Tag Archives: rates

“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:

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

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.

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Filed under Project Management, Rates, Translation, Wordcount