Posted by: patenttranslator | May 25, 2014

Setting a Low Rate and Sticking To It Is Not Exactly a Business Plan

 

Depending on how long they have been translating and how good their translations are, all translators could be divided into three main categories: “novice”, “intermediate”, and “pro”.

Regardless of our education and how talented and incredibly clever we may think we are, we all start as novices. Although a novice typically believes that his translations are just as good as those of an old timer who has been honing and perfecting his translating skills for decades, this is usually just a self-delusion.

However, one does not automatically become a pro just because many years have passed since payment has been received for the first, rather shoddy translation. And one can generally become a pro only in a certain relatively narrow field, or perhaps a few relatively narrow fields.

I consider myself a pro in the field in which I have been working for close to three decades now, which would be translation of patents, but even then, mostly or only when it comes to translation of patents in a few technical fields, such as electronics. In other translation fields I am probably performing only on an intermediate level, although I would hope that the novice level is behind me for good now.

In a world ruled by logic and fairness, pros who have decades of experience should be able to command a premium price for their work. But we do not live in a world that is ruled by logic and fairness. Our world is ruled mostly by greed.

One result of the transformation of our already mad world through the continuous application of the madness of greed, which has been shaping this world for millennia, is that the price that translators can demand from their clients does not really depend as much on their skills and expertise as it does on who their clients are. That is why a pro is often be paid a lower rate than a novice.

As I was looking for a couple of Japanese patent translators the other day because I needed to put together a small team of experienced patent translators (myself and 2 other translators) for a project that would keep busy at least 3 translators translating at least 3 thousand words a day for at least 10 days, I called a couple of translators who I would definitely place in the pro category when it comes to translation of Japanese patents.

When I called one of these pro translators to ask him to help me with the project, he told me that he would unfortunately have no time for me. He said that he was now working almost exclusively only for one big patent law firm. He told me that it is a large law firm that keeps him working as much as he wants to and then some because there are many lawyers there who need to have Japanese patents translated and his rate is very reasonable. He told me how much he was charging, and yes, it was a reasonable rate, the same rate that I would have paid him as an agent if he were working for me on the project that I was trying to organize.

So basically, he is working for a direct client at a rate that most translation agencies would be happy to pay as well.

I asked him whether he was not concerned what would happen if the client suddenly dropped him. No matter how busy you are, and no matter how reasonable your rates are, it is very dangerous to be in a situation when your income depends only on one client. “I know it’s dangerous”, he said, “but my situation is very good right now, and anyway, what else can I do”?

I used to work occasionally for a German translator who had a similar arrangement with a patent law firm that was sending work to her for many years. She was charging exactly the same reasonable rate that the Japanese translator mentioned to me. When she needed translations from Japanese, she would send them to me. But last year she told me that after all those years, the work slowed down to a trickle and then stopped completely.

Fortunately for her, she does not need to work anymore. She is retired now, she can live off her investments, and she also has some rental property, I think. But although she does not really need the money, she is missing the action.

To say that most translators, whether they are novices or whether they have been translating for several decades, are not very good at business planning, would be putting it mildly. In fact, we are quite ignorant when it comes to the business world surrounding us, although it is the same world for which we are working long hours, day after day, year after year.

We simply don’t want to bother with things like that, things that – in our minds – have nothing to do with translation.

Because of that, we can be very easily taken advantage of by ruthless agents, and God knows there are many ruthless agents in the so-called translation business.

So if the rate at which a translator is remunerated does not depend very much on whether our skills are on the level of a novice, or that of a pro, what does it depend on?

I think that it depends mostly on which market segment in the incredibly segmented translation market a novice translator initially picks as the area of specialization. Large translation agencies are providing large quantities of translations which are generally of poor quality because they generally pay very low rates. If this is the market segment that we pick initially, for example because it is relatively easy to find work in this market segment as long as our rate is quite low, this is where we will be probably working for a long time, possibly forever, for the same low rate.

Unfortunately, even when our rate is low, that is not a guarantee that our client, whether a translation agency or a law firm, will not pull the plug and turn off our life-supporting cash flow system, because somebody, somewhere, is eventually going to offer to “provide the same service” for even less less than the pittance we may be charging to make sure that we will be bombarded with work forever and ever.

Or a not-too-bright-mid-level manager will decide that the firm is spending too much money on translation and something must be done about it.

It is only a matter of time before the plug is pulled. It may take a few years, but if we work only or mostly just for one client, it is going to happen eventually.

Setting a low rate and sticking to it is not really a business plan. It is just something that translators who don’t want to bother with long-term planning often do.

In my opinion, it is a foolish thing to do and translators who do so, which would be a good percentage of us, are living in a fool’s paradise, a fool’s paradise that will at some point come to a sudden, crashing and crushing end.

Although translators who start as novices may eventually become pros, it would be probably fair to say that most translators are eternal novices when it comes to the art of business planning.

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Responses

  1. I agree entirely, Steve. Which is one of the reasons why I think anyone aspiring to become a translator should work in the real business world for a few years first.

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  2. Yes, in a way the worst thing that can happen to an aspiring translator is to become one just after graduation.

    Fortunately for me, I only became a translator by default after I tried out several other careers and for the most part failed miserably.

    But seriously, your point is important.

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    • I’m very happy to be a translator (well, mostly), and I’m glad that I only became one by a combination of accident and necessity after twelve years in banking.

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  3. After 25 years as a CEO and more than a decade as a translator (initially as a free-lancer working for agencies), I have come to the view that our problem is largely one of thinking of ourselves as ‘being in business’, or worse, being free-lancers, i.e. casual workers being paid piecework rates.
    As you gently hinted above Steve, as businessmen/women, we fail miserably and pitting ourselves against corporate agencies is not likely to meet with much success. It would be a waste of time and energy.
    Most of us simply do not have the knowledge, training, experience, understanding or even the inclination, to be successful business persons.
    What we need is a change of mindset (paradigm if you like). If we looked at ourselves as self-employed professionals or professionals in private practice (like CPAs for example), our career plan (as opposed to our our business plan) would be very different.
    It would, for example, focus on how to develop a professional profile, how to build a regular client base, how to develop a professional reputation/specialisation, etc.
    It would quickly become clear that working for agencies, for example, would achieve none of these three crucial objectives.

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  4. “It would quickly become clear that working for agencies, for example, would achieve none of these three crucial objectives.”

    There are agencies and agencies. I agree that working only for agencies is unlikely to have good results.

    But I do know a few good agencies and after all, I am an agency too. I am against the greed-driven corporate agency model, but I enjoy working for small agencies. Lot of independent business owners work for direct clients and for agencies too in many professions. For example, when I lived in San Francisco 20 years ago, I had a friend who was a sign painter. He mostly worked directly for restaurants and businesses in downtown, but also for a few agencies, even though they paid quite a bit less.

    I think that the difference between an agency and a translator is to a large extent just something that has been created by the so-called translation industry to keep translators away from direct clients.

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    • I see a clear distinction between working for an agency (an ‘corporate’ intermediary) and collaborating (sharing the responsibility, work and the fee) with a professional colleague in private practice (as in your case, Steve).
      Indeed, for QUALITY translation services, that’s exactly how it should work.

      In most professions, acting as an intermediary for professionals and vice versa, is at the very least frowned upon, if not illegal (the fine in Australia for a lawyer sharing his fee with a non-lawyer is $10,000 the last time I looked).

      I know the distinctions appear small if not irrelevant to most lay persons, however, the clear, global impact on our profession when compared with other ‘knowledge’ professions, demonstrates my point.

      It seems to me that when personal responsibility for the outcome of a personal, professional service is either indirect or hidden completely, we are looking at a dysfunctional system (I feel sure you take personal responsibility for the work you deliver, even when produced by a colleague).

      A dysfunctional system favours the strong and ruthless. I don’t think those two ‘characteristics’ are generally associated with ethical professionals who provide a personal service, which is why we cannot win in the long run, unless we opt out of the value chain created by corporate agencies.

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  5. “I see a clear distinction between working for an agency (an ‘corporate’ intermediary) and collaborating (sharing the responsibility, work and the fee) with a professional colleague in private practice (as in your case, Steve).
    Indeed, for QUALITY translation services, that’s exactly how it should work.”

    I never looked at it this way, but I can see your point, and I have to agree.

    There is a big difference between the two models.

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    • Ahhh, for a prophet to be recognised in his own land 🙂
      Understanding the problem is the first step towards finding a solution.

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  6. La clé du succès resiole dans la de la programmation de l’unpisarionde la machine d’Frequences rapprochees” (sic)…

    This was the kind of translation (it is supposed to be french by the way…) used in the manual of an old calculator I had more than 30 years ago, by a very well known japanese brand. I kept the manual for years just for this sentence… Given that machine translation did not exist at the time, I wonder how did they find and how much they paid the perpetrator 🙂

    Greetings from a fellow patent translator in Greece (on the verge of becoming mad, I started 3 years later than you in 1990 you see) and congratulations for the very interesting and useful blog you created. I discovered it just today and followed immediately.

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  7. Thank you, Costas, for your comment.

    But machine translation did exist 30 years go, it just was not as ubiquitous as it is now because there was no Internet.

    There are many references to MT for example in these archived copies of an old newsletter for technical translation from Japanese.

    http://www.f.waseda.jp/buda/tjt/tjt-idx.html

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  8. “In most professions, acting as an intermediary for professionals and vice versa, is at the very least frowned upon, if not illegal (the fine in Australia for a lawyer sharing his fee with a non-lawyer is $10,000 the last time I looked).”

    That’s it! Clearly, no agency has the legal right to go between a professional and his/her clients. The problem is that translators are NOT legally recognized as professionals. The status of translation profession?

    “when personal responsibility for the outcome of a personal, professional service is either indirect or hidden completely, we are looking at a dysfunctional system”

    And grossly dysfunctional, too. A hidden or indirect personal responsibility, huh? Sounds like an oxymoron.

    “we cannot win in the long run, unless we opt out of the value chain created by corporate agencies.”

    What value chain? Corporate agencies are driven by the basic free market law: buy cheap, sell expensive. Well, that’s normal.

    What is NOT normal, however, is that translation products should be treated as mere commodities manufactured by anonymous workers all over the world and sold under the trade name of one or another translation company.

    Just try to imagine publishing houses conceal the names of writers, editors, etc. and give only the trade name of this or that PH, can you? That’s what translation companies do, I think.

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    • :-), I meant ‘value’ chain (as in product chain), but the word ‘value’ is clearly a misnomer in this context. The only value that accrues from this ‘value chain’ disappears into the pockets of the intermediaries, and whilst their cut-throat competition will also reduce the cost to the end client in some cases, the latter pay for this in terms of reduced quality.

      Translation is not a commodity with a constant value/quality, it is a personal, professional service of variable quality (depending on the talent, education, training, experience, ethics and specialisation of the professional who provides the translations work – just like any other professional service).
      This is the reason why a professional reputation is a key ingredient of a successful professional career. It is virtually impossible to develop by working anonymously through agencies, who have a vested interest in preventing us from developing a reputation as a talented and experienced translator.

      Agencies should be encouraged (as in ‘pour encourager les autres) to re-define their roles as ‘translation project managers’, thereby more honestly fulfilling their role as ‘agents’ acting in the interest of their clients, or indeed, as agents acting in the interest of ‘their’ translators, sort of like agents for film stars, for % of the project fee 🙂 Stranger things have happened!

      You are quite right, of course, Steve, translators themselves have let it happen to them with nothing more than a regular whine (to each other).
      There is even a case for suggesting that many among us have simply been lazy and allowed the early days of reasonable, mostly professional agencies (actually professional practices), lull them into thinking this was a good idea. Didn’t think through the principles involved and their long-term effects.

      In fairness though, the explosion of demand for translation services in the last 50 years, as well as the internet, CAT tools, etc. was probably more than any profession requiring extensive study and training could have coped with from a quantum point of view.

      Furthermore, I suspect that the institutions providing translator education/training probably accept the present status quo and do little or nothing about teaching their students how to build a successful professional career, rather than allowing themselves to be casually exploited. In most professions this occurs post-graduation with professional institutes requiring a period of mentoring before being accredited as a professional.

      Of course, the disproportionate effectiveness of the voices of (corporate) agencies, and the modest if not timid voices coming from the profession, many of whom are afraid to offend the agencies who ‘might’ give them work, is not helping a bit.

      Nobody with any influence is going to improve our situation, indeed quite the reverse. We need to do this ourselves. Understanding the basic drivers and changing the nomenclature are just the beginning.

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  9. “That’s it! Clearly, no agency has the legal right to go between a professional and his/her clients”

    But nobody is forcing you to work for a translation agency. Unless you find your own clients, the clients are the agency’s clients, not yours.

    The way I see it, the main problem is that translators don’t know how to find their own direct clients.

    So they work for agencies, even though they hate it. But translators are hardly blameless here.

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    • “But nobody is forcing you to work for a translation agency.”

      I don’t work for agencies, Steve.

      The way I see it, translation agencies use false (misleading) advertisement. By claiming they have “their” translators from and to a great number of languages, “their” editors, “their” consultants, etc., translation agencies mislead their clients. In fact, most of all those “theirs” are not part of their staff, but freelancers or someone else’s employees.

      Translation agencies steal intellectual property and mislead clients all the time. That’s what they do.

      Just try to imagine how lawyers would find direct clients if there were legal agencies offering all kinds of legal services by “their own lawyers” who were “the best ever professionals”. If legal agencies, moreover, offered a full-range of complex services (so-called legal projects). If they had everything you wanted! If they were certified providers of high quality legal services! Why should clients bother to look for an individual lawyer then?

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  10. “Just try to imagine how lawyers would find direct clients if there were legal agencies offering all kinds of legal services by “their own lawyers” who were “the best ever professionals”.

    Yeah, well, lawyers are smart, and translators are not.

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  11. No, Steve, it’s not a question of intelligence, but of developmental stage. As louisvr brightly put it on his blog:

    “Let’s not forget that doctors started out as barbers doing a bit of doctoring on the side, and dentists were once blacksmiths who discovered that people with a tooth ache are willing to pay more than people who want new shoes for their horses.”

    Source: http://doubledutchtranslations.com/page/2/

    By the way, we recently discussed similar issues here in Bulgaria, including translators’ “stupidity” or, rather, shyness, I’d say.

    Most agencies here, in my country, offer translation services from and to 30-50 languages. While all of them claim they have their own translators, about 90% are “one-man show” businesses. The rest have employed up to 10 people, administrative staff generally.

    In August 2013 we sent a letter to the Bulgarian Commission for Protection of Competition signaling of inequality between agencies and individual translators. In March this year, the commission started investigation procedures into the issue of “their”, the agencies’, translators.

    Why don’t you, in the States, inform a body responsible for competition that your agencies use false (misleading) advertising to attract clients?

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  12. All advertising here is nothing but a bunch of lies and there is really no body responsible for fair competition because translation is an unregulated business activity.

    Asking our government to become more involved in what we do for a living would be really, really stupid because all they would do would be screw us even more than they are now.

    They don’t work for us, they work for the big boys on Wall Street.

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  13. Please, do some search on the Internet. False advertisement is the key word. Translation is not regulated in Bulgaria, either.

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  14. Fighting agencies or asking governments to help, is a waste of precious effort and is not likely to meet with any success at all. Our strategy should be choose our own path, i.e. to differentiate the ‘profession’ from the ‘industry’ and offer clients who need quality translations, a reliable, more professional and trustworthy alternative.

    It has the added benefit of gradually depriving (corporate) agencies of the life blood that continues to feed their claims that they are ‘providers of quality translation services’.

    To start with, we need to separate the chaff from the grain (enthusiastic amateurs from trained professionals, and make sure the latter is clearly identifiable.

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    • “gradually depriving (corporate) agencies of the life blood that continues to feed their claims that they are ‘providers of quality translation services’.”

      Impossible. Corporate agencies are independent of professional translators. To deprive them of blood supply, you have to look into the organization of their business.

      To attract clients, translation agencies make false claims about the number of their employees (members of their team) – hundreds and thousands of staff. They can’t prove they have that staff. If they don’t have staff, they can’t operate. A contract of adhesion doesn’t make you a member of the team. Consult a lawyer. Ask what ‘hire’ means.

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  15. […] 25/05/2014 Setting a Low Rate and Sticking to it is not Exactly a Business Plan by Steve Vitek (Diary of a Mad Patent Translator) […]

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