I was going to mail a letter yesterday, well, a credit card payment. Few people probably still mail letters in 2016. I can’t remember the last one I mailed, but I still mail checks to pay bills.
But when I arrived to the big blue mailbox, it was surrounded by yellow tape and there was scaffolding next to it and three smallish guys were doing something to it. It looked like they were painting the wall next to the mailbox. So since I did not want to get the paint on me, I gave my letter to one of the guys, who looked to me to be barely 18, and asked him if he could mail it for me.
He looked at me as if not comprehending what I was saying. Then one of the older guys said something to him in Spanish, he nodded his head and took my letter and attempted to put it into the big mailbox.
But he could not figure out how to do it because he was trying to push it into the mailbox through a non-existent slot. In some countries, the slot is on the side where the kid was looking for it and I guess Mexico is one of them. But in United States, you have to first pull up the big metal flap that protects the mailbox, from rain, probably. After a second he figured it out, pulled the flap up and posted my credit card payment, I thanked him and that was that.
I deduced from this episode that he must be a brand new “illegal immigrant”, probably from Mexico, who just arrived to this country and has not even mailed a letter from here yet.
New translators (newbies) and would-be translators who often work for incredibly low wages are the “translation industry’s” equivalent of “illegal immigrants”. And they do not necessarily live in low-wage countries, since anybody can claim to be a translator. And some people who translate can do it very cheaply because their translation income may not be their primary or sole income.
Thirty years ago when I started working full-time as an independent translator, I was being paid (at first) six cents a word for translating Japanese patents for a small translation agency that specialized in patents.
Then another Japanese translator told me that he knew a guy who paid seven cents who was looking for Japanese translators, so I stopped working for 6 cents, (which 30 years ago was the equivalent of 12 cents now), and started working for that guy, who had tons of chemical patents because he used to work for a big chemical manufacturer. Then I stopped working for him when somebody offered me 10 cents a word, and by the mid nineties I was charging at least 15 cents, up to 18 cents for rush work to some translation agencies.
That was what I was charging to translation agencies and it wasn’t bad, but since I saw no reason to keep working only for agencies, by the mid nineties I was working more for direct clients, mostly patent law firms, than for translation agencies and I was and still am charging direct clients a little more than what I can charge a middleman, of course.
Incidentally, there is no magic bullet to finding direct clients for your translations, but here are a few pointers:
- You need to have a good idea about the field in which you want to specialize: in my case, patent translations.
- You need to identify who your direct clients are: in my case, my direct clients were obviously going to be patent law firms and patent law departments of different companies, mostly large corporations.
- You need to design a strategy to make them aware of your services: I have been sending letters to potential clients for about 10 years since the early nineties every time my work load was light. I must have sent thousands of letters, but I did find my first clients in this manner, and some of them stayed with me for more than a decade. I no longer send letters in this century as I am now relying on my website and silly blog for visibility on the internet.
In contrast to the development of rates in the eighties and nineties of the last century when rates kept going up if you had a good language combination and specialty, the rates paid to translators by the “translation industry” started going down instead of up in this century, even for highly specialized translation, such as for patent translations, and even for very complicated languages that are very difficult to learn, such as Japanese.
Some of the downward slide is the result of globalization, as some translation agencies now send translations to countries such as India or China where labor is much cheaper than in Western countries. The translations might not be very good, but they are probably still much better than machine translation.
A big part of the downward slide is the result of “portals for translators”, where translators bid in blind actions, and work goes to whoever bids the lowest.
In contrast to popular belief, personally, I don’t think the decline in rates over the last decade or so has much if anything to do with machine translation.
In spite of how the propaganda machine of the “translation industry” is trumpeting the claim that machine translation is “quickly approaching the level of human translation”, machine translation has been quickly approaching the level of human translation for at least 10 years, or in fact since about 1947 if you know the history of machine translation.
I always print out the machine translation of the patent I am translating, either from the European Patent Office or the World Intellectual Property Office website, which offer three types of machine translation of patents: Google Translate (feared by some, but also known as Giggle Translate among other translators), Baidu and Microsoft (Bing) Translator.
When I print out a machine translation from Microsoft Translator, I see that Microsoft Translator is basically indistinguishable from Giggle Translate. Sometimes Giggle Translate is slightly better, but it sometimes gets beaten by Microsoft which does not seem to jump to wrong conclusions as much as Giggle Translate, at least when it comes to highly technical terms. And quite often the sentences produced by Giggle Translate look like a really good translation … but the problem is, they say the opposite of what the text says in the foreign language.
So I don’t see machine translation as having affected much the rates being paid for translation. What did affect rates directly (and every translator is affected at least indirectly by everything every other translator and translation agency is doing), in addition to globalization, is the incredible greed so prevalent in the “translation industry”.
The “translation industry” does not seem to care that by always chasing lowest cost of labor, they are killing off their best customers. There is a reason why some people are willing to work for very low rates, and the reason is usually that these people can’t command higher rates because they can’t really translate.
The big secret, that only a few translators seem to know and talk about, is that the inescapable network of low rates being paid for translation is escapable.
The “translation industry” would like to think of itself as the indisputable king of translation. It believes that its business model and the methods of large translation agencies that brutally exploit translators and seek lower and lower labor cost to achieve higher and higher profit is the most logical and the best business model in this particular segment of the service industry.
But as I read somewhere, because translation is so incredibly fragmented, the ten largest translation mega-agencies with offices on several continents account for less than ten percent of the market for translations.
The “translation industry” is not Big Pharma, which can enforce its own monopoly over the market for medications resulting in incredibly high prices by bribing our politicians year after year. There is a lot of competition in the market for translation and as far as I know, the “translation industry” does not even have lobbyists.
The key for translators to escaping the inescapable inevitability of falling rates in the “translation industry” is to stay away from the most exploitative segments of the “translation industry” by creating an alternative to it – a business model that is based on methods that have worked for translators in the last century and the centuries before, when translators such as myself were working only for small agencies with a human face that paid good rates and that did not treat translators as indentured servants.
But I also believe that the most important component of the alternative business model for translators who want to escape the inescapable network of falling rates is that they need to eventually work mostly for direct clients instead of working only for a broker.
I just heard on the news that 2016 was the first year in a long time when there was actually an increase in salaries and wages paid to workers.
It is not inevitable that rates paid for translation should keep falling. But if translators do nothing and obediently accept the dictate of the new “translation industry”, it is not difficult to see that they will continue doing precisely that.