my time more productively on more enjoyable projects.

So these are some of my missteps this year. Is there anything you regret or would have done differently? In any case, I my shoes feel better now and I’m ready to start thinking about next year’s mountains.

“Treasured Guests” and Other Trials

I love Disneyland. It’s hopelessly uncool, I know, but the irony-free “Happiest Place on Earth” is a refreshing change from the cynicism required for survival in the rest of the world.

So it was a bit of a “what?” moment when a friend told me that Disney employees have a special code for referring to difficult or unpleasant visitors. So FIY, the next time you send back your burger at the Galactic Grill for the second time and ask to have a sandwich from the Blue Bayou sent over instead, do not be flattered when the waiter calls in a special request for a “treasured guest”; you’re being marked as a certified jerk.

On second thought, though, it makes sense. Disney employees work hard to create this happy bubble for over 40,000 visitors a day, and it’s impossible to keep this up if you don’t have a way to blow off some inconspicuous steam every now and then when fantasy and reality collide. It’s also a heads-up to colleagues so they can mentally prepare for said treasured guest or hide behind a Mickey keychain display until you’re gone.

Come to think of it, I’ve had my share of “treasured guests” as well.

Interactions with project managers are usually fairly painless, because both parties know what to expect. A PM from an agency I have a long-standing relationship with may send me the following e-mail: “Marie, I have CaliClinical project of 6,000 words; can you take care of it for Thursday morning?” There is no need to explain that I will have to use the CaliClinical terminology glossary and style guide, that the document is a pdf so payment is based on the final word count of the translated document, and that Thursday refers to Central Standard Time, which means that I will actually have to deliver by Wednesday night my time.

difficultl-clientsSo any problems that arise are usually due to inadvertent communication mix-ups. Case in point: last week I was asked to do the final “reconciliation step” on a very small (70 words) back-translation project. At first I declined because I had never done the reconciliation step before and I was going out of town so I didn’t want to deal with it. The PM was desperate to place the job, though, and the instructions sounded simple enough so eventually I agreed to help out and completed the job that same day.

I didn’t give it another thought until a few days later, when I started getting calls and e-mails with further feedback-on-my-feedback in the middle of the night and during my trip when I was frequently out of cell-phone reach and could not respond right away. Mutual frustration finally came to a head, and I told her I would not have accepted the job if she had told me beforehand that I would have to be available 24/7 for a week afterwards. That’s when I found out that she had been under the impression, based on another PM’s recommendation, that I had done reconciliation jobs before and knew what to expect, and that it was my lack of availability that was a puzzle to her. Since it turns out I was as much of a “treasured guest” from her perspective as she was from mine, I guess this ended up being more of a “treasured learning experience”.

Communication can be even more of a challenge when the person you’re dealing with isn’t a project manager but an individual client who is instructed by some institution to have his official documents translated, but who really thinks that anyone could do the job — for free.  A few weeks ago I was contacted by a young man who needed his grades and diploma translated so he could submit them to an American school he was applying to.

The first “uh oh” bubbled to the surface when I asked to see the documents and he assured me it would only be a tiny job because he had “already translated most of it.” The pdf file turned out to consist mostly of numbers and complicated formatting, all of which would have to be reproduced and re-keyed to meet the requirements of the institution in question. The only words he had translated (in a separate Word doc) were the course titles, i.e. about 5% of the actual work that needed to be done. As politely as I could, I explained that

  1. I could not use his translation and pass it off as my own, nor would I certify any translation I had not actually done myself, nor would that be in any way acceptable to the institution;
  2. Re-keying the numbers and formatting the pages was not a “tiny” job but rather a time-intensive undertaking and that it was going to cost a lot more than the minimum charge he was envisioning.

Up to that point he had simply been speaking from ignorance, not ill will, but then, instead of listening to me or hiring a more affordable translator (which would be fair enough and more power to him), this treasured guest asked if I had ever heard of those programs that convert pdfs to Word docs, and if he couldn’t just do that and paste in his translation.

[Long baffled silence]

In a last-ditch effort to shake him out of his dream world I converted the pdf for him myself and sent him the crap conversion full of spelling errors, missing text and crazy text boxes, pointing out that trying to salvage that disaster would be much more expensive than translating the thing from scratch. And that was the last I heard of him, so for all I know he did just copy & paste his own translation into this monstrosity and sent it off to be wondered at by the university officials with the power to accept or deny his application.

I’ve been very fortunate that 99% of my clients have been a pleasure to work with, but after this last incident I’m tempted to order “Treasured Guest” t-shirts and keep them on hand for those special people you run into now and then. Then again, that would make me the jerk and I’d have to wear it myself. I need another day at Disneyland.

You Get What You Pay For — a Myth?

pennypincherPrincipled decisions usually have no immediate pay-off except knowing that you did the right thing, but sometimes life gives you a sweet little taste of poetic justice.

About six months ago one of my best agencies asked all its translators to lower their rates to help them keep up their profits (paraphrase mine). I passed on this opportunity to take one for the team, worked a little harder to cover the shortfall with new clients, and chalked it up to sad experience.

Fast-forward to last week, when I got another mass-email from this agency:

Recently, a significant number of projects have been returned to us by our client  […] and our failure to provide accurate documents has not only resulted in immense financial expenses for [our agency], but has also harmed our relationship with them. […] In my review of the returned projects and a random sample of projects from the past six months, I have found there to be a consistent pattern of projects with a high number of corrections needed per page.

During the past 6 months, you say? Immense financial expenses, you say? Is someone going to do the math and compare the losses they suffered with the money they saved by relying on cheap labor? Of course not. The e-mail went on to lecture the poor incompetents about quality and demanded that they start checking their work more carefully or they would be removed from the database.

I have nothing against agencies; on the contrary, I am fortunate to work with many excellent ones and I appreciate all their hard work in finding clients, taking care of negotiations, holding their hands through the process and generally freeing me to do what I love, which is translating.

But why do those with quality problems so steadfastly refuse to acknowledge the crashingly obvious, i.e. you get what you pay for? Perhaps they haven’t been around the block and they still think it’s a myth perpetuated by greedy translators. Or perhaps they spend so much time wooing corporate clients and keeping them happy that they develop a weird sort of Stockholm syndrome and start seeing corporate, product-based QA systems, rather than better, higher-paid translators, as the answer to poor quality and client unhappiness.

Exhibit A: Another email I received last week, inviting me to join a team of translators to work on a large project. The email explained we would be using something called the “Scrum method”, which sounded like it involved  frequent 7 a.m. online meetings to “discuss progress”, decide on further “objectives” and “commit” together to meet these objectives. My level of excitement about meetings, objectives and early-morning anything can be measured in negative numbers anyway, but it dropped to a new low when I discovered, after doing a little digging, that this Scrum method is actually designed specifically for software development.

The Scrum website is very instructive, but after careful study it’s still not clear to me what “defining potentially shippable product increments” or “live demonstrations of the working product increments” have to do with translation. Whoever pitched this to the client deserves the salesman of the year award, although I suspect it’s the client who insisted on using this system and the agency figured they’d make it work somehow. I didn’t start my own business so I could be rerouted right back to Dilbert-type meetings, so I passed on the project.


Collaboration is great; in fact, it’s absolutely necessary when multiple translators work on the same project. But what is happening here is that the client thinks, or is made to believe, that the result depends on the quality of the system rather than the quality of the translators.

To give the agency the benefit of the doubt, another possibility is that they simply saw this Scrum system as a way to organize the collaboration. But even so, by choosing a system that is manifestly not designed for the task at hand they are saddling their translators with all kinds of additional tasks and checkpoints that are useless and burdensome. Why not just give all the translators the e-mails of the other team members and trust that they will put on their big-boy pants and figure it out?

Professionals don’t have to be nagged into checking their work and they don’t have to be patronized into collaboration. No doubt there are project managers out there who could tell me a horror tale or two about translators who claimed to be professionals and proved to be anything but. My question is, were those translators the best you could afford or the cheapest you could find? Anybody can say anything, but you can only get away with charging higher fees if you actually deliver. Cheap labor is expensive in the end; you might as well take the shortcut and pay for quality in the first place.


Translator: Rise of the Machines?

mountain roadTranslating when you’re in the zone is like driving a Maserati through the Alps. It’s not always like that, but I know I know I’m not the only who has experienced times when words zip into place without effort and hours fly by in minutes. In his book on work satisfaction, psychologist Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi refers to this experience as flow: a state of relaxed, enjoyable engagement when you’re immersed in a task that is neither boring nor too difficult.


traffic jam

Now imagine you’re trying to get to an appointment during rush hour: it’s stop-start traffic all the way, you hit nothing but red lights and other drivers keep switching lanes and cutting you off.

That’s what post-editing raw machine translation output is like.


If the topic of machine translation tends to make tempers flare, this is why. Nobody wants to give up mountain roads for rush-hour hell, and you can’t blame people for getting a wee bit defensive when they’re told that resistance is futile and the last one on the MT bandwagon is a rotten egg. It reminds me of this “Fry and Laurie” skit where a minister deflects any critical questioning of his proposal by shouting that it’s “a GOOD deal for Britain! A GOOD DEAL!”



As in politics, any rational discussion of MT tends to degenerate into two extremes (Hell No I Won’t Go versus MT or Die) trying to shout each other down. Unfortunately this heartfelt frustration on both sides also obscures some interesting ideas that might be worth pondering.

As you have probably discerned by now I am not a fan of MT, so I decided it was time to take a closer look at the arguments of the pro-MT camp. I’m happy to use technology but reading about it puts me to sleep, so my impressions of “the other side” had always been limited to whatever I managed to pick up through osmosis. I figured Jost Zetzsche’s GeekSpeak column in the ATA Chronicle would be a good place to start since I knew he had written extensively on MT, so, fortified with extra-strong coffee, I delved in.

The first thing I discovered is that Zetzsche is a translator first and foremost, that he promotes technology only to the extent that it benefits translators and that he is not, in fact, an MT-industry flunky. So Jost, you have no idea who I am but please accept my apologies for misjudging you.

I also learned that there are actually two ways to use machine translation.

The obvious one we all know and hate is post-editing, i.e. fixing the raw MT output produced by someone else’s MT engine. In this scenario, the MT is the active agent and the translator cleans up the mess. I did quite a bit of post-editing during my first year as a translator, as I was unaware at the time of any controversy surrounding this issue and as a new translator I was happy to get any work at all. After a few months I stopped accepting these assignments, though, because the work was so mind-numbingly boring and frustrating, plus it dawned on me that I was getting paid less money for more work that was exponentially less enjoyable.

What was new to me is that it is also possible to use MT technology for our own purposes in combination with our own CAT tools. Two of the possibilities suggested by Zetzsche are:

  • Using MT to correct fuzzy TM matches, thus increasing the match percentage of the segment
  • Using MT as an autosuggest tool, where you do your own translating but the MT offers suggestions as you type.

In this scenario, the translator is the driving force and the MT just one of many tools at his or her disposal. As Zetzsche reiterates in his August 2014 column, “There really is no place for post-editing in that kind of environment”.

He also emphasizes that even this personalized use of MT is not for everyone and not suitable for every type of document. Software strings obviously lend themselves much more to tools that take advantage of repetition than, say, a marketing text or a case history in a medical journal. By the same token, translators who specialize in IT and technology are much more likely to enjoy spending lots of time customizing their CAT tools and tinkering with fuzzy matches. Their “flow” experience is the challenge of modifying their tools to create ever closer matches.

There are valid uses for MT, for example in informal settings (Facebook) or emergencies (“Please call a doctor!”). It can also be useful, as Zetszche shows, as one of many tools at the translator’s disposal.

But MT engines are still very far from the utopian ideal expressed in the 2009 White House policy paper of “automatic, highly accurate and real-time translation”, hence the need for human post-editing. I can’t blame MT coders for coding; it’s what they do and they are no doubt motivated by a communication-related higher purpose that is very similar to ours. But that doesn’t mean we have to do their job for them.

So what can we do?

Refuse post-editing jobs. There is no basis for claims that increasing numbers of translators are turning to post-editing and that eventually we’ll all have to bite the bullet if we want to survive. First of all, there are no data on how many of us currently accept post-editing work and whether or not this is an upward trend. I also read somewhere that it’s becoming harder and harder for PMs to find takers for post-editing projects because everyone hates doing it. This is certainly closer to my own experience, because PMs who offer me post-editing jobs usually come back several times to try and renegotiate rather than give this prized job to one of the other eager takers. The point is that we are under no obligation to turn doomsday claims into self-fulfilling prophecies.

Advocate for our interests. In many of his articles, Zetzsche expresses the need for ongoing dialogue with MT developers. They need to make a living as well, and if the only market they can see consists of non-translators, the product will meet the needs of non-translators only. Translators who are into technology should talk to developers and suggest features they would like to see. This would indirectly benefit all of us, as every translator-friendly feature is one more step towards transforming a post-editing tool into a translation environment tool.

This is closely related to PR, another hot-button topic. In his article on machine translation (NY Times, June 2015), Gideon Lewis-Kraus relates a conversation with a computational linguist at an MT conference about the tension between MT developers and translators. “`Go to the American Translators Association convention’, one marathon attendee told me, ‘and you’ll see — they hate us.’” This is probably pretty accurate, to be honest, but it’s not a good thing. Being known for what we’re against rather than what we’re for is a good way to relegate ourselves to the “haters gonna hate” corner, where we’ll have exactly zero influence on the very issues that affect us most. We can do better than that.


The Seven-Year Itch in Translation

The most dangerous drivers, statistically, are those who have had their license for about a year. They start feeling comfortable and relax their vigilance even though they are actually not that experienced yet, leading to a higher accident rate. Similarly, the seven-year mark is reportedly a tricky time in a relationship. The thrill of conquest and romance has worn off and gradually gets replaced, it seems, by bills, annoying nose-blowing habits and demanding in-laws.

Translation careers go through phases as well, some exciting and some not so much, and it’s good to be aware and prepared so you don’t wreck your career through misplaced confidence or throw it all to the wind when difficult times (inevitably) arrive.

I have no evidence to back this up, but I’m guessing the “misplaced overconfidence” phase first rears its head after about the first year of translating for a living. These are some of the signs:

Hypersensitivity/argumentativeness when a client or proofreader comes back with comments on the text. The other day I read a complaint on a forum from a translator whose client was not happy with the translation. She was baffled, she said, because she had been extremely pleased with her own translation when reviewing it before submission. I get it, it’s hard to hear that someone is not totally in love with your beautiful text and it may feel like a personal attack on your competence. But language is not a closed system with a finite amount of black-and-white knowledge. It’s alive, always evolving with infinite variations, and it’s impossible for one human being to always have the best take on everything. In language, it’s hardly ever “my way or the highway”.

We also have to remember that it’s not about us; it’s about creating the best possible text for the context it will be used in, and it’s a sign of maturity, not to mention a matter of retaining your sanity, to let go of disputable matters after you have made your point and the client or the proofreader still doesn’t see it your way. Emphasis on disputable. Some things are not disputable and you absolutely need to stand your ground in those cases, because you don’t want your name associated with an objectively ungrammatical, unidiomatic text.

Taking on assignments that are outside of your area of expertise. This temptation can be especially strong when work is slow and there are bills to be paid. After all, you’re a paid professional now, so with a bit of research you should be okay, right? Let me join the chorus here and entreat you to not engage in this type of unprofessional conduct, no matter how strong the urge. You may get lucky and skate by once or twice, but in the end you will hurt yourself, the client, and ultimately the profession by perpetuating the misconception that translation is a hobby-type activity that anyone could do.

Now fast-forward about 6 years or so, and let’s look at the more seasoned translators. They have established a specialty, a solid core group of clients and a steady income. Except for occasional slow periods, the scramble for survival is a thing of the past and the challenge is mainly to keep growing and learning. It’s all smooth sailing from here, right? Well, there are a few pitfalls to keep in mind.

Mistaking your own habits for required usage. One of the nice things about having years of experience in a particular specialty is that a lot of the terminology becomes second nature and there is less and less you need to research (although, like an asymptote in math, the time spent on research should never actually reach zero). However, a small but noteworthy danger is that a certain term sounds natural, not because it’s the right one, but simply because this is how you have been translating it for years. This just happened to me the other day. I had been writing “acetyl salicylic acid” as three words for years, which seems to make sense because English doesn’t like to combine words like Dutch or German. So when a Trados TM suggested “acetylsalicylic acid” I was a little huffed, until I looked it up and lo and behold, I was the one who had been wrong all these years. This is closely related to the second pitfall:

Unnecessary arrogance/harshness when proofreading a colleague’s work. I confess I get irritated sometimes when I see basic mistakes or sloppiness in a translation supposedly done by a qualified specialist, but I have learned to double-check any terminology I am certain is wrong, because there have been times when the “incorrect” term was actually an acceptable or even commonly used alternative.

Going back to the comparison with relationships, it is very human and common to start seeing the other person as an imperfect version of ourselves, rather than a unique individual with their own perfectly valid, and yes, different, ways of folding laundry and putting the dishes in the dishwasher. As an inveterate rearranger of dishes I confess I’m still working on that one, but in the same way, we need to remember as we become more experienced translators that different is not necessarily wrong.

There is a time for boldness and self-promotion, but we had better make sure continually that we have the goods to back it up. Humility and teachability go a long way towards making sure that confidence does not overtake skill and crash a budding or thriving career.

Pattern Recognition for a Thriving Translation Business

Humans are strongly predisposed to recognize patterns. Music, math, language, and art all appeal to this part of our brain, but we also use this ability thousands of times a day for more mundane purposes, such as picking out a familiar face in a crowd and or finding a bottle of Heinz ketchup at the grocery store. So strong is this innate tendency, in fact, that we even see patterns where there are none, imposing order and meaning where none exist. This need to impose order is the basis of the Rorschach test, where the subject is invited to interpret random or ambiguous images.

So what does this have to do with translation? I’m glad you asked. Translation and interpretation are all about the recognition and creation of patterns, of course. It’s why many translators also enjoy jigsaw puzzles, crosswords, Sudokus and any other activity that scratches this pattern-finding itch; no surprise there. What many (beginning) translators don’t realize, though, is that we need this pattern-recognition ability not just to produce good translations, but to run a successful business as well. Good business decisions are based on objective patterns. Conversely, businesses that fail to thrive are usually based on decisions informed by imagined patterns.

Fibonacci snailTo illustrate, let’s take a look at one of the coolest mathematical patterns ever: the Fibonacci sequence. This sequence is a series of numbers where each number is equal to the sum of the two preceding numbers: 0 1 1 2 3 5 8 13 21 . . . Now, this would be no more interesting than one of those “what is the next number in this series” questions on IQ tests, where it not for the fact, as Italian mathematician Fibonacci pointed out in 1202, that this pattern is found all over in nature, from sunflowers to galaxies, as you can see in the picture below.

FibonacciPretty amazing, right? Now in the translation business there are certain observable patterns as well. Skill, hard work, education, specialization, marketing, professional attitude and expectations and commensurate rates tend to curve, Fibonacci-like, into a beautiful thriving business. Lack of preparation, timidity, amateurish presentation and low expectations and rates, on the other hand, will prevent the business from taking off.

Given these two predictable sequences, why would anyone choose the second one? Sometimes it’s simply for lack of awareness, although that’s not really an excuse in a world where information is only a click or a conversation away. Other times it’s not so much an information problem as an interpretation problem, of focusing on imagined Rorschach-type patterns rather than objective Fibonacci ones. Of course the reality is that all of us veer from fact-mode into assumption-mode sometimes.

Just the other day I was asked to proofread a translation. It was hard slog, and gradually my frustration with the unbelievably incompetent translator morphed into the conviction that this had to be a product of machine translation. I concluded that the agency who had sent me this unacceptable piece of work was sneakily trying to save money by trying to pass a machine post-editing job off as a regular proofreading, so I fired off an email to the PM, curtly inquiring whether this was a machine translation.

Les Miserables1I was expecting a sheepish admission and I had a righteous follow-up email already composed in my head, complete with stirring mental image of myself waving a banner on the barricades in the new musical Les Traductrices Misérables .

Come to find out, the PM had no idea what I was talking about; their client had sent them this document with no explanation beyond that they wanted it checked, and she was horrified at the suggestion that they would ever use MT. Oh. Okay then, cancel heroic fantasy, never mind. It might still have been an MT translation but the point here is that I was jumping to conclusions about the agency before getting all the facts.

Like I said, I’m sure we all have these momentary lapses, — or at least I’m kind of assuming I’m not the only one; if I am, forget that Les Misérables thing, that wasn’t me. In any case, usually there is no harm done and we move on. It only becomes a problem when Rorschach-type interpretations become a structural part of our decision-making process:

  • I don’t need to charge more for my work because my overhead is low
  • I don’t need to charge more because it’s only a part-time job and I don’t really need the money
  • It’s okay to offer extremely low rates because the cost of living in my country is low
  • I can’t charge more because they’ll just give the job to someone else
  • I already know the language; continued education is a waste of time and money
  • If I specialize I’ll miss out on a lot of jobs and I’ll lose money
  • I’ve been at it for 6 months and it’s still a struggle; obviously it’s impossible to make a living as a translator

RorschachThese statements betray a Rorschach perception of the translation industry as world of passive gloom and doom where the best you can hope for is to gather enough crumbs to cobble together some sort of minimum-wage-level subsistence, despite all evidence pointing to the attainability of professional remuneration and fulfillment:

  • The US Bureau of Statistics predicts that the translation industry will grow by 42% between 2010 and 2020
  • Based on my own experience and what I’ve heard from many colleagues, it takes most translators at least a year to build the beginnings of a client base and probably at least another year before they are busy full-time. Of course it’s still a struggle after 6 months; join the club of all freelancers/entrepreneurs ever. Plan for supplemental income during the start-up phase.
  • The rate of any professional service is not based on overhead, number of work hours or the color of your hair; it’s based on the perceived value of the service you provide. It’s your job to help our clients perceive this value accurately.
  • Education and accreditation are not a “more competent than thou” license, but they do enhance your credibility in the eyes of clients, who often don’t have much else to go on.
  • Marketing: same idea. It’s not the client’s job to ferret out your existence and qualifications. Anything you do to represent yourself in a professional, capable manner helps build trust and brings in clients.

I could go on, but you get the idea. Rorschach or Fibonacci, the choice is ours. Colleagues, can you relate or you have any examples to share? I’d love to hear your perspectives.

The Translator’s Dilemma

prisonersThere is a famous scenario in game theory called The Prisoner’s Dilemma. In this scenario, two suspects are arrested and brought in for questioning in separate rooms. As it stands, the prosecutors don’t have enough evidence to convict the pair on the principal charges, so they really need at least one of the two to confess.

They offer the suspects, who can’t communicate with each other, the following deal: if they both confess they will get each get a 3-year prison term. If A testifies against B, A will go free and B will go to prison for 5 years and vice-versa. If they both stay silent they will be convicted on the lesser charge and serve 2 years each. The dilemma lies in the fact that the best option for the prisoners is to both stay silent, but if the other one doesn’t, staying silent becomes the worst option, and there is no way to know in advance.

table1This scenario attempts to explain why two rational individuals might not cooperate, even if it would be in their best interest to do so. The reasoning of each isolated prisoner is as follows:

1. If my accomplice testifies, I will get 3 years if I testify as well, and 5 years if I don’t
2. If my accomplice stays silent, I will go free if I testify and get 2 years if I don’t

In each scenario it is more advantageous for each suspect to testify, regardless of the other one’s decision.

Now let’s apply this to the translation industry. Most of us work alone, and for the most part we don’t know what rates other translators are charging. We do know that many agencies offer very low rates or pressure translators to lower their existing rates with the promise of potential huge projects and steady work. The following diagram presents an extremely simplified version (assuming a market consisting of only two translators, one agency and ten projects) of the resulting dilemma. I will use a random lower rate of $0.10/word and a higher rate of $0.15/word

table2Without knowing what the other one is charging, each translator’s reasoning is as follows:

1. If B accepts the low rate, A gets nothing if she  rejects the low rate and 5 projects if she accepts
2. If B rejects the low rate, A gets 5 projects at a higher rate if she also rejects the rate and 10 projects at the low rate if she accepts

Within this context, it will seem better to each translator to accept the low rate. After all, even if they both reject the lower rate and make $0.15/word for 5 projects of 3000 words each, they would earn 3000 x 0.15 x 5 = $2,250. The potential earnings from 10 projects at the lower rate, on the other hand, would be 3000 x 0.10 x 10 = $3,000 if only one of them accepts.

Again, this is an extreme oversimplification, but the sad thing is that many translators unwittingly do base their decisions on this model.

Now let’s look at this scenario in a real-life context.

  • The advantage of lower rates is illusory. In our example, taking 10 jobs at the lower rate means working 100% more hours for 30% more pay than taking 5 jobs at the higher rate.
  • The job market is not a zero-sum game. The translation industry is expected to grow by 42% between 2010 and 2020 according to the US Bureau of Statistics, and there is enough work to keep all competent translators busy at decent rates. It’s true that there may be a drop in the number of jobs you are offered when you first raise your rates, but the response here should be to persevere in marketing yourself to a higher bracket based on the value you offer, not to buy into the notion that there are only a limited number of jobs out there and that the only way to get your share of projects is by lowering your price. This is not to say that everyone can or should charge the same rates; your exact rate will depend on whether you have a specialty, what type of clients you have, your actual skills and experience, and your marketing efforts. But there is no reason why the lowest rate should be a disrespect-inducing pittance.
  • We are not isolated. We may work alone, but there are so many platforms for communication out there, like Facebook groups, LinkedIn groups, Twitter, blogs, professional associations, seminars and conferences, that there is absolutely no reason to be uninformed about the ongoing discussion about rates in the profession. Just a random grab from many excellent options:
    Standing Out and Watercooler (two groups on Facebook)
    The Business of Translation and Unacceptable Translation Rates (two groups on LinkedIn)
    The website No Peanuts! for Translators
    Also check out my blogroll over there on the right for excellent posts by my colleagues on every imaginable topic of interest to translators. These are just some places to start, but you will discover that there is an active, vibrant translation community out there for mutual support and edification.
  • Unlike the isolated prisoners, we have enough information to conclude that it is in our best interest to reject bottom-feeder rates, regardless of what anyone else does.

This is what our matrix looks like in (a closer approximation of) real life:table3                                    Lest you think I’m preaching from an ivory tower and that I don’t know what it’s like out there, read my previous blog post about my journey from bottom-basement rates to sanity. Yes, it is hard in the beginning and your rates may only grow slowly over time as you gain experience and work on your qualifications; starting any business is tough and requires perseverance. But the lower you set the bar at first, the longer it will take to make a decent living. The only dilemma you really face is whether to act like a prisoner or like the free agent you really are.

All About the Rates

I can’t get rid of this catchy Meghan Trainor earworm, except in my head it goes “It’s all about the rates, ‘bout the rates, no trouble”. This is not true, of course, because where rates are discussed trouble is not far behind, or so we are told, but what the heck. I’ll start.

I started my translation career working for $0.05/word on, where else, I just bumped into the site one day while job hunting, and I was beyond thrilled that here, apparently, was a way back into the profession I had thought I’d had to give up for good when I abandoned my Translation studies at the University of Amsterdam to move to the agricultural Central Valley of California. So when I found Proz and realized that physical location no longer mattered, I set up a profile faster than you can say “bulk-versus-premium market” and happily jumped into the bidding fray.

In my defense, I had no idea what a decent rate would be, since money is a famously taboo subject in translation circles. Proz does publish a list of average rates for different language pairs, but since none of my bids over $0.06/word ever got accepted, I concluded that the $0.12 average listed for Dutch-English on the site was just wishful thinking.

And I can’t tell you how disappointing it was, time after time, to discover an article or blog post promising the skinny on rates, only to be served yet another variety of: decide how much you want/need to make based on your expenses/desired lifestyle, divide that by the number of hours you want to work, and voila, there’s your rate.
First of all, this is not useful advice because the rate clients are willing to pay is based on the market or the perceived value of the service, which has nothing to do with how much I want to earn.
But let’s say for the sake of argument that it does work that way. Okay, I want to make a million dollars a year and work 20 hours a week, so that’s $19,230 a week or $961/hour. Of course this is a completely unrealistic and unfair example. But then what is fair? Is $100,000 a realistic figure for a full-time translator? $50,000? To know that, you either have to base the number on your own experience, which is what you’re trying to get away from, or you have to know how much other translators are charging. But no one’s telling. Back to square one.

To be fair, as desperate as I was to get my hot little hands on some actual numbers, nobody is obliged to tell me anything about their finances. I don’t think you’ll find many lawyers or doctors asking “So hey, what are y’all charging for consultations?” I don’t list my rates, either, although I have told colleagues in person. So yeah, the specifics of our personal finances are none of anyone’s business, but fortunately it’s not that hard to get a general idea if you pay attention. Here are some of my early experiences that gave me a clue:

  • After about a year of slogging away on Proz, I got on board with a large Walmart-type translation company. I was feeling braver after building my resume, so I quoted what I thought of as the princely rate of $0.08 and to my delight they accepted. I worked for them for several years, cutting my teeth on medical translation, discovering I loved it and gaining a huge amount of experience in what would become my specialty. I was pretty pleased with my smokin’ negotiating skills as well, until…
  • I was recruited by another agency specifically for medical translation. Remembering my successful negotiations with agency A and feeling considerably more qualified now, I decided to really push the envelope and ask for… $0.09 a word. What happened next I can only describe as either the grace of God or his mercy on the stupid, because this kind project manager, instead of doing the logical thing and gleefully accepting my rate, told me she was going to pay me what they paid all their translators, i.e. $0.12/word.

ratesSo the legend was true … it was a perfectly attainable rate — you’re just not going to get it on Proz. And not only that, but the first agency’s reputation for low rates, which I had dismissed before, was apparently well-deserved. Around the same time I invested in a one-on-one consultation with well-known colleague Judy Jenner, who confirmed my budding suspicions and shared insights about the translation business that would have taken me another year to figure out on my own. Armed with this knowledge, I started using this new rate as a jumping board, working on my qualifications and continuing to increase my rates accordingly.

To provide some context: many large translation agencies charge their clients around $0.20 – $0.22/word for common language pairs (if you surf around long enough you can find agencies that list their rates, and in one particularly lucky instance I actually found a detailed price list for all the agency’s language pairs), so that gives you an idea of the upper range large agencies are probably willing to pay. Smaller, more specialized agencies pay more.

On the other end of the spectrum, I know colleagues who charge $0.29/word and up, but keep in mind that these are highly experienced, highly specialized translators who mainly work for direct clients; you are not going to find an agency that will pay these rates. In fact, even for direct clients this is high since they could get it cheaper from a mass agency, but they are happy to pay because the guaranteed excellence of the translation is well worth it to them. It’s not easy to reach this level of the market, but the point is, it is possible, and if it is possible it is worth striving for.

Most of us are probably somewhere in between. I’m not yet where I want to be, but I sure am a long way from where I started. In the meantime, I love my work and I’m glad for the challenges still out there; it keeps things interesting, even if not always trouble-free.

Does Your Website Have a “Hack Me” Sign?

Getting your own business website is a huge milestone. I loved the excitement of the the design phase, creating the content, and finally seeing it out there “live” on the internet. Of course I’d heard about hackers and such but that seemed like one of those things that happens to other people. There’s a saying among con artists, though, that if you look around the room and you can’t tell who the sucker is, it’s you. If I’d looked a little closer I might have seen the “hack me” sign on my back. Continue reading