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Rosetta Stone and Translation Rates

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Kelli Semolini  photoDanilo Nogueira photoThe conversation slowly and lazily drifted into the matter of rates. There was general agreement that we are underpaid. Different people said that Indian and Chinese agencies were spoiling the market, Latin-American agencies were no good and even some North-American and West-European agencies offered terrible rates far below what anybody would consider fair. There was general agreement on that, too.

All of us had spent a lot of time and money studying and wanted to recover our investments.
Then, Rosetta Stone, an Italian translator who happened to have a degree in economics, and for some unknown reason specialized in mechanics, threw a monkeywrench into the works by asking what would be considered fair rates. Most faces went blank. After an uneasy minute a Spanish translator complained that she had been offered USD0.02 per word and found that, unfair, ridiculous and insulting. Rosetta asked “well, very good, but what would be fair ?”

Someone said it would be our costs plus a fair margin to pay for our efforts. Rosetta raised another two embarrassing questions: (1) what our costs were and (2) what constituted a “fair margin.”

People began to feel uneasy. Everybody agreed that we had costs. Nobody was sure how much those costs amounted to. We had to buy our tools, of course, and many of us use more than one CAT tool these days. Those are called fixed costs. And agencies used the CAT tools to pay us less than they used to. Besides, all of us had spent a lot of time and money studying and wanted to recover our investments, something accountants call “amortizing pre-operating expenses.” And of course investments never ended: new dictionaries, conferences, courses, computers, gadgets, the list is endless. And we are not even counting taxes, utilities, location, office supplies.“And coffee,” added a pleasant-looking young person who also did Spanish.

“Yes,” Rosetta said, “has anybody quantified that?” No, nobody had. Worse, nobody knew how to. In other words, how much should you charge to each word you translate to amortize fixed costs and pre-operating expenses? Does that mean that people who have lower costs should charge less? And our costs—at least some of them—are probably falling: in pre-historic times one had to spend a small fortune to buy a computer and use it in translating; nowadays everybody has at least one powerful computer, which often doubles as an entertainment center. “Should we then lower our rates?” dared Rosetta. There was a chorus of angry “noes!”

Rosetta changed the tack: “I dare say translation is a labor-intensive activity with very low indirect and fixed costs, and that most of what we charge goes into our pockets.” “Anything wrong with that?” growled an overweight German translator. “No, of course not,” answered Rosetta sweetly. “But if we are to add a fair margin, we ought to know what a fair margin amounts to.” “In fact,” she continued, “this so-called fair margin is our wages.”

“Our pay, as you define it, Rosetta, should be enough to live decently without breaking our backs for endless hours in front of a computer screen.” A discussion ensued on how much one needed to “live a decent life.” Rosetta, always ready to ask the provoking question, enquired whether people who led a simple life should charge less than people who enjoyed more sophisticated ways.

Before anyone had the time to answer, a no-nonsense Russian translator cut in: “Look, this discussion is useless. Even if we could determine the exact and fair price for translation or any other thing, for that matter, we could never be sure anyone, seller or buyer, would agree to it. Prices are not, have never been and will never be determined by costs. Prices are determined by supply and demand. Problem is there are far too many translators. Everybody wants to be a translator these days. We ought to close the shop and admit only people who are really prepared to be professionals.“

“Aw, c’mon, not that, again,” commented Xavier, the Spanish translator who had begun five different college courses and completed none. “You want us to believe that old story that only people with a degree in translation studies can translate. You haven’t seen the things I have.”

Rosetta took the reins in hand again: “Even if we could determine in advance who is and who is not worthy of being called a translator, and create some kind of law saying that only accredited, certified or whatnotted translators would be allowed to translate, we would not be safe.” “Why?” asked a bearded and bespectacled Czech. “Because,” answered Rosetta, “we could not prevent those guys who are in from sharing a job with people who are out. It is easy to know who signs the translation, but it is impossible to know who actually did it.”

An elderly Arabic translator, who had kept his peace thus far, decided to intervene: “I can see nothing wrong in sharing a job with a deserving colleague. I have helped more than one person into the profession this way.” “You see,” said Rosetta “you may have and you may have chosen worthy people and you may have edited their work into perfect translations, but that practice defeats the whole idea of restricting the practice of translation to approved persons: in fact, you ran a one-man self-appointed private accreditation board yourself. And made a few bucks on top of it.”

“But Ibrahim touched on a very interesting point,” said the bearded Czech young man, “if a bit sideways. Newbies. Newbies will accept anything at any price, and we often lose work because some newbie will grab it for peanuts.”

Dmitri, the Russian, quickly answered while Rosetta was slowly enjoying another sip of her wine: “Very good, Bedrich, you were never a newbie and have never accepted a low-paying job in your life, have you? Let’s be realistic for a change.” “And if a newbie charged as much as we do, you would be whining about people still wet behind their ears making as much money as seasoned translators like us,” added Georg, the overweight German. “The problem”, contested an elderly pipe-smoking French translator, “is that nobody is interested in quality. All they want to know is price. Jobs go to the lowest bidder and that is that.”

Rosetta intervened again “Sorry, Pierre, I cannot agree. If it were true, we would be out of work a long time ago. You see, it is just like the wine you and I enjoy so much: some people demand Château Lafitte, but others are quite happy with Château Maroc or cannot afford anything better. And many of the guys who make Château Maroc today will be producing Château Lafitte tomorrow.”

Rosetta took a last sip at her wine. It was neither Château Lafitte nor Château Maroc, but a generous, honest mid-priced Burgundy. She felt like suggesting another bottle, but decided against it. It was getting late and she had a train to catch. Tomorrow would be another day and she had a big job to handle. As it often happens in those cases, it seems that the others had the same idea. They asked for the check, divided the bill among them, paid it and went their several ways. Next month, they would meet again, in the same small restaurant, order food and drink and the conversation would slowly and lazily drift into the matter of rates.

For that is the way life is.

Published - October 2013

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