3 Tricks for Dodging Translation Blacklists

greedy business person

Last week, I somehow found myself talking to someone who is thinking of applying to a translation agency that shows up on several local and international blacklists. Much to my dismay, this person’s response to my blacklist warning was a defiant question: “Who doesn’t show up on those?” As though being blacklisted were no big deal and even, to some extent, an inevitable part of the translation business.

But, is that really so? Are all agencies blacklisted or just the bottom feeders and late payers? It seems to me that a lot of businesses actually manage to successfully dodge blacklists. So the question is what their trick is. How do you outsource work, make a profit, and still avoid being publicly accused of greed and wrongdoing in the T&I community? The key is combining three strategies:

1) Paying Fair Rates

When translators discuss unfair rates online, their reasoning is often met with not-so-solid and sometimes biased or insufficiently founded quasi “capitalist” notions of business as usual or laissez-faire. I am a strong supporter of capitalism, but supporting a capitalist, free market economy in no way implies supporting exploitation or unfairness as necessary preconditions for the system to work. The only reason to exploit people is greed. There is nothing in economic theory to support exploitation. So how do you know when you’ve crossed the line? It’s not that hard. Are your translators making a living wage? If so, there may be room for improvement, but at least you’re probably not a greedy crow. If not, then lines are most likely being crossed and you might have some serious restructuring to do.

2) Paying on Time

You know that nasty little trick where you don’t pay your translator until the client pays you? Well, one of the many problems with that is its unlawfulness. Your contract with your translator is independent of your contract with your client. When you sign an agreement with a translator (X price for X words), you are legally binding yourself to meet your end of the deal if the translator meets his or her end as well. End of story. If your client didn’t pay you, that’s too bad. But it is not the translator’s problem! Of course there may be exceptions, but they are rare and not part of our standard practices.

3) Treating People with Respect

This should be a given; but it never ceases to amaze me how many low or late payers end up on blacklists for how they treated translators rather than for how little or late they pay. Even if you’re an extreme utilitarian who does not believe in kantian ethics or any notion of human beings as inherently deserving dignity and respect, you still catch more flies with honey. If you’re not going to treat people with respect simply because they are people, then at least treat them with respect to maximize your own utility. It is ultimately in your best interest to keep your translators happy.


Five Things You Should Never Say to Your Translator (and Five Polite Replies)

Finding the right translator can be tough, I get that. But it’s no different from finding the right doctor, dentist, lawyer, or any other professional service provider. Yet, when approaching a translator, clients will often say things they probably would never say to any other professional. This is the top five on my list of things no translator wants to hear, and the gist of my most polite replies.

don't say

I would translate it myself, but I simply don’t have the time.

I am sure you have excellent language skills and a great command of the target language; however, you are not a qualified translator and (every time I’ve heard this one) not a native speaker of the target language either. Doing it yourself can be a fun challenge on a personal level, but it can also mean business or professional suicide. A translator’s skills go far beyond command of the target language. Your translator helps you deal with cultural nuances and barriers. If you’ve picked your translator well, then he or she is probably also a field expert that can advise you on how to optimize your message and effectively communicate with your target audience. Do yourself a favor, hire a translator, even if you feel you could translate it yourself. Translation is a sound investment that will result in better business.

It doesn’t have to be perfect; I just need to get the gist of the text.

Respectable translators don’t have “quality levels.” We give each job 100% of our resources, capacity and dedication. When you pay us to translate something, it’s impossible for us to turn off our magic. Asking us to deliver “just the gist” is like asking your doctor to alleviate your headache, but not the rest of your flu symptoms. It simply cannot be done.

Why don’t you give bulk discounts?

Translation is not a commodity good. Translators cannot increase our profit margin by purchasing prime goods in bulk and increasing our daily output at lower costs. Translation is an intellectual service. More words mean more work. In addition, the longer the document, the more time your translator will allot to your text; therefore, the higher your translator’s opportunity cost for working for you. It is only fair to reflect that in our fees, the way it is reflected in all other specialty service fees. You wouldn’t ask your dentist for a bulk discount on fillings, would you? Or your lawyer for a bulk discount on multiple law suits?

Why are you asking me for royalties if I wrote the original content? And why should your name appear on my book?

You wrote the original content in the source language, but under most copyright laws (in most countries) translation constitutes derivative work. The derivative work is a separate, independent work. Therefore, authors of derivative work are entitled to the full protection of copyright, without prejudice to your rights as the original author. If the translated version sells well, chances are that had a little something to do with my translation. Therefore, it is only fair that I should be compensated appropriately and that my work be recognized accordingly.

Other translators quoted half your price, but I’d rather work with you if you’d just lower your fees.

Thank you for your interest in working with me. I know choosing a translator can be challenging and a bit overwhelming at times, and I’m glad that out of all the great professionals out there, you’ve taken an interest in me. However, specialized, high-quality service comes with a cost in any professional field. My fees are a reflection of my experience and background and the time and dedication I will devote to your document. You’ve already invested significant resources into your document because it’s important to your business. Getting it just as right in your target language merits the same level commitment, and that’s something my fees help guarantee.

Why Translators Should Think Like Philosophers


Last week’s debate did not end well; especially after the person who had made the original post that sparked the debate unilaterally decided that everyone else’s opinions and contributions were not worth preserving and just went ahead and deleted the entire oddly enriching thread. The debate and its outcome left a lot of people with a very bad taste in their mouths. But in the words of J.R.R. Tolkein (perhaps ripped off of Will Shakespeare a bit): “All that is gold does not glitter, not all those who wander are lost.”

A lot of good can still come out of that debate if we view it as a learning experience. But learning from the darkest or most displeasing events in everyday life requires a certain amount of detachment and abstraction; perhaps it requires, for a moment, that we turn into philosophers in the most Socratic of terms. Allow me to explain…

In an insightful passage of the Republic that has come to be known, among other names, as the Allegory of the Cave, Plato has Socrates tell us of a group of prisoners chained to the wall of a cave throughout their entire lives. These prisoners see shadows projected onto the wall of things passing in front of a fire behind them; these projected shadows are the closest view the prisoners have of reality. Now, let’s suppose, says Socrates, that one of these prisoners is freed and forced to look at the fire directly, “[…] it would hurt his eyes, and he would escape by turning away to the things which he was able to look at, and these he would believe to be clearer than what was being shown to him.” He continues, “suppose […] that someone should drag him […] by force, up the rough ascent, the steep way up, and never stop until he could drag him out into the light of the sun, would he not be distressed and furious at being dragged and when he came into the light, the brilliance [of the sun] would fill his eyes and he would not be able to see even one of the things he now called real?” A philosopher, says Socrates, is he who has been freed from the cave and after undergoing the painful process of ascent is now able to perceive reality for what it really is. Beautiful! Isn’t it? Now let’s turn back to translation and last week’s debate.

There are many different ways in which we can interpret last week’s events. I like this one: We witnessed a lot of young translators (all of whom have the potential to rise from the darkness of the commodities market) resisting the notion that their reality is nothing but mere projections on the wall and that their limited worldviews are chaining them down to the dominant discourse of two cent agencies. But what skills –other than the obvious language, translation, and business skills– does a translator need to ascend from the commodities pseudo reality? I can think of at least four.

1) Logical reasoning: Logical reasoning requires the ability to connect premises with their conclusions in a way that is, by convention, universally accepted as valid. In a post on why translators should think like scientists, I defended the idea that the sciences have a lot to teach us about translation; but at some point in human history, these scientists learned to think from philosophers and “thinking correctly” (not in terms of content but in terms of methodology) is key to making sound decisions that result in professional success. Scientists and philosophers (who not so long ago were one in the same) think deductively, abstractly, impersonally, and rationally. But so do sound business people, and logical reasoning results in powerful arguments that translate into effective sales strategies that appeal to high-end clients.

2) Emotional Intelligence: Emotional intelligence is one of those buzz words that have about as many interpretations as interpreters, but what I understand by emotional intelligence is the ability to “control” (note: by control I do no mean “repress”) emotions in certain settings. In other words, it’s the ability to put mind before heart, reason before feelings, or in the logic of a previous post, Spock before Kirk. There is nothing wrong with feeling things, but in a business setting one needs to learn to control those feelings and display the utmost seriousness, professionalism, and emotional maturity. A two cent agency may not mind having a hot headed translator who is not open to feedback or who takes things far too personally; but high-end clients will.

3) Openness and Confidence: The more you know, the greater your grasp of how much you still need to learn. “I know nothing except the fact of my ignorance,” said Socrates in the Apology. The beautiful thing about a trained mind is that it is humbled (and sometimes even pained) by the vastness of all the human knowledge it will not be able to acquire in its lifetime. But this humbleness of knowing your own limitations, coupled with confidence in what you do know and openness to learning is what can make you excel in a given field. An expert doesn’t just master a portion of the whole in a particular subject area; an expert knows when to hit the books, when to ask questions, when to remain open to learning and is confident enough to say, “I don’t know, but I know where to look for the answer.”

4) Dedication and Persistence: Professional success (regardless of how you personally chose to define “success”) is a lot like running a marathon. You take it step by step. Your lungs burn, your legs hurt, but your mind forces you to keep going. It takes training and persistence. You will bleed, you will sweat, and you will doubt yourself. But your mind takes control of your body and you just keep going. Running a marathon is as much a philosophical endeavor as it is a physical one. The same can be said about achieving our professional goals, especially if that involves acquiring the necessary skills, business know-how, and training for convincing high-end clients that we have what it takes.

When Vulcan Logic Meets Translation Ethics


Star Trek was one of my favorite shows when I was growing up. It was a little before my time, but that didn’t matter to me. The show aired in the US from 1966 to 1969, but they still played reruns on TV when I was little girl in the 1980s and I never missed an episode. At age six, if you asked me what I was going to be when I grew up, the answer would have been “a voyager on the USS Enterprise… and I’m going to marry Captain Kirk.” Kirk was my first innocent childhood infatuation; but my true hero was Spock.

I could never have rationally explained my connection to either character had it not been for later discovering philosophy; particularly moral philosophy and within that area of study, consequentialism and deontologism. In dangerously broad terms, both philosophical traditions strive to rationally explain any judgments on the rightness or wrongness of an action. From a consequentialist point of view, an action will be morally right if it produced a good outcome or consequence. Deontologism holds instead that an action is morally right in and of itself. Deontologism is most often associated, though not exclusively, to Kantian ethics. Consequentialism is most often associated, though also not exclusively, to Utilitarianism.

Spock encompasses utilitarian ethics in its purest of forms. His famous phrase, “the needs of the many outweigh the needs of the few” perfectly captures the ethical principles set forth by Jeremy Bentham and later developed by John Steward Mill in Utilitarianism (extrapolating, of course, Hume’s belief in the “natural” human interest in utility). Spock is an emotionless being of sophisticated taste who –when faced with tough choices– is able to rationally weigh the situation against “the greater good,” putting “the needs of the many” before his personal preferences. He is the guy that will let a few innocent people (perhaps even children) die in situation X, to save a bunch of other people in situation Y if there is no way to save both.

Kirk on the other hand is more heart than brains. There are no super smart Kirk quotes because Kirk is depicted as essentially human: flawed, emotional, slave to life’s pleasures and human desires, but ultimately good at heart. Kirk is the guy who will try to save both the innocent people in situation X AND the one’s stranded in situation Y, even if that means risking his life. When asked why risk everything to save both, Kirk would have resorted to a simple explanation that roughly encapsulates Kantian ethics, “because they are people,” recognizing that there is something inherently good that is worth preserving in humanity itself. Kirk is a deontologist.

Together, Kirk and Spock made a great a team and embodied the best of two traditions. The tension between Kirk and Spock, heart and mind, was the tension between consequentialism and deontology; and in every episode both turned out to be right to some extent. In the Star Trek world, ethical dilemmas could be overcome when utility found its limit in recognizing certain inherently good principles that could not be overturned by the needs or desires of the many, no matter how much that increased overall “happiness.” The ends can justify the means if and only if the means never lose sight of certain basic principles: respect for human autonomy, dignity, and integrity.

In translation, we find a lot of consequentialist reasoning, especially in the purest business side of the translation world (and particularly when resorting to the principles of capitalism to justify “business as usual”); and there is nothing wrong with that per se. Consequentialism has proven over and over again to be a valid and valuable worldview, provided we recognize its limitations.

In practical terms what this means is that there is nothing wrong with increasing your profit margin from outsourcing translation work, provided you are not exploiting or taking advantage of other people to do so. There is nothing wrong with employing effective sales techniques and strategies, provided you are delivering what you promised and not crippling others in the process. There is nothing wrong with conducting yourself as a business person without caring much for the philosophical or romantic side of translation, provided you are not harming others or undermining the profession in any way. This rationale can be extrapolated to any business aspect of translation. There is nothing wrong with being Spock, provided that when making important decisions, you also listen to Kirk a little bit.

At a time when we seem divided between those who advocate for translation as a cold hearted business and those who advocate for translation as a somewhat romanticized labor of love, between those who speak of sales and those who speak of craft, and those who see the future of translators like word factories and those who reminisce of the days of St. Jerome, perhaps we can learn a thing or two from Spock and Kirk about finding the middle ground.

Collaborative Competitiveness: Empowering Freelancer Translators


In “A Pervert’s Guide to Cinema,” a thought provoking two and half-hour documentary, Slavoj Zizek (Slovenian philosopher, psychoanalyst, and senior researcher at the Institute for Sociology and Philosophy of the University of Ljubljana) provocatively claims that, “In order to understand today’s world, we need cinema, literally. It’s only in cinema that we get that crucial dimension which we are not ready to confront in our reality. If you are looking for what is in reality more real that [sic.] reality itself, look into the cinematic fiction.” If my Matrix series and Pirate post prove anything, it’s that – despite Aristotle’s warning – this is one thought I not only entertain, but also happily accept.

In the documentary, Mr. Zizek analyzes several movies, one of which is Charlie Chaplin’s 1940 film the Great Dictator. Of course, Mr. Zizek’s analysis is philosophical and psychoanalytical –arguably even political; but as I was watching the documentary it occurred to me that the film also has something to say about translation.

Less than a minute into his touching speech at the end of the movie, Chaplin claims that it’s in our nature, as human beings, to want to help one another, to live by each other’s happiness, not each other’s misery, and that our world is rich and can provide for everyone. As Chaplin reflects on greed and hate, the role of machines and technology, he comes to the realization that his voice is reaching the world; but those who cheer him on as a leader of peace and love are the same people that cheered Adenoid Hynkle on as he led “Tomainia” into hate (you need to see the film to get that).

The parallels with the current world of translation are uncanny. We face wealth and greed on a daily basis when negotiating translation agreements, we struggle against unethical uses of machines that were initially created to help us, and some translators even face exploitation, while others strive to defend and justify the exploiters. But what really hit home with me in Chaplin’s film is the moment when you realize Hynkle is nothing without the mass, yet the mass seems utterly unaware of its power. It’s kind of like that famous image of the panicking fishes: the power really is in the numbers.

What’s also interesting in the film is how the mass is willing to follow Hynkle both into evil and into peace. What changes at the end of the film is simply the dominant paradigm.


Enter translation. I don’t know how many translators are out there, but I do know we are somewhere in the hundreds of thousands. Proz claims on its site that it has over 300,000 members in 190 countries; the ATA has about 10,000 members in 90 countries (not sure if these are the latest numbers though); and IAPTI has about 40,000 followers on Facebook alone (I don’t know how many actual members they have). There are a lot of us and there is power in numbers. But because we view each other as competitors, we are unable to channel our collective strength.

Meanwhile, in a post on why translators should think like scientists, I quoted Alice Gast, President of Imperial College London and internationally renowned scholar and researcher, on the importance of collaborative competitiveness. I gave an example of how by joining forces with a “competitor,” we can go after direct clients who may need more than a freelancer, but not necessarily an agency or broker. The idea behind this is simple: collaborative competitiveness consists of freelancers joining forces on specific projects or marketing to specific clients and pooling their resources together to eliminate the middleman. With all the money going into translation each year, there really is enough out there to provide for everyone. What freelance translators need is to work around current practices that foster asymmetry in access to clients and contractual terms. Collaborative competitiveness may be the key to changing the dominant paradigm and empowering the masses to eliminate the Hynkles of the translation world.

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.

Why Translators Should Think Like Scientists

científico 001

Once upon a time, I imagined a translation business. It would be boutique, manageable, and specialized, with an interesting clientele, a friendly in-house staff, and, more importantly, it would be pretty. The office would be colorful and we’d always have fresh flowers and natural sunlight. There would be lots of room and opportunity for creativity. My staff and I would never get caught up in boring assignments and our ideas would be able to flow freely…

Then reality slapped me in the face and I grew up. As it turned out, there aren’t enough colors or flowers in the world to make translation a creative-only process. We, translators, deal with deadlines, hideous formats, tedious clients, and a lot of stress. Not to mention, unrealistic expectations from clients who think we can translate a million words per hour or dealing with clueless intermediaries. We market ourselves and our services, we negotiate agreements, we quote jobs, count words, make invoices, keep track of our projects, agendas, etc.

All in all, what we do, when we’re not actually translating, is business. So it makes sense for many of us to have adopted a business mindset. And there’s absolutely nothing wrong with that. However, the idea of what the business mindset should entail is currently being challenged in a very positive way.

Alice Gast, President of Imperial College London and internationally renowned scholar and researcher, recently published a fascinating article (here) in the World Economic Forum explaining why business leaders should think like scientists; and after reading her article (and having partnered with a person with extensive training in science and engineering) I have to admit, I’m sold! Ms. Gast’s conclusions basically boil down to three fundamental things that are easily applicable to translation:

1. Skeptical curiosity: Ms. Gast writes: “Their [scientist’s] work is driven forwards by curiosity, and it is guided by intuition and prior knowledge, but techniques such as external and internal peer reviews and randomized control trials are also embedded in their way of thinking to avoid blind optimism and bias.” The potential applications of this to translation are countless. Think about our editing and review processes, how we approach terminology and background research, even how we approach translation from the moment we turn on our computers. Skeptical curiosity can lead to sufficient questioning and redesign of almost every aspect of our translation process. Handled well, it can lead to increased efficiency and quality control.

2. Collaborative competitiveness: “When the problems get tough, scientists want to build the best team, even if the partner is a fierce competitor,” writes Ms. Gast. Another lesson I recently learned is the power of teamwork and the importance of cooperating with my competitors for mutually beneficial projects. For example, I recently joined forces with a “competitor” and outbid several agencies for an important international client. As individual freelancers, we could never have beaten the agencies, because we lacked the necessary resources to do so. However, by pooling our resources together, instead of competing with each other for the same client, we could offer the same service as an agency with the added value that we both have graduate degrees in the client’s field. Violá! Winning formula.

3. Confidence in the face of uncertainty and the unknown: Ms. Gast points out, “Where something is unknown, it is an opportunity to be pursued rather than avoided.” This was especially true for me when it came to rates; an area that is quite uncertain and confusing to many linguists, especially those seeking to move to higher paying market segments, as described in earlier posts in this blog. As I explained in my Matrix series, I have systematically been increasing my rates, but I could not have achieved the necessary confidence or developed a sufficiently efficient strategy for pulling this off without the help of a scientific approach to business. If you’ve read that series, or any of the follow-up posts, you know that increase required math and experimentation.

I will never be able to explain it as eloquently or efficiently as Ms. Gast, but there is no doubt in my mind that a scientific approach to business can be highly beneficial to translators.