One day Henny Penny was scratching in the farmyard looking for something good to eat when, suddenly, something hit her on the head. “My goodness me!” she said. “The sky must be falling down. I must go and tell the king. …….
[Henny Penny is then followed by Cocky Locky, Ducky Lucky, Goosey Loosey and Turkey Lurkey, who were told by Foxy Loxy to follow him because he knew a shortcut].
….. So they all followed Foxy Loxy. He led them to the wood, and up to a dark hole, which was the door to his home. Inside his wife and five hungry children were waiting for him to bring home some dinner, and they were all eaten up by the hungry fox family.
Based on what I have been reading on translators’ blogs over the last few years, it is an evident truth that seems to be accepted by most translators that translation rates are falling. In the midst of a deep and seemingly interminable economic crisis (this would be the seventh year, with seven more ahead of us?), it would be also a logical conclusion.
Different translators attribute this dire situation to different causes. Many blame the downward pressure on translation rates on machine translation, others point out that “portals for translators” such as pro Proz and GoTranslators result in an influx of new translators who may be translating from languages they don’t understand much into languages that they don’t know very well either subjects that are completely beyond their comprehension. Since these translators are extremely cheap, they do find work, perhaps unlike experienced and competent translators who were able to charge 3 to 10 times more than these unskilled and inexperienced people who I call “sub-prime”, “rogue”, or “zombie” translators, depending on the extent of their mental disorder.
According to one interpretation of what is going on in the translation industry, these would-be translators are thus driving out the best translators. But what does “driving out the best translators” mean? What happens to Saint Jeromes who have been driven out of their beloved profession?
Assuming that this premise is correct, which is possible, the “experienced and qualified translators” (at least in comparison to large numbers of those who are truly horrible) have three basic choices:
1. Find a new job (not very likely, as most of them can do well only one thing, namely translate), or starve to death (not very likely either, especially if they have been fattened up thanks to good rates in the past);
2. lower their rates, which I think many have been and are doing;
3. drop customers who no longer want to pay what they used to and find new ones who will be paying relatively high rates, even higher than what these “best translators” used to be able to command before “the rates started falling”.
It is also possible that some translators combine the strategies mentioned under items 2 and 3. They may lower the rates slightly to survive in the short term while looking for customers who are willing to pay better rates and gradually dropping those who pay less.
Many, of course, do nothing, other than bitterly complaining on blogs and in e-mails, which is probably not a very good strategy.
While it is probably true that, depending on your language and subject combination, the rates may be falling, we are also told from a number of sources that there is an acute shortage of experienced translators because the amount of specialized texts that need to be translated is growing exponentially, and this is something that cannot be handled with machine translations or by zombie translators.
The cognitive dissonance generated by these two conflicting premises (lack of experienced translators vs. falling rates being paid to them) is baffling.
How can something like this be possible? I think that one possible answer to this question is in what is often referred to as fragmentation of the translation industry.
There is really no “translation industry”, at least not in the sense of an “oil industry”, “construction industry” or other industries requiring expensive equipment and large amounts of investments. The only thing that the translation industry has in common with other industries is that it too needs experienced and well trained workers.
Nobody really knows how many people work in translation industry, if we want to call it that, and how much these people – translators and translation agencies big, small and tiny – make on a yearly basis. Studies are published on this subject every year to be sold to people who want to know “facts about the translation industry”, but these studies can cover only a small portion of the translation market and most of the numbers cited in these yearly statistics are very approximate estimates that may be wildly inaccurate. As Benjamin Disraeli, Mark Twain and Ronald Reagan used to say:”There are lies, damn lies, and statistics”.
The translation market is so incredibly fragmented that even the largest players will necessarily be able to service only a tiny percentage of the market. I think that translators should also keep in mind that 2 things are true about this market:
1. Some translators will always charge less than what you charge for your translation, regardless of how reasonable your rates are, for example those who live in countries where the cost of living may be much lower than where you live.
2. At the same time, some customers will pay more for your translation if you are able and willing to find them.
Especially if you are working mostly through translation brokers, middlemen, agencies, or “LSPs” if you will, you could probably instantly double your rate if you could find your own customers for your translations as many translators have done.
So it is really up to us whether we will follow Henny Penny, Cocky Locky, Ducky Lucky, Goosey Loosey and Turkey Lurkey to Foxy Loxy’s den where we will be eaten up alive if we agree to accept rates that in spite of inflation (which is not really reflected at all in official statistics about inflation) seem to keep dropping like the pieces of sky that fell on Henny Penny’s head, or more recently on Central Russia, or instead use our heads to try to figure out what is really going on and whether the sky is really falling.
It may be that the sky is indeed falling in the crowded sectors of the translation industry where hapless translators who are working hard night and day to underbid each other will be gratefully gobbled up by the “translation industry”, while other translators who specialize in subjects that simply must be translated by highly experienced translators are doing just fine in in the vast reaches of the “translation industry” which has probably more fields and specialties than any other industry on this planet.