The Business of Translating
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This article is based on a short talk
I gave on the opening session of the Seventh Brazilian
Translators Forum and First Brazilian International
Translators Forum, held at USP (Universidade
de São Paulo) in São Paulo, Brazil,
on the week of September 7th, 1998.
The inevitable introduction...
Translation is a service business, not an industry
or commerce. The basic difference between industry,
commerce and services lies in inventories.
Industrial establishments keep at least two
kinds of inventory: raw materials and finished
goods. Commercial establishments keep only finished
goods inventories. Service establishments, however,
keep no inventories.
An example will make this clear:
a paint factory will keep inventories of raw materials
(pigments, thinners, binding agents) and finished
goods (paint); a hardware store will keep only
inventories of finished goods (paint). A painter
(service provider) will keep neither. Painters
may keep inventories (brushes, for instance)
but those are not for sale. What a painter sells
is painting services, and services cannot
be stacked in shelves because they are intangible.
Now, every product, tangible
or intangible, can be compared with another product
based on three parameters: delivery time, quality
and price. Buying decisions are based on
tradeoffs among those three parameters: Product
A is very good, but too expensive. Product B is
good and reasonably priced, but unfortunately
they dont carry that brand at your local
store and you do not have the time to look for
it elsewhere. So you settle for Product C, which,
in your opinion, offers the best balance of the
three parameters at the time.
How does all that affect our
...time and tension...
Because we carry no inventories, clients who
call us for a translation know they will find
none. They also know they will find no Product
B that will somehow meet their needs. Finally,
they know that calling another translator will
not help much, because nobody will have their
translation ready for them.
So, they press for immediate
service. Many translators complain that jobs go
to the lowest bidder, but my experience is that
the majority goes to lowest bidder among those
who offer the fastest turnaround.
This creates a certain amount
of tension between client and translator. Tension
that is made worse by the fact that time devours
itself: if a client needs a translation within
72 hours, each minute spent finding a translator
reduces the time available to do the job. Once
I was asked to translate five long annual reports
within three days, a job I had to refuse. The
desperate client called every agency in town and
three of them called me - each of them
with a shorter turnaround time: because deadlines
are fixed, turnaround times must be flexible.
The problem seems to affect
translators more strongly than other professionals.
The other day I called my doctor for an appointment,
and the first date available was a month later.
Tell one of our clients it will have to wait a
week and it will probably hang up on you. If I
had an emergency, my doctor would tell me to look
for help in a hospital: they all have emergency
rooms these days. We cannot do that: as far as
our clients are concerned, we are the emergency
Faster means of communication
have made the situation even worse. When Brazilian
companies airmailed information to their parent
companies, they gave me a week to translate their
annual reports. Now they e-mail everything and
want same-day translations.
Why is pressure for short turnarounds so heavy?
Pressure on translators is heavier than it is
in other service businesses because the translator
is often one of the last links in a very complex
chain of events. For instance, we are the people
who translate the specs required to bid for a
government contract. We are the outsiders, called
at the end of the process, when delays have been
accumulating for months and everybody is on edge.
Thus being, we cannot even fight for time: there
isnt any time left to be fought for.
The people who prepare the specs
do their best to prepare a great set of
specs - but we must do what it takes to
meet the delivery deadline. Therein lies the difference.
To make things worse, the average
translation is getting bigger and bigger. A few
months ago, I was offered a 1.4-million-word job.
That is twice the size of the Bible. Turnaround
45 days, maximum. Of course, I declined.
Time pressures favor new entrants:
sometimes the only person who can take the job
is someone who actually never did a professional
translation before. Unfortunately, this also means
that someones opera prima often is
a rush job done without the benefit of appropriate
...questions of quality...
The constant pressure for fast service created
by the lack of inventories has a deplorable impact
on quality - we all know that. Often clients say
time matters more than quality. The guy who wanted
five reports in three days said he did not care:
he just wanted a heap of paper he could show a
government official in connection with a public
bid. Nobody would read it, said he. Well, perhaps.
But, no matter what the client says, someone would
have a look at the job sometime and say Look
at this mess! And we paid this guy a premium for
the garbage. So, I said no to the job and
goodbye to a very large fee. I do not regret it.
But the point I would like to
make is different. Because we have no inventories,
clients cannot possibly test our product for quality.
When they contact us, they find not a product,
but a potential. And potentials cannot
be tested for quality.
Clients can ask for samples
of past work or for tests - when there is time
for that, which is not often. In any case, many
translators refuse to do tests and, since most
of our work is confidential, we often cannot provide
samples. And, finally, tests and samples are so
easily faked that some clients do not even bother
Quality has to be evaluated
indirectly, based on what we have done for that
client or for someone he knows. This procedure
favors experienced translators and is thus hated
by new entrants, who would like to see clients
giving a newcomer a deserved break. I deeply sympathize
with newcomers and their plight, but let us remember
that this is exactly the method we use when, for
instance, we need a doctor: we prefer the experienced
doctor who helped aunt Jane out of her illness
to the young promising doctor just out of medical
...the problem of price...
A surprisingly large number of people claims
that for every product there is a fair price
based on its cost. In fact, prices result from
the play between supply and demand and bear no
relationship to costs. The difference between
price and cost is often called margin. If
your margin is high and your volume is also high,
you make a good profit. Otherwise, you dont.
No business bases its prices on costs. Everybody
- including us - charges as much as they can and
cuts costs to the absolute minimum in order to
maximize margins. If they cannot make a profit,
they will try some other business. That is the
way the law of supply and demand works.
All this may seem outrageous,
but it is borne out by the fact that translators,
especially new entrants, are always eager to know
how much to charge - not how much it
costs. In addition, we must keep in mind
that because translation is a labor-intensive
activity, most of our fees cover labor and, because
most of us are independent operators, labor means
what we pay ourselves. Now, what we pay ourselves
is not a cost; a cost is what we pay to the other
Prices are based on supply and
demand, but buying decisions are based on a comparison
between competing products, which, in turn, is
based on delivery times, quality and price considerations.
Because time is usually so pressing, it often
weighs more than quality in translation purchase
In addition, many buyers see
translation as a commodity - that is, as a standard
product, such as 23-carat gold, which should have
a standard price. The notion is reinforced by
the fact that most translators will quote fees
and delivery times on any job sight unseen. Many
translators will even quote prices on their home
pages: so much per word, no matter what. If we
treat translations as a commodity, we can hardly
condemn our clients for doing the same.
Small wonder clients base their
purchasing decisions on the hallowed method of
get three quotes and award contract to lowest
bidder. Of course, this should be construed
as lowest bidder among those offering short
turnarounds, for if you cannot handle the
job immediately, you are automatically excluded
from the process.
No use trying to convince a
client my translation offers better quality: all
translators claim that. That brings us back to
the no-inventory problem, the main thread underlying
this article: quality only comes into consideration
after the translation is received and examined.
If those who bargained for the lowest prices and
shortest turnaround times, complain at this point
that the job was very poorly done, it is too late.
...and the inevitable Internet.
You cannot really write an article on the business
of translation these days without mentioning the
Internet. How does the Big Net affect our business?
Basically, the Net has made
us omnipresent. Five years ago, a company in Guatemala
that wanted a translation from Hungarian into
Spanish might have a hard time finding a translator.
Now, it can access the Internet and find a translator
in a matter of minutes or hours, although not
necessarily a good one. In addition, this translator
may live in Argentina, if she prefers the pampas
to the puszta.
The other side of this coin
is that a translator can no longer hold sway over
a number of clients just because she (most translators
are female) is the only one in the area who can
cope a given language.
This particular coin seems to
have three sides, not two. For the omnipresence
allowed by the Internet will also end with all
dreams of restricting entry into the profession
to a small number of legally qualified
persons. This is known as closed shop
and, although many of its advocates are honest
people who see it as a form of consumer
protection, it is often just a ploy to increase
prices by restraining competition, very much like
the rules imposed by the medieval craft guilds.
Because translations can move so fast over the
Internet, if a closed shop environment is established
in any country, translators who have been excluded
could easily go on working through agencies in
some other country and continue living where they
have always lived.
Not that I believe closed shops
would benefit translators in any way, mind you,
but that is another long, long, story, which I
may approach in a future article.
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