Thursday, 22 May 2014

Overwhelming Cheapness


You may already have faced some form of peer pressure to stop complaining about issues in the translation industry or pretend things are better — in general or for your specifically — than they really are. A number of colleagues, believing in the power of an individual, take it so far as to say that your rates and work satisfaction depend only on you.

Which is not true.

It certainly does not hold water in the real world. You can do a lot, especially if you have vision and energy and patience, but there are things you just can't do and things you just can't change. As a minimum, you can't actually wish physical objects into existence, as much as you can design them with your mind and craft them with your hands or direct others to make them, you can't make people act the way you want them to without a sufficient incentive, and you can't deny the laws of physics. You can fly, but planes are consistent with the laws of physics.

A popular meme, which goes back to a 19th century prayer by a Reformed theologian (the Serenity Prayer by Reinhold Niebuhr) says:

God, grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change,
The courage to change the things I can,
And wisdom to know the difference.

It has been repeated time after time by theologians, politicians and other people, and Niebuhr wasn't probably the first person to formulate the thought in some version, either.

Wisdom — or shall we just say: common sense — requires that we know the difference at least exists. Common sense requires we acknowledge that it does. We may not have the knowledge and skills to analyse the difference in many specific cases, but common sense requires that we don't deny the existence of some factors which are beyond our control.

Determinism? Defeatism? Rejection of individual responsibility? Not at all! But the Earth would be a queer place if everysixbillionbody had the power to alter world economy according to his or her will in a heartbeat. To be reshaped a second later by anysixbillionbody and then back to where it was before and then... You get my point, don't you.

'Your rates depend only on you,' is rubbish unless you qualify it, at which point it stops making sense or being attractive. 'Your rates depend only on you within a subset of circumstances that are entirely within your control.' And what circumstances are those, anyway, if any?

As attractive as it may sound to philosophical idealists, it just doesn't hold water.

Limits beyond your control exist.


Let me now go back to an article I discussed six days ago from a different perspective: The Translator Approach in Translation Studies – reflections based on a study of translators’ weblogs by Helle V. Dam of the Department of Business Communication @ Aarhus University. The author discovered three things:

[1] In the selection of respondents, every effort was made to ensure a sample of translators with a strong professional profile, thus presumably at the high end of the translatorstatus continuum. Notwithstanding, the results of the studies consistently indicate that even these translators have relatively low occupational status;
[2] the bloggers invariably stress that there is a large income disparity and that a translator’s earnings depend entirely on his or her skills, expertise and professionalism; (emphasis added — and let's note that we're talking about a professional researcher's analysis of what was said by our colleagues equipped with quite some understanding of economy and business — nonetheless, the 'entirely' claim is manifestly wrong);
[3] bloggers, who are simply a subset of generally recognizable translators, would typically position themselves in the higher-income group, or at least higher rates — this is similar to how established or well-known translators generally claim to make good money. Except, like the author noted in the beginning, even prominent translators have relatively little status.

I will not be mentioning specific people here, but if you follow the 'industry' for a while, you will eventually get a hang of the numbers. Sometimes you'll just see a raw number without commentary, and it will make you think and work out your own conclusions. For example, you could conclude that it takes a star translator to approach the fee range of a generic accountant or small-time lawyer.

Some time ago, I witnessed a discussion in which some relatively high-charging and recognizable translators were awed by a €200 hourly rate (~ £160/$270), commenting that at that kind of rate you supposedly needed to be a yes person (i.e. your response to client requests should be: 'yes, and?', which would make you look childish if you really were to say, so don't), be available around the clock, never put a client on your waiting list, and talk to CEOs rather than ordinary managers.

My first thought was: €200 is very low for someone who's even allowed in the boardroom.

Generic accountants charge ~$200 (£120/€150) and generic small-time lawyers ~$300 (£180/€220) per hour ($500 and more for big shots and even $1000 for the stars), as do clinical therapists in the US. In the UK, some figures include a slighly unbelievable ~£500 (~$850) for lawyers (there exist ~£20 ones but anyway), ~£250 (~$420/€300) for doctors, ~£750 (~$1250/€900) for realtors, ~£150 ($250/€185) for psychologists and personal trainers, ~£90 ($150/€110) for plumbers, electricians and hairdressers.

Those are rates billed per hour, not actual earnings taken home by those professionals, especially as salaried workers or anybody else with a boss. Different professions have different costs of getting in and actually practicing, so disposable income may be lower where rates are higher.

Still, while individual translators can outperform lawyers and doctors financially, it takes a star translator to get close to the pay grade of a generic practitioner in other fields, with comparable education and experience. Despite the 'doctor' in name, a J.D. or M.D. (or LL.B.) is essentially equivalent to an M.A. (although an LL.M. or M.B.A. or M.Phil. will be slightly higher as an advanced Master's degree). If you have a Ph.D. degree in translation, languages or your subject matter, you probably have more education than your lawyer, doctor or accountant. Some translation exams and even memberships in associations may be as difficult as a bar exam, if not more, possibly on par with qualifying medical exams as to difficulty. The rest is largely the perception of the economic value of your profession, degrees and other qualifications, i.e. a perception of how little you should earn just because your degree is in arts in general and philology or linguistics or translation in particular, or because you are a translation practitioner and not a medical or legal one.

Let's imagine you charge in the vicinity of £0.30/€0.40/$0.50 per word — the star rate, as even established and sought-after translators mostly stop in the high teens or twenties at best, even from direct clients. Your marketing quite possible costs a fortune, if not in money then in time. You proofread, edit and revise yourself approximately one million times, and your rates probably include proofreading or full revision by a colleague. Perhaps they even include some other people's fees, such subject-matter consultants and DTP specialists, and resources and stuff you need for research, such as subject-matter articles, official norms and other things you purchase online without charging your clients. Not to mention your subscriptions, CPD, membership fees, attendance fees and more. You must have had a ton of business and marketing training by then. And there's possible a lot of paperwork and other bureaucracy than at lower pay grades, which claims your time and saps your life force away. The texts are probably not that easy. If they are, there's still the style guide, corporate voice guidelines, obligatory reference material...

So how fast can you translate in such circumstances? Five hundred words an hour? Roughly, that'd be about £150/€200/$250 per hour as long as the editing and reviewing didn't slow you down below the 500 words per hour (which it often does, but sometimes there are surcharges for that).

And how much time do you put in that you don't get to charge for? Phones, lunches, forms, admin, tech matters, actually doing that CPD, attending subject-matter and client-industry conferences, networking and so on. Not only few of the foregoing are free to attend, they also cost your time.

At least CPD and some of the conferences and subscriptions help you develop in some areas you genuinely care for, but the rest means you're gaining knowledge and experience as a semi-amateur business-and-marketing wizard without a degree or much else in the way of a relevant qualification in the field — which, among other things, means junior, entry-level status.

Here's what you can read in an article on the website of Local Version, an agency which took it on itself to stop the tide somewhat, while still not charging or paying any spectacular money (emphasis added):

Professional translators earn 30% below average salaries in Western countries. 
(...) So that senior, busy, English to French translator will earn around €16,000 a year. This is 25-30% below average disposable salaries in France or Canada, in spite of the fact that good translators typically have at least one university degree and 8+ years of professional experience. Rates in other languages are often lower.

(By the way, it's a fact that prices are low, but demand is not decreasing. In fact, prices are falling even though demand is growing.)

Finally, typists take $0.05 per word and $25 per hour (possibly including some editing at that rate, but you don't hire a fully qualified editor to type). Six cents is what American agencies try to pay translators, sometimes less. I've been offered that for a translation from mediaeval Latin to English, some 500 words due by midnight, involving history, geography and international relations. (FYI, I had quoted $0.60, which wouldn't have produced an amazing per-hour rate given the amount of time it would have taken, and Polish agencies actually pay much better than that for even non-urgent Latin.)


I lack the training to conduct proper economic analysis, so this will largely be guesswork and intuition on the basis of personal experience and what I read about the 'industry', but there may be multiple causes:
  • Translation value perceived to be low.
  • Translator value perceived to be low.
  • Notably the translation/translator being denied credit for any return of investment enabled by the translation, said credit going entirely to people responsible for the business venture or the original text.
  • Psychology: freeconomics, popularity of free-riding, decreasing levels of intelligence and analytical/critical thinking ability, increasing levels of self-absorption, self-importance and entitlement. People expect freebies because by now everybody has figured out how easy it is to get them, which can be made even easier by feeling special. People are spoiled every day by reality shows and other media glorifying averageness, by social media turning everybody into a star by enabling image management tools, consumer legislation and information spoiling people and encouraging irresponsible and narcissistic attitudes, or by sellers and providers falling on their knees before buyers.
  • Psychology: the gaming streak. Every penny chipped off gives the taste of victory. People will lose their valuable work time or free time to argue about pennies and look for marginally cheaper offers. 
  • Psychology/economy: loss aversion. People will lose several hours of potential work time in order to avoid spending half an hour's worth of money. It feels like a loss to them — or lack being weak and falling victim of someone else's game — when they accept anything less than the cheapest or the best offer. Those feelings take precedence before rational spending decisions.
  • Psychology/economy/magic: buyers are spoiled by the dominant reverse-auction model, which globalization and widespread Internet access makes possible. They also think that out of the infinite ocean of people they have access to someone just simply has to accept their low offer. Unfortunately, they are not mistaken.
  • Non-executives not supposed to earn in leage with executives, except for select few professions, including lawyers and medical doctors in private practice but not normally including linguists.
  • 'Translator invisibility', the physical nature of typing, the role of a linguist as a mere communication channel.
  • Some sort of an impression that you should make more translating someone else's ideas than communicating your own.
I could probably come up with some more. Please understand that this is not an indictment or complaint but an attempt at identifying the causes of the symptoms we're seeing in order to enable us to do something about them.


Here's what I think we could do:

  • Raise the translator's profile. Not by claiming that we do 'more than translation' or are 'more than translators' because that will lower the profile of the profession while elevating individual professionals somewhat (and unreliably).
  • Remind people of just how much education and experience translators have. Compare to other professions, including specific examples such as lawyers and doctors (if you have a good idea, please consider donating it to your association so that it can reach a broader audience in the form of a brochure or infomercial). Expect people to compare and reflect on the results of the comparison.
  • Claim credit for the ROI generated by translation. Even if we don't come up with the ideas, we often adapt them, which is sometimes just as good as conceiving them anew. In any case, we are always at least a necessary link in the chain. I'm not saying we should milk that necessity, but neither do we need to accept $50 for a piece of text the client will make millions with. Remind the client of both immediate and long-term value the translation will bring or losses or costs it will avoid. Capitalize on guarantees (i.e. risk assumption) if you aren't disclaiming them for business clients.
  • Some taste of game and of victory can probably be generated for the client in a smart way and within ethical limits. Congratulating the client on having the wisdom and courage to choose the safer path is one such way. It does take courage to choose the safer path, just like with substance abuse.
  • The lure of freeconomics can be deflected by an appeal to responsibility, sustainability, stability, security and similar values, as well as reminding the client of how much it cost to get the source text from a law firm or ad agency.
  • People's loss aversion can be dealt with telling them or showing how much they stand to lose — preferably not in merely theoretical ways but some examples — by too aggressive cost-cutting. Encourage them to be responsible and invest in safety and image.
  • There are ways to inspire people to try and become special rather than thinking they already are. Dreaming about the future, not about the present. (Although perhaps concrete figures would be better, e.g. some rough figures from research and surveys, or success stories.)
  • Show not tell. It's understandable that — just like on a dating portal — clients won't fall for a name and photo and some generic information (age, city etc.). Even if you tell them something, that's just words, and your words at that. Build credibility with examples rather than words, and in using examples you build credibility anyway.
  • Testimonials, referrals and so on. Collect them and display them. Success stories and case studies are a slightly different thing, so I'm mentioning these separately.
  • Pass more exams than you need, and convert credits into degrees, just so you have a wall of credentials to make it harder to negotiate you down, and send a clearer message that you're probably good to people who don't know you yet.
  • Help them justify the spending before themselves, the boss, the spouse.
  • You are not lying if you feature your diplomas, experience and CPD more prominently. You aren't lying if you explain their benefit to the client.
  • Make clients chase you a bit. It doesn't take a marketing wizard to succeed at that. If you're as much as married, you probably know a little about giving the other person some space, not pursuing too aggressively, checking if he or she will call back or call first.
  • Cheap tip (and you owe me nothing for it): Professional photos help raise your profile way above their one-off cost. A professional shot doesn't have to be anything fancy, but one sees the difference between it and a 'selfie'.
  • Avoid a cheap look in other aspects. Make savings in areas which are less visible than anything which directly involves your image. For example, you don't need to have a logo or stationery at all, but if you do have some, they'd better be good.
  • On the contrary, convey a message through the quality of such external manifestations as your business cards, website design, stationery and paper you print on, or pretty hand writing, or the language you use, or meticulously crafted newsletter. This is not deception unless used deceptively. There is a difference between branding and pretending.

The following are duct-tape solutions because they help your situation without removing the problem of overwhelming cheapness of translation.
  • Rebrand as a consultant. It will often raise your profile or at least your income. I believe this is a duct-tape solution overall because translators have more concrete substance to them and more profile potential. Professions have their value. Doctors and lawyers don't play consultants, even though they technically are. Still, a consultancy-style approach can allow you to ditch per-word and per-page rates in favour of hourly, daily or even weekly rates or monthly packages, retainers etc., thus decommoditizing your work while potentially allowing you to make more or work more slowly and focus on quality more. Alternatively, you could quote and bill research time and editing time separately from words or even hours of translation.
  • Brand yourself a translator-cum-copywriter or translator-cum-somethingelsewriter. Another hack but not as bad as 'more than translation' since you rely on legitimate synergies here. If you have the stomach for it, take night classes towards a subject-matter degree, better still if you can pass a professional exam. You'll probably be able to charge more for the same work as before, having more credibility and less competition.
  • Diversify your income. It will give you something to fall back and turn down lowball inquiries, sort of like having a rich spouse. Teaching and writing raises your perceived status and credibility. Writing helps your search engine rankings, especially if you do it on the same domain where you park your website. Royalties are shabby, but books and webinars sell when you work on something else or sleep.
  • Outsource. Probably a logical step if you've been forced to learn a ton of business and marketing skills, which you don't have enough room to leverage meaningfully as a freelance professional. Still, that's obviously not translating, it's management and perhaps editing. And you know what it is when you buy for three cents and sell for forty.
  • PEMT. In some cases post-editing machine translation does make you more money than actually translating, and good MT may be better than some of the translators you have edited. MT is not inherently evil, it only competes with us for our job.
  • Take a touch-typing course. This looks gimmicky (more so if you use a blindfold or keyboard with blank keys), but even though thoughtful translation is much slower than just typing, reducing the extent to which your typing speed limits your translation speed is still legitimate. This does nothing for the prestige of translation (or even your own) but makes you more money. Just be quiet about how fast you can type, or it will be used against you when negotiating prices.
  • You can use speech recognition software if you can dictate in such a way that the quality of the resulting text is good enough even when you speak faster than you write. Again, it probably doesn't improve the perceived value of translation much (although it may, in removing the manual work of typing), and you probably don't want to go public about the speed gain.

You can achieve a lot if you commit your creativity and your hard work to the task. Never think otherwise. But just because you aren't achieving your dreams or aren't as well to do as some other people in your business doesn't mean you work less hard or are less smart. Your market matters, your circumstances matter. Not everything is in your control. This means you can't do everything you want, but it also means it isn't your fault when you can't.

Don't think that if you want something you can wish it into existence — that's what clients think when they want you to translate 10,000 words for tomorrow and give them a volume discount and still get the highest quality possible.

You don't have to be greedy or self-obsessed, just don't gimp yourself, don't gimp your colleagues, don't gimp your profession as a whole. Don't gimp your clients, either, by supplying them with poor-quality cheap and rushed translation if they could afford better. Rather, do some persuading and allow both of you to reach your potential more fully and more comfortably.

Don't fall victim of the Stockholm syndrome: Clients and agencies will — not always consciously — use a lot of negotiation tactics and tricks, sometimes even dirty tricks, to manipulate you into accepting low offers. A lot of them will depreciate the value of your work or your qualifications to soften you, just like hagglers in some cultures ruthlessly offer unjustified criticism of merchandise they want  to buy. Don't blame them harder than is warranted, but don't allow their say-so to define your own perception of your work and yourself, either. Once you're done citing your qualifications and objective economic data for reference, it's up to them to demonstrate that you should work for less, and why.

1 comment:

  1. Great post, Lukasz.

    Regarding the idea that rates depend only on us, ask the 2,000 interpreters in the UK, who are (still) choosing not to work for CAPITA before accepting the conditions of the Agreement with MoJ, what they think about that.

    A lot depends on us, and that is why many of us choose to devote time to sharing with more junior colleagues and with T&I students all the things we have learnt in our professional lives, but we cannot blindly deny reality.


If You're Overworked, Up Your Rates! (to Up Your Game)

One of the complaints we sometimes hear — and sometimes envy — on freelancers' social media is too much work and having to decline. Th...