his article is
based on a short talk I gave on the opening session of the Seventh
Brazilian Translators’ Forum and First Brazilian International
Translator’s Forum, held at USP (Universidade de São Paulo) in São
Paulo, Brazil, on the week of September 7th, 1998.
The inevitable introduction...
Translation is a service business, not an industry or
commerce. The basic difference between industry, commerce and services
lies in inventories. Industrial establishments keep at least
two kinds of inventory: raw materials and finished goods. Commercial
establishments keep only finished goods inventories. Service
establishments, however, keep no inventories.
An example will make this clear: a paint
factory will keep inventories of raw materials (pigments, thinners,
binding agents) and finished goods (paint); a hardware store will keep
only inventories of finished goods (paint). A painter (service
provider) will keep neither. Painters may keep inventories (brushes, for instance) but those are not for sale. What a painter sells is painting services, and services cannot be stacked in shelves because they are intangible.
Now, every product, tangible or intangible, can be compared with another product based on three parameters: delivery time, quality and price.
Buying decisions are based on tradeoffs among those three parameters:
Product A is very good, but too expensive. Product B is good and
reasonably priced, but unfortunately they don’t carry that brand at
your local store and you do not have the time to look for it elsewhere.
So you settle for Product C, which, in your opinion, offers the best
balance of the three parameters at the time.
How does all that affect our business?
...time and tension...
Because we carry no inventories, clients who call us
for a translation know they will find none. They also know they will
find no “Product B” that will somehow meet their needs. Finally, they
know that calling another translator will not help much, because nobody
will have their translation ready for them.
So, they press for immediate service. Many
translators complain that jobs go to the lowest bidder, but my
experience is that the majority goes to lowest bidder among those who offer the fastest turnaround.
This creates a certain amount of tension between
client and translator. Tension that is made worse by the fact that time
devours itself: if a client needs a translation within 72 hours, each
minute spent finding a translator reduces the time available to do the
job. Once I was asked to translate five long annual reports within
three days, a job I had to refuse. The desperate client called every
agency in town and three of them called me - each of them with a shorter turnaround time: because deadlines are fixed, turnaround times must be flexible.
The problem seems to affect translators more
strongly than other professionals. The other day I called my doctor for
an appointment, and the first date available was a month later. Tell
one of our clients it will have to wait a week and it will probably
hang up on you. If I had an emergency, my doctor would tell me to look
for help in a hospital: they all have emergency rooms these days. We
cannot do that: as far as our clients are concerned, we are the emergency room.
Faster means of communication have made the
situation even worse. When Brazilian companies airmailed information to
their parent companies, they gave me a week to translate their annual
reports. Now they e-mail everything and want same-day translations.
Why is pressure for short turnarounds so heavy?
Pressure on translators is heavier than it is in
other service businesses because the translator is often one of the
last links in a very complex chain of events. For instance, we are the
people who translate the specs required to bid for a government
contract. We are the outsiders, called at the end of the process, when
delays have been accumulating for months and everybody is on edge. Thus
being, we cannot even fight for time: there isn’t any time left to be
The people who prepare the specs do their best to prepare a great set of specs - but we must do what it takes to meet the delivery deadline. Therein lies the difference.
To make things worse, the average translation is
getting bigger and bigger. A few months ago, I was offered a
1.4-million-word job. That is twice the size of the Bible. Turnaround
45 days, maximum. Of course, I declined.
Time pressures favor new entrants: sometimes
the only person who can take the job is someone who actually never did
a professional translation before. Unfortunately, this also means that
someone’s opera prima often is a rush job done without the benefit of appropriate equipment.
...questions of quality...
The constant pressure for fast service created by the
lack of inventories has a deplorable impact on quality - we all know
that. Often clients say time matters more than quality. The guy who
wanted five reports in three days said he did not care: he just wanted
a heap of paper he could show a government official in connection with
a public bid. Nobody would read it, said he. Well, perhaps. But, no
matter what the client says, someone would have a look at the job
sometime and say “Look at this mess! And we paid this guy a premium for
the garbage.” So, I said no to the job and goodbye to a very large fee.
I do not regret it.
But the point I would like to make is different.
Because we have no inventories, clients cannot possibly test our
product for quality. When they contact us, they find not a product, but a potential. And potentials cannot be tested for quality.
Clients can ask for samples of past work or for
tests - when there is time for that, which is not often. In any case,
many translators refuse to do tests and, since most of our work is
confidential, we often cannot provide samples. And, finally, tests and
samples are so easily faked that some clients do not even bother to
Quality has to be evaluated indirectly, based on
what we have done for that client or for someone he knows. This
procedure favors experienced translators and is thus hated by new
entrants, who would like to see clients giving a newcomer a deserved
break. I deeply sympathize with newcomers and their plight, but let us
remember that this is exactly the method we use when, for instance, we
need a doctor: we prefer the experienced doctor who helped aunt Jane
out of her illness to the young promising doctor just out of medical
...the problem of price...
A surprisingly large number of people claims that for every product there is a fair price
based on its cost. In fact, prices result from the play between supply
and demand and bear no relationship to costs. The difference between
price and cost is often called margin. If your margin is high
and your volume is also high, you make a good profit. Otherwise, you
don’t. No business bases its prices on costs. Everybody - including us
- charges as much as they can and cuts costs to the absolute minimum in
order to maximize margins. If they cannot make a profit, they will try
some other business. That is the way the law of supply and demand
All this may seem outrageous, but it is borne
out by the fact that translators, especially new entrants, are always
eager to know how much to charge - not how much it costs. In
addition, we must keep in mind that because translation is a
labor-intensive activity, most of our fees cover labor and, because
most of us are independent operators, labor means what we pay
ourselves. Now, what we pay ourselves is not a cost; a cost is what we
pay to the other guy.
Prices are based on supply and demand, but
buying decisions are based on a comparison between competing products,
which, in turn, is based on delivery times, quality and price
considerations. Because time is usually so pressing, it often weighs
more than quality in translation purchase decisions.
In addition, many buyers see translation as a
commodity - that is, as a standard product, such as 23-carat gold,
which should have a standard price. The notion is reinforced by the
fact that most translators will quote fees and delivery times on any
job sight unseen. Many translators will even quote prices on their home
pages: so much per word, no matter what. If we treat translations as a
commodity, we can hardly condemn our clients for doing the same.
Small wonder clients base their purchasing
decisions on the hallowed method of “get three quotes and award
contract to lowest bidder.” Of course, this should be construed as
“lowest bidder among those offering short turnarounds,” for if you
cannot handle the job immediately, you are automatically excluded from
No use trying to convince a client my
translation offers better quality: all translators claim that. That
brings us back to the no-inventory problem, the main thread underlying
this article: quality only comes into consideration after the
translation is received and examined. If those who bargained for the
lowest prices and shortest turnaround times, complain at this point
that the job was very poorly done, it is too late.
...and the inevitable Internet.
You cannot really write an article on the business of
translation these days without mentioning the Internet. How does the
Big Net affect our business?
Basically, the Net has made us omnipresent. Five
years ago, a company in Guatemala that wanted a translation from
Hungarian into Spanish might have a hard time finding a translator.
Now, it can access the Internet and find a translator in a matter of
minutes or hours, although not necessarily a good one. In addition,
this translator may live in Argentina, if she prefers the pampas to the
The other side of this coin is that a
translator can no longer hold sway over a number of clients just
because she (most translators are female) is the only one in the area
who can cope a given language.
This particular coin seems to have three sides,
not two. For the omnipresence allowed by the Internet will also end
with all dreams of restricting entry into the profession to a small
number of “legally qualified” persons. This is known as “closed shop”
and, although many of its advocates are
honest people who see it as a form of “consumer protection,” it is
often just a ploy to increase prices by restraining competition, very
much like the rules imposed by the medieval craft guilds. Because
translations can move so fast over the Internet, if a closed shop
environment is established in any country, translators who have been
excluded could easily go on working through agencies in some other
country and continue living where they have always lived.
Not that I believe closed shops would benefit
translators in any way, mind you, but that is another long, long,
story, which I may approach in a future article.
© Copyright Translation Journal
and the Author 1998