Category Archives: Negotiations

The myth of the rush translation

Faced with a rush translation? Just say no.

To the neophyte translator, who is still struggling to find regular clients, the words urgent and rush sound like an invitation to test her skills, her ability to meet deadlines and, most importantly, land a new client. These words are part of the stable repertoire of a customer’s manipulative language. At times, these rush translation requests come with an overt quasi promise of more work. And the inexperienced translator falls for it. I know because I did it on several occasions during the first few years of my career.

I am not disqualifying every single claim to a rush or urgent translation, because I have also faced bona fide rush requests from well-established clients. The difference is that there is no manipulative language, no empty promises of more projects coming up. As an in-house translator, I had to drop everything in order to address the occasional urgent request for a translation.

Napoleón Bonaparte quote - vísteme despacio que tengo prisa

In addition, reliable customers who request bona fide rush translations offer to pay extra for your trouble and don’t usually haggle: they’re in a time crunch and they come to you because you are reliable too. They’re willing to pay top dollar for your services. Other than that, rush requests belie a pervasive lack of organization that comes from project mismanagement and unrealistic expectations set by sales, marketing and/or product managers at the end-customer side. Translation companies big and small, desperate to please and earn money, accept these rush projects without question, thus becoming part of the contagious lack of organization I referred to earlier.

But said translation companies protest: “The customer is always right.” This is one of those proverbs that are rather a self-fulfilling prophecy than a rational statement of fact. No, not all customers are always right. In fact, some customers are usually disorganized, unfocused, distracted, etc. Behind every corporation or small business, there’s a very fallible human being who can’t be always right even if his (or her) life depended on it.

Translators could use some of the scientific method approach: look for the root cause, investigate, experiment, fail and fail again, examine all plausible causes for a particular result, eliminate the improbable and arrive at the truth. So what if a client says I have a rush translation due tomorrow, 3000 words from a contract or a list of parts for a blowout preventer? Whether you are a single contractor, a 10-staff translation agency or LionBridge, you have a choice. Learn to say no.

In our minds, we all sometimes entertain an ideal dialogue with a client, trying to elucidate the causes for a rush, delay, lack of proper deliverables, attempting to resolve conflicts and miscommunication. We all sometimes wish that our client were more understanding, had more time to talk on the phone, actually gave us the materials we requested to do our job instead of wasting our time. But these are ideal scenarios that play out only in our heads. We have no power or authority to go into a customer’s organization, talk to the befuddled managers on how to insert the translation process into their processes and workflows instead of leaving translation as an afterthought. We cannot change their behavior. But we do have the power to say no. Let me play a scenario for you.

If translation companies, from government contractors to the lowliest of the lowly and lonely single translator starting out as such had the courage, the presence of mind, the firmness of will, the determination to say No, I can’t do your rush translation, then clients may start to reassess their workflows. We can be more detailed in our answer: No, I can’t do your rush translation under the circumstances you describe. If we acted this way, maybe, just maybe clients will reflect and play a fairer game, because good writing, good translating cannot be rushed.

There are other sad considerations behind a rush translation, aside from a chaotic workflow on the client’s side. Does the client really care for the end user who will use the translation? If not, why pay for it? I recently faced the following situation: a lighting manufacturer wanted some bilingual instructions to be translated and laid out as soon as possible, almost urgently, because their Chinese partner was sending new fixtures sooner than expected and shipment to customers had to be accelerated. Even with suitable translations, a proper document layout cannot be just rushed, slapping images on pages as some artists does with scraps to make a photo collage. What was so urgent about inserting the rushed translation into the fixtures’ packaging? What if the instructions, properly translated and typeset, were given adequate time and then end users were directed to download those instructions from the manufacturer’s website instead? There wouldn’t be any need to rush a translation. If we compared the rush time to a regular lead time for translation delivery, we would be talking about a few days. What will a few days’ delay make against a company’s quarterly sales?

Software developers and makers rush products all the time in a highly competitive marketplace, trying to outdo each other with new features and reach the market before the other. But, why sell buggy and mistranslated (mislocalized) software in the first place, knowing that correcting those bugs and mistranslations cost added time and money to the company and to the customer? My 7 years in the software business have shown precisely that time and time again. Where’s the rational workflow, the proper product and project management in that?

The point here is that mismanagement and chaotic workflows don’t just affect translations and translators but products, services, time-to-market schemes and, ultimately, profits. Easy does it, the saying goes. Speed is not a virtue but an obstacle, like any other. Anything worth keeping, buying, investing in, admiring and valuing is truly worth waiting for. Don’t rush it.

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Filed under Customer workflow, Negotiations, Rush translations

A reputational story

Introduction

Companies are concerned about their image, their brand, their standing. It’s nothing new. Old problems with new words. What was described as affecting the reputation and the good name of a company is not adjectivized as reputational.

If a company enjoys a place of high esteem among its peers and in the community, domestically and internationally, then that good name becomes valuable and acquires a monetary value. It is then used as currency to extend its influence, increase its market share and cement its reputation.

Translators and translation agencies have depended on name dropping (“IBM is one of our customers”) and certifications (“Member of ASETRAD” or “ATA-certified translator”) to preestablish their status and foster trust. Testimonials started to appear in the late 90s on company websites as well as on individual translator’s webpages. The problem I always saw with those testimonials was their anonymized nature. Here’s a current example:

Straker translations testimonials

First names, or initials, with no company affiliation. Hm, does that approach foster trust? Some fabricated reviews at websites such as Amazon created a bit of an uproar a few years back, what we would call escandalete in Spanish or furore in British English (or Italian). Compare this with an exemplary use of testimonials below:

Advanced language translations testimonials

The company Advanced Language Translations is using testimonials the way I think they should be used: who said what about your company. The downside? Testimonials may have a short shelf life because project managers, localization managers, purchasing staff and others in similar positions come and go. The main advantage of a testimonial is its focus when it is properly written. Keen eyes may have also noticed that none of the testimonials refer to competitive pricing or low rates but to “reasonable cost” and “on budget.” As a translator myself, I would love to work on one of their projects!

Reputation and references

Speaking of working for a company as a translator, I recently had a telephone interview with a headhunting agency for an 8-week project involving technical writing and Spanish translation (two of my specialty activities). I was required to provide two professional references, as the best practice in these interviews go. I keep a list of at least six, so I provided two of them within minutes. I was promised to get a call back that afternoon.

The phone rang as anticipated and the interviewer thanked me for the references, but made some comments about one of them, saying that they couldn’t use it because my reference wouldn’t divulge what kind of projects I had taken part in. Then, I offered other references, which I emailed immediately. Coincidentally, the person who turned out not to be an adequate reference for this job called me to tell me about his experience. This is a personal friend and a long-time client, mind you. His reason for not giving particulars to the interviewer? He considered the details of his projects to be confidential and he left the impression that he was a competitor of the interviewer’s company.

Although he gave the interviewer very positive comments on my professionalism and dependability, his earnest and strict approach to giving detailes as requested by the interviewer backfired. I did not get the job. The moral of the story for me: be selective about which references to offer for a particular job. Did my reputation suffer? I think not, since the headhunting agency was working for the actual customer and is contractually bound to find the most adept candidate for the project, not for themselves.

Branding the profession

Translators and translation agencies earn and lose customers by word of mouth, directly and indirectly, all the time. This does not necessarily mean that a particular translator or agency is incompetent or a poor provider, but that their fees or rates are outside the budgetary boundaries of a customer, or that the customer used other economic or social criteria to choose a different vendor (“Our new translator is easier to work with”). Due to the globalizing nature of the Internet and its tools, market encroachment, client poaching and the downward pressure on services fees have given reputation a sometimes undesirable fluidity.

This impermanent state of affairs has taken some old hands by surprise: accustomed to decent pre-Internet translation rates, they complain and lament the way clients come and go looking for the most competitive rates. And this is happening regardless of the translation provider’s solid reputation. What a translation company or a translator has invested decades in developing, their good name and good professional standing no longer seems to hold the same reputational value. Seasoned translators in developed countries such as Great Britain, France and the United States have groaned in hushed whispers, then in loud complaints, about the influx of so-called cheap providers from developing countries, as if there is some conspiracy behind them to undercut their market share and, of course, their reputation. If a customer prefers a Spanish translator living in China over another living in Spain, what’s the point in cultivating your good name?

Among the answers given to this dilemma by translation associations and so-called language consultants, I have seen an increase in presentations, webinars, brochures and similar vehicles to help translators and similar providers with marketing their services better and, lately in the first years of the 21st century, with branding their services. As an example, the American Translators Association’s conferences have held an increasing number of marketing sessions. Based on a visual assessment of ATA’s past conferences, we have the following:

ATA sessions for indep contractors over 14 years

In the span of 14 years, we see a dramatic increase in sessions targeting independent contractors (individual translators and interpreters) to educate them on the use of sales, marketing, branding and business techniques and tools. This development shows two things in my mind: a) an increased preoccupation on better ways to sell translation services and b) the transformation of ATA conferences from an educational event to a marketing one.

Of course, I agree that translators should cultivate a good professional name in order to optimize their word-of-mouth approach to finding and retaining customers. In my experience, customers worth retaining prefer a reliable service, a personal touch and negotiation skills to find a reasonable price worth paying. In the field of professional reliability, I’ve been intrigued by other online tools that might be of service to a translator or translation company.

The branding aspect works best with companies than with individuals. A brand is usually tied to a logo, a slogan and a single word to convey a positive image. Take IBM’s Think, for example. An individual translator or interpreter (or similar professional) would do better in creating and maintaining a good name or good reputation, however, as the branding approach is kind of silly and oversized. A translator who is too concerned about her brand risks projecting an unfocused view, a pretentiously sized corporate image that isn’t really there, just as the “We” statements in individual websites.

Separate but successful business endeavors

During the summer of 2015, when work volume was low, I started to sell items on eBay: electronics, audio equipment and other second-hand items, such as vinyl records. Selling successfully on eBay is mostly a matter of personal image: how fast you ship and how accurate is your description of the item being offered for auction or sale; in short, what good your word of honor is. Consequently, good eBay sellers take very good care of their reputation by fostering a climate of trust that will engender good reviews and addressing any problems with the customer as they arise.

I started to think about the reputational and economic value of my eBay reviews when I read the following from a recent buyer:eBay positive review

This positive feedback surely feeds one’s ego, but there are many potential buyers who read these reviews in order to guide their purchasing decisions. Would then it be appropriate to route potential translation customers to my eBay feedback page? From a business standpoint, I don’t see why not.

Conclusion

For individual translators, professional and personal references are still being used, along with a CV or resumé and sometimes a cover letter, to assess a candidate for a job or project. Although websites and directories are being consulted to find competent translators, they are just a couple of several components in an effective business strategy to find and retain customers by word of mouth and good reputation. Branding and marketing listicles are gimmicks that only benefit the consultant who offers them. Not all social media are amenable to foster trust or a good name, but try them you must in order to find for yourself —not by others’ opinions— whether these are tools worth using. In my long experience as a translator, a good reputation is built every time a project is delivered to specs or beyond expectations, every time I exchange polite and on-point communications, every single time I telephone a customer who is frustrated or who needs to discuss a delicate aspect of a project. No fancy website and no extensive blog nor Facebook posting can do that.

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Filed under Brand awareness, Branding, Customer relationship, Customers, Marketing, Negotiations, Reputation, Selection of language providers, The business of translation

Judging a translator by his rate is like judging a book by his cover

You must have seen them by now: dozens of websites of translation companies and individual translators strive to drum up business by bringing the fees discussion front and center.

There’s nothing wrong about transparency. After all, you, the translation client, may not have the time to haggle over prices when your multilingual or bilingual project is on the clock. This move seems to be responsive to the time needs of customers: more time discussing the particulars of a project, less time discussing about prices and price comparisons. When I was doing project management for a New York-based translation agency, the policy we were given about this was as follows. I’m paraphrasing from memory:

If the client tells us that he found a better price elsewhere after we gave them a quote for the project, invite the client to produce the alternate quote, point by point, and we will match it.

This sounds more like a challenge, doesn’t it? A gentle nudge to say If you can spare the time to bring that quote to us, we’ll match it! and hoping that you’ll accept theirs instead.

A small and yet unscientific sample of translation companies offering their prices for all to see include the following:

icanlocalize.com offers rates upfront.

icanlocalize.com offers rates upfront.

Aussie firm Straker Translations offers fees.

Aussie firm Straker Translations offers fees.

1Translate.com' sampling of its fees

1Translate.com’ sampling of its fees

Naturally, you can draw your own conclusions. While reading the spiffy descriptions of these companies, I found this for 1Translate.com:

1translate was founded in 2001. Prior to that, translation was our hobby. We translated a few web sites and did some work for Google when they were just starting. We soon realized that there was a lot of demand for language translation services.

Quite telling, isn’t it?

Publishing rates in this fashion is, to me, a disservice to the customer. When cultivating a relationship with a customer, it shouldn’t be about shoving a menu of prices. The long-time customers that I have been cultivating and who still come for me for their Spanish information design services (including desktop publishing and voiceover services) usually send me an email to let me know they need me to do this or that job for them. Our mutual trust is such that there’s no discussion of prices, unless it’s something that has to be rushed or that entails a very peculiar treatment. Time is of the essence. The most important thing for these customers (among which I count Sesame Street and Trumbull Industries), the first thing they want to know is When can you do this for me? Fees, rates, etc. are a secondary consideration.

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Filed under Customer relationship, Negotiations, Rates

The Price Is Right

My readers will probably remember from a previous post that I am determined to slowly abandon the per-word pricing scheme for a more realistic model: the per-project fee. I have a few good reasons: it’s not just translation, and sometimes the project requires other services that add value to the job.

After a failed bid to secure a medium-sized project from an old customer of mine, I decided to take further initiatives, such as asking “What is your projected budget for this project?” instead of blithely giving a per-word fee and expect it to be accepted. These days, very few clients bother to email back asking for a lower fee because they go to a better (sometimes lower) bidder.

A few weeks ago, I found myself visiting my local Borders bookstore (I know, they’ll be gone; a pity). My curious and analytical mind usually takes me to magazines and books that have little, if anything, to do with translation or the translation business. That’s why I felt such a rush of feelings (surprise and pleasure) when I picked a copy of the July 2011 issue of HOW magazine. On page 42, I  found an excellent article penned by marketing mentor Ilise Benun titled “The Budget Game”.

In this feature, Ilise explains how to handle the discussion about project fees head on:

Broaching the subject of money as early in the process as possible puts you in the driver’s seat. It positions you as the professional you are, planting the seeds for the client to trust they are in good hands. It also allows you to weed out inappropriate candidates. Your goal in the first conversation is to determine whether you can provide what they need and, if so, whether it would be a profitable project for you.

Here are a few phrases to try:

  • “What budget have you allocated for this project?” The construction of this question presumes they have allocated a budget.
  • “What do you have in mind to spend?”
  • “What can you afford?”
    (Source:  Adapted from Ilse Benun’s The Creative Professional’s Guide to Money. Reprinted with permission from the author)

This is good, meaty advice for freelance translators like myself, and I plan on sharing it with other colleagues. While I won’t be adopting the aggressive model of lawyers, who charge by the half hour for phone consultations, I am applying some of these recommendations to current negotiations for projects, with good results. The customer needs to be persuaded that the services in addition to pure translation do add value to his project. At that point, the customer will find little difficulty in accepting the additional fees.

Fellow translator who is reading this posting: Keep in mind that there is good advice and kernels of truth everywhere, not just in translation-related magazines and books. Dear customer, please feel free to add your general comments to this post. If you have some questions or concerns after reading this post, you know where to find me.

For more excellent material by Ilise Benun, please click here.

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Filed under Customer relationship, Negotiations, Rates

Who tests the translators?

Translation tests can be a welcome sign of interest from a prospective client for a translator…or an annoyance that elicits loud groans among some of the more seasoned linguists. I recently took part on a group discussion on LinkedIn regarding a translator’s reaction to a client requesting a translation test. The topic is so hot and thorny in the translation community that the discussion collected more than 125 postings in its thread.

I am not going to engage in endless arguments about the pros and cons of translation testing. Having said that, I strongly believe that a business (the translation agency or LSP) has every right to vet the assets it hires to perform linguistic services, especially because ours is an unregulated profession (at least, in America).

What I am going to propose to you, gentle readers (sorry about pilfering your phrase, Miss Manners), is this: let’s face the issue in a productive manner. Let’s talk about standardizing the translation test, maybe get the American Translators Association involved in the discussion. Some might say ‘But we already request ATA certification.’ Yes, but the ATA certification is no proof of performance.

What I propose is bringing all interested parties under one roof to discuss the pros and cons of translation tests, the current situation (maybe run some surveys among LSPs?) and suggest ways to address the weak points. Translation agencies need a tool to vet the translators, translators need feedback but also need feedback from peers, not bilingual staff. Also, this feedback accompanying the translation test results needs to be fairly and professionally delivered.

I am in favor of an ethical translation test, conducted by translation companies or other organizations that hire translators. The review of the tests must be in the hands of peers having no affiliation with the translation service provider administering the test; otherwise, the tested translator might think –and with reason– that the results are tainted by bias.

In addition, a standardized, ethical translation test can complement the ATA certification and benefit both translation companies and translators: everybody knows the rules, plays by the rules and abide by evidence-based decisions. Such a test can also become as valuable as a QA standard in many spaces in the language services marketplace.

What are your thoughts on the subject? If you administer translation tests, is it a chore, a necessary evil, an effective tool to hire linguists? If you are a translator, do you have examples of fair tests? Please share with us.

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Filed under Negotiations, Standard translation test, Translation test, Translation testing

Give feedback to your vendors

I just received an email from a very powerful organization. We were in interviews towards an in-house position in this organization. As part of the interviewing process, I was sent proofreading and writing tests to assess my skills. To their credit, the tests were well designed. Some of the paragraphs contained errors on purpose to make detection difficult unless you spent time reading it twice or even 3 times. An excellent exercise.

But this organization failed miserably when it came to providing feedback. In their formal email, they indicated that I did not qualify for the position because a great deal of linguistic and grammar acumen are required for it. No details, no examples, just a blanket statement, which I found troubling and telling.

In the everyday discussions about QA that many translation bureaus and translation vendors have, feedback is key to secure good assets and nurture good relationships for the long haul.

On another occasion, many years ago, I applied for a position at a well-known multinational from Europe. The translation test was economics. After I sent in my test, I received a terse explanation that it hadn’t passed because I did not know some of the industry terms. Not a word about writing style, grammar or accuracy.

If you provide feedback to your translation vendor or to a candidate, be specific. Better yet, agree beforehand on what constitutes a major or unacceptable error and how many errors are allowed. Do not assume. Spanish is spoken and written in more than 20 countries, and some syntax and phrase variations are going to take place. Style is also an important component in assessing the quality of translation, but it is difficult to gauge because the customer’s reviewer may add too much subjectivity into it. Also, be open to discuss what standards your organization adheres to, whether corporate style is paramount, etc. Again, be specific because it is a way of showing respect to a professional linguist.

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Filed under Customer relationship, Grammar, Negotiations, Style, Syntax, Translation errors, Vocabulary