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.


4 thoughts on “You Get What You Pay For — a Myth?

  1. Thanks, Marie, for this great post and for a much-needed laugh! I agree: when I hire my own professional service providers (web designer, etc.), I specifically say that I am *not* looking for the cheapest person or for a ridiculously fast turnaround. I’m looking for someone who is a good communicator and who does things right the first time. It’s really hard to see good agencies go down the price-based competition rabbit hole, but I agree that there’s always a bit of poetic justice when a company chooses to do that and the results are sub-optimal.

  2. Hi Corinne, thanks for commenting! Yes, I’ve also found that colleagues who pass on work to me are usually terrific to work with; great communication and no haggling. Same for my small boutique agencies. They may not be able to offer the same number of projects, but I always take their calls no matter what else is going on; they’re worth it!

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