When Science Defeats the Knights of Low-End Translation

defeated knight

Not so long ago, in one of my posts, I criticized the “knights of low-end translation” for defending the indefensible. In context, we were discussing a certain company that allegedly pays $0.01/word for translation. One knight claimed that if you’re located in a geographical area where conversion rates work in your favor, there is no reason not to work for such fees. Some of us pointed out that for a translator with an average output of 2500-3000 words a day, 0.01/word means working for $25-30. When asked where one can live with $25-30/day, one of the knights claimed Portugal. When we consider that Portugal has a gross domestic product per capita of US$21,733.07, the knight’s claim is just silly.

Later that week, someone messaged me saying that there are countries where one can live with as little as $1000 a month and directed me to a post from 2012 where the author claimed you can live well in Nicaragua, Malaysia, Ecuador, Panama, and Mexico with that level of income. Of course the author factored in rent, utilities, maid, groceries, maintenance for one car (though savings or credit were not considered, so I guess you’d have to steal the car, because there’s no way you can purchase it with their “equation”), clothing, entertainment (whatever they mean by that), and healthcare (contemplating four visits to the doctor per year, so as long as you don’t actually get sick, you’re covered!). I’m a hopelessly positive person, but this was too much even for me! It was like reading a diary entry from when I was 10 about what my life was going to be like at 25. Nice try… but someone needs to retake Home Ec and Math 101.

However, in said debate, quality of life was not the only strong argument against cheap translation. When someone sustained that cheap translators are inherently bad translators, that statement really struck a nerve with the knights. They immediately tried to debunk any claims that their price could somehow affect the quality of their work and denied there was any correlation between large workloads, time allotted to translation, and quality. “Who says you can’t do great work even if you’re working a billion hours a week?” cried the knights. Science! That’s who, my shiny knight friends!

Apparently, a peer reviewed study by Stanford University and IZA reveals empirical evidence of what any respectable translator already knows: working too much (perhaps to make ends meet when you work for peanuts) directly (and qualitatively) declines productivity by the hour when your work week exceeds 50 hours. The study is brilliant, but there’s a lot of math and numbers, which the knights seem to really struggle with, so here’s the gist: if your fees are too low then you have to work too much to pay for all those grown up things not accounted for in your magical $1000 a month site, the more hours you put in per week after the human burn-out point, the more your productivity qualitatively and quantitatively declines. So you basically wear yourself out for nothing. If, instead, you work for a decent fee, then you can afford to take time off to rest, unwind, and reload. This means time to read for pleasure, continue your education, have a social life, even exercise! All of which have been found to increase your productivity and make you a better translator.

Even without the science, there are strong common-sense reasons not work for 0.01/word; but while the knights prepare to comment claiming to be the exception to the rule or to know great translators that put in billions of error-free hours, just remember: inductive thinking (i.e. extracting a rule from an individual case) is a logically invalid form of reasoning. There may very well be a couple of outliers, but they will never be statistically significant enough to debunk the science. Also (and this is just a thought), wouldn’t all that time spent defending the indefensible be better off spent in strategies for increasing your fees anyway?

Part 2 of Organization Matters: Four Easy Steps to Better Time Management for Translators

traductor ordenado y feliz

Last week, we began to discuss why organizational skills matter when it comes to translation. We looked at three aspects of organization: physical, mental and time management and concluded that organizational skills lead to success via many paths. Being organized not only increases quality and productivity, but when combined with a solid business plan, it can help freelance businesses or small companies grow and evolve. We took a little peak at Aristotle’s philosophy of virtue and found that excellence is not an act, but a habit. Therefore, to lead to positive results, organization has to become a habit in our daily work routine. Now the question is, how do we do develop this habit? The first thing we need to do is learn how to get organized. In my experience, organization starts with effective time management and this can be achieved with four simple steps.

1. Tracking Tasks

Tracking tasks is simple; your goal is to gather as much information as possible about where your time is going. For a few days, simply jot down everything you do and how long it takes. Don’t leave any part of your routine out: include breaks, meals, leisure time, communication with clients, even things you do to procrastinate! The more information you have, the easier it will be to identify potential room for improvement.

2. Establishing Priorities

Now that you know where your time is actually going, the next thing you need to figure out is what can be cut down to optimize your time and how to redirect your effort to more important or more time consuming tasks. To do this, you will need to have a very clear picture of what your priorities are.

3. Planning

Once you know how your time can be optimized, the next thing you need to do is develop a plan that is consistent with both your priorities and the actual time you have for each. Most of our work is centered on projects that need to be completed by a specific deadline. As translators, we are used to planning on the basis of translated words per day. But, as you probably realized when doing steps one and two, focusing on how many words you can translate per day as if you lived in a vacuum is not effective because your day is filled with dozens of other tasks that are much more time consuming than you probably originally thought. When planning, keep all this mind and try to develop a realistic plan based on all the new information you have acquired.

4. Scheduling

Once you’ve set priorities and developed a plan, draw out a schedule for materializing that plan and then stick to it. Personally, I’m old fashioned and like to pencil things into my eco-friendly non-techy agenda. More modern types use techy or online tools for managing their agendas. It doesn’t really matter what kind of schedule you keep, just as long as it’s clear, consistent with steps 1-3, and neat enough to be easy to use and understand.

Of course, there’s a lot more to organization than just time management. This is just the beginning, so visit us again soon for more tips for getting organized!

Part 1 of Organization Matters: Why Being Organized is Important for Translators

traductor desordenado y triste

According to Aristotle, “You are what you repeatedly do. Excellence, then, is not an act, but a habit.” Both as an Ethics professor at the School of Law where I teach part-time and as a lawyer-linguist, I cannot begin to tell you how many practical applications I’ve found to this one little phrase. Of course, this phrase does not stand alone, it is part of a much more complex line of thought in Aristotle’s philosophy of virtue, but even out of context, it contains a vast universe of meanings and interpretations that, with the help of self-awareness, values development, and good business skills can enrich and improve countless aspects of our professional lives. Today, I’ve decided to apply it to the business of translation, particularly, the development of good organizational skills. The concept of “good organizational skills” has an internal and external aspect that encompasses both physical and mental organization as well as time management abilities. As far as translation, I interpret each of these aspects as follows.

  1. Physical Organization: Not just eliminating clutter from your work area (unnecessary papers, invoices, dictionaries you’re not using, etc.), but also keeping neat, well-organized, well-maintained and updated technology. Outdated or otherwise less-then-optimal technology will lead to translation blunders, sloppy work and missed deadlines. One wastes a lot of time troubleshooting when things go wrong and this can be easily prevented with organized physical maintenance of our work area and tools.

  2. Mental Organization: Keeping our minds organized can be challenging when meeting multiple deadlines or juggling many clients. Poor mental organization leads to stress, stress leads to mistakes, mistakes lead to low quality work. Not all techniques work for everyone. Personally, I resort to running as a way of clearing my mind, de-stressing, thinking matters through and coming back reloaded. The important thing isn’t so much how you do it, but just that you do it. And this means making clearing your head and organizing your thoughts a habit.

  3. Time Management: In a prior post, I talked about what to factor in when organizing your agenda. However, since time management is tricky, we will discuss it further in Part 2. All I’ll add here is that being organized will decrease the amount of time you spend looking for things, solving problems, uncovering important information, troubleshooting, etc. In my experience, the main secret is understanding where your time goes, what can be cut down, what needs to be prioritized, how to eliminate distractions, and how to optimize your time.

The BIG Picture

Organizational skills matter beyond whatever translation you are working on right now. A well-organized translator is usually an efficient translator. Being organized will not only increase quality and productivity, but when combined with a solid business plan, it will help your freelance business or company grow and evolve. Organization leads to success via many paths, the most obvious of which is that time is money, being organized helps manage your time effectively and will translate into earnings. But that’s not the only way in which it matters, good organization improves your relationship with your clients and, if you outsource or have an in-house team, with your linguists. Because excellence is, as Aristotle tells us, a habit, in my next post, I will discuss a few tips for developing that habit. So stay tuned in! There’s more to come on this subject.

Are Google Translate and Microsoft’s Star Treck Tech Taking Translation Jobs?

star treck 2

In 2006, Google came out with Google Translate and people went nuts arguing over whether or not that would mean job losses for translators. At the time, while sustaining that it takes a human to understand and convey language nuances and expressions of uniquely human abilities like sarcasm or humor, most translators agreed Google Translate was rubbish and there was no way a machine could ever really replace us. Back then, I argued that Google Translate would evolve, it would get better and some jobs would indeed be lost, and what’s more, they should be! Before you bite my head off for that last bit, please read on, I can explain.

Microsoft has announced the launch of its new Star Trek translation technology that renders real time translation of spoken language. Like its predecessor, Google Translate, it sparked the debate all over again. So again, here’s what I have to say: eventually some jobs will be lost. I’ve been following Google Translate since its inception and guess what? It was designed to learn and evolve –and it did. We’re talking about a program that in 2006 could not translate sentences with plural subjects or subjective clauses and now it can. In some languages, it even does so pretty well. The reason is that for the past 8 years users have been feeding Google Translate with the necessary corrections and information for it to evolve. But what can Google Translate get relatively right? Grammatically correct source sentences with basic language structures, particularly, simple instructions, like those found in manuals, mostly in Western languages being translated to and from English. If the source is grammatically incorrect, Google Translate will probably fail; but when the source is well-written and simple, then Google Translate can do the job about as well as a one or two-cent-per-word translator (yes, those exist!).

Recently, Microsoft embarked on a mission to create “even better” translation technology and we’d be lying to ourselves as translators if we failed to admit that a lot of what some translators do (again I mean one or two-cent-per-word translators) is really uncomplicated enough to easily be replaced by machine translation and then merely tweaked a bit by a human. Many argue that this doesn’t mean jobs will be lost; instead, the role of translators will simply change. Though the second premise is true, the first is mathematically unsustainable. Some translators will experience this change from linguist to editor, but it is not cost-effective for all translators to survive the cut. So while some cling to the editing raft, others will inevitably sink.

But is this really such a big deal, anyway? Even though technical manuals and similar texts constitute a large part of what actually gets translated, there is also a myriad of texts that are not that simple and still fall under the category of things containing uniquely human expressions and nuances that simply cannot be captured by a machine. In fact, sometimes, they can’t even be captured by another human with a lesser command of language, lower cultural level than the author of the source, or unsuitable background knowledge for the task at hand! Sometimes, even humans fail to convey the essence of a complex source text, and in my area of specialization, that includes legal translators, for lack of familiarity with either jurisprudence or nuances (not of legalese, but of legal systems altogether). So while I think good legal translators (like translators working in many other complex areas of translation) are nowhere near threatened by machine translation, I’m afraid I can’t say the same for those two-cent translators out there.

Seven Tips for Escaping the Overworked Translator’s Trap

escaping the trap

Not turning down work is a trap! And when we find ourselves in that trap, chances are, it’s nobody’s fault but our own. Newbies may fall into it for lack of experience. Not-so-newbies may fall into it for poor negotiating skills or inability to say “no.” Either way, if you’re overworked or overbooked, you’ve somehow managed to fall into the translator’s trap.

Here’s how you probably did it: you got a new client, you were happy, you got work. You kept accepting work from that client, either for fear they’d permanently abandon you for another linguist if you said the “N” word or you were misled by your (often false) impression that you cannot afford the “luxury” of simply turning down work. Then, you got another client or a returning client. They also needed something translated within a similar timeframe, and you were again either afraid or unable to say no. You thought you could make all their deadlines and keep them all happy. Work started to pile up… the snowball started to roll. Before you knew it, you had too much to translate in far too little time. Now, here you are, no time for a social life, no time for sports, no time to eat healthily, sometimes, even no time to sleep. Sound familiar? We can all probably relate.

But don’t worry! All has not been lost and there’s hope for you yet. As it turns out, whether you realize it or not, you are the master of the trap; therefore, you can escape it! Here’s how I’ve managed to get out of the trap and stay out for the past few years:

  1. Not biting off more than I can chew: I learned it’s perfectly OK to turn down work sometimes, and doing so is easy. What’s hard is losing the fear that your client won’t come back. But here’s what nobody’s telling you: excellent translators are not that easy to come by, so if you provide impeccable service, they will come back.

  2. Creating a referral network: I have a network of available linguists to which to refer my clients when I have to turn down work. Of course, not just any linguist will do, my network consists of people who I trust not only to do a great job, but also to return the favor in the future.

  3. Better rates mean better clients: I learned that not only do you work less for a great income, but you also work with better and more reasonable clients. Clients who are willing to pay higher rates understand what translation entails –that’s why they pay well in the first place. Thus, they are more flexible and open to negotiating deadlines and workflow.

  4. Keeping a realistic schedule: I don’t just plan for whatever number of words I can translate per day. When planning my agenda and deciding what projects to accept, I remember to factor in basic things like eating, sleeping, training, and living! I know it might seem ludicrous to schedule “living” into your agenda, but most of the overworked translators I know (which happens to be most of the translators I know!) view life in terms of translated-words-per-day only, leaving out every other time-consuming activity in their day, as if they lived in a vacuum. The result is that they eat, sleep and live translation. They are unable to unwind and, eventually, they simply melt down.

  5. Keeping regular business hours (even though I work from home!): The logic is simple, my home office is open during regular business hours only. After a certain time, I don’t take business calls or reply to business e-mails. The goal is self-preservation, focused mainly on maintaining my sanity.

  6. Unwinding: At the end of the day, my computer is not the last thing I look at or think about. The last thing before shut down is a good book, preferably one that is completely unrelated to whatever I happen to be translating at the time.

  7. Sports and hobbies: I run, and although running is “just” my hobby, my training sessions, where I take my mind off work, are sacred. Many translators view sports and hobbies as procrastination or a waste of time. They are dead-wrong! A happy, unstressed translator is an efficient translator. Many studies have shown that alleviating stress actually increases both efficiency and productivity. So if you won’t pick up a sport or a hobby out of love for yourself then, at least, do it out of your obsession for translation!

I was that overworked translator once. But ever since I mastered the art of escaping the trap, I have been able to study, work toward my PhD, go running, make time for my boyfriend, friends and family, and sometimes even get some rest! All in all, these small steps have increased my productivity and overall happiness and love for my profession. I sincerely hope they work for you, too.

A lifetime went by, and translators are still overworked (and possibly underpaid)!

traductor estresado sin red bull (1)

Another lifetime ago, back when I was practically a full-time external quality manager for a large multinational translation company, I complained when a linguist submitted a translation for quality management about a day and a half late and during very odd business hours (nearly 2 am the day after her deadline). My email said something like, “this translation was submitted outside regular working hours in my time zone,” to which the linguist –who had not only delivered late but had also rendered very low-quality work– replied something in the lines of, “well, in my time zone, we work 24/7.” The obvious answer from me would have been, “well that explains your low-quality work.” Instead, I chose to drop the conversation with the linguist altogether and focus on convincing the PM to: a) extend the deadline and b) have another linguist edit and proofread the job before quality management.

Like I said, that was a million years ago, but I could never get over that conversation, not because I cared much about the linguist or her “witty” comeback, but because of what I thought that said about how a lot of translators worked at the time: too much, too quickly, too irresponsibly, too (insert adverb of choice here!). The question is why? Why do so many translators work 24/7 only to set themselves up for missed deadlines and quality complaints? Many say rates, which makes sense: the lower your rates, the more work you need to accept in order to earn, at least, a living wage, the more work you accept, the more words you need to translate per day, and you can imagine how the story goes from there. The thing is that I’ve been off the grid for years (literally). During the whole time I was in law school (which was five years, because I studied in Argentina), plus some time I took off after law school and the first few years of my PhD studies, I did not blog, participate in discussions, join groups, or otherwise engage in fluid communication with fellow translators (at least not regularly). But now I’m back, and guess what? This is still an issue! How can this still be an issue? I will explore this further in this blog, but something tells me it still has a lot to do with rates!