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The Answer Translators Don’t Want to Know

Gresham's law at work in translation industry  More content — More bad translators — Higher competition, lower prices — Clients don't accept high rates from good translators — Good translators quit

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.

12 comments

  • One thing I don’t understand is how you can check the quality, or professionalism, of a particular translator. Most people look for a translator not because they are under time pressure, but just because they can’t translate themselves.

    • Dmitriy, thank you for reading our blog and commenting. As a translation services company, we are a translation buyer ourselves, and evaluating a translator’s quality is a matter of extreme importance to us as well. Our selection process includes three major steps: 1. Finding about a translator on the Internet. One good way to do this is by reading his or her blog. 2. Requesting and reviewing multiple samples of previous work for other clients. 3. Sending a project. If a translator meets our requirements, we include him or her in our pool and continue to evaluate each translation, calculate an average score, and compare this score to those of other translators. Best wishes, Roman

  • Natalia A. Ishevskaya says:

    Unfortunately, can’t help agreeing with the points above. Most clients are unable to tell good from bad. They still ask, when checking a translation from Russian into English, why there are fewer words in the latter, or why this or that word was left our. So here you are.
    Yours truly,
    N.I.

  • Hello Natalia,
    Thanks for reading our stuff and commenting 🙂
    I now think that as translation professionals we either need to adjust to this changing reality or move on and do something completely different. Prices are falling, and this is a fact. If a huge portion of our clients puts deadlines and price before quality, that’s what we need to give them—irregardless of how much we don’t like it. In other words, going with the flow is a better idea than trying to resist a market trend.
    Best regards,
    Roman
    https://twitter.com/veliortrans

  • Natalia A. Ishevskaya says:

    How right you are! When you can’t change reality, just head it.
    N.I.

  • Tamara Puchkova says:

    Wow! It is for the first time that I meet somebody concerning of translators. I am professional translator working from home. Great deal to discuss this matter!

    • Hello Tamara,
      Thank you for your comment, and it’s always a pleasure to e-meet a colleague!
      It is for the first time that I meet somebody concerning of translators
      How do you mean exactly? I’m translator myself (although I edit other people’s translations mostly), and, just as Luigi who did this wonderful interview, I think things like falling prices, lack of new talent, or client’s inability to distinguish between a good translation and a bad one concern all of us—the entire translation industry, individual translators and translation agencies alike. One thing that each of us can do to improve the situation is to educate our clients about the quality of services we provide.
      For example, one translator may charge $X per word without a revision by a second linguist while the other one charges $1.5X, but this rate does include revision. When the first translator says that he/she provides excellent quality equal to the level of quality of the second translator who charges $1.5X, he/she is often deceiving the client and doing a disservice to the entire industry because he/she leads the client to believe this is the right price for getting a top-quality translation.
      Personally, my policy is to be as open and honest about my rates as possible, so that my clients can always make an informed decision, compare with other options easily, and choose only those services that they need most and are prepared to pay for.
      Best regards,
      Roman

  • Tamara Puchkova says:

    Hello Roman,
    I am working as a translator for over 20 years already, and I know exactly all problems and advantages of this professional activity. I am really good in translation, and need no revision, but in order to have some stability of income I have registration at an agency. They quote rates including their own service. And part of translator is not big enough. So, there is a problem, which needs to be solved.
    Why I said “for the first time”? It is true, it is for the first time for me that somebody else cares of this problem. I am not alone any more! Thanks for your care, also thank you for giving a reply. Marketing of translation service is really very interesting and useful sphere.
    Best regards,
    Tamara

    • Tamara,
      First of all, I’m quite impressed with your twenty years of experience in translation. If you use any CAT tool, could you please send me your rates (info@velior.ru)? It would be an honor for us to get someone of your experience on our freelance translator team. But please note that proficiency with any CAT tool is a must. Thank you.
      Now, I’d like to add two things to your point about how well translators get paid by agencies. First, there are good and bad agencies. The good ones understand that they need translators like air and develop great relationships with them. They accept translators’ rates without putting any pricing pressure on them, they accommodate translators’ schedules, they settle invoices quickly, they provide development feedback, they respect them as business partners, and so on. As an agency, we try to do all these things ourselves, too. The bad ones do the opposite. I work only with the good ones, and I enjoy every minute of doing that because they’re such great clients. The bottom line is that as entrepreneurs, we decide who we work with. If we agree to low rates and other unfavorable conditions, this is our choice.
      Second, I don’t know the cost structure at the translation agency you’re working with, but I think I can show you our cost structure to give you an idea where the money goes. There might be a reason why they can’t pay you more after all. Here it is:
      Translation rate is 100%
      Translator – 40%
      Editor – 20%
      Account/project manager – 5-10%
      Marketing – 5-10%
      General business costs – 5% (thank God we, translators, pay extremely low income taxes in Russia)
      Agency margin – 10-15%
      Now you have an idea where the money goes. If it’s a good translator, he/she gets 40% of our translation rate. A great translator gets 50% or sometimes even more because his/her translation requires less revision. A less than good translator gets less than 40%.
      Hope this helps,
      Roman

  • Great post. It’s great to see people in translation companies concerned about translation, not just the business and the tools. I will follow your blog.

  • Hi Felix. Thanks so much for your comment. I’m glad my message resonates with you. And I appreciate that you’ll be following our blog, that’s always a joy.
    Best wishes,
    Roman

  • Natalia A. Ishevskaya says:

    Добрый день, коллеги! Мне кажется, что у рядового заказчика действительно нет объективных критериев оценки качества перевода, поскольку на родном языке он говорит как Эллочка Людоедка, а иностранных просто не знает. При этом сравнивать перевод, с другими товарами и услугами также невозможно: оценить качество салата, купленного в одном супермаркете, сравнив его с аналогичным блюдом из другого источника, ему помогает собственный желудок, а, нередко, и бессонная ночь, заставляя платить больше за более свежее и доброкачественное блюдо, а перевод?
    Всего вам хорошего,
    Наталья И.

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About the Author

Roman Mironov
Roman Mironov
CEO & Founder

As the founder of Velior, Roman has had the privilege of being able to turn his passion for languages into a business. He has over 15 years of experience in the translation industry. Roman has helped dozens of clients increase sales by making their products appealing for speakers of other languages.