To put this discussion in context, I felt compelled to write my post after reading GTS Blog's "Translation prices are dropping. How low will they get?" a couple of days ago.
With alarming regularity I come across articles, blog posts or forum discussions lamenting the fact that translation prices are ‘plummeting’. Advances in Machine Translation, dastardly translation agencies working to ever-narrowing margins and a handful of unscrupulous translators undercutting everyone else are usually cited as the perpetrators of this ‘problem’. Whenever I see these posts, I can’t help but recall a phrase an American friend kindly taught me a few years ago: “Would you like some cheese with that whine?”
Don’t get me wrong, I am not suggesting that low translation prices do not exist (a look at www.Proz.com confirms that there are indeed some pitiful ones out there). Nor do I propose that we should all be lowering our rates accordingly. However, I also don’t think that translation prices ‘going down’ is necessarily a problem. I think it could equally be intepreted as progress.
What many translators seem to forget is that the language service provider (LSP) market has to develop like any other. Take the way prices for consumer electronics go down, for example. I own a smartphone, an e-book reader and not one but two LED monitors. Five years ago, however, neither the market nor the technology were sufficiently developed to make these kinds of products generally affordable. But do you now see the electronics companies weeping into their cups of tea over falling prices? Of course not, they’re too busy thinking about how to continue to innovate, bring their next cutting-edge product to market, and stay ahead of the game. By doing so, they shape the market themselves and lower prices do not necessarily mean a lower income.
The LSP industry is no different. Failing to innovate as a translator would be akin to following the example of the music industry in digging in its heels against the online dissemination of music. The only outcome is to be left behind, whine about the unfairness of it all and ultimately go bust.
So what can we, as language service providers, do to make sure we shape our own market and make sure that falling prices do not affect our overall income?
- Prove your worth - If we truly believe our services are worth more than average, then the onus is on us to prove to our clients that this is indeed the case. We need to be the luxury car, the gourmet burger or the designer dress of the LSP industry. How do we do this? By creating a strong brand, by providing excellent customer service, by getting certified/accredited, etc.
- Embrace change - This includes technological developments like Machine Translation. Rather than fearfully eschewing these tools we need to figure out how to use them to our advantage, lest they become an excuse for our clients to pay us less than we think we’re worth.
- Innovate & diversify - If you call yourself a professional translator, is translation really the only service you’re capable of offering? Surely we all have more linguistic strings to our bow and can provide editing & proofreading, terminology management services, translation teaching, etc. And what about all that background cultural knowledge we have? It has ‘consultancy’ written all over it. We need to make the most of the skills we have, in much the same way as consumer electronics company Sharp has gone from making calculators to LCD TVs to solar panels all on the back of the same expertise in semiconductor technology.
- Be flexible - When the market/client/sector you've always relied on goes belly-up, change tack and find an alternative. Freelancers especially can take advantage of the fact they don’t need to work their way through multiple corporate strata to make changes to the way they operate.
- Keep calm and carry on - The language service provider market is not about to collapse. Many of my colleagues, including those without particularly rare language pairs or niche specialisations, continue to stick to their guns and charge high rates. They never seem short of work, because they know how to be the best at what they do and more. In the end, then, 'falling prices' don't seem like that much of an issue.
On 7 and 8 October this year you'll find me in the lovely city of Lisbon for the International Legal Translation Conference
, organised by TRADULÍNGUAS with the support of the Universidade Nova de Lisboa.
There will be a good mixture of sessions
on translation, terminology and resources within the legal field. There will also be a couple of talks on career development for translators (there's one entitled "Selling and Negotiating" that I will definitely be going to).
Yours truly will be giving a presentation on patent translation:Patent Translation for Beginners: an introduction to the legal framework, terminology and opportunities associated with patent rights Every year around 700,000 new patent applications are filed. As patents are territorial rights and many applications are filed in multiple countries, there is a wealth of work available for the patent translator. Although patent translation also requires scientific expertise, familiarity with the legal framework of patent rights is paramount to success in this area. This session will provide an introduction to this framework by explaining the structure of the patent application as a text as well as the filing, prosecution and litigation processes involved in obtaining patent rights. Particular attention will be paid to identifying opportunities for the translator at each stage in the process. Finally, we will also discuss some the challenges faced by patent translators. This session is not language-pair specific.
I attended the TRADULÍNGUAS International Technical Translation Conference last May, and found it both useful and immensely enjoyable. With just over 200 attendees, the conference was small enough to have a very friendly and casual atmosphere but large enough to meet all sorts of people and have some great discussions. These kinds of events are invaluable to me - I love catching up with colleagues and always leave full of ideas. Some of the sessions (including mine) are aimed at translators new to the field, but there are also sessions that will benefit seasoned veterans. And if you're looking for any more excuses to go, Lisbon is an absolute treat to visit!
In a past guise as an in-house translator, I was once asked to outsource a job that we couldn’t do ourselves. It provided a very interesting opportunity to see things from the 'Other Side' - that of the client.
The job in question involved the translation of a Chinese electronics patent into English, making it highly specialised. I didn’t know anyone personally who could do it nor did I have any recommendations, so I had to turn to the web and find an agency or independent translator. After getting quotes from two agencies and one freelancer, I ended up placing the job with the latter. Some of the reasons for this decision were personal; I can’t help but be a little biased towards freelancers. Nevertheless, during this outsourcing process I made some interesting discoveries that I think are worth sharing.
1. It was surprisingly difficult to know where to start finding someone
Googling “Chinese translator” or “Chinese to English” is probably the most obvious way to go about it, but it annoyed me. The first page of results shows only online and machine translation tools, with the first agency not appearing until the bottom of the second page. I did eventually pick two agencies from the results, but I realised that a google search was not the way to find a freelancer. Instead, I found someone through the Institute of Linguists’ Find-a-Linguist service, where one can search based on language pair, specialisation and location.
What struck me, however, is that this is quite worrying from a freelancer’s point of view. Freelancers can rarely afford the Search Engine Optimisation that would get them higher up on the Google search results, but how many corporate clients outside of the translation industry really know about the Find-a-Linguist service, Proz.com, etc.? Not so many, methinks, which strongly suggests that the onus is on freelancers to be incredibly inventive and proactive in marketing their services to direct clients.
2. Few freelancers have a website that is actually helpful
This really surprised me. Whenever I want to buy a product or service, the first thing I do is Google for a provider. Their site has to be nicely laid-out, easy to navigate and full of the information I need in order to get my custom. This all sounds very obvious, but in my search for a freelancer I came across sites that were full of lengthy text and theory on why it was important to use a properly qualified translator but which failed to tell me what was actually involved in commissioning a translation from them.
As a potential client who’d never commissioned a translation before, I wanted the practical stuff: what exactly they specialised in, what their modus operandi was, and how much they would charge me. Agencies are much better at explaining what the client can expect when they place a job. This is definitely something freelancers can learn from.
3. You never really know who you are getting with an agency
As I mentioned, the translation was highly specialised in that it required someone who was familiar with both electronics and patent legalese. I expected to have to pay a premium for this. However, one of the agencies gave me a quote that worked out to a dismally low rate of about £60 per 1000 words. It made me wonder what on earth would the translator end up with?! More importantly, what translator qualified and experienced enough to deal with a Chinese electronics patent would accept such a rate? I decided that I simply couldn’t trust the job to be done to a high enough standard for such a price, and refused their quote.
One thing that works to a freelancer’s advantage then, is that we can use the more personal nature of our business in combination with our demonstrable qualifications to prove to a client exactly how suitable we are for a job instead of asking them to take this on trust. In addition, daring to charge a premium rate for a premium service rather than always trying to undercut our rivals in the way many agencies do can also work in our favour.