Inherent Problems of the Translation Industry: Replacing a Translator? Couldn’t Be Easier

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“We will mark you as a backup translator.”Photo by onnola

This article was inspired by the above phrase, which we received from a vendor manager at a translation agency. We had worked on a project for this agency for more than six years before it made us a “backup” vendor in favor of someone else. But I wrote this article not to rant about how unfair this is. It’s just business after all, they need to keep their margin healthy, so no hard feelings. What I’m interested in is analyzing this tendency to believe that replacing a translator is so easy. In many other walks of life, people prefer to keep using the same vendors—those folks and companies that they like—and are willing to wait until their favorite vendor becomes available. But not in the translation industry.

Countless times, I have been a part of, or heard of, the following situation. An agency has a regular translator who’s unavailable for a project right now. Since waiting is not an option for the agency, it sends the project to someone else, who doesn’t have a clue about what’s going on in the project. As a result, the new vendor delivers a translation that is subpar or at least inconsistent with the previous translations.

Why this happens

It’s not uncommon for a translation agency to think of translation service as a commodity. A project manager often doesn’t understand a word of the target language and can’t tell the difference between two translations. All translators are just emails or buttons in a project management system. Does it really matter for a PM which button to press?

Agencies often agree with a client on a deadline before discussing it with an actual translator or a translation team. They estimate the time required to complete a project based on their perception of an average daily output, such as 2,000 words, without taking into account other considerations such as that a translator might be sick or that a combination of a translator + an editor needs more time than a translator working alone. Because the deadline is already set, the agency doesn’t want to go back to the client and renegotiate. Even if the client would willingly extend the deadline, the agency prefers to avoid the embarrassment of renegotiation or putting pressure on the client.

The same is true for the price. When the rate has been already set in stone, but a translator wants a slightly higher rate, an agency can be quite rigid. Instead of finding a win-win solution, it chooses the path of least resistance; that is, finding another translator who fits in the project budget.

Consequences

  1. With translation, context is everything. A new translator doesn’t have any idea of the general context of a project and makes decisions based on guessing, rather than on project-specific experience. Just as a new developer has hard time figuring out the source code of a program developed by someone else, a new translator has trouble interpreting the original meaning correctly. Result: lower quality.
  2. There might be a history of agreements with a client, instructions that a new translator isn’t aware of and will not be able to follow. Recently, we received a glossary from a client. The glossary was full of exchanges between the previous translator and the client, but no one could tell us which version of the translation was correct. Result: lower quality.
  3. What happens to quality if a regular translator is replaced by someone cheaper? Many believe they can get the same quality of translation at a lower price. While this is not completely out of the question, finding a good translator, who is also miraculously cheap, is almost like looking for a needle in a haystack. It is my experience that even a difference in the rate as little as one cent is noticeable. Result: lower quality.
  4. If as a translator, an agency sends me a clear message that I can be easily replaced whenever I ask for a deadline extension or a higher rate, would I want to go out of my way for this agency next time? Lack of commitment to building long-lasting relationships leads to non-existent relationships. Result: lower quality.
  5. Like a wife looking to improve a new home for her family and do everything her own way, a new translator often feels compelled to change existing translations for such reasons as, “I can say it better” or “I have never heard this phrase.” Result: inconsistency.

Solution

Whether you’re a translation buyer or a translator, be careful when you’re hoping to build a lasting relationship with a translation agency. It might not even matter how big a translation agency is. You’d expect that a big player is generally less picky, while a small agency is generally focused on long relationships. While this is true to some extent, I have seen quite a few exceptions. A PM at one of the top players in our industry keeps telling us how she doesn’t want to replace us with someone else even temporarily. And a couple of years ago, a smaller agency that we thought we had a great relationship with dropped us in a matter of seconds, without even saying good-bye.

Recommendation for translation buyers: Unless your deadline is tight, let your agency use the same translation team.

Recommendation for translators: Trying to build a relationship with an agency that doesn’t make an effort to accommodate your schedule, or doesn’t at least express regret about it, is likely a waste of time.

So what’s your experience in this area? What kind of impact does the ability to replace a vendor easily have on the translation industry?

This is a second article in the “Inherent Problems” series. You may also want to check out the first article, about the eternal “crisis” of translation deadlines.

7 comments

  • Chiara says:

    Dear Roman,
    thanks for your great analysis. When I talk with other professionals, such as freelance designers, programmer or copywriters, they say: well, if you’re a good translator, an agency might prefer to continue working with you instead of changing provider. But it’s wrong. The work of a web designer or a copywriter is visible to anyone; if they’re not good, it’s a problem, and if you find a good one you might want to keep him/her close. But as you said, often the Project Manager cannot judge the quality of a translation because it’s in a language he/she doesn’t understand. So quality become a secondary aspect. what’s the first one? you guess it, the price. that’s why the translation industry is a bit different from other kind of industries.
    My opinion? try to go for direct clients…

    • Hello Chiara,
      Thank you for your comparison, it is a great one.
      As to direct clients, I could not agree more. Working with direct clients not only creates a much healthier cleint mix, but also increases your satisfaction, since you can actually see how the results of your work are being used by the actual people who need them.
      Best regards,
      Roman

  • John Inguanez says:

    This is a very good article about our work. I think one has to establish a good relationship with the companies the translator works with. I have a number of these. They treat me well, ask about the deadline and whether it is sufficient and when I am a bit late for various reasons, they at least try to accomodate. When they cannot, I try to meet the deadline. You find companies like one in Malta. This offered me jobs at 0.02€ per word. It did not last long. Then the same company won a good job with a foreign company at 0.05€ per word. Could have been that I could have worked that job indirectly at 0.02€.

  • John Moran says:

    I’m just riffing on technology here so don’t confuse science fiction with fact. From a Single Language Vendor perspective, one of the problems large buyers say they have is that they know that quality problems are caused by an anonymous translator but single language vendors are reluctant to give their multi-language vendors the names of their freelance translators. From experience, they tell you they won’t contact them but that promise only lasts as long as the relationship.

    A solution might be to have translators leave a short voicemail with each delivery attached to the project -just “Thanks for the work” or “Mary had a little lamb”. This could be compared to a reference recording so that all the way up the supply chain it would be possible to identify who did a translation.

    I am not suggesting this will every happen as it would mean longer lead times as all stakeholders in the chain wait for the preferred translators to become available (from a pool) but it would make translators less plug-and-play.

  • Leanne Young says:

    I have been working as a translator for 8 years. I still work with one of the agencies I started with. I have discovered that you need to be incredibly thick-skinned to survive in this business. Whilst it is true that most PMs can’t judge the quality of your work there are those that believe they can and then destroy the good work you do by arrogantly changing as they see fit. I prefer to work with agencies that have in-house native language proofreaders or pay for proofreading (something that is becoming less and less frequent). Relationships may last in this industry but I wouldn’t count on it.

    • Thanks, Leanne.
      Your experience closely matches mine. “Thick-skinned” is just the right word to describe a translator, who wants to be competitive.
      Best regards,
      Roman

  • Ramon says:

    I have been working as a freelance translator for 36 years, including 7 years as full-time translator at an aerospace company. I am certainly not cheap, so I’m the kind of professional that translation companies drop quickly when they need to cut costs. Having said that, I must point out that when the customers of such companies demand high quality, these companies come back, specially because in some cases a bad translation can kill people – literally (I do a lot of work for aerospace companies).

    So for me, this is business as usual. Now, the difference is that for customers that want to maintain a steady relationship I am willing to go an extra mile, perhaps work over the weekend or even overnight in the event of a rush job. Those that feel no obligation to count on me for the day-to-day relationship can’t expect that treatment. I’ll get the job done, on time, on budget and on quality, but nothing more. You cannot expect more if you’re not willing to maintain a steady relationship.

    I incentivate such relationships by offering volume discounts based on the work sent to me in the past 12 months -they get lower prices and I get a steady flow of work. It works sometimes. I have one customer that for the past nine years has been sending me between 250-300 k-words/year. In other cases I am not that lucky, and collaboration ceases after the big project has finished.

    I know my prices are slightly above market. I don’t even respond when I get a demand for 0.02€/word, I feel that as an insult to my professionalism. But then, they are free to offer whatever they want and I am also free to say no. Can they get somebody that does the same quality work at a lower rate? Probably. Are they confident that the translation they supply might not result in somebody -or many- getting killed? Up to them to say. But in general, I agree with your conclusion – Result: lower quality.

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