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Sad truth(s) about the translation industry

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Vova    1151

Our joint friend Simon @RussianTranslatorPro Akhrameev has recently published an article called "Sad truth about the translation industry”.

Here are some snippets I wanted to quote and discuss at the same time:

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Many translation agencies that emerge on the market have no idea about actual translation processes and apply methods that devalue a translator’s labor. They take an easy way out dumping the prices both for the clients to resist high competition between the agencies and for translators to increase marginal income. This leads to a situation where professional translators simply refuse to work for peanuts. That means when you hire a second-rate translation agency, you cannot be sure that the translation is done by professional translators. 

I agree for the most part. Translation agency business seems so easy to start: You buy cheap, sell high, and swim in money. Needless to say, it rarely ends up this way. Most of such agencies fail very soon, but in the process they manage to “convince” several customers that “translators are scam,” and several translators that “agencies are scam.”

On the other hand, they do fail, and I don’t really think we should “compete” with them. We just have to keep doing what we are good at, whether it’s translating, managing projects, or running a proper agency. While of course educating clients who can be educating and sieving out those that cannot — in the longer or shorter run, such clients will fail due to their attitudes, too, so they shouldn’t bother us much.

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There are many self-proclaimed translators who are ready to work for peanuts, but cannot offer anything but pitiful translations that often represent poorly edited machine translation.

That’s not really sad, to me. What is sad that in some localities mean income is so low that even good translators are willing to work for peanuts. Say, in remote Russian provinces $500/month can be considered a solid income. So if you are okay living there, you can translate 50,000 words a month (which is a sufficiently small wordcount to be able deliver a good translation) at $0.01/word and live happily. The same can be said if you are a retiree/student/someone who just does translation for fun.

The way out? I think, good translators earning $500/month will soon understand that they are in a great demand and will be able to increase their rates — first to $0.02, then to $0.04, and so on. This is the way I’ve gone all the way from $0.02 to $0.10/word (which will hopefully grow as I continue building my reputation).

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Unfortunately, many clients don’t know the target language and cannot check the quality of translations.

This, indeed, is one of the biggest idiosyncrasies of the translation business. If you order a taxi, you can easily say if it was bad once you get out of that car with your legs shaking and your whole life having passed before your eyes a few times during that wild ride. Few industries can “boast” this feature where the client cannot judge whether what he gets is worth the money.

My recipe here is to prove value, not quality. For instance, if I translate an email marketing campaign that was “translated” before, I will ask the customer to then make an A/B testing of my and previous translation. Usually the conversion rates for mine are times higher — which customer can easily see, even if they know nothing about “quality” or cannot even speak the target language.

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In this regard, it is really sad that many translation clients, being fooled by marketers, rely upon machine translation using it for important projects only to suffer from serious translation errors.

Personally, I think that the biggest plight here is not that they use machine translation post-editing, but that they have wrong expectations about it. PEMT is great when it is used with a clear purpose and a clear understanding of what it is by a translator. Too often, when I order PEMT from a “real” translator, I see that they are doing it wrong: Instead of ensuring a factually correct, if stylistically awkward, text, they spend precious minutes on rephrasing sentences to make them sound natural, while admitting unforgivable factual mistakes. Which is especially dangerous given that Neural Machine Translation is awesome at providing naturally sounding output that is, well, wrong.

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Consequently, the translation industry entailed the creation of overly complicated supply chains and networks, where direct clients stay far from the very core of the translation industry — translators.

IMHO, yes and no here. Sometimes it is impossible to manage a 50-million-word project unless you are as big as, say, Lionbridge. On the other hand, if Lionbridge joined Smartcat they would see that they don’t need a plethora of subcontractors and subsubcontractors to work with — they could easily work either directly with freelancers, or with a small number of single-language vendors who would be in turn working directly with freelancers. So I would say disintermediation is one of the trends in the translation industry, as in many others, and it will soon become less of a plague.


What about you guys? What do you think are the saddest truths of the translation industry?

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Simon Akhrameev    11

@Vova , first of all, thanks a lot for spending your time and reviewing my blog post. I really appreciate your efforts. Secondly, your comments are really thoughtful and well-weighed. I'm sure the community members will gladly read them and leave their own comments regarding the quotes you've selected.

I know, the situation can be a problem or an advantage depending on the perspective. Anyway, I've been thinking a lot about a new topic for my blog and decided that "opening an abscess" might be a good traffic magnet. Indeed, it became one of the most popular posts on my blog. I think that we shall speak about the problems within the industry and try to communicate them to the right audience to change the situation. 

Even if I fail to achieve any significant results, it still worth time spent for writing and sharing this post as at least 5K people, who read this post, have possibly changed their view of the translation market.

As for MT, I know that many translators and clients use and treat it the wrong way or do not understand the true purpose of MT and NMT engines. BTW, I'm going to write a post about MT and why translators should not be afraid of it. And I will definitely cover all these and some other issues and concerns in it.

 

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Vova    1151
2 minutes ago, RussianTranslatorPro said:

BTW, I'm going to write a post about MT and why translators should not be afraid of it.

You can mention that they can try it out in Smartcat ;) 

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Vova    1151
2 minutes ago, RussianTranslatorPro said:

Sure, why not. I saw that SC has introduced Yandex Translator in the updated version.

Indeed, and rumor has it it works great with CIS languages ;)

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Paul Denlinger    4

I believe that the biggest sad truth about the translation industry is that computerization has turned most translators into commodities whose performance is measured by their rate and output, and where quality is often not considered. In effect, translators have become gerbils running on their wheels ever harder, and client relationships have suffered. One thing I have noticed: many translators suffer from very low self-esteem, and are reluctant to speak out against a system which is stacked against them if they only work for translation agencies. In effect, they suffer from a variety of the "Stockholm syndrome"; they identify with a system which holds them as economic hostages.

Recently I read an article about why suicides were higher among young people now: while they connect with hundreds, even thousands, of people online, they do not develop any personal connections and feel lonely. I feel that is what has happened with the translation industry.

Many translators gravitated to the translation industry because they do not like marketing, and are happy to have someone else (the translation agencies) do it for them. However, this is dangerous thinking, and smart translators know that they should not put all their eggs in one basket. 

My language pair is Chinese to English translation. While there are a lot of English to Chinese translators who are native in Chinese; there are very few Chinese to English translators native in English, which is what I am. When working with some translation agencies, I have had to routinely deal with agency "proofreaders" who do not know Chinese, and can only check formatting! I have no problem with this if they are competent professionals with a good manner, but once in a while I run into someone who is a jerk.

The only solution to this problem, in my view, is to become much more active in going after and developing direct clients than just relying on business from translation agencies. I applaud what Simon Akhrameev (@RussianTranslatorPro) has been doing with his Facebook group Successful Freelance Translators for this reason.

Although I have not yet had any work from Smartcat, I think that it is an interesting idea. In particular, I want to find out if it creates a new ecosystem for translators where we can actually talk about translation and language issues, instead of just talking about the tools and having translators act as disposable gerbils for some agencies, which is where the translation industry is currently stuck at.

My personal experience is that the tools have been discussed too much, and real language translation issues are not enough. It would be great if that could change.

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Mark    4

I agree with Simon in that I have worked for a couple of agencies that went out of their way to make their clients believe that translation is _univocal_, i.e., that there is only one way to translate any given document from language A to language B. In other words, they want clients to get accustomed to receiving back translations that contain no doubts, options, or questions; if the translator indicates to the agency that what the client wrote is inherently ambiguous, then the agency staff will simply pick one of the options by chance and send it on to the client without letting him/her know that potential readers might well misunderstand what the client intended to convey. That is certainly the case with agencies that just started up to make money, but is less true for agencies that got their start dealing with languages (such as perhaps ABBYY).

I sometimes muse that the slogans of one or more of the agencies that I have worked with should be changed to something like...

PEOPLE WHO DON'T CARE
FOR TEXTS THAT DON'T MATTER

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Virginia Monti    307

Great article, @RussianTranslatorPro, sharp and eye-opening. Without any doubt, the discussion raised here reveals how much we need to talk about the reality of the translation industry, which, if you allow me, I prefer to call "knotty" instead of "sad", as this denomination allows us to consider the issue as a challenge, a call to action or, better, a call to cut the tangles loose.

13 hours ago, RussianTranslatorPro said:

I know, the situation can be a problem or an advantage depending on the perspective.

Indeed, and the good news is that in each of these sad truths we can, and must, see an opportunity for change.

13 hours ago, RussianTranslatorPro said:

I think that we shall speak about the problems within the industry and try to communicate them to the right audience to change the situation.

Precisely, this is one necessary and unavoidable first step. Awareness-raising, debate, and as @Vova says "educating", but not only clients, also ourselves as active professionals, as agents of change and as relationship enablers. We simply cannot afford to let others decide on our fates and on how much our time and efforts are worth.

8 hours ago, Paul Denlinger said:

Many translators gravitated to the translation industry because they do not like marketing, and are happy to have someone else (the translation agencies) do it for them.

The only solution to this problem, in my view, is to become much more active in going after and developing direct clients than just relying on business from translation agencies.

This has been a traditional approach and one with which many of us feel "safe". I agree with the fact that a fair amount of translators are insecure and suffer from low self-esteem. And this, for me, is probably one of the saddest truths. Every day, I come across highly creative and knowledgeable translators with the most acute minds and intense passion for what they do. Yet, it feels as if all that was wasted. Why do we fail to see our own value? 

Translators are, by definition, natural problem-solvers. We have the power/ability to make texts of every kind and difficulty speak a different language. We are language experts, we make communication possible. Then, why have we ended up thinking that we cannot be as much efficient in reaching clients directly, in making ourselves noted, and in being the managers of our own businesses and generators of our own work? 

13 hours ago, Vova said:

Sometimes it is impossible to manage a 50-million-word project unless you are as big as, say, Lionbridge. On the other hand, if Lionbridge joined Smartcat they would see that they don’t need a plethora of subcontractors and subsubcontractors to work with — they could easily work either directly with freelancers, or with a small number of single-language vendors who would be in turn working directly with freelancers.

Agreed. And this is a good example of how it is possible to strike a balance and allow the peaceful coexistence and healthy collaboration between parties, for the benefit of all and the detriment of none (read, "the translators").

13 hours ago, Vova said:

My recipe here is to prove value

13 hours ago, Vova said:

We just have to keep doing what we are good at

Well said. We don't necessarily need to "like" marketing or be the most extroverted, easy-going and charismatic guy in town. Truth is, translation wouldn't be possible without translators (MT discussion aside). That makes us an essential part of the process. We only need to shake it off a bit... fears, doubts... put things into perspective, a bit of initiative, keep doing what we're good at and then see things gradually falling into place. Or at least into a better place.

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Translation industry is passing through the new IT era where it is difficult to differentiate between professional translators and " google it followers "

when supply exceeds demand prices fall

till the market adjust itself ( Equilibrium ) even peanuts will be hard for a professional like me ti earn !!!!!!!!!! this is life 

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Una D.    27

Interesting discussion guys. I agree with @Virginia Monti that we should approach problems in our industry as challenges to be overcome. Whether that is using MT to our advantage, tackling new types of jobs and reaching out to clients for whom MT is not an option, or standing up for what we're worth and refusing to work for peanuts.

For many translators this last issue can be hard to overcome, especially when they're just launching their careers, but I really think it's better to invest more time in marketing your services, improving your skills, working part-time in another job and producing top-quality volunteer translations than accepting any job that comes along and finding yourself stuck at the bottom of the food chain for years.

The 'sad' thing for me is that many people are not good at accurately judging their own skills and their own worth. And this can go both ways. Either they are excellent linguists who are undercharging for their services because they feel insecure about their capabilities or business skills, or they are 'over-advertising' their services, for example claiming to be able to translate in multiple language combinations when even their cover letter proves otherwise.   

This is why working with proofreaders, mentors and just being open to advice in general from the community of translators online is so crucial. And of course, continuing to build and expand your skills, be they language or business skills. We've all got a lot to learn from each other! :-)

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