In my last post, I discussed (among other things) an economic theory with the fancy title “Blue Ocean and Red Ocean Market Strategy”. I mentioned a new technique related to pushing rates down for translators. Some project managers (PMs) of one translation agency are trying to weasel out lower and lower rates from translators because the translation agency allows PMs to keep the difference between the rock bottom low rates of the translation agency and an even lower rate, if the friendly, entirely sympathetic and apologetic, but very persistent PM is able to convince a translator to accept them.
I saw on social media that based on the experience of several translators, a number of translation agencies have in fact adopted this method and many of them use various ingenious methods to make sure that translators will be paid less and less over time.
1. The PM, who is always very friendly and cheerful, (plenty of exclamation marks, smiley faces and emoticons in an e-mail), pretends to be convinced that the translator’s previous rate was in fact lower because she somehow misremembered what the previous rate was. But, if the lower rate is not acceptable, the job may go to a different translator because “we don’t have the budget for it now” and there’s nothing that can be done about it.
2. The PM simply asks for a new lower rate, for example 20% less, and then proposes a tempting rate that is “only 10%” less than what the translator used to charge in the hope that the translator will jump at the chance.
3. A variation of the “we don’t have the budget for it” technique is when the PM says something like, “Look, this is a large, continuous but low budget job and we have a number of translators working on it. We can pay you x cents per word on this job because you’re such an excellent translator, but everybody else is getting x cents – 15%.” It’s invariably a lie – everybody is getting the same low rate.
These and other variations of dishonest and deceptive haggling techniques designed to force translators to accept less for their work seem to be currently very popular in the so-called translation industry.
There is nothing wrong with a broker, such as a translation agency, trying to secure the best possible conditions for a brokered deal, which is in fact one possible definition of a translation project of a translation agency. The agency organizes the project, the translators contribute their work and the broker takes a cut, namely what is left over once the workers are paid.
But as Horace put it, “Est modus in rebus, sunt certi denique fines quos ultra citraque nequit considere rectum” (“rectum” doesn’t mean here what you might think; the quote means something like “There is a proper way to do everything, and then there are certain limits beyond which right cannot be found”. Apparently, Horace knew two thousand years ago what CEOs of modern corporations seem to have forgotten: that even greed should be exercised with moderation.
It’s important to keep in mind that because the translation market is extremely fragmented, there is no such thing as “the going rate” for a certain language or subject as very different rates are paid in different market segments and each of these segments has its own “going rate”.
For example, generally very low rates are paid on online translation auction venues where many translators try to underbid for the same job. Higher rates are often paid by specialized translation agencies, and even higher rates can be obtained by translators working for direct clients if there’s no commission to be paid to a middleman.
Like many other translators, I am both a translator as well as a translation agency. I see from my receivables that last month, for example, about 40% of my income was generated from projects that I organized in my capacity as a specialized translation agency owner, 60% was from my own translations, and the situation is very similar again this month.
But I don’t need to swim with the sharks in the murky waters of the red ocean markets, either as a translator, or as a small translation agency owner.
Unlike the project managers of the translation agencies mentioned above, I am not actively trying to make more money by trying to force translators to accept less money for their work. Unlike some translation agencies, I don’t boast that I have “databases listing thousands of qualified translators”.
I am perfectly happy to have only two or three translators available for a certain type of project, usually a patent project that I can’t handle myself. I value translators’ willingness to work for me very much. The projects that I have for them are often continuous, highly specialized projects and it takes a while before the translators learn everything that they need to know to keep delivering very good work. I want to keep them happy while they are working for me and pushing their rate down would not make them happy.
When I initially accept a translator’s rate, I do so because I am satisfied with my own profit margin and don’t need to keep increasing it by decreasing the compensation for translators – although it would be difficult for me to pay more, since that would mean that I would need to ask the same client for more, or accept a smaller profit margin for myself.
Over the years, I did stop working with a few translators, even very good translators, as I was able to replace them with other, equally qualified translators who charge significantly less.
But I can think only of three such cases in the last 10 years or so, and I assume and hope that these relatively expensive translators eventually figured out, as I did, how to position themselves in a blue ocean market segment that pays them the kind of rates that they deserve.
So remember, dear reader of my silly blog, when somebody suddenly starts haggling with you over your rate, a rate that used to be perfectly acceptable in the past, perhaps with one of the techniques mentioned in this post, the question you should probably be asking yourself is:
Do I really want to swim with the hungry, insatiable sharks in the dangerous, murky waters of the Red Ocean, or shouldn’t I instead try to figure out how to navigate the much safer and much more transparent waters of the Blue Ocean?