Can volunteer translations *damage* your bottomline?
Thread poster: Samuel Murray

Samuel Murray  Identity Verified
Local time: 23:27
Member (2006)
English to Afrikaans
+ ...
Aug 31, 2008

G'day everyone

A while ago I posted a question about how volunteer translation may be used to improve your bottomline, i.e. how it may be used or be useful for increasing your profits. I then asked myself in what ways volunteer translations may be damaging to your business.

I can think of a number of reasons one may speculate why volunteerism is bad or potentially bad, but I would like your input on (a) if you can think of more reasons why volunteer translation is not a good idea and (b) if you think my reasons are valid, or not well thought through. Remember, I just brainstormed these, and it may be that the reality is different.

Here's my thinking: translation takes time, therefore anything that wastes time is bad for business. Sure, volunteerism has other benefits, but I suspect many people who participate in volunteer activities do by filling the time they have over, and not by sacrificing the time they would normally spend on profitable activities. Am I right?

Volunteer translations are often done for organisations with low budgets. They don't have money pay staff to answer the translator's questions. Therefore, thinking is that volunteer translations would sometimes be done in a vacuum with no support from the "client" that one would normally expect from a paying client. Do you think this is a valid point?

Your usual rate may be too high for the organisation you're doing volunteer work for. When an update of the source text becomes available, and they receive funds for translation, they may use a poorer translator (because they can afford him) to update your existing excellent volunteer translation. This might lead to damage to your reputation if some clients associate you with that text. Do you think this is a likely scenario?

If you think purely in advertising value how much a volunteer translation actually costs you to produce, it may turn out to be a very, very expensive advertisement for your services. Also, a single translation will appear in one place only, but for the same money you could place a number of small advertisements in various places. Do you think my reasoning makes sense? Am I missing something?

A certain organisation may use several volunteer translators, and some of them may be terrible. Their poor translations may cause a much lowered public opinion about the organisation's translations, and your association with this organisation may damage your reputation. Do you think it happens often that the public judge a translator (who worked for a certain company) according to the poor translations published by it?

So, what do you think? Are these reasons valid or are they somehow short-sighted?

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Peter Linton  Identity Verified
Local time: 22:27
Member (2002)
Swedish to English
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Gaining experience may make business sense Aug 31, 2008

I think you have lots of valid business reasons, but there is one strong reason you seem not to mention; one that is particularly important for novice translators -- namely that doing volunteer work can build up translation experience, and help you to break through the 'no experience, no work' barrier. In those circumstances, charging little or no money may make complete business sense.

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Daniel García
English to Spanish
+ ...
Two thoughts... Aug 31, 2008

Here's my thinking: translation takes time, therefore anything that wastes time is bad for business. Sure, volunteerism has other benefits, but I suspect many people who participate in volunteer activities do by filling the time they have over, and not by sacrificing the time they would normally spend on profitable activities. Am I right?

I can't see the validity of this argument.

It seems to be based that volunteer translation is done instead of of business translation but this does not have to be the case.

On the other hand, the same argument could be applied to any volunteer work (any time you spend on volunteer work is "wasted" as you are not working.

So, I think that, if you do volunteer translation filling the time you have over, you can't really see it as a "waste", I think.

Regarding the marketing benefit, it is harder to assess.

The fact that the big translation companies do not seem to use volunteer translation as a marketing tool to a great extend makes me think that they don't consider it very profitable from that point of view.

It could even be against your own interests, Ï suppose. Translating human rights appeals for cases in certain countries might prevent the outsources from that country (either for fear or because they disagree).

And then again, a customer might not want to send you a translation coming from a given industry if they know that you have translated reports against that particular industry.

And so on...

I am not saying that one should not do volunteer translation. Ï am saying that they might not be such a good marketing tool.


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José Henrique Lamensdorf  Identity Verified
Local time: 20:27
English to Portuguese
+ ...
A pattern and its spinoff Aug 31, 2008

Most of the volunteer organizations larger than a certain size are composed of three organizational layers:

- Their founding volunteers who had a dream
- A body of managers that makes the volunteers' dream come true through
- A body of workers who actually do the work

The problem is that there is a tendency for these managers to often be volunteers' "buddies", and when this is the case, they tend to be grossly overpaid in comparison to the average market for such professional endeavors. "S/he is one of the best XXXs in the market! We are really lucky to have them on board. With one phone call s/he would be hired by a Fortune 50 company and make twice as much." ... when that's quite far from the truth.

I'm making no innuendo that there may be some back pay from the managers to the volunteers. This happens most often in government, not in volunteer work.

The workers are paid at average market rates, or below, under the guise of doing "noble" work for a nonprofit organization.

Such organizations live mostly on donations or membership dues, so the budget is rather tight, and to some extent unpredictable. Donations are often pre-assigned to some specific and visible improvement, new facilities etc. etc. but not to services where it's not possible to hang a copper plate in tribute to the donor.

So a service - like translation work - can be outsourced in three ways, following the same pattern:

1 - It can be assigned to volunteers, who will do it for free or almost, for the chance of doing it, and to get some practice and/or visibility. A good choice for beginners, the worst for professionals who are making a living from it.

2 - It can be done by "buddies" who will be grossly overpaid as per the aforesaid organizational pattern. Some of these will simply reoutsource the work and make a profit; there is no need for them to actually be translators.

3 - It can be done by professionals, who will get the usual market rates, or maybe (only) slightly lower, if they are sympathetic to the cause.

Therefore volunteer translation can damage the bottom line if the translator actually fails to match into the category (from the three above) in which s/he was hired. I mean someone from #3 being hired as #1.

Needs and outcomes in terms of quality have not been considered here, as the issue is the translator's bottom line.

[Edited at 2008-08-31 13:49]

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Jessica Noyes  Identity Verified
United States
Local time: 17:27
Spanish to English
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Bottom line isn't everything Aug 31, 2008


Your points about the potentially negative aspects of volunteer translations are preceded by words like "might" and "likely". Speculative, as you point out yourself. Meanwhile, in terms of facts, we can be sure that volunteer translating provides practice -- perhaps in a new specialty, and also that it is helpful to a group or person that the translator wishes to assist.

All of us, I hope, spend (valuable) time pursuing activities that provide no profit -- building our families and our friendships, and pursuing our other interests and loves. Among these might be volunteer work.

Translators are business people, but we are also human, with a human need to give and to contribute. We can donate dollars, rands, euros, or yen; we can bake cookies for the baked-goods sale; or we can give a few hours of our valuable time, doing what we love, and substantially increase the value of our donation.

Following your line of questioning, would we wonder if physicians giving poorly-paid time to Doctors Without Borders, and the lawyers working pro bono at Guantanamo, and the contractors who donate their time to Habitat for Humanity are hurting their businesses? In the sense that they are not making money at that exact time, yes indeed. However, one could *speculate* that they might be gaining skills and making connections that will further their careers in the future. And if not, they have the satisfaction of knowing how many lives besides their own they have improved.

So, you might have some points there, but for those of us who want to give a little something back to the world, volunteer translating is a great opportunity to build that other bottom line -- the psychological and emotional human wealth that sustains us through good time and bad.

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KSL Berlin  Identity Verified
Local time: 22:27
Member (2003)
German to English
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Bad for the bottom line Aug 31, 2008

Not really sure how to answer this one. Not being Ebeneezer Scrooge in his unreformed days, I have a hard time as seeing any moment not used in the pursuit of pecuniary gain as being wasted. I spend so much time writing invoices that I rather enjoy taking the opportunity to refuse payment for a small job from time to time or to take on a bit of volunteer work on a bigger scale. Others seem to take the same approach - when one of my favorite outsourcers contacted me recently to see if I still had a copy of a certified translation job I did last year, I found out that he'd never charged it, because it was for a nice young fellow desperate for a job and looking to move abroad. Was that bad for his bottom line? Maybe. But it was probably at least as good for his spirit as a nice evening in the theater.

I agree with Peter's statement about gathering experience through volunteer work entirely: a short term sacrifice with long-term dividends.

But there is one point about these volunteer translations that I think about occasionally. They may indeed be bad for the bottom line of those *using* them. Many responsible non-profit organizations understand the importance of professional communications management, and you can't always reach that goal for free. I filled in on a job for a friend years ago for a Christian relief organization dealing with human rights abuses and persecution around the world. If anything would tug at the heartstrings and make someone want to volunteer a translation to help raise funds to buy back slaves in Africa or whatever, this text was it. But the organization realized that to sustain the level of communication quality needed to encourage donations in the best way an investment needed to be made in a high-quality translator. I loved doing volunteer translation for Greenpeace, but frankly with texts of a size that would typically net me 500 to 1000 euros, there does come a point at which it will affect my ability to pay the bills. And in the end the organization probably does itself a disservice on occasion by taking on work of substandard quality, though the little bit of review feedback I did see indicated that the people involved knew what they were doing. Greenpeace may be one of those special cases where enough "crusaders" of quality are attracted that the end result is good and where it isn't, the spirit of the common fight compensates adequately, but your average fundraising organization for the local AIDS hospice may have a less sexy image and be better off paying for a top translator if they don't happen to know a first-rate one willing to work for free.

[Edited at 2008-09-01 06:01]

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Alexandra Goldburt
Local time: 14:27
English to Russian
+ ...
If it's a sacrifice, then don't do it. Aug 31, 2008

I would do a volunteer translation only if:

1. I truly believe in the organization goals and truly share its philosophy (which is more likely to happen if it's a small organization, maybe even one-person organization);

2. I really want to spread the word about their cause (and I have a tendency to support less then popular causes); and

3. There is an explicit understanding between this organization and myself that this is done in my spare time, which I don't always have, and, since I have to make living first, there is no deadline involved in my volunteering - I do it when I can.

This way, it is not a sacrifice to me, but simply what I want to do and what I believe in. I wouldn't do it if it were a sacrifice.

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Hynek Palatin  Identity Verified
Czech Republic
Local time: 23:27
English to Czech
+ ...
Of course they can damage your bottomline Sep 1, 2008

Here's my thinking: translation takes time, therefore anything that wastes time is bad for business. Sure, volunteerism has other benefits, but I suspect many people who participate in volunteer activities do by filling the time they have over, and not by sacrificing the time they would normally spend on profitable activities. Am I right?

This does not make sense to me. There is no "time that is over". You either spend your time on something profitable, or you don't - and that damages your bottomline by definition, because you are losing money you could have earned.

So there is always an initial cost which can damage your bottomline, unless it is outweighted by the benefits you mentioned in your previous thread.

Leaving altruistic reasons aside, you are presenting volunteer translations as an marketing activity or an investment. Can an investment improve your bottomline? Can an investment damage your bottomline? Yes and yes.

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Narasimhan Raghavan  Identity Verified
Local time: 03:57
English to Tamil
+ ...
Can volunteer translations *damage* your bottomline? Yes, it can! Sep 1, 2008

Even voluntary translators may not be free from liability as can be deduced from this other proz thread at

Personally I am against doing any free work of any kind.

That is one reason, I don't even look at Kudoz questions that are non-pro or are marked "not for points".

When such is my stand even for Kudoz questions, you can imagine my reaction to free work.

And the above thread just reinforces my stand.

No free jobs from N. Raghavan.

N. Raghavan

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