For quite some time now, I’ve been wondering about why the amount of translation work keeps increasing while at the same time, translation rates keep dropping, which doesn’t seem to make sense if you think about it in terms of the fundamental market law—when demand increases, prices rise. But after reading Paul Sulzberger’s interview with star translator Luigi Muzii, I found one possible answer that resonated with me deeply. As demand for translation increases much faster than our industry can produce good translators, more bad translators enter the market. Because a typical translation buyer can’t distinguish between a good and a bad translator, they compare offerings almost exclusively by the price tag. As a result, they keep choosing, and thus encouraging, a low-price, bad translator. Consequently, it’s increasingly difficult for a good translator to get a high price they want and deserve since clients are getting used to much lower rates. The next thing you know, a good translator can no longer compete and switches jobs. Luigi argues that this process is an application of Gresham’s law: bad translators drive out the good ones. For a visual representation of this law at work, see the image next to this post.
Translation Rate is the Number One Consideration
One of Luigi’s main points is that the most important, and often the only, factor translation buyers consider is the price. This couldn’t be more true. Many clients tend to view translation as a commodity business where vendors offer bulk products like sugar or steel that differ in price only. That’s why people think it’s a great idea to request quotes through translator sites and then simply select the lowest quote. When clients call us, we have a hard time explaining why our translation rates are higher than those of our competitors. Referring to things like “high quality” and “revision by a second linguist” doesn’t make much sense to prospects who don’t think about translation in terms of quality. Translation is just a piece of text after all. And what’s most disturbing for me is that the problem isn’t about prospects being unable to pay a high price. They easily pay the same price to other professionals such as tutors or taxi cab drivers or for entertainment such as movies (this example is specific to Russia, but I think the broader point applies to the global industry). The problem is that low quotes from other vendors make prospects believe you’re actually trying to rip them off.
Translation Industry is Understaffed
As if Luigi had to prove his point, he mentions a CSA survey stating that LSPs complain about the lack of qualified language professionals. In fact, they haven’t been able to find enough qualified translators for six consecutive years! Now, we know why. With each year, there are less qualified translators to begin with since good translators are moving on to better places where professionalism and responsibility are appreciated. And then, most of those who are left don’t want to work at the rates LSPs offer, so LSPs end up paying low rates to bad translators, therefore encouraging less professional translators and driving out the good ones. Talk about a vicious circle.
Save on Anything But Marketing Materials
The case studies about clients who bought cheap translations and got burnt are so numerous they’re almost boring, but I just can’t help wrapping up this post with another recent story. Just a few days ago a global company that develops banking software approached us with a request to revise an English to Russian translation made by someone else. They had ordered this translation from a translation agency, but when their Russian office had got their hands on the translation, they had complained that although the translation had been correct, it had sounded literal and not like a Russian marketing text at all. But when the company had forwarded the complaint to the vendor, the vendor had replied they simply hadn’t had the skills to improve the translation as requested. That’s why this prospect approached us. I can’t think of a better illustration of this post’s message: a client who pays low rates usually gets bad translators, and even if a client is prepared to pay a high rate, finding the right translator is a challenge.
Whether you agree or disagree with the points above, please be my guest and make an addition to this post by leaving a comment below. You might also like another post about the falling translation rates.