Category Archives: Rates

The inverse way of disrupting translation practice

I recall a sunny colleague calling me a Luddite on the platform some years ago. The reason, vaguely recollected now, was that I chose to criticize a technology. It might have been translators using iPads, I don’t know. I confess to feeling jaded after reading numerous headlines about this or that technology increasing a translator’s productivity or how we should embrace AI, MT or some other technoacronym to bring home the bacon.

I also remember a translation agency owner (the agency, Antler Translation Services; Peter Wheeler the speaker) speaking at a New York Circle of Translators meeting in 1991. He spoke about translators pecking at a typewriter and fearing the desktop computer. That statement made a profound impression on me because a) I was a recent graduate with a translation diploma and b) I didn’t yet have a computer. I was enthusiastic, feeling paradoxically both new and at home among these translators who were challenging each other to move forward. Adopt the PC! seemed to be Mr. Wheeler’s proposed mantra.

We’ve come a long way in these intervening decades. That gentle push to embrace more efficient technologies has long been replaced by a less considerate and forceful thrust to board the fast-moving treadmill of technomarvels: CAT tools, TEnT tools, terminology extraction utilities, notebooks, laptops, mobile phones, file converters, project management and invoicing applications, webinars. They all march to the thrilling and shrilling marketing tune of each brand. And speaking of brand, we are told to imagine and develop our “personal brand” and speed network, smile and email our way into the hearts of new clients.

Your mind is not a cog. Don’t act like one.

But serious minds demand facts to support this whirlwind of tech-enabled innovation, creativity and get-the-rates-you-deserve chorus. No matter, the oft-cited Bureau of Labor figures extolling the double-digit year-on-year growth figures for the translation and interpreting profession will see us through.

Happy to quote these numbers, translation associations boost their MLM-grade conference offerings with promises of “networking that works” and other slick slogans. After all, hundreds and even thousands of members can’t all be wrong, now, can they? Is this the age of technomagic to transport us to a new era for translators? Can we really improve our lot as professional translators and the product of our labors with the flick of a technological wand? Call me a Luddite but I propose an antidigital approach to translation as a profession because I don’t care so much about my projected image as much as what I write in the form of translations.

I work with a team of translators. We use SDL Trados 2015. Our workstations hold 65 GB of RAM. All of our tools and applications reside in an internal cloud. That’s right—our desktop computers don’t have a hard drive to speak of. We enjoy a highly collaborative relationship with a team of workflow managers who take care of the mechanics of importing and exporting files, handling vendors and making sure our translation memories, termbases and other resources are on the right portals, waiting for us.

There are some unsettling trends that I thought were just my imagination, when I was working as an independent translator: not knowing how to use dictionaries, overdependence on Google hits to determine language usage, assessing translation quality by terminology choices, questionable research methods to determine sense and meaning in an original text or paragraph, overuse of bilingual dictionaries. I recognized some of these trends in the workplace, and they’re worrisome to me. These habits work to the detriment of two translation-related activities: reading and writing.

Reading is cheap and exposes us to a variety of genres and media, from advertisements to novels to specialized magazines and journals. Writing is likewise cheap and it can be done with almost anything over almost anything. I prefer the old writing instruments: pen or pencil, and a blank or lined sheet of paper. Before the reader tells me that reading or writing have little to do with advances in translation, productive tools and networking at conferences to get more clients, or raise rates to the level we all think we deserve, ask yourself: when was the last time you read something out loud? When was the last time you wrote a paragraph, a whole sheet describing, narrating or explaining anything?

Alone with your pen and paper, faced with the hum of your thoughts, try to make up a story, or describe an imaginary village or animal. Try rescuing a beloved teenage memory: your first day of driving a car, riding a bicycle, or seeing a sad face while riding the bus or subway. Consider what a dear friend told you about her day and try to put that in writing, just for yourself. Your mind, your hand, your eyes, your remembrances need no batteries. You don’t need to plug anything. Your high-definition screen in the mind helps you connect the dots.

Years ago I embarked on a sort of lone crusade to work more slowly, to give my eyes a little more time to read the originals I was given to translate, to read over the freshly mindbaked sentences I wrote on my CAT tool, to reconsider merging “segments” so that the language would flow more idiomatically and more naturally in written form. That endeavor, which I playfully called Keep calm and translate slowly, cost me dearly: rush-driven clients stopped calling me, tight deadlines deserted me, but I kept enjoying working with a select few clients who trusted me and with whom I developed lasting business relationships. But market forces being what they are don’t favor such unusual approaches and I was forced to go to the corporate world, where I am surrounded by technology. At least I am given enough time to work at my own pace as long as I am efficient.

Although our translation memories, built by other translators with different reading and writing habits, govern the way I review translations, whenever I am given a translation, I flex my mind muscles and put my own habits to work. I am free to apply my own research, reading and writing methods, techniques—not technologies— that bring me closer to the reader. I still harbor the hope that there is at least one reader who cares about language, about how things are written, who expects to savor a sentence, parse a paragraph, sense the syntax cadence that is carefully assembled for her use and decision-making. Because, no matter what technology you choose to translate with, the warm, distilled sense of human communication, whether oral or written, will always endure and transcend your technotoys.


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Filed under Business of writing, Customer relationship, Lectura - Reading, Networking, Project Management, Quality in translation, Rates, Rates and fees for services, Redacción - Writing, Rush translations, TEnT tools, Terminology, The world of translation, Trados, Writing skills

“Lowest rates available and high quality”

An old Spanish say goes like this: “Dime con quién andas y te diré quién eres” (English: tell me who you are friends with and I’ll tell you who you are). It means that the people you choose to surround yourself with will determine your image, your public persona, your identity.

A similar saying in English would be Birds of a feather flock together. It’s only human to desire to be with whom we feel a certain affinity. It could also be said that the people whose company we choose to keep might determine our degree of success in life. Our parents saw to it that we picked the right friends, for example. As adults, we face pressure to be with the right crowd and so on.

Whether we are students or professionals, we want to seek the association of those who we see as equal to, or better than, ourselves. Thus, a recent college graduate aspiring to be an interpreter will seek the company of more seasoned interpreters; the translator who decided to set up shop as an agency will procure advice from established agency owners whose experience approaches hers. This natural cycle resembles the medieval model of master and apprentice or, in clunkier prose, of mentor and mentee.

Apprentices follow the narrative that best seems to match their goals. If a translator wants more clients, she will gravitate towards the masters who offer a promising marketing plan. If a translator wants clients who pay more for her services, she will find the current chatter about premium markets quite attractive. In the marketplace of ideas, the ones that sound more promising win the day. And why wouldn’t they? If I’m a medical translator who wants to work for Big Pharma companies, I will naturally feel attracted by the rhetoric of someone who has Big Pharma contacts. That I may gain access to those contacts is obviously another story.

Some of the promising ideas in this marketplace are high quality translations. I have a problem with the use of quality in the realm of translation because, contrary to what standards associations and language service gurus affirm, quality in translation is an oxymoron, it can’t be objectively measured no matter how many error-counting templates are being used. To be clear, quality can only be measured for goods or services that can be predictably and repeatedly manufactured or performed the same way every single time. Manufacturing safety valves, for example, requires such a precision that quality measures have to be taken. Applying automatic weld points by a robot on an automotive chassis has to be a highly controlled process to deliver the same product predictably and accurately. The following excerpt illustrates how a manual welding process, with its innacuracies and variations, compares to a robotic welding process:

A robotic welding process resulted in lower costs, more efficiency and consistency in the NASCAR industry.  Source: Lincoln Electric

A robotic welding process resulted in lower costs, more efficiency and consistency in the NASCAR industry. Source: Lincoln Electric

The previous discussion about NASCAR robot welding can be used to imagine how a translation process would fare under similar circumstances. The areas highlighted in yellow are mine. Please note key terms such as manual welding, variations in weld quality, inconsistent weld pattern, among others. Notice also the result of applying robotic welding: the elimination of variation and the improvement in weld accuracy. Translation providers married to the quality control model offer a similar guarantee.

Another aspect of quality control in this scenario is that it can be independently assessed. That’s why we tend to trust independent quality reviews of cars by organizations such as Consumer Reports because they are performed outside of the factory and outside of the marketing and sales pitch of the automaker. Carmakers use these independent assessments to prop up their advertising to sell more cars because the buying public sees those quality evaluations as authoritative and not part of the sales process.

Therefore, a translation agency or translator who claims to provide translations of such and such quality are expecting you to believe their hype and their sales spiel. They add testimonials with redacted clients’ names on their websites to add the patina of authoritativeness. If you let yourself be convinced by that rhetoric, that means you are maintaining a relative position on quality. In other words, to you, quality is subjective and part of the word of mouth.

Another fallacy in the translation quality discussion is budgeting for words, regardless of their multiplicity of meanings and different contexts. A customer may state that she understands that words have varying connotations and a legal document is not the same as a videogame script. However, for the translation quality metaphor to work —however inadequate is in reality— the customer has to see each word as a separate unit of a whole. In this view, words are assembled into strings of text, like so many pickle jars or oil cans are lined up in a factory, and translators are just assembly workers checking items for errors and discarding the words that don’t fit a set of parameters like spelling, punctuation or their proper place in the correct word order.

The lower rates become an issue secondary to this quality control problem. If you see words on a page like screws in a blister box or a pile of laser printer boxes, then it is easy to see why you would request the lowest price I can offer as a translator. But words are not products, items or fabricated things. They are living things created by thought.

Back to the old Spanish saying, I have long associated translators and agencies offering the lowest rates with poor-quality translations. So, I tend to dismiss translators offering low rates out of hand because I’ve conditioned myself to think that they must be providing low quality. I have to pry myself free from that assumption, however, because I really don’t know how good those translators are at what they do. I confess that I started this entry because I read the byline “Lowest rates available and high quality” on the profile of a translator working in Colombia. I realized I couldn’t judge her because I don’t know her particular circumstances beyond that phrase. I certainly don’t know the Colombian marketplace for translations and translators.

I do know the marketplace in the United States, and here translation providers who offer low rates do it because a) they want to increase their market share and b) they have embraced the assembly line quality control model and operate accordingly.

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Filed under Customers, Productivity, Quality in translation, Rates, Wordcount

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: offers rates upfront. offers rates upfront.

Aussie firm Straker Translations offers fees.

Aussie firm Straker Translations offers fees.' sampling of its fees’ sampling of its fees

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

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.


Filed under Customer relationship, Negotiations, Rates

Low rates: What are translators supposed to do?

Back in the early ’90s, U.S.-based translators were pretty busy. They had the Internet, the WWW, CompuServe, AOL, FTP, and access to the latest and greatest of software and hardware, not to mention CAT tools…while countries in the so-called developing world had older equipment, no Internet or WWW, and no CAT tools. We cornered the market when it came to Spanish translations (for example). Proximity to our clientele was very important. Even with email access, clients were still sending us floppies and CDs via FedEx or courier. We commanded good –not great– rates.

Then globalization happened. The Internet, email and the WWW started to break down borders and reach into remote home offices in the developing countries, where a low cost of living allowed translators to charge much less per word. I lost some clients, who could no longer afford 10 cents per word in 2001. Clients started to outsource projects with a rate 50-60% lower than what we translators residing in the States were accustomed to charge.

Translation job boards started to appear on the Web, such as Aquarius, TranslatorsCafe, and Proz. Then places like Odesk, SoloGig and Elance started to offer translation jobs, among other freelance offerings. Nowadays, many projects are being outsourced through these freelancer job boards. I recently came across a posting on Odesk:

We are in need of translators to handle high volumes of Spanish to English (and sometimes English to Spanish) translations for the indefinite future. We need translators willing to work with us at a lower rate due to the high volume, so please respond with rate per word. (Source: as viewed today).

I have heard this excuse before, lower rates offered in exchange for high volumes. There’s even a parallelism at play here: low/high, which targets our hearts, not our minds, and primes us for an emotional response…a desperate one perhaps?

I received a slightly different spiel yesterday in my email box, something that went on like this: “We are a well-known translation company based in Silicon Valley and we are offering 4.8 cents per word…”

What is a Spanish translator supposed to do with such unfair competition? First, we can react, gripe and complain about this unfair competition. Second, we can respond to such an email in a professional way but letting them know we find these rates unacceptable. Third, we can ignore it, not allowing it to push our buttons, and move on to capture the customers who are not hung up on rates per word.

This last suggestion is part of a larger recommendation that I have set out to follow myself: Do not use –nor react to– emotionally charged words, such as low, high, top-notch, etc. For this same reason, I have begun to reject the adjective high-quality in “high-quality translations”, because high cannot be measured objectively.

Perhaps it is time we adhered to another way of charging for language services, either per hour or per project. The per-word rate model is moribund and it should be the subject of a new conversation among all the market players.

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Filed under Customers, Rates

The language of business

The new facilities of my alma mater, Universidad Nacional de Córdoba’s Facultad de Lenguas, sit as part of the jigsaw puzzle that the whole campus reflects nowadays: school buildings that look like bunkers, spread in all directions like so many pebbles on a dusty playground. The 3-story building of my former language school is always buzzing with activity. Although Portuguese, German, French and Italian are part of the curriculum, English is by far the most popular for translation students.

Many of these English majors will graduate with a shiny diploma in translation studies into a harsh global marketplace that cares very little for diplomas. Still, diplomas and degrees confer an authority and an aura of respectability to its holders, but this newfound status does not negate the fact that they have to go on teaching English en masse at different private institutes, demoralized by what they see as predatory practices of the local translation agencies. Thus, the most venturesome will go on a join forces in pairs or trios to form “estudios de traducción” (translation bureaus) to offer language services. Alas, the last thing they know is business practices. Many don’t know how to market their services. Egos inflated by their recently acquired diploma will think nothing of working for some of the despised agencies and will try to fly solo in a market that is ruthless and ever unforgiving of costly mistakes.

One of these mistakes is ignorance of the business language. Concepts like return on investment, value-added services, and building customer relations are like Greek to many of these students and graduates. One reason is that their professors hardly mention them. These are professors well versed in the intricacies of language, linguistics, text analysis and dictionaries, but a love of language does not a successful businessman make.

I was fortunate. I attended a business high school and graduated with a degree in bookkeeping. We studied business letter writing in English and Spanish, and had typing classes for at least 2 years. Next time you talk to a translator, ask her how many words per minute she can type, and whether she can touch type.

However, I had to learn to market my services, write a resume that was geared to the business customers I was going after and network effectively. It took me years and I am still learning from my hits and misses. I recently revised and updated my résumé to highlight what I did for my previous customers and employers that added value to their organizations. And that’s the key for translators today: Are you a well-educated French, Arabic or Spanish translator with two university degrees and a 50-dictionary library at home? How do you translate your linguistic knowledge into a value that will improve my bottom line? How does good grammar and syntax help me close a deal? What difference does your expertise make for my industry?

I have to compete with thousands of Spanish translators of all stripes. If I want to build on my past achievements, my rates cannot be the defining factor but the value I add to your business. Bring it on!

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Filed under Customer relationship, Customers, Marketing, Rates

So you want a translation?

Maybe you are a casual visitor, a company CEO or a translation manager. You were visiting your Facebook page and found my ad. If you clicked, congratulations! Hopefully I will persuade you to try me out as your Spanish translator.

You see, translations have been reduced to mere word counts and competitive rates. Deadlines are the masters of the translation universe. As an example, I recently finished a 32,000-word health care project for an East Coast client. This was half of the whole project, which could have been awarded me in full were it not for a very tight deadline, which necessitated the asignment to be evenly split. Another translator and myself finished the job well before the deadline.

Why do you care about getting translations done? Language concerns? Cross-cultural exchange? Love of foreign languages? I am sure that yours were business-driven concerns, and bringing translations into your workflow was –and is– a way to increase sales and revenue. Not many modern-day translators concern themselves with things such as value-added translations, the business value of documentation and translating information into dollars that will bring growth to your organization.

I happen to be a different breed. You see, my corporate employment experience in four different software companies taught me that information translated into other languages better bring revenues up, reinforce customer loyalty and generate new business…or else it is not worth translating.

I invite you to contact me so that we can discuss your project: 440-409-9363 or spanisphere AT gmail dot com.

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Filed under Project Management, Rates, Tools, Trados, Translation, Wordcount

Is the word count a thing of the past?

Back in 1992, word count of a document in the target language used to be the standard practice to compute payment for the translator and/or editor. This informal standard changed in the late 90s –source language word count (English being the source language) became the new measurement of payment and timeline computing.

In the U.S.-based Spanish translation market, the surplus of translators and the outsourcing of assignments to linguists overseas have exerted a downward pressure on word rates to the point that word counts have become an expression of how unprofitable Spanish translations can be. Several of my clients have resorted to a project-based rate instead in order to survive with an ever thinner razor margin of profitability.

One of my associates, based in Los Angeles, has expressed that his customers can drop him like a hot potato over a 1 cent difference with other providers. A long-time customer based in northern Florida has been shipping assignments to Argentina and Uruguay-based translators at an average of 5-6 cents per word. This fact is on track with what many American translation bureaus are paying U.S.-based Spanish translators.

What are competent Spanish translators supposed to do? Is carving out a profitable niche in this profession still possible for us? There is not a single answer to this dilemma. Part of the solution for some is to increase sales to direct customers and rely less on translation bureaus. Another option, which I favor, is to become more productive via the efficient use of translation memory tools and other software utilities. Please keep in mind that I said efficient, as many translators and translation project managers are still in the basics training track of these tools.

Speaking of productivity, I’ll write more on this topic later on.


Filed under Project Management, Rates, Translation, Wordcount