Make a Translator Mad in Four Words

From a recent Facebook post. Having worked as a freelance translator, these responses spoke to my soul. Yes, a few of them are more than four words, but they’re all good – and they’re all real. I have seen many of these myself.

For what it’s worth, I no longer do this sort of work. The reasons will become obvious. I’ve included a bit of commentary here and there.

Cheap bastards

Agencies make money by charging high rates to clients and paying low rates to translators, reviewers, and proofreaders. They’re always jockeying for a better deal. That’s the nature of business, but when you’re an independent contractor, and your standard rate (calculated to earn you a living) is always being undercut, it’s frightfully annoying. The global access of the Internet means that professional, trained, educated translators must now compete with millions of people in India, China, and elsewhere who “speak a little English” and who are willing to work for 1¢ per word or less.

  • Best lowest rate required.
  • What’s your best rate?
  • Make your best rate.
  • Make me (a) good price.
  • Send your best rate.
  • We pay in visibility. (Visibility and $7.95 will get you a coffee at Starbucks.)
  • Our budget is limited. (So I’m supposed to subsidize your profit, right?)
  • Special rates apply to this client. (He’s paying us less, so we’re going to pay you less.)
  • A discount for volume. (We’re paying less because there’s a lot of work).
  • It’s the market rate. (Take it or leave it.)
  • 5¢ is not bad. (5¢ per word is shit.)
  • The others charge less. (Good, feel free to use them.)
  • Someone charges way less.
  • Our budget is only …
  • National Agreement Rate Please.
  • Could you proofread instead? (Read: Your rate is too high).

Cheaper bastards

Machine translation used to be cumbersome, expensive, and not very effective. Now it’s quick, easy, free, and only a bit more effective. While statistical translation models have made some exciting progress, people who don’t understand the intricacies of language assume that online translation is both free and reliable. Similarly, your neighbor may speak a bit of German, but don’t expect your translation to do well in the commercial arena. In the translation world, you still get what you pay for, and if you go cheap, you’re likely to get crap.

  •  Google Translate is cheaper.
  • We will Google translate.
  • I’ll do it myself.
  • I can do it myself.
  • Neighbour can do it.
  • Will it cost anything?
  • Is it for free?
  • That much? No way!
  • The font was wrong. (Followed by “Will you accept 50%?”)
  • I could do it, but…
  • Could do it myself, but…
  • You’re overpaid.

Cheapest bastards

It’s not uncommon for an unethical agency to get a job, break it up into 20 segments, offer the job to 20 translators and have them each do part of the work as a “test,” then award the bid to nobody.

  • Please do this test.
  • Please complete test assignment.
  • We require (a) free test.
  • Test translation without charge.
  • Download the test translation.
  • It’s for a tender. (We need your free translation to make the bid.)

Scheduling headaches

Contractors spend a lot of time juggling their resources against customer needs. Agencies don’t care.

  • We’d like it for tomorrow.
  • Have you begun yet?
  • Great, don’t proceed yet.
  • Client brought deadlines forward.
  • The client sent changes.
  • The client made changes.
  • 6000 words for tomorrow.
  • 20,000 words of light postediting.
  • We need it yesterday.
  • Can you deliver early?
  • Sorry, client cancelled assignment.
  • End client just cancelled.
  • Please send your invoice (then we’re going to have minor changes).
  • File should arrive midnight. (Deadline in 8:00 AM, of course.)
  • We have a glossary (10 minutes before deadline).
  • That didn’t need translating… (After you’ve spent a day and a half on “that.”)
  • Please use US English. (Halfway through a huge project meant to be in UK English!).
  • Please deliver tomorrow morning.
  • Translate in real time! (What does this even mean?)
  • Client isn’t in a hurry (Followed, 2 months later, by “Client needs it ASAP”).
  • The project is cancelled (in the morning of due date!).

Your skills are worthless!

Anyone can translate. It’s just typing in another language.

  • (It doesn’t need to be translated,) just type this in Portuguese
  • Everyone can do it!
  • So you teach English?
  • You’re a translator? Then why don’t you give English courses?
  • What is your work?
  • Please do the shopping.
  • Go get the kids.
  • Don’t think, just translate!
  • What’s your real job?
  • Do you also teach?
  • You have done nothing.

Technical Headaches

“You need to use our tools, yours are garbage.”

  • Trados is a must.
  • TRANSIT is a must.
  • Across is a must.
  • [Insert CAT tool name of choice] is a must.
  • Use our online TM-tool.
  • We only use Excel. (Translating in Excel is a nightmare, if you were wondering.)
  • Please translate into Excel.
  • Your file doesn’t open.

Not only that, in the world of translation, these CAT (Computer-assisted translation tools) are de rigeur. They can be useful in speeding up translation and improving terminological consistency, but agencies routinely take advantage of this and pay less than the full rate for things that the software has translated for you. This ignores the fact that the translator is responsible for the coherence of the entire job and must read and evaluate every bit and piece of the work for accuracy. This alone is the major reason I stepped out of the freelance translation world. My rate per target word is X¢, period. Pay it or go somewhere else. Translators who survive in the industry pretty much have to suck it up, but I wasn’t willing.

  • We don’t pay repetitions.
  • Pro-rated for fuzzy match.
  • 100% matches for free.
  • Discount for fuzzies applied.
  • Fractional Payment for Repetitions.

Payment Headaches

In the US, standard terms are 30 days net. Around the world, it’s not uncommon for translation agencies to expect translators to wait 60, 90, or even up to 180 days for payment of invoices (they usually claim that they’re waiting for their clients to pay them.) This is unethical in the extreme, but not an uncommon strategy in the business world.

  • We forgot your payment.
  • Did you send your invoice? (Yes, I did, 60 days ago.)
  • Net forty-five days.
  • The payment will delay.
  • Thanks for your patience. (After payment was delayed for a month).
  • Check’s in the mail. (Yes, people still use this one.)
  • Our accountant on vacation.

We know better than you.

Never mind your skills, the next person is always smarter.

  • Reviewer says you failed.
  • Is “the” necessary here?
  • Let me correct that.
  • I speak two languages.
  • (S)he knows better.
  • (S)he is a [language] teacher.
  • Proofreader does not agree. (Proofreaders know bupkis about translation.)
  • Changes made by proofreader.
  • My secretary edited it.
  • This translation is bad.
  • But Google translate says…

Creepy Clients

There is always one.

  • What are you wearing?

General Lies

“I have read and agree to the terms of service”

  • It’s a straightforward text.
  • It’s a piece of cake.
  • It’s short and easy.
  • It is not technical.
  • It’s not very technical.
  • Help me, it’s quick.
  • It only needs editing.
  • Just a quick question.

Translation Requirements, and Stupid Questions

Things that don’t fall into easily-defined categories.

  • Do you translate books?
  • Is Brexit affecting business?
  • Source text is JPG. (This means you can’t use your CAT tools for the job.)
  • It’s a PDF – handwritten.
  • Translate in sticky notes.
  • It’s mainly doctors’ handwriting.
  • Please check additional references.
  • (We know you’re busy but) we’re really shorthanded.
  • Here’s an XBench report.
  • It was machine translated.
  • Added to our database. (Don’t call us, we’ll call you.)
  • Read 50 pages of instructions (for a 100-word job)
  • Keep the original format.
  • You have to cook.
  • It’s a doctor’s prescription.
  • Don’t go into details.
  • Thanks for sharing.
  • Are you still translating?
  • Complete our six forms.
  • There’s no source text. (When proofreading a translation, you need to see the original text. If it’s not there, you’re just basically making wild guesses in the dark.)

About 30 years ago, an ad appeared on the bulletin board of the translation software company I was working at. It probably came from one of the trade publications, and showed a boss ripping an employee a new one. The text read, “Because you had your brother-in-law do the translation, our  ad says that our new camera exposes itself automatically!”

I’ve dealt with the risks of translation on the cheap before, and in this one thing has not changed: If you want good translations for your business, use a professional and pay them well – otherwise your product may just bite the wax tadpole.

The Old Wolf has spoken.

7 responses to “Make a Translator Mad in Four Words

  1. It’s fun to read, however it’s very clear that you have no idea what the (good) translation agency is suppose to do and what it really does. However the “good” is very important word, many agencies are just so bad, so so very bad!

    Actually I am a project manager in small agency and I couldn’t agree more with you on “If you want good translations for your business, use a professional and pay them well – otherwise your product may just bite the wax tadpole.” That’s what we say to the clients on daily bases.

    But it seems to me, that you feel, that agencies are actually full of bad people who only dream of ripping you off and selling your great product to a client who could actually buy it directly from you for so much more. That is ofcourse wrong idea.

    Now I will speak of our agency, and I know, we do the work properly as I think all agencies should, but mostly they don’t. Still, I think what you wrote came out very harsh and also illogical at some points.

    You don’t seem to see (or maybe you do and it just didn’t fit in the text) that the agency actually works for you in a way (as your assistant). They only is hearing the client’s (usually stupid) requests, tries to explain him how basic stuff in the life works, trying to bargain the best price with them (oh yes, we do), formats the documents for you into .doc (which DOESN’T mean automatic OCR in case you wonder), prepares term bases, translation memories, questions the client for details, … You will receive the document right under you nose in fully working CAT tool, where you translate so much faster than you would if you would translating it from PDF into the .doc with library full of dictionaries behind your back and searching them for every third word – that is not the deal nowadays, is it? You just cannot expect to be paid the “oldways” rate while using the “nowdays” tools. It would be great for you, you would get more money for less work (awesome!), I’m sure, but it’s not how it works, it must be quid pro quo. Also, you would not be paid the whole amount from the client directly, because the client would never hear of you as a translator unless you translate some obscure language where is like 20 translations in the World.

    Usual reasons why clients chose to use agency instead of translator are:

    1. They need someone with people skills, who will be nice to them, to talk to (many translators don’t have them, MANY)

    2. They don’t have the time to care about their translation project(s) and need someone to take care of them instead of them. Translator cannot take care of all translations, he can barely take care of one at the time, he doesn’t have the time. If he do that, he would become agency 

    3. They need to be sure, that if they won’t be satisfied with the translation, someone will give them discount or hear them out. Do you have any idea, how many translations come back as complaints? 90 % of them will never reach the translator, only if we will see that the errors have been to wide, too bad, too … If you get 50% discount, be sure that the client got it for free (but he will appreciate it and have the faith in us and next time order it again from us, therefore from you). You will only get the discount if we decide that you should, not because the client doesn’t like it. Could you imagine yourself doing that? Take the money from your own pocket and give it back to the client because he doesn’t agree with you? I’m sure you would fight with the client, the client would never order from you again, unsatisfied, unhappy, you lost work, the client lost time. We accept the risks and do everything we can to avoid them. We check your translations, correct your minor typos or errors before sending it to the client and we carry the risks. We send the wrong translation for product labels and they need to be reprinted? We must pay for it, not the translator who accidentally translated “chicken” as a “rabbit” (that is my experience).

    4. Client wants to be sure that you will pick a translator that is good at the topic. After cooperating with them for xy years, we know the translators we use very well; everyone is good at something and sucks at something else. You cannot just use one person for everything; you will end up with average translations, instead of good ones. However, you clearly need Translation memories and glossaries and reference materials, how do you want to keep track on the terminology? How can translation be good, if it has completely different terminology than the client usually use? I don’t get why you complain on that.

    There are many more reasons. I’m just saying, that it’s not very black and white, as you put it. But good agency (again, the word “good” is very important) should work as a filter and preparer from your translation. Picking up the right texts for you (you like modern art translations and are good at it? Sure, we will send you them all, when we receive an order from any of our clients. You don’t do technical texts? Ok, won’t be sending them to you). It should work as a filter from the translator to the client too. Sort of secretary of both. But secretaries also are paid, right? Either you will lose your time with management works, that are neither your thing and neither you have the time for them, or you will pay someone to do the things for you. It’s your choice, no one is holding a knife to your neck and saying “you need to accept this offer, you need to work for agencies”. Of course it is. But you will probably get more work (for probably a bit smaller rate) and it will be easier for you, if you work with (GOOD) agency. On the other hand, they will not ask you to translate on stickers and usually will not send you the documents in JPG and stuff like that. Not only because they will speak calmly to the client and explain him it’s bad idea, but if they are forced to do so, they will probably insert your translation to the sticky notes themselves after you are comfortably done with it in cat tool. That’s what I did last year anyway… I imagine bad agencies might ask you to do that.

    Also I know that many agencies do actually transfer their translations to random translators – like send the request to all, the cheapest and fastest will get the job. I feel that’s really bad “agencying”.

    Whoa, that was much longer than I was expecting it to be. But I felt I should write it down, I actually quite like my job and you made me feel like a villain and I don’t think I am. I think you are just paying too much attention to your own idea how it works and paying no attention to how it works really 🙂

    • I have approved this comment as a response from the “loyal opposition,” but with a couple of caveats:

      1) You protest a bit too much. I know exactly what a good agency should do, and I’m not demonizing the good ones. This list is a composite of responses from dozens of professional translators; the struggle is real.

      2) You said, “You just cannot expect to be paid the “oldways” rate while using the “nowdays” tools.” Yes, yes I can. My skills and my training have not diminished, my value as a linguistic artist has not changed because I now use an airbrush instead of a bristle brush. Anyone who tells me otherwise is ripping me off, and I won’t stand for it. That’s why I’d rather do something else.

      • Thank you for your answer. Just few words back:

        1. Well, I did protested a bit too much maybe, since it was clearly supose to be a fun text and it was. I laughed several times hardly because the same crap we get from our clients too, I can seriously understand the pain. What felt harsh was it was ment against the agencies (period), and we both know, that a big part of that was not comming from agencies, they were just regular clients with silly comments and requests.
        The same as you, we feel that our skills are taken for granted and (not only you, but actually also many other, but thankfully not all) translators just don’t try to see behing the curtain. I thought it might be a good idea to clear out that agency doesn’t necessary mean the Devil.

        2. Sure you can expect anything, but honestly it’s not your achivements you expect to be paid for full rate. If I (in this case) should represent the agency, it’s my achivements you expect to be paid for. I was there picking out the best text for you, I was there hours on the phone with client, I was there hours and hours preparing the texts for you so you don’t receive them in PDF while using sticky notes to translate, reading pages of instructions before making you clear 5 point guide etc. You could do that yourself, sure, but you would lose a lot of your valuable time not actually using your linguistic artist skills but doing bunch of other things you now, thanks to me, don’t need to do. You end up with very helpful assistant who will do anything to make sure, that your translation is done the easiest way possible, you can talk to me about the job and I will make sure to get your help if needed. I carry the risk if you fail. Yes, you can chose not to accept my help and rather search for your own clients, prepare you own files, studying the crap from clients, arguing with them, being with them on phone and all the other stuff; I’m sure you know it yourself very well.
        But when you do accept my help, I should get rewarded for the time and work I put in. That’s the idea of good agency. After all, we did everything we could to make your work easier and better and faster. After that, you just come and say “Well, geez, thanks, that’s very nice and all, but you know what – even thought I will now do the work for 3 hours instad of 2 days, I still expect you to pay me 2 days of work, because that’s how long it would take 20 years ago”. I don’t feel that’s right.
        And again, I know it’s not always the standard for each agency, some expect you to get paid less for basicly just resend the file, on the other hand, you also have the option to chose your business partners.

        Anyway, I have very high appreciation to translators and interpreteurs. I wouldn’t want to be one, because I think it must be very hard to make your living by translating as you have eather too much of free time or non at all, and usualy in the worst times possible.

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