Posts Tagged ‘freelancing’

This week the translation world has been busy tearing apart Lionbridge for its crimes against humanity, this time in the form of an attempt to fool freelancers into cutting down their rates. Heated discussion is a good thing, and not only as a venting tool: the less confident and experienced among us will find it easier to resist the arrogant move if they know what others are doing. There is a problem though: the emotional conversation is a bit detached from reality.

Most feedback falls into one of two categories. The first is, let’s voice our indignation and the monster will retreat. Let’s see. A universally hated SLA. A widely criticized translation environment. And now you pay to use it. And are required to reduce your rates. And summoned to their offices to wash the floor. Not yet? You will be. These guys would make Stanley Milgram proud. So you believe they’ll suddenly begin to care about whether you are happy because…?

The other suggested approach is grab some popcorn and watch Lionbridge go broke. Would be nice if the world were that fair. Everybody seems to have forgotten by now, but thebigword did exactly the same two years ago. Citing “current climate,” they “communicate[d] a necessary change in the payment terms <…>: your standard rate will be reduced by 6%.” Two years later, they may not be celebrating record profits, but they are definitely as alive as ever and their BB rating is a decent 4.5. (And they “value [their] industry reputation.”)

Importantly, this is not merely a matter of fairness. Many clients don’t care, but many care enough to avoid an LSP mistreating its suppliers, all else being equal. This brings us to the point that has so far been missing from the discussion: while it looks like nobody at Lionbridge will lose sleep over your departure from their talent pool or your eloquent e-mails to their VP of the Universe, if you bite off a portion of their market share they’ll have to pay attention.

Admittedly, you are unlikely to single-handedly ruin their record-profit-reporting, proprietary-software-imposing, discount-demanding empire, but that is not necessary as small steps add up across the market. Broadly speaking, you need to do two things: (1) make it easier for clients to find you and (2) figure out ways to prove your credibility. For most projects that, in essence, is the entire “all else being equal” part.

Clients are not just metaphysically attracted to agencies. Most of them opt for the line of least resistance when searching and try to avoid responsibility when choosing. So put yourself in front of their eyes (go for a niche to make things easier) and give them something persuasive to tell their boss in case they end up with a screwed-up translation and she demands an explanation (you know the translation will be fine, but they don’t). You will then be in a much better position to negotiate with LB, or any other client for that matter, and this includes the look-where-you-can-stick-your-rate-reduction kind of negotiation, too.

By the way, what on earth is in that SLA that so many people find it a joke?


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A trio of researchers recruited a group of college students for an experiment and told them they would be paid between three and ten dollars for playing a game. After four rounds, an experimenter handed each subject three dollars and asked if that was OK. If a participant asked for more money, he or she was given ten dollars. Those who, instead of asking directly, merely complained about the compensation, were not offered a larger amount.

The goal of the study was to look at sex differences in negotiation behaviour. In the experiment, almost nine times as many male as female subjects asked for more money.

The story comes from Women Don’t Ask: Negotiation and the Gender Divide, which contains quite a few impressive figures that are not intuitively obvious. The most interesting part is not even the XX vs XY stuff, but how much leeway is often available and how the difference adds up over time. We suggest you read at least the free excerpt available on Amazon, it is enlightening.

Still, we are now wondering whether the translation market is indeed dominated by women. It seems to be the case, but we have no hard data. Findings in the book sound too familiar: people accept whatever they are offered, are unhappy with outcomes, yet never attempt to do anything about it.

In our industry, that behavior is displayed by male and female translators alike. It does matter who sets the trend though: “if I don’t accept this, somebody else will” is a self-fulfilling prophecy, and it makes everybody worse-off. Therefore it may be useful to get a clearer idea of who initiates this domino fall.

So far, the usual suspects have been students, residents of countries with a low cost of living and, more generally, unspecified bottom-feeders. They are assumed to provide low quality, thus operating in a separate market in which self-respecting translators are not interested anyway.

If women’s aversion to negotiation is real, it can’t be interpreted the same way: there’s clearly nothing inferior, on average, about their translations. So we end up with normal-quality services available more cheaply for cultural rather than demand-driven reasons. Good for buyers, not so good for suppliers, and a solution would involve drawing attention to the issue rather than discarding the non-negotiators as a separate breed living on a different planet and working for greedy clients that wouldn’t recognize quality if it hit them in the face.


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The Awl has a fascinating piece on freelancing. Excellent prose, some lessons to learn, a few debatable points and, most gratifying of all, an approach refreshingly different from the stuff you typically get from sources covering freelancing.

[I]n order to be a freelancer for very long, you have to think of yourself in certain ways. You know what they say about beautiful people? That every pretty girl or gorgeous man is someone’s ex, was too much hassle for someone. That’s definitely true of freelancing. You show up to the party with the Times or Playboy on your arm and people always, always, always think that you are the half of that relationship that is the lucky one. There are a lot of squinty glances. Really? What do they see in you?

Highly recommended.

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First off: boy, did we hit a nerve with our first post. The plan was to keep posting for a while, then start spreading the word when we had some content for visitors to browse around. Instead, the word spread itself and we got 500+ views in the first 24 hours plus comments that provide plenty of food for thought.

Lesson: never plan. (Just kidding.)

In his comment, José Henrique Lamensdorf made two remarkably important points. We are going to disagree with one and agree with the other.

(For non-translators among us: José Henrique is an excellent example of a translator who does know how to market himself. Pretty much everybody in the industry knows this name.)

The machine translation argument is the part where we can only nod in agreement: yes, MT is good, and yes, exactly for the reason specified.

We witnessed a certain degree of panic and denial when statistical translation came about. Being predominantly employed to translate things that otherwise would not be translated at all, it hasn’t noticeably changed the landscape so far. In its current state it is seldom useful, but it must be getting better.

It will eventually — we think, pretty soon — get good enough to handle all basic translation projects that do not require specialist knowledge, thus eliminating translators lacking such knowledge from the market and making it clear to clients exactly why they are expected to pay a decent professional fee when they do need a human translator.

Consider photography as an illustration (pun unintended). In most cases, the pics you take with your phone cam are just fine, and you wouldn’t hire a photographer to create a visual memoir of you hanging out with friends at the local pub anyway. If you do enroll a pro, it’s because you need something she can do and you can’t, and you know it, so there’s no need to explain the difference.

As to this whole pricing thing, it is not that simple. Translators are actually not unique in letting clients set prices: you’ll find a handful of even more extreme variations of that practice here. Admittedly, in other markets it is nowhere near as widespread as in ours and constitutes a promotional device rather than a component of a business model. The question, then, is how it happens that in translation, prices are so often determined on the buyer’s side, and the story goes like this.

Buyers in every market, not only in ours, naturally prefer to get what they want as cheaply as possible, but, assuming that what they want is reasonably specific, they do not start out with a particular budget in mind. Exceptions like college students who want their iPhone app UI localized for the price of two hamburgers are negligible.

In an efficient market, a buyer would shop around, find a few translators who are equally right for the job (we’ll not elaborate on this part for now, or this post will be endless) and go for the cheapest. No price setting by clients in this scenario: they’ll save what they can, but that’s business as usual.

However, most translators don’t bother to market their services and are therefore hard to find, so the easiest option for a buyer is to contact an agency. Agencies do not compete on the quality of translation services, because they all outsource work to basically the same pool of freelancers — or, as they prefer to put it, have thousands of brilliantly qualified translators in their databases.

If we apply this model to the home electronics analogy that triggered this discussion, here is what we’ll get: you walk into a local Best Buy store and find it empty. A manager approaches you with a friendly smile and asks how he can help you. “You’d like a television? Congratulations, you’ve come to the right place. We get our TVs from the best manufacturers out there. We carefully select them. All their engineers have PhDs from Ivy League universities.”

Sounds nice, especially if you forget for a minute that talk is cheap; but it is the fifth showroom you have visited today, and you’ve been told exactly the same things in each. How do you choose? The situation is further complicated by two unusual circumstances.

First, the identity of TV makers is a secret. There are no brands. You can’t buy a TV just like the one you saw at a friend’s home, because there’s no way to identify the device.

Second, — a bit of a stretch of imagination when it comes to electronics, but a reality when it comes to translation, — there are barely any product features you can specifically describe. You can and do have requirements that you’d like the manufacturer to meet, which is how you would choose where to buy if there were no distributor in the middle. The interaction being anonymous, you can state your demands, but can’t check whether the store complied.

So, what happens next in our showroom…

…or at our agencies? They compete on what is left: the quality of project management, which is hard to reliably demonstrate in advance, and prices. It is at this point that the rate that would later be imposed on a translator is established: with no other verifiable information to discuss, agencies suggest budgets. As we said above, all else being equal, a rational buyer will go for the cheapest option. As we also said above, at this stage all is equal for the buyer.

The next step is the translation market’s very own variation of the Ultimatum Game where Player A suggests a way to split the money to a crowd of Players F and gets his own portion unless they all reject the offer.

So the short answer is, clients do not set prices. Agencies do: their incentives are different. This headache is so widespread that economists gave it its own name: the principal-agent problem. The principal in our case is the buyer, but it is still in translators’ best interest to find a solution, if we want to be expected to meet buyers’ requirements and not agencies’.

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When we solve this, most other issues, including poor quality, absurd rates and agencies biting off a half of the pie while adding zero value, will disappear automatically.

Others offer services. Translators apply for jobs.

Others make business offers. Translators submit CVs.

Others create visibility and awareness. Translators create ProZ profiles.

The translation industry is plagued by a lack of business skills and, worst of all, it is not even considered a big deal: translators easily admit to inability to sell themselves and typically display no intention to change that.

You don’t know how to use a CAT tool? You can’t be serious, that’s unacceptable, go learn right now. You can’t market? Awww, it’s so charming and noble, we are artists deep inside, not merchants! Our souls are fragile like crystal; don’t ruin our white, fluffy, ethereal world with the prosaic dirty stuff, we are above that.

When changes in other markets pose new challenges, players explore, innovate and adjust. IBM sells its PC division to China and goes into services. Hotel Chocolat issues bonds that will pay chocolate returns: how much of that have you seen in the past? Banks team up with mobile operators to enable money transfers via cell phones in Africa where traditional banking is often unavailable.

Translators’ idea of handling change, on the other hand, involves lowering prices, then lowering them some more, then blaming India for stealing jobs, then making sure their ProZ profile includes a photo, because that is how a business establishes credibility.

“What’s up with sales?”

“We can’t compete with the sweatshops, sir: nobody wants a $400 Louis Vuitton when a five-dollar tote sits right next to it on the shelf in the supermarket and plastic bags are free.”

“Oh fuck. What is the marketing department doing about it?”

“Supplying free zippers to the sweatshops. In exchange they allow us to have the best part of the supermarket shelves.”

“Well, I guess that’s all we can possibly do. Keep handing out the zippers and let’s hope for the best.”

This is not to say that the industry does not adapt at all. There are innovations, but they invariably come from the outside and seldom benefit translators. Software vendors develop MTs and TMs, major websites resort to crowdsourcing and so on. Today Translations checking prospective baby names is the closest we have ever come to a group of translators coming up with a novelty benefiting both themselves and clients. Why? Because translators don’t treat their business like a business.

“How do I start an agency?” asks someone on ProZ.

“Don’t!” instantly answers an agency. “It is a business: it requires acumen, know-how and personal experience. Go for freelancing instead.”

Interestingly, as of this writing, nobody in that thread has pointed out that freelancing is business.

See? The most fundamental thing we need to change in this market is translators’ perception of self. You guys are not employees who work at home, have the right to turn down assignments and, in exchange, have to deal with fluctuations of the workload.

You run a business and need to act accordingly. If you are not good at marketing yourself, learn to do it, or team up with somebody who already has the skill, or hire someone to take care of that aspect of your enterprise. To sit and wait for things to just happen is not an option.

The damage is not limited to your own lower-than-it-could-be income: you also further deteriotate the already lamentable image of our profession. This deserves a separate post, so we’ll get back to it later. For now, just think about it: you contribute to a stereotype that others then have to deal with.

Do the world a favor: attend to all aspects of your business, not just translation per se. We share a reputation to a certain extent. Please do not let us down.

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