When the Knights of Low-End Translation Defend the Indefensible


I recently found a group on LinkedIn intended to name and shame companies that pay unacceptable translation rates. The group’s name literally contains the words “unacceptable translation rates” and “shaming” in it, so one would think that the people who join the group are like-minded human beings who are unplugged (or trying to unplug) from the Matrix, and who believe translators deserve, at least, living wages. Well, one would be wrong.

The first thing I see is a thread denouncing a certain company that allegedly pays US$5 for 500 words, i.e. $0.01/word or (for anyone with a standard daily output of 2500-3000 words per day, that’s a grand total of $25 to $30 little peanuts for a hard day’s work). One would expect to read cries of outrage and well-founded criticism of such rates. Again, one would be wrong; for the bottom feeders and exploiters of the commodities market have their knights, several of whom fought to the death defending notions like:

If you’re located in a geographical area where conversion rates work in your favor, there is no reason not to work for such rates.

Where? Where I ask thee, oh shiny knight, is this magical land where one can afford a decent living with $25-$30 a day. According to one knight, that magical land over yonder is Portugal, a country with a gross domestic product per capita of US$21,733.07. I wonder where this knight learned math…

Ok, it’s low, but only if you respect the law and pay taxes.

Because, apparently, struggling economies don’t struggle enough without adding corruption and tax evasion to the equation.

Capitalism means anything goes.

This one made me weep for the great minds of yore. In my head, I could see everyone from Adam Smith to Ronald Coase rolling over in their graves and doing a triple face palm. (For believers in such fallacies, might I recommend Economics for Dummies? I’ll even pitch in to pay for the book myself.)

These were not their exact works, of course, just the gist of their endless and awfully written efforts to defend the indefensible. After about 80 of such comments and more or less effective rebuttals from other members, I tried to chime in to defend the specialty service segment (a.k.a. “premium market”) with these funny little things called numbers, arguments, and stats (you know 34 billion a year industry and growing = no need to be exploited); but alas, no one cared. By then, the conversation had already taken a turn for the worse in my view, ending in the only place where heated, unfounded discussions end: an intellectual graveyard. Thus, also ending my interest in the thread, but not in the topic altogether.

Being as the forest was, once again, missed for the trees. Here are some questions I think went unanswered:

– Translation is a US$ 34 billion a year market with a 12.17% average yearly GROWTH that is expected to hit US$ 37 billion in 2018. Given the amount of money pouring into translation, why should translators work for peanuts?

– In 2011, Mission Essential Personnel, which was rated #1 in the top 100 language companies, reported over US$ 725 million in revenue; while on the opposite end of that top 100, Intrawelt, reported US$ 4.18 million. Companies in the middle, like Global LT Inc., reported between US$ 12 and 14 million. Given these reported profits, why are translators working for these companies at low rates?

– If only US$ 4 billion of those US$34 billion are going into the top 50 LSPs and the rest is scattered among brokers and intermediaries (70% of which have 5 or less employees), why are translators more eager to work for these brokers and intermediaries than to bypass them and try to capture small-to-medium sized direct clients?

But, of course, answering them would mean using solid, founded and informed arguments, which these knights simply don’t seem to have.


18 thoughts on “When the Knights of Low-End Translation Defend the Indefensible

  1. Oh boy, I think I’ve missed that LinkedIn discussion but looks like I could have quite a few good laughs. Were people actually defending Fiver or something? I hate it when people use geography as an excuse to work for peanuts. People often say: “Well, by Russian, Polish, Ukrainian, Indian, Chinese, Argentinian, etc standards (just add a country with struggling economy) the rate of 0.03 USD (or any other ridiculous number) is acceptable.” Ok, maybe it’s acceptable in your swamp/parallel universe but why do you apply the same logic when approaching international clients?


    • You guessed it, Dmitry! Some of the arguments used to defend 0.01 cents were just downright hysterical. So, yes, you would have had some great laughs!

      Geography is no excuse for selling yourself short. It’s one thing to compete on price when you have less resources to education, tools, etc. (as is the case, for example, in some areas of Africa, an issue that is solved not by price but by leveling the playing field!); but claiming “conversion works in my favor, so I’ll work for $25 a day” is just ridiculous.


  2. Because it many areas of the industry, it’s a buyers market (has been for years) with no barriers to entry. Every year there is a crop of new people coming into the field with little or no experience and eager for work. Because there is little or no training in business practices for students, they are on their own when it comes to determining rates and policies. How often do we hear the question, “How much should I charge?” I suspect the more experienced folks who are working the bottom are either part timers earning pocket change or full timers pumping out enormous volumes of text (how, I don’t know). Either way, it puts constant pressure on rates–downward pressure, I might add. I doubt logic or mathematics is going to change that reality. (By the way, for the largest companies, translation per se represents only a fraction of the amount charged to clients for a “translation” project. DTP, project management, terminology, programming, and so on cumulatively add more to the bill.)

    As is often the case, the solution is to say “no,” to refuse to work for such rates, and to cultivate an entirely different market segment, one that is ready, willing, and able to pay adequate compensation for quality work.


  3. Thank you for sharing. I recently made a similar assumption about industry growth and was called out for it. I found some information on the US bureau of labor statistics. Where do you get the 12.17% annual growth statistic?


  4. Like many translators, myself and the two people I work with also function as an agency with about three in-house languages. We also manage multi-lingual projects for direct clients when they arise. We know what rate we pay as we have been paying it for years. We also know that some translators who have direct clients or work for agencies that pay better than us will turn us down, but in general if we make a call the rate we offer is accepted. My concern is that the low rates that are bandied about makes me feel like we should be paying less when we outsource. I know that is irrational as we have experimented with translators at lower rates than we pay and the result is either:

    1) The translator is not very good linguistically.
    2) The translator does not behave professionally (e.g. accepts work, then declines, is rude, pompous or otherwise difficult to work with).
    3) The translator is not available when we call next time.

    My concern when low rates are bandied about in these conversations is that larger agencies will look at them and think “If our competitors are paying this price, maybe we can get away with it”.

    There will always be young turks who come into the market at a lower rate. It is the same in any profession. They will always be easier work that can be done by them. However, experienced translators should pay to their strengths. Use social media and other channels (including the real world) to find good direct clients and maybe even offer them a multi-lingual service. Proactive efforts like http://marketingtipsfortranslators.com make good downtime listening. Get a website. Make a call.


    • In all honesty, I don’t think there’s anything irrational about your initial reaction to low prices. If price is the only variable, then the rational choice is to want to pay less and less. But like you said, the lower you go, the more problems arise: quality, cost of working with cheap translators (i.e. cost of fixing their work, cost of downtime, cost of opportunity, etc.), risk of losing your end-client, and other financial factors. All these other variables raise the cost of working with cheap translators, despite the price of their translation. When you look at the bigger picture, it’s just not worth it.

      There are also ethical arguments against paying such low prices, but I don’t want to get too philosophical here.

      I agree with the solutions you’re proposing for experienced translators. I like Ms. Whitty’s site very much. I also like Marta Stelmaszak’s business school for translators.


  5. Iveta Kopankina says:

    Dear Paula,
    thank you very much for the input. I come from a country, where dumping has led to only one company dominating the market, and that company uses slave labor. Therefore as of now I have to find work elsewhere. Strangely enough, there are still many unprofessional individuals, who agree to be paid low rates. I personally think that until the clients will start to realize that they need normal translations, not crap, nothing will change. Sometimes for those making profits it is simply convenient to pretend they are dumb and exploit those, who are masochistic or unprofessional and treat intellectual work as if it was a commodity.


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