Cattle Call: An audition in which a large number of often inexperienced actors or performers try out. The polite term for “cattle calls” in Hollywood is “open call auditions”.
When you are busy trying to survive as a lonesome freelance translator, and many people have been doing just that for quite a few years now, can you afford to ignore cattle calls? And what is the difference between cattle calls and legitimate requests for price quotes for translation projects?
I think that to be able to make this distinction, one has to start by taking a good look at the entity that is asking us to put in our bid and at the real purpose of the bid.
If I receive an offer to quote a price for a potential translation from a translation agency that just says “Hi” without mentioning me by my name, it is a cattle call that is going out to a large herd of hungry cows standing silently, immutably and somewhat stupidly in a pasture where the green grass has been all but eaten up by now. These cows are essentially indistinguishable from each other. Therefore, as it does not really matter which one of them will land the job, the first cow offering the shortest turnaround time and a low enough rate will be fed a small amount of grass or hay.
I usually receive about one or two cattle calls like this a week, but since I think of myself as a unique individual who possesses highly specialized and somewhat unusual skills as opposed to a fairly generic cow, I simply ignore cattle calls like this, even if I have no other translation work for the moment.
I also ignore requests from translation agencies who somehow stumbled upon my website or my listing in the ATA (American Translators Association) directory to go to their website and fill in information in a database about myself. I do e-mail to them my résumé and a range of rates if the agencies look legitimate enough to me, but I do not fill out forms e-mailed to me for reasons described also in this post (Why It Usually Makes No Sense to Fill Out Forms Sent To You Ahead of Time – Except When You Are a Subprime Translator).
Sometime I also receive the cattle call type of e-mail from corporations who need to have a patent application translated from English to a number of foreign languages, usually Japanese, Chinese, Korean and some European languages.
The e-mail is usually sent by an administrator in charge of patent translation who is sometime lamenting, even in e-mails sent to strangers such as myself, how very expensive these translations are.
I could probably find translators willing and able to undertake these projects, and maybe even profit handsomely, given the amount of work, if everything works out in the end.
But I don’t want to participate in these projects because what the patent department administrator really needs in these cases is more than a translation. For example, if a patent is filed in different jurisdictions (in Europe, in United States, in China), the claims usually need to be modified because different rules are applicable to patent claims in different jurisdictions. That is why I think that the patent application should be translated by bilingual patent agents or patent lawyers in respective countries. And that is also, at least in part, why these translations are so expensive.
Recently I even started ignoring offers to submit a bid if the number of patent applications that could potentially need to be translated from Japanese into English, which is something that I can do myself, is too high. It takes hours to download patent applications from Internet – I am often only given the numbers of the patents – and then to print them and estimate the cost based on the English word count.
Let’s say that a patent department administrator has 25 patent applications and the average cost per one patent would be one thousand dollars. Because I know that the company is not willing to spend 25 thousand dollars on the translations, at least not at this point, I just explain how much it usually costs to translate one Japanese page into English. It is fairly simple to convert the Japanese character count into word count in English since on average 2 Japanese characters represent one English word. So I just offer to provide a binding price and turnaround time quote once the company narrows down the number of documents so that only the ones that will be needed are included.
But being able to determine the dividing line between a cattle call and a legitimate offer to submit a price quote is definitely a fine art if the e-mail comes from a company that ultimately does have the means to pay for the translation.
It is possible that I am losing a lot of money every time when I politely refuse to bid on a humongous project and explain the rule of thumb for how anybody can calculate the cost based on the number of pages in the original language.
But based on my experience, I am probably just saving a few trees, a lot of printer toner and my precious time when I refuse to provide a precise cost for translation projects that would be just too big and too expensive.