Posted by: patenttranslator | January 1, 2013

The difference between “illegal aliens”, lawyers, dentists, plumbers, and translators

I received the following e-mail a few days ago:

Good Afternoon,

I have a couple of files (attached) to be translated from ABC (language) into XYZ (language) by 10 AM Wednesday, January 3d, 2013. It is about 890 words.

I can offer $90.00 flat fee for it. Please let me know if you would be interested in this project as soon as you get a chance.

Please do not proceed before I send you a PO.

Thank you in advance,

[name] Project Manager

The e-mail was sent to 17 recipients, including myself, who were clearly visible in the e-mail header. I think it is likely that the Project Manager was able to choose from several “first responders” eager to finally have some work.

When I lived in Santa Rosa, California, I used to see on foggy Bay Area mornings when I was driving to my office people who are generally referred to here as illegal immigrants waiting behind a local Mexican restaurant (known to me for its excellent burritos) to be hired for a day’s work by men arriving in pickup trucks.

Illegal aliens, (pardon the language, but that is what we call them in English in United States), called “clandestinos” in Spanish are now here in Virginia too, waiting at the parking lot behind 7-Eleven and Lowes stores (timber, tools and plumbing supplies), although not as many now because there is less work.

Just like the clandestinos, translators too need to line up early and be ready to start working at a moment’s notice in the digital universe when somebody has some work for them. Most illegal immigrants probably have their minimum hourly rate, and most of the time they probably insist on being paid what they think is fair. Clandestinos determine themselves how much they will be paid. If the going rate is for instance 5 dollars an hour and a bozo in a pickup truck offers only 4, my guess is that the clandestinos would in response to such a lowball offer just spit on the ground, or on the truck, or on the truck driver, and wait for a better offer.

But if you are a translation agency and send your e-mail to 17 translators who can be easily found in one of many online databases of translators, the equivalent of the parking lot behind 7-Eleven in the digital world, there is no danger that somebody will spit on you or your agency. Not even this mad patent translator will dare to identify such an agency on his blog. So why not do it that way? It saves a lot of time. Plus it must be fun watching translators competing with each other scrambling for a tiny translation. So the more recipients there are for one e-mail, the more the fun.

One reason why illegal immigrants get paid even less than American workers, (and most American workers are not paid very much either these days), is that they can be used only for relatively simple tasks not requiring a lot of explanation and coordination because they don’t speak English. I was told by people who work in construction that they are hardworking and reliable, but you can’t use them for complicated tasks if they don’t understand English and you don’t speak Spanish.

Illegal immigrants are thus stuck at the bottom of the wage pyramid because they are in the country illegally and they don’t speak the language. People like that can obviously be easily exploited. But why does a translator accept a job offer at a low rate while competing against 16 other warm bodies for a job offer?

Because he can’t figure out with his big, multilingual brain how to find better work would be my guess. So he just adds his name to another database on the Internet for the awesome chance to compete against other translators at rock bottom prices.

And also because unlike in other professions, including lawyers, dentists, and  probably even day laborers like illegal immigrants, there is no solidarity and no pride in one’s profession among translators.

If I walked into a dentist’s office and said to him:”Could you please fix my teeth by Wednesday, January 3d, just these 2 teeth right here? I can offer you 500 dollars for that”, he would think that I am crazy. Ditto if I made a similar offer to a plumber:”I need you to fix my toilet by January 3d and I can offer you 350 dollars”, or said to a lawyer:”I need you to file a divorce petition for me and I can offer you 250 dollars”. If you tell to just about any professional who has some pride in what he is doing for living how much their work is worth to you, they will not take your seriously. Which would include also illegal immigrants who as I noted above are probably likely to spit at you or at least your truck if your bid is too low.

On the other hand, if you are looking for somebody to walk your dog, babysit your kid, or translate something from one language to another, it is perfectly OK to offer them what you think their work is worth to you. You can’t offend children or translators by a lowball offer. That’s just how it is.

So what is the difference between illegal aliens, lawyers, dentists, plumbers, and translators?

Well, one of the differences is that some of these people are proud about what they do for living. And they will laugh or spit at you if you insult them.

And some will be happy to make a buck any way they can.

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Responses

  1. […] I received the following e-mail a few days ago: Good Afternoon, I have a couple of files (attached) to be translated from ABC (language) into XYZ (language) by 10 AM Wednesday, January 3d, 2013. It…  […]

    Like

  2. Thank you for your comments. I am a professional translator. I would not work for that kind of remuneration. Thankfully, I no longer have to work for peanuts.

    Like

  3. And thank you for your comment.

    So what is your secret? Would you like to share what you have learned?

    Like

    • I really have no secret. I am now retired, so I can afford to be choosy. Translation has been historically poorly paid. The only translators I know of who are well paid are those who work for the UN and the EU. I live in France, and can make more money by taking in students of English for a week at a time.

      Like

      • I see.

        But I believe there are translators who make a pretty good living.

        I was hoping that some of them might share their secrets here.

        Like

  4. Steve, what a brilliant comparison you’ve drawn between sending emails to “17 translators who can be easily found in one of many online databases” and “the parking lot behind 7Eleven in the digital world”.
    Easily the best comparison I’ve read so far this year 😉

    Like

  5. Thank you, even though somebody on Twitter called me “confused” for making what you called a brilliant comparison.

    But I have made strange comparisons before, like comparing dogs to humans and talking about various topics in politically incorrect ways. It tends to bring out the worst in some people, but I am used to it by now.

    Happy New Year to you and all translators who still have some pride in who they are and what they do for living!

    Like

  6. Thank you Steve, a great analogy. A few days ago I was offered a project for US$0.02 per source word (approx. US$0.018 per target word) for Flemish into English (from an Indian agency). It has been my experience that such ridiculous rates are not likely to be offered by a client, but by an intermediary (agency), wishing to expand their market share by offering cheap translations (and thereby destroying the market for our professional services) or to increase their margins (at our expense). The internet and highly sophisticated database management tools have facilitated the rise of a translation ‘industry’ (doing very nicely, thank you) as distinct from the translation ‘profession’ (increasingly removed from the client and with little or no market power). As has been the case with all other professions in the past, we need to work together to discourage exploitation of the profession by the ‘industry’. It will not be easy, but we have to start somewhere, and highlighting the inequities as you have done with such eloquence and simplicity, is a good start.

    Like

  7. Thank you for your comment.

    There is an alternative to corporate translation industry, which is based on cheap, essentially slave labor, inevitably resulting in poor quality.

    Unfortunately, quality is not a major issue when the customer often can’t tell what quality means.

    Small, specialized agencies who do not worship at the alter of maximum profit and individual translators who translate highly specialized documents are a good alternative for customers who do need quality, and that is what I am trying to highlight in my posts.

    I don’t really know, but I think that the market share of this alternative to corporation translation industry is not that small.

    Like

    • I wonder whether there is a way of identifying/classifying the one and the other. Perhaps we need a certification system for ‘professional’ agencies (run by a certified language professional who accepts personal responsibility for the service provided), as distinct from agencies run by ‘entrepreneurs’. In most countries it is illegal to tout for professional services if you are not qualified yourself.

      Like

  8. It would be very difficult.

    Putting State or the City Hall bureaucrats in charge of which agency is qualified or not would only make a bad situation even worse.

    In any case, only the translator can be certified based on education and other qualifications, the middleman is just a broker who usually does not understand the foreign language anyway.

    Plus here in US, translation is a completely unregulated business. There are probably more regulations in place for lemonade stands newly opened by girl and boy scouts than for translation businesses, and I hope it will stay that way.

    As Ronald Reagan used to say, the most frightening words in the English language are “I am from the government and I am here to help you.” He was wrong about many things, but he was right about that.

    Like

    • Ah, yes, the US of A (every man for himself and may the devil take the hindmost 🙂
      It’s always been my opinion (and I come from a management background) that the easiest way to ruin a project/business is to form a committee to run it or ask the government for help :-).
      I was thinking in terms of the profession certifying agencies based on set criteria (and audits), to sort the grain from the chaff.
      Developing agreed criteria would be a good start.

      Like

  9. “I was thinking in terms of the profession certifying agencies based on set criteria (and audits), to sort the grain from the chaff.
    Developing agreed criteria would be a good start.”

    Requiring university education and a degree in languages or something else would be a start. I understand that this is how they do it in most European countries.

    But it is a very complicated issue and in any case, it is not going to happen here in the Wild, Wild, West.

    Like

  10. […] But if you are a translation agency and send your e-mail to 17 translators who can be easily found in one of many online databases of translators, the equivalent of the parking lot behind 7Eleven in the digital world, there is no …  […]

    Like

  11. […] I received the following e-mail a few days ago: Good Afternoon, I have a couple of files (attached) to be translated from ABC (language) into XYZ (language) by 10 AM Wednesday, January 3d, 2013. It…  […]

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  12. I make a decent living. I earn more as a translator than I ever did as a reasonably well-paid middle manager with a large bank. And I know plenty of translators who charge significantly more than I do. I’m not sure there are any easily transferable “secrets”, but some of the keys to my success have been as follows:

    1. Specialise: I worked in finance and banking for 12 years before I became a translator. This means that I have relatively expert “inside” knowledge in the fields in which I work.

    2. Be good: I am good at what I do. My source language mastery is very high, and my target language writing skills are strong. Plus, I am something of a perfectionist, so do not tolerate low standards from myself or anyone else.

    3. Be disciplined and organised: In coming up seven years of freelancing, I have been late delivering a project on maybe two occasions, both outside my control (and I made sure I advised the client well in advance so that alternative arangements could be made if necessary). If you say you will deliver a project by a certain date and time, do it. Period. Also, communicate well.

    4. Set your rates and be in control of what work you take on: I am not working for my clients – they are paying for my valuable services. I do not have rates dictated to me. I would rather have my diary half empty than full of jobs at cheap rates that devalue me and the profession. I am perfectly happy to turn jobs down for no other reason than the price is not right. (i’m also perfectly happy to turn them down because I don’t like the subject matter or because I can’t be bothered to deal with fussy formatting etc.).

    I’m sure I could add more to the list, but those are the big things that come to mind.

    Rob

    Like

  13. Thank you very much, Rob.

    Your secrets are safe with me.

    (Just kidding. What I meant was that your input will be probably very valuable to translators who may be just starting out).

    Like

    • Actually Steve, my real reason for posting was that I felt guilty that the only times I have recently posted on here have been to point out spelling errors/typos… 😉

      Like

  14. This is the 2nd time you choose a Carel Gott’s Czech song, so far I can remember. I knew him singing in German, but I like the two songs here as well.

    Als die alte Mutter mich noch lehrte singen,
    sonderbar, daß Tränen ihr am Auge hingen.
    Jetzt die braunen Wangen netzen mir die Zähren,
    wenn ich will die Kinder Sang und Spielen lehren!

    I am wondering if the German translaton says the same as the Czech original.

    Když mne stará matka zpívat, zpívat učívala,
    podivno, že často, často slzívala.
    A ted’ také pláčem snědé líce mučim,
    když vigánské děti hrát a zpívat učim!

    GT is outwitted and hints that they could be pretty close to each other. Can you confirm this, Steve?

    Like

  15. Hi Wenjer:

    Happy New Year again in case I have not said it yet.

    The German translation is very close, except that “cigánské děti” means “Zigeunerkinder” (“vigánské”) is a typo.

    Antonin Dvorak wrote this song around 1880, it is called in English “Songs My Mother Taught Me”.

    There are many different interpretations of this song on Youtube, such as this one:

    Like

    • Ah, that was it. I thought I heard “cigánské děti” and wondered why I read “vigánské děti.” It’s after all Dvořák’s Gypsy Songs.

      Thanks, Steve!

      Yet, I still wonder why “stará matka” is translated “die alte Mutter” (old mother) while it could possibly be “die Großmutter” (grandmother), right?

      Like

  16. Good question.

    Maybe it’s because you need the long “á” in “stará” for singing. You have all kinds of weird words in songs for this reason.

    Also, one word in Slovak for grandmother is “stará mama”, so maybe it was used like that in a Czech dialekt 130 years ago.

    Like

  17. […] I received the following e-mail a few days ago: Good Afternoon, I have a couple of files (attached) to be translated from ABC (language) into XYZ (language) by 10 AM Wednesday, January 3d, 2013. It…  […]

    Like

  18. […] I received the following e-mail a few days ago: Good Afternoon, I have a couple of files (attached) to be translated from ABC (language) into XYZ (language) by 10 AM Wednesday, January 3d, 2013. It…  […]

    Like

  19. […] I received the following e-mail a few days ago: Good Afternoon, I have a couple of files (attached) to be translated from ABC (language) into XYZ (language) by 10 AM Wednesday, January 3d, 2013. It…  […]

    Like

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  21. […] I received the following e-mail a few days ago: Good Afternoon, I have a couple of files (attached) to be translated from ABC (language) into XYZ (language) by 10 AM Wednesday, January 3d, 2013. It…  […]

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  22. “Some characteristics of gender specificity in German are somewhat puzzling: a “Miss” or young woman in German is Das Fräulein, which literally means “a little woman”, who, interestingly, is of neutral gender, while there is no similar equivalent for a “Mr.” or young man, which would have to be “Der Mänlein“, a word that as far as I know does not exist in the German language.”

    Not “Der Mänlein”, but “Das Männlein”, a word that does exist, but is not the male equivalent of Fräulein, at least not in connotation.

    Like

    • Thank you very much.

      I corrected my post accordingly.

      Like

      • Glad to help! I have spent the last two hours reading your blog and enjoying it greatly. But I fear I must insist on “Männlein” all the same. A patent translator will understand the perils of one incorrect letter, I am sure. (Sworn court translator here, by way of introduction.)

        Like


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