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Is subcontracting comparable to "bottom-feeding"?
Thread poster: Mirko Mainardi

Mirko Mainardi  Identity Verified
Italy
Local time: 21:35
Member
English to Italian
+ ...
Jun 1

I had never really thought about this until I had the chance to compare the rate one of the many "freelancers/outsourcers" out there was offering with the rate the agency they work for was offering (for the same work). We're basically talking about a 1:2 ratio.

I'm sure this isn't an isolated case and that there are better/worse ones out there, however, the point is: is this ethical? Is this "right"? Isn't this hurting "us" translators and our profession?

What's more, those "freelancers/outsourcers" will probably be able to even offer more competitive rates than most other freelancers simply because they're just taking a cut on someone else's work, so they're not losing anything anyway.

Sure, we can blame those who are willing to accept such offers, but does that absolve the ones making them?


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Lingua 5B  Identity Verified
Bosnia and Herzegovina
Local time: 21:35
English to Croatian
+ ...
Endless discussion. Jun 1

The profession is not regulated and as such there will always be people making this kind of offers and those accepting them. Just a fact of life.

Chicken or the egg, I'm not sure who is more to blame, but I would blame those accepting them at least a bit more. As they are not thinking about long term or broader consequences of their actions at all.


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Tomás Cano Binder, BA, CT  Identity Verified
Spain
Local time: 21:35
Member (2005)
English to Spanish
+ ...
Excess of agencies reduces our rates Jun 1

Clearly, every time a translator becomes an agency, the ones doing the work are paid less. In markets where traditionally agencies tend to be greedy, more translators feel the urge to become agencies, but believe it alright to be as greedy as the agencies they disliked working for.

I strongly encourage agencies to be generous about the rates paid to translators and make an effort to sell the services thinking of quality and not rate. Only then is the agencies' business protected, and our rates are kept at reasonable levels.


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Sheila Wilson  Identity Verified
Spain
Local time: 20:35
Member (2007)
English
+ ...
Are they adding value? Jun 1

If an intermediary has value to add, then I think it's valid. That's often the case with a translator/outsourcer who's working directly between the end-client and the end-translator. They're doing everyone a favour by handing part of a client's needs on to a second person, whether it's due to excess volume or a job requiring skills they don't have. In fact, the same is true of a full-blown agency, IMO. The value to us of the intermediary is that they know the end client's needs and preferences and 'have their ear'. They add value to the client too, by being able to deal with their entire translation needs.

What I try hard to avoid is working for an intermediary who's working for another intermediary. I just can't understand that at all. Isn't it just about people making a buck at the expense of everyone else in the chain? I wish there was some way we could rid ourselves of them. There are specific scenarios where this extra layer serves a purpose - for example, when a multinational end client (who of course calls in one of the biggest agencies) has a need for a larger volume of specialised work than can be translated by a single person, but needs a single specialist to coordinate it. Mostly though, these intermediaries are simply layers of redundancy, soaking up time and money, and making the whole process inefficient and stressful.

For me, knowing that my potential client is working for an intermediary is sometimes reason enough for me to reject the job. It always makes me think twice.


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Christine Andersen  Identity Verified
Denmark
Local time: 21:35
Member (2003)
Danish to English
+ ...
Depends how you organise it Jun 1

I have collaborated with several colleagues who outsource, and I simply do not work with bottom feeders.
Teaming up when several languages were required, for instance, or passing on work they did not have time was a good way to help clients -- and in fact keep them away from bottom feeders!

If they are happily paying for quality, the art is to keep supplying quality, even when they ask for more than one freelancer can deliver. So outsourcing can be a way of combating bottom feeders.


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Lingua 5B  Identity Verified
Bosnia and Herzegovina
Local time: 21:35
English to Croatian
+ ...
Work management, communication etc. Jun 1

Sheila Wilson wrote:

If an intermediary has value to add, then I think it's valid. That's often the case with a translator/outsourcer who's working directly between the end-client and the end-translator. They're doing everyone a favour by handing part of a client's needs on to a second person, whether it's due to excess volume or a job requiring skills they don't have. In fact, the same is true of a full-blown agency, IMO. The value to us of the intermediary is that they know the end client's needs and preferences and 'have their ear'. They add value to the client too, by being able to deal with their entire translation needs.

What I try hard to avoid is working for an intermediary who's working for another intermediary. I just can't understand that at all. Isn't it just about people making a buck at the expense of everyone else in the chain? I wish there was some way we could rid ourselves of them. There are specific scenarios where this extra layer serves a purpose - for example, when a multinational end client (who of course calls in one of the biggest agencies) has a need for a larger volume of specialised work than can be translated by a single person, but needs a single specialist to coordinate it. Mostly though, these intermediaries are simply layers of redundancy, soaking up time and money, and making the whole process inefficient and stressful.

For me, knowing that my potential client is working for an intermediary is sometimes reason enough for me to reject the job. It always makes me think twice.


IMO, any time you have an intermediary (in personal or professional context) it will affect the communication and whatever needs to be done effectively. The other day, I was transferred details re. a certain event from one member of my family, who received the info from a friend, and the friend received the info from another person who is the main or the first-hand source of information. It turned out that by the time this info reached me, its trustworthiness reduced by 75%. I basically haven't received half of the information, some of it was distorted and some of it was false, just received some pieces of true information.

I don't think the project management and translation process and accuracy can ever be as good and effective when there is an intermediary involved. The question is always the same - do they care for it to be effective? If they don't, then it doesn't really matter.


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Teresa Borges
Portugal
Local time: 20:35
Member (2007)
English to Portuguese
+ ...
It depends, one shouldn't generalize... Jun 1

I have collaborated in several projects with colleagues who outsource and I have occasionally outsourced work to trusted colleagues when I have requests for languages I don't cover (always from or into European Portuguese). On managing these projects we have exactly the same philosophy: being transparent and honest. I have never worked with or for bottom feeders. When selecting a translator price has never been my main deciding factor: quality, punctuality, professionalism, flexibility, reactivity, accuracy… and good manners are my main deciding factors.

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DZiW
Ukraine
English to Russian
+ ...
usury vs. added value Jun 1

Unfortunately, in pursuit of "easy money" rather many specialists go profiteering.

A simplified example: (1) Adams gets a contract for $100.
He finds (2) Bob, who agrees to work for $80, but gives it to (3) Charles for $60.
Charles asks (4) his wife to help for mere $40, and she offers (5) a neighbor youngster to translate it for the whole $20, whereas the youngster talks (6) his sis into translating it for a piece of pizza--what a PRCing!
A question of self-interest: What each midman exactly does to get +$20?

I think the only true difference between a skinflinting and a win-win cooperating is the real added value: one's worth. If they can do without one, then he's but useless, a bloating economical parasite.


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Samuel Murray  Identity Verified
Netherlands
Local time: 21:35
Member (2006)
English to Afrikaans
+ ...
@Mirko Jun 1

Mirko Mainardi wrote:
Is subcontracting comparable to "bottom-feeding"?


It can be. Bottom-feeding in this sense means to use the cheapest translators available, and freelancer-outsourcers who accept low rates will have to offer even lower rates themselves. And since outsourcing in this way is quite time-consuming (more than some people realise), the freelancer-outsourcer is forced to offer quite low rates in order to make this activity worth his while.

Is this ethical [for a freelancer-outsourcer to take a 50% cut]?


Yes, I think so. The freelancers who accept work from him are free to work directly for the agency, for twice the money, but for various reasons they choose not to. Also, the freelancer-outsourcer has a right to want remuneration for the time and effort he puts in.

Is this "right"? Isn't this hurting "us" translators and our profession?


Having an excessive number of middle men does hurt the translation world and also clients.

What's more, those "freelancers/outsourcers" will probably be able to even offer more competitive rates than most other freelancers simply because they're just taking a cut on someone else's work, so they're not losing anything anyway.


I don't understand what you mean...?


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Christel Zipfel  Identity Verified
Member (2004)
Italian to German
+ ...
Of course, everything is relative Jun 1

I see two scenarios here:
If I accept jobs at an already low rate and then outsource them at an even lower rate (which is comprehensible, as I have to consider my work and my expenses, too), of course I will be a bottom-feeder.
I could also be an occasional outsourcer working at normal ("fair") rates and in case of necessity outsource the odd job regardless of the rate and at a rate even higher than mine, then I am not.
So it depends very much on the circumstances and it's not possible to generalise.


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Soonthon LUPKITARO(Ph.D.)  Identity Verified
Thailand
Local time: 03:35
Member (2004)
English to Thai
+ ...
Construction business Jun 5

Lingua 5B wrote:

The profession is not regulated and as such there will always be people making this kind of offers and those accepting them. Just a fact of life.

Chicken or the egg, I'm not sure who is more to blame, but I would blame those accepting them at least a bit more. As they are not thinking about long term or broader consequences of their actions at all.


I am also a construction engineer and an engineering consultant. The subcontractors are the weaker in this business. Many countries enact laws to protect those subcontractors (in any domain) strongly. I do not feel that subcontractors are too badly treated in business world.

Soonthon L.


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Mirko Mainardi  Identity Verified
Italy
Local time: 21:35
Member
English to Italian
+ ...
TOPIC STARTER
Overgeneralization Jun 12

Thanks for the replies.

Of course, you are right in that one shouldn't overgeneralize, but, as in the example I made, I was referring to an "end client-agency-subcontractor-freelancer" scenario, where the subcontractor gets a cut just to pass (the very same) work from agency to freelancer, so (IMO) no added value there. One could argue that there actually is some added value if and when the subcontractor applies a valid screening process to find capable, suitable and reliable freelancers, but that should be up to agencies in the first place, so that actually is just an unnecessary redundancy that results in lower rates.

Still related to the "added value" argument, I know for a fact that there are agencies out there that outsource work to smaller agencies or "freelancers/outsourcers" looking specifically for TEP (and possibly other services), and of course, putting together a team, coordinating it, etc. is in fact an "added value", but in my opinion, that's just another example where the agency is abdicating its role (and reason to be) and acting as a mere broker, which ultimately still results in lower rates for the various individuals who actually 'do the work'.

This is also related to what I wrote about subcontractors being able to offer more competitive rates than "normal" freelancers (to answer Samuel as well). What I meant is: a freelancer, having just two hands, can only do so much work in 24 hours, therefore they have to ask relatively high rates in order to make a living. On the other hand, if a freelancer decides to outsource their work (maybe becoming a proofreader for it, or not...) to trusted translators, they'll be able to offer a far greater daily output to agencies at a lower rate compared to the aforementioned individual freelancer, simply because their income won't be limited anymore by their individual daily output.

E.g. Freelancer X can translate 2.5k/day, asks .10 and makes 250 per day. Freelancer/outsourcer Y has 6 subcontractors and can therefore produce 15k/day. They Ask .08 and take .04 for themselves, so they'll be making 600 per day, while undercutting freelancer X, having their subcontractors work for a pittance and offering a far greater throughput (and a single point of contact) to their agency client.



[Edited at 2017-06-13 11:43 GMT]


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Tom in London
United Kingdom
Local time: 20:35
Member (2008)
Italian to English
Illegal Jun 13

Subcontracting is illegal unless it is specifically agreed in advance.

Whether or not there is a formal contract between me and the client, if a client engages me to do a translation, they expect me to do it personally.

It would be illegal for me to pass the work on to a third party, unless that has been agreed in advance with the client.

It would be very easy to prove, in a court of law, that a de facto agreement existed between the client and me that I would carry out the translation personally.

[Edited at 2017-06-13 07:47 GMT]


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inesec  Identity Verified
Latvia
Member (2014)
German to English
+ ...
Yes Jun 13

Tom in London wrote:

Subcontracting is illegal unless it is specifically agreed in advance.

Whether or not there is a formal contract between me and the client, if a client engages me to do a translation, they expect me to do it personally.

It would be illegal for me to pass the work on to a third party, unless that has been agreed in advance with the client.

It would be very easy to prove, in a court of law, that a de facto agreement existed between the client and me that I would carry out the translation personally.

[Edited at 2017-06-13 07:47 GMT]


you are absolutely right. Serious clients include prohibition on subcontracting in POs. The most typical wording is as follows: Under this job request, supplier may not subcontract, delegate or otherwise assign the performance of any of the services listed above without the prior written consent of XY.

[Edited at 2017-06-13 11:42 GMT]


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Kay-Viktor Stegemann
Germany
Local time: 21:35
Member (2016)
English to German
Selling IS a value Jun 13

For me as a freelancer, the fact that someone sells my services to an end client is a value in itself. Without that, I could not do this job. I'm a lousy salesman myself. I am happy to spend my hours doing the actual translation work and never touching a phone, networking or the like.

Therefore, my strategy is simple. I stick to my word rate no matter what. But if the agency manages to sell my work for 50% more - good for them. I don't care if they make a ton of money of my work as long as I'm happy with my rates and workload as well. I deliver quality work and receive quality rates, and the rest is up to the agency. I have the greatest respect for good salespeople and don't begrudge them one bit if they manage to become rich in the process.


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