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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
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.