Scummy Business and Greedy Wannabe Patricians

Without a doubt, there is always something to learn. To me, it seems that as much as I believe I know, there is a persistent need to learn something new.  Circumstances change, paradigms shift, and I have the foolish desire to become well versed in something, to a degree where there is nothing else that can be learned –  a fool’s goal.  However, the space of expertise seems to be inhabited by knowledge of the present paradigm, cognizance of how change is in a constant ebb an flow, and recognizing one’s own personal talents and abilities and honing them to ensure continued success. Perspective and passion are also essential in the equation of success.  Without them, there is very little reason to do anything other than out of a desire to be responsible for whatever reason.

In graduate school, we were taught how to think about translation in a perfect world with perfect circumstances. Most education is from the “in a perfect scenario” perspective.  What is rarely focused on in education, at least in mine, was the idea of how to handle an “imperfect scenario.”  The egos of many professors in academia are sufficient for such a setting, where they define perfection and then espouse their ideas as major academic players in the industry teaching up-and-coming translators how to strive for the perfect project. Whether anyone ever encounters this pre-defined perfection is inconsequential, I suppose; in 13 years of work in this industry, I can confirm that there is no such thing as a perfect project.

In translation studies, our teachers very much forwarded the narrative that words are beautiful, their meanings are important, and culture must be understood, adapted, or explained.  We were being trained as the link between culture and language, and that without us, the translators, there would be little to no chance that the world could communicate with each other. To a degree, this was undoubtedly true, specially trained translators do possess a wealth of knowledge that is useful and helpful to those who need our services.  But, one particular thing that seems to have been severely overlooked in my education is that most clients are not concerned with the process of translation, they are concerned with project price and turnaround. These are the two aspects that make up the whole project for most clients, who have little to no desire to know about or interact more deeply with the process.

I learned a lot in 10 years working on the agency side of the industry interacting with clients and vendors. This is nothing but a business. The desire, which it is with every business, is to gain the highest quality of work possible with the least amount of time and resources invested in the facilitation of that objective. Personally, though, I would much rather have a dependable vendor with good quality on whom I could rely, but there must always be an understanding that the translator was his or her own entity not employed by the company I worked for and he or she had a responsibility to their own business before any with me.

Now that I am on the other side of the equation, I realize that most translation agency employees (those responsible for outsourcing and engaging language industry vendors) see freelancers as low-level employees lucky to receive work at all. It is very much a hierarchical mirage of superiority that many freelance translators must learn how to navigate.  What the job assigners do not realize is that they are not the ones (usually) with any real expertise in anything to do with the subject matter of their project and that engaging a good language professional in the spirit of equity will get them much further in ensuring a smoothe localization/translation process.

In the past two months, I have been involved in a few projects that are so poorly organized by the agencies they seem to be hardly worth the money I earned compared with the lack of professionalism, organization, and expectations on the agency side.  What happens in these cases is the agency over-promises a client, usually a large, well-known company in a particular industry (pharmaceuticals, software, etc.) and they rely on a freelancer to jump through hoops to meet these expectations, without putting in the minimal effort on their end to ensure project success.  The translators often are more than willing and happy to do it which reinforces the arrogance of the end client and allows the agency to ultimately do the least amount of work for the most amount of profit.

And, what I have discovered is that the quality does not matter in most cases.  Of course, literal unedited machine translation cannot always be considered a viable alternative to qualified and experienced translation, but the translation academics and localization industry salespeople who both prize and promise error-free quality and style are doing so knowing that this is entirely outside of the operational reality of such projects when they accept them.

About a year ago, a reasonably good client upped their metrics by 25% and decided that I should drop my rate by 25%, simultaneously.  The reasoning that was trotted out was “market pressure” and the old gaslight “we want to work with you, but you are just too expensive.”  It is as if this client forgets that I worked for them as an editor and I see the quality of their translators.  For a while, my collaboration with this company had been good, but this is a very hostile and manipulative way to do business. Likewise, though, it is an acceptable way to do business. The rate they are offering to pay me for the country I currently live in is too low, it would be almost equivalent to a 15-dollar-an-hour-job in New York City.

Despite knowing that I would not be able to sustain life on just this client alone, I have actually considered accepting that rate.  But, I could only live on this rate if I lived in a less expensive country, frankly, or in a very dull place in the United States. This is not the concern of a translation agency whose only job is to make money at any cost, but it leaves a bad taste in my mouth.  But, the only choice I have in the matter is whether to accept the rate reduction or not.  As stressful as it might be to not take the bait, I decided not to reduce my rates, as what I charge is very competitive, and fair.

I didn’t get any work from that company for 8 months, then suddenly after that amount of time of barely-edited MT from translators willing to accept 0.05 USD per word for legal and medical texts, the client came back to me seeming to have forgotten that they tried to force me into a corner. After a renegotiation of rates, which involved a 30% increase and a minimum engagement fee, the client is still trying to finagle the metrics and pass them off as industry-standard, ignoring that they are paying for MT from google or DeepL without any real professional language expertise, but that is not a concern for me, as such. Companies will try to cheat, and they only care about how much they can get for free. Getting and engaging new clients with whom a healthy business relationship can be established is possible — it just takes time.

As I am getting into the business aspects of this industry, I realize that it is a fine enough way to make a living, but the business side of it is quite aggressive and dishonest.  While this is not only true of the translation industry and it is the general way of business worldwide, I don’t have to like it, but I have to understand it an exploit it just as the companies attempt to exloit me. The only way to make money as a translator is to provide service, which essentially means, doing for others and knowing that other people can do the same thing – some better, some worse – and that there is no guarantee of engagement.  However, I am not greedy and am not looking to make a million dollars proving translation services.  The fact of the matter is, it would be too time-consuming to do actual translation and make that amount of money.  But, the love of translation and the love of language is probably not the reason to get involved in the corporate translation industry – a fact I now understand.

In any event, translation services, despite the gaslighting of clients, and the apologetics of greed is one in which success is possible.  As a freelancer, it is slow going and requires contacts, of course, or being the person a desperate client pics from any list they find online or who happen to come across your website when searching for services. Most of it is chance, but getting to know people and using the soft skills and having people like you enough to give you an opportunity to work for them is the easiest way in.  If you are an agency and your GM is below 50%, you are doing it wrong, and you should look at the human capital you’ve invested in to find inefficiencies and probably hire an expert to get your company into some kind of shape, because the industry is not hard, particularly challenging, or regulated.

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