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July 5, 2009 / ICL

Inter-professional Dialogue: Renato Beninatto

Renato Beninatto

(To get an idea of this article in Spanish, using the Google Machine Translation tool, click here.)

My virtual café chat this time took me all the way to Lowell (Massachusetts), in the USA, to talk to Renato Beninatto, who, at the time we chatted, was still co-founder and an active member of Common Sense Advisory (CSA), “a research and consulting firm committed to improving the quality of international business and the efficiency of the online and offline operations that support it.”

I was particularly interested, among other ideas they have published, in learning more about this company’s/group’s comparison between the traditional Gutenberg-based “TEP” (from “Translate, Edit, Proofread”) translation quality concept and their proposed “PCTP” (from “Plan, Coordinate, Translate and Publish”) translation quality concept, as described in 2007 in one of CSA’s blog entries.

Although in our chat Renato basically covered the same areas as in the above mentioned article, what I tried to do differently was to “challenge” some of these ideas with my own comments or questions, based on my own experience as a freelance translator.

But in the end we (well, rather Renato) talked about a lot of things, like translation education, prices and globalization, etc., which are among the many aspects that I believe any freelance translator should seriously consider when facing the translation market and translation clients.

The following is an edited version/transcription of our chat through Skype. It turned out rather long, but I honestly think is worth a full read, because Renato managed to analyze many of the issues with a style that is both thorough and informal, a cross between an informal conversation and a presentation.

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So Ivette, I understand you are interested in discussing my recurring topic about the Gutenbergian approach to translation quality. OK, let me start with a little bit of background [information], so that you understand where I come from.

I started my life as a freelance translator. I am originally from Brazil and I translated into Portuguese.

I actually started translating for movies, and eventually, when the IT revolution started happening, I got involved with software localization, and over time I built a translation company that had 65 employees. We worked in specialized, very large multi-million-word projects, for companies like SAP, Hewlett-Packard or Oracle and others.

Mostly into Portuguese from Brazil and Spanish. I had an office in Brazil and an office in Argentina. So I’ve had the opportunity to look at productivity from the translator’s side and the manager’s side, and also over time I ended up working as an executive in large companies like Berlitz, where I was working with very large projects.

So the background of all this starts with the frustration [caused by] inefficiency, but also with some successful projects in the past where we had multiple translators working in very large projects. Another data point I want to add to this is that one of my largest clients in Brazil at one point was Shell Oil, and I was very closely involved, from the translation side, with their ISO 9000 Certification, their first one, back in the late 80’s/early 90’s.

During this ISO Certification process, my organization had a lot of training on Total Quality Management and quality processes and procedures in the manufacturing space and applied to services also. So I have always been fascinated by and involved with the quality concept, and the efficiency concept. One of the things that you learn being a small business owner for a while is that different projects have different requirements.

The challenge that you have when you start talking in terms of generalities or generalizations in the language service industry is that we talk in terms of absolutes, of rules of quality becoming something that is definable in very narrow terms, and that a process or the same process will work for every type of project. I’ve been involved with industry associations for over 20 years and the thing that frustrates me the most is that what dominates the discussion and the debate in any type of industry organization is mediocrity.

Essentially how do we make everybody do the same, and not really how do we make everybody do the best job. I am interested in the best job, and the best job or how I would define the best job is delivering the best quality according to the client’s expectations, within the deadline, with a profit for the service provider, and at a fair price for the end-client. So paradise, everybody is happy! [Laughs…]

So let’s move on to the standard issue, the standard question. I did a series of presentations in several conferences that were titled “Quality doesn’t matter.” What I mean by that is that quality, from a sales perspective, and the way it is talked about in the translation industry, is totally irrelevant, it doesn’t mean anything.

So normally I asked the audience how many people know what TEP is, and how many apply TEP, and how many believe in TEP. I realized that “Translation, Editing and Proofing” (TEP) is like a dogma in the language services industry. People + organizations + companies + schools, they all learn this concept that a translator does the job, somebody else reviews the job (another translator reviews the job), then you do a final check, and then you have quality.

The problem with that organization and that structure is that it focuses on the process and not on the players, on the elements in the process.

What I see, based on the economic structure of the translation business, is that you have a translator, who gets a certain amount for the job he/she does, then you have an editor who gets 20% of that amount to review the work, and then the internal organization in charge of the process that does (when they do) the final check of the files before they are delivered to the client.

The assumption is that by adding processes, by adding steps to the process, you are going to improve the quality. This philosophy is based on the idea that quality is “catching errors”. Therefore, the job of the reviewer is to catch mistakes and errors that the translator made. The job of proofreading is to catch errors that the editor didn’t see, right? So it’s all a chain based on the error or the mistake, but that’s not quality.

Quality is doing it right the first time.

So the proposition of process that we talk about here in CSA, which, by-the-way, is nothing new, as it is something that I adopted 20 years ago, it’s just that it has become easier by the technology and so this topic came back in force about two years ago. The concept is “you do it right the first time.” You provide all the tools, all the infrastructure and all the information for the professional to do it right.

That is, instead of having a reviewer to catch errors, you have an infrastructure to prevent mistakes. Instead of having error correction, you start having error prevention. That’s how quality and security work in the manufacturing industry. You don’t correct defective parts, you create a process that avoids the manufacturing of defective parts.

The idea here is that you start with, first of all, some general assumptions in the concept of quality. I am not sure I stated this clearly, but if we look at the industry standards, there is a dogma that states that:

* The fewer translators you have involved in a project, the better quality you are going to have, because it is more consistent.

* You need multiple eyes to look at the translation in order to provide better quality.

* More revisions improve the quality because you catch more mistakes.

I want to blow all this concept away, because that was true when you had typewriters and telephone lines. Or when you needed everyone to be working in the same room because you wanted to avoid typos and problems like that.

Today, the infrastructure that exists allows me to state, very clearly, that I can have a better translation with 10 translators, instead of 2. I can have that translation faster, with better quality and more consistency. So that sounds like a heresy, right?

[IVETTE: Sure, but the problem is that sometimes the work that is needed to avoid those mistakes, to carry out that prevention you described, is not taken care of.]

Exactly, here is the problem. The companies that have implemented what I propose understand that this is a complete cultural shift. You cannot start tomorrow and just say “Oh, Renato says that quality doesn’t matter, so we’re going to eliminate the review process.” Absolutely not.

Let me give you an example. As a freelance translator, there are some subjects where you are usually very good at, in which you are very productive, which allow you to do even 8000 words a day, and which don’t make you feel so tired, because you don’t have to look at the dictionary every five minutes.

But there may be other topics where you do 500 words and you are already exhausted and even feel that you are the dumbest person in the world. I’m telling this from my own experience.

So my point here is to bring some concepts into this idea of cultural shift. What I propose is to work with that more productive side of the translator which allows him/her to make 8000 words a day because he/she knows very well the subject matter. So if the translator had to work on a manual about one of his/her strongest subjects, but there is a section of the manual that deals with a subject with which he/she is not so familiar (for example, Medicine), the translator would need help only for that section.

Therefore, the job of the coordinator in charge of the project would be to assure the translator support in those areas where the translator requires help. In the previous example, the section about Medicine would be carefully reviewed by a doctor, in order to guarantee the quality of the translation in this specific section. The rest of the translation could then be perfectly taken care of by the translator him/herself, as he/she is a professional who knows how to deliver final files that have been reviewed/spell-checked by yourself.

The main shift in this new process is that, first of all, you start with a strong project management organization that spends time planning.

In the traditional translation process you have a Project Manager (PM), a translator, a reviewer and an in-country reviewer from the client (to validate the translation at the ending validate phase).

What I propose is that you eliminate the editor. You have a Project Manager whose function changes from manager to “facilitator”. And you create a “community” (a discussion list, a portal, it can take any shape that you want), where you have the translators, a consultant, an expert on the topic whose job is to answer questions about the topic in the corresponding language.

Not a linguist but, for example, if you are doing an Adobe project, a graphic designer, or if you are doing an SAP project, an accountant, or if you are doing a medical devices project, a doctor. You would also have the client, as the validator, forming part of this discussion group.

Other parts of this discussion group would be the tools, which are the shared translation memory, Machine Translation if you want to use it, as well as online resources such as terminology and style guides. Everything would be shared in a single place. This can be a free tool, anything ranging from Yahoo or Google groups, a private forum or whatever you can use and create for specific projects.

Now let’s address the quantity of translators in a project. If you look at the timeline for a project, usually the Project Manager will try to distribute the work as fast as possible to everyone involved, so the translators have plenty of time to translate and the reviewers have plenty of time to review.

In the process I propose, the PM gets gets the job in and then stops and holds the project. The PM checks what are the potential problem areas that the project is going to have.

For example, the typical problem that comes from dividing the project among people is the issue of style consistency. But the truth is that style is something that is very very very easy to standardize. What usually happens, as we both know, is that most translators don’t usually read the style guide, they assume that it’s always the same thing.

To give you a classic example, we had a project in Portuguese for SAP and while we were translating part of the material, one of the glossary entries was “cost component”, which in Portuguese has an easy literal translation (“componente de custo”) and as a translator you would never look up this this combination of terms in a glossary, because they are common words of common usage.

But SAP used for this term combination the idea of “cost element” and it happened that none of the translators remembered to check this, because most translators think that the glossary is a reference guide for things that they don’t know. They don’t [seem to] understand that glossary means mandatory terminology, that it is a standardization tool.

Every project usually starts with a kick-off meeting where the PM usually calls or writes to the translator to inform him/her of the number of words to be translated, as well as the sample material, the style guide and the glossary available, all of which the translator usually checks only if he/she needs it, after having started to translate immediately.

So in my proposal there is this element of first setting the expectations. In this new process, in the kick-off meeting you bring as many translators as you can, in order to inform them of the total number of words that the whole team will work on and to let them know that, after having checked the material, there are some clear style rules for the project (for example, titles will be capitalized, the gerunds will be translated as infinitives, etc.), which everyone has to agree to follow, so that there are no doubts or discussion afterwards about the style to be followed.

This takes care of the style standardization, because there are 15 to 20 variables in style guides that are basically the same, so you can do the same with the terminology. Instead of calling it “glossary”, you call it “mandatory terminology”. You can first have all the key glossary entries discussed, reviewed, agreed upon.

Even if you have a translator who does not agree about the proposed translation for a given word, you can let the corresponding consultant expert or the final client help you decide if the word in the glossary should be used or another version based on the target country of the translator.

This is possible, as I followed this process in my translation office, with 60 translators in one room, with all the computers connected to each other using Trados. Today you can do that with the translators being anywhere in the world, because of the collaboration technology available. Back then Skype didn’t exist, but now we are having this conversation through Skype. I can immediately send you a file through Skype and ask you something about it. It’s a collaboration, it’s work that we can easily do together just using a very basic tool.

There is a vast array of technological collaboration tools available that you can use to improve your productivity. Therefore, there is no reason why you need only 2 or 3 translators to be working even in a medium-sized project.

The timeline I am describing means that, instead of having 2 translators working over 10 days, or instead of having 10 translators working over 2 days, you can have 10 translators working over 4 or 5 days, in order to have more time to do well your planning at the beginning, more time to do a check at the end, and you still have 2 days for the 10 translators to do the project. You multiply the number of translators by 5, but you reduce the delivery time by 2, which is a great productivity improvement. Instead of doing it in 10 days, you do it in 5 days. You do it with 10 translators. The actual translation happens in 2 days.

Does that make sense?

[IVETTE: Sure, I am completely familiar with the process you are describing. Of course you describe an ideal situation. Big companies (clients or translation agencies) aim at duly carrying out this process, but in some cases, even if this is their aim, the process can be bureaucratic, because sometimes these collaboration tools don’t allow enough (group) dynamism.

That is, sometimes there is no quick response if a translator has a query about a given word and has to wait 3 days to get an answer until the corresponding expert is available. I think the scenario you describe sounds extremely effective, except that in order for it to be so you need a very well organized and synchronized project management team, to assure that all the persons involved are coordinated well enough.]

Correct, that is where the “cultural shift” happens. The most common misconception when we talk about this issue is, first of all, believing that the consultant role, the “validator” role is a luxury. No, it’s a requirement.

In the projects in which I worked, there was a commitment that any questions that were asked during the day had to be responded by 6 p.m. that same day, so the next morning or at night when the person who had made the query started working again, this query would be solved.

The second big mistake that happens is that this process only works with highly professional translators who are well paid and understand their role in the process. If the company is trying to apply a collaborative approach like the one I have described to reduce costs, to reduce price, to pay less to the translators, that’s a mistake. The value that you get from a process like this is when you pay the best translators the best rates in order to get a productivity improvement that will reduce the overall cost of the project.

That is, the fact that you reduce the turnaround time from 30 days to 15 days is a project management reduction by 50% in time, the overhead goes down by 50%.

[IVETTE: In this respect, I would like to add that maybe translators in this process ought to be technological-savvy and linguist experts, a special combination.]

Yes and no. Theoretically, if you have a very good translator with basic knowledge of technology, you don’t need to be an expert in Trados to do the job, just some basic understanding of “reuse” [of the tools/material], with a basic training of a couple of hours. I’m talking about tools like Idiom and The Freeway (from Lionbridge) that are totally online, in which case the translator doesn’t even need to have anything installed. Even Lingotek, where the translator works in his/her natural environment or browser, or something like that.

[IVETTE: Sorry to insist, but I have worked in some projects with tools that require complex PC configurations, like TCP or plugin requirements. That takes a lot of time for you as a mere translator to setup or rather figure out. That’s what I meant when I mentioned this “special” kind of “technological-savvy linguist” who has to invest time to adapt to the client’s tools, something that should be rewarded when it comes to rates.]

Yes, yes, in fact, one of the things I suggested when we wrote a report about this topic is that the translator should be paid for their training. Any time that the translator has to spend attending a webinar or participating on a conference call and so on, should be paid time, because this is also work, this is not something that you are doing for free.

[IVETTE: Of course, absolutely.]

Again, Ivette, my focus here is on real quality and real productivity. There are two environmental factors that drive this rationale.

One is that there is an increasing demand for translation. The growth rate of content is much higher than the growth rate of translators. I can double the volume of translation in one year, but I cannot double the number of translators that are available in the market. It takes many years to create a professional translator.

And, again, content is doubling every year, is going up, and up and up and up. So the only way you can approach this growth in contents with a stable number of translators is by increasing their productivity.

The other environmental factor that takes place is that prices are relatively stable. The market tends to follow this traditional sequential approach because there is no questioning about this process, since this is the way it has always been done, and nobody stops to think about ways of being more productive. But if you look at how the material is written, sometimes you have 30 to 40 writers who have developed the contents and then we believe that the translation should be done by 1 or 2 people only.

Again, there has to be a cultural shift, because the resources are scarce, it takes a long time to prepare these resources, the contents is growing, there is more demand for translation and prices are relatively stable. Therefore, if you become more productive you actually can make more money by working less. I am all for the concept that there is room for professional translators to make money. This is not a “romantic” business. It’s a business and you need people to understand and look at it as a business, not as a “craft”, as still many translators do.

In some countries like Argentina and Italy there is this idea that only a translator who has studied translation in school can be a translator.

[IVETTE: I agree with this, based on my own cultural background (Latin America and Spain). This is probably because of the fact that, as you said, the way translation has been carried to date, a traditional “Gutenberg” process of translation has been followed. This is related to another issue I wanted to comment, translation education.

This has not necessarily evolved the same way technology has made translation processes evolve. What I mean is that, in the future, translation training or education may have to be split into different schools, according to those areas that require to be more technological-savvy, like technical documentation, and those more traditional areas whose translation will still be carried following the “Gutenberg” process, like journalism, law, etc.]

OK, let me comment the translation education element here. First of all, if you look at the translation process, it means converting words (written, recorded, spoken, signed, etc.) from one language to another. That’s a linguistic skill. That’s the basic skill that you need. You need to have knowledge of two languages, to convert information from one language to the other.

That skill training is something that schools can do very well. They can teach you the conversion process very well, just like they teach you Mathematics (for example, A2 = B2 + C2). The same with languages: you cannot use double negatives in English, but you can in Spanish and Portuguese. These are specific rules that you teach to people and is something that is never going to change. It was like that 50 years ago, it will be like that 100 years from now. That is, the language conversion part is going to be the same.

The rest is work, it is not a skill. It’s HOW you make the conversion.

If you look over time and consider, for example, the translation of the Septuagint version of the Bible, it was done by hand. 70 people translating by hand the Bible, and that is how it was done for many many years: monks with ink, copying and translating texts by hand.

The first revolution were the typewriters. Of course then there were the issues inherent to typewriting. Then the first word processors came around (I remember my first PC, in which I worked with WordStar and Ventura Publisher and programs like that). These were [programs that required] skills that were very relevant at the time, but which are useless today.

Then Trados came along. I have worked with Trados, with Star, TM2 from IBM, Déjàvu, which are all tools, skills that you learn with a little bit of training and that are irrelevant and that are independent of the language capability.

So theoretically, and I stress the idea of theoretically, you could separate both skills and have a person, again, hypothetically speaking, who is a blind translator and who has an assistant sitting in front of a PC. So the assistant asks the blind translator how you say something in Korean. The blind translator responds and the assistant or a second person types the translation in Trados. The person operating the computer is only asking the translator the things that need translation. If there is a 100% match, he/she is not going to ask the translator to do the job.

Therefore, you can dissociate the language skill from the productivity skill. Again, one thing is the education part and the other is the training part. Training will vary over time. What is important today is going to be irrelevant tomorrow.

For instance, do you ever use Google Translate?

[IVETTE: Yes, for some things.]

Of course. It would be stupid not to use it and it’s technology that was not available years ago. If I had had Google Translate years ago, I would have made so much money. I would not have to tell my clients about it. I could do chemistry translations. I hate Chemistry, I always mention that, but I had some chemistry patents that always came to me and I could have had all that translated by Google Translate because it is a formula, so I would just edit it, what’s the big deal? It’s straightforward.

Again, getting back to the education element, we tend to conflate in the same issue that the university doesn’t prepare the person for the market. The fact is, the market changes and the market requirements are different from one market segment to the other.

Like you said, in journalism, in marketing or literature, you are not going to use Trados to translate a novel or a music or cinema website, because there is not going to be any re-use of the contents. Thus, if I am a translator who will be working in the latter kind of translation, why should I have as part of my education 5 credits in Trados?

Which also takes me to another discussion, as I believe you don’t even need university-level training to do translations. From my professional perspective and experience, domain-specific knowledge combined with language capabilities are more important than the language capabilities by themselves.

What I mean is that, for example, if I have a doctor who speaks German and English, I can teach this doctor how to translate in 2 months, while I cannot teach a translator to be a doctor in 2 months. To be more specific, I can teach, in 2 months, a doctor who is from Germany and did his residency in the USA what the translation techniques are. I am saying 2 months with practice, because in reality I can teach anyone [with language skills!] to translate any language probably in 6 hours.

[IVETTE: Laughing…]

I am serious. I am telling you this from experience. I am not saying that the person is going to be a good translator, but I developed a translation training in Brazil because Brazilian universities teach translators how to translate Shakespeare, whereas I had legal and IT translations that needed to be done. What translators brought to me was totally irrelevant and useless.

So what we did is that we developed a little workshop which teaches people who have language knowledge the 13 (or 11, I cannot remember) techniques that you can use in translation. In our workshops I got doctors, accountants, telephone technicians who worked in Brazil and who had lived in the USA and had good English knowledge, and taught them how to translate. The rest is practice.

The big problem about the language conversion part is insecurity. The translator doesn’t know what he/she is allowed to do: can I omit a word? Can I use a synonym? Can I change the sentence and change the word order? Do I have to be literal?, etc. Once again, this is an issue that is part of the planning and preparation. If you setup a certain set of rules upfront, you won’t have this confusion.

[IVETTE: In all fairness, I have worked with experts, too, like engineers, who have either done the translations or revised them, and many times you cannot compare the language quality result of an expert with that of a linguist, unless the expert has also done linguistics. I have sometimes been a vehement supporter of translation studies mainly because of the linguistic part, because I honestly think that the expertise of a subject-matter expert is not enough to produce a really acceptable text from the linguistic point of view.]

Yes, but again, this is where the training comes into place. To give you an example, the president of the Brazilian translator association is an engineer. He was an engineer when he came to work for me, and he had lived in the USA and Holland and thus had used English functionally for a long time, but he had never translated. He knew the topics very well, he was conversant in the topics, but since he had gone to a very good school in Brazil, I also knew he had a good background.

The first thing we did for potential translators like him was to do a Portuguese grammar test, and if he had a good result, you could assess that he could write well in his own language, which is something that a good school would provide. Assuming you are translating into your mother tongue, the linguistic skill comes from good basic education. If you finish your high school studies very well in a good school, you should be able to write in your own language without any problem. That’s the kind of empowerment that professionals with linguistic skills are able to do for commercial translations.

I know this is a very philosophical issue, education. [Of course I know that if] I start talking about [education like] this, say in Argentina, I have to prepare for [getting hit with] tomatoes, because if you are not a “Traductor Público Jurado” (certified translator) they are going to think that you are a… I don’t know, a fraud. So I had to fight a lot to get very good translators working for me there, because they didn’t have a diploma.

[IVETTE: In my case, I have learned to be flexible about this because I have always considered translation as you described it, as teamwork, so you need to evaluate each team member’s skills and join them to lay good translation foundations from the start.

Obviously if one person is a better linguist and another one is a better subject-matter expert, if you combine both skills you will be able to produce a beautiful result.]

Exactly. It might be ideal to follow, it might require more work, but you have a combination. The final idea is that you create a community.

When you have 10 translators working on the same project, you can discuss, through the community, things like cross-references where one person working on a given chapter finds a reference to a paragraph from another chapter another person is translating and they help each other. So the community idea does work.

When I worked with this 60-person project, we had 2 external consultants in the project, and one was involved in making the final word decisions, but when a translator asked a question, any of the colleagues could respond. Somebody in the community could know the correct translation for the term asked and all the validator would do at the end of the day is say if the answer was correct or not. In case it were wrong (usually the exception), the translator would just have to go back and correct it, with search-and-replace, no big deal.

I had another project with 25 translators working off-site, translating all the documentation for a power plant. We hired a retired PhD in Engineering who used to manage a power plant. He worked from our office and the translators nicknamed him “God”, so whenever they had a question or any doubts about a term, if “God” had given the answer, there was no further discussion. [Laughs…]

There is a lot of value in selecting the right consultant, the right person to solve terminological issues, in order to create more confidence in the translation group.

[So this translation process “cultural shift”] is not an empirical discussion[, but last] year we actually did a series of events on vendor management and one company from Guatemala, of all places, came with a very interesting case-study, about a 30-million-word project they did for an automotive company.

They followed the SAEJ 2450 specification for translation projects. The project required metrics, lots of metrics, and they had an error tolerance of 0,05 %. Basically, aproximately one mistake per 10000 words. It was a very well monitored and measured project. One interesting anecdote about the project is that, in the middle of the project, the client told the translation agency that they had to speed up the project, in order to reduce costs, so they had decided to eliminate the edit process.

The translation agency was shocked, fearing they could not guarantee the quality, etc. etc., the usual stuff, but in the end they managed. This was an 18-month project and, after 6 months, they were instructed that the edit process would be eliminated. What happened is that quality improved by this elimination, because the editors were incorporating mistakes.

One of the things that is often forgotten in the quality process is that human nature dictates that we make mistakes in anything that we do.

Usually in the translation process you will have a translator who has a lot more information than the editor, because he has been there longer, because he is paid more, because he’s been briefed at the beginning of the project, he’s well informed and he knows what he is supposed to do.

It often happens that a translator has discussions with an editor because the latter insists on considering wrong a given translation which was, for example, in the style guide that the editor did not take the time to read, and the editor is changing things based on personal preferences.

What the translation company from Guatemala found out was that, after 6 months getting feedback from the editors and the reviewers, the translators didn’t need any additional review. They could perfectly deliver very good quality without any editing. What they removed from the process were the errors that the editors were incorporating into the translation. Beautiful story.

[IVETTE: One last question, regarding globalization and prices. If, for example, a company in a less-developed country manages to follow the productivity-enhanced translation and quality process you propose, but for at least half the price a similar company in a more developed country charges, how is the translation business supposed to adapt to this, especially freelancers, how can you compete in such a global market?]

Well, in your case, the problem is that you work into Spanish, which is the cheapest language in the translation market, and price is driven by the local market. The fact that there are 19 countries which have Spanish as their official language makes it harder for you to become competitive. And by-the-way, we found out in one of our researches that prices in Spain are lower than in Argentina.

So, again, if price is determined by the local market, the price of German translations is determined by the German-speaking market, the French one by the French-speaking countries, etc. Consequentially, translations in Swedish or Japanese are more expensive than Spanish or Chinese because the supply of translators in those corresponding markets is what determines the price.

The reality is that price has been very stable for a very long time from the client’s perspective. In the USA, a final client pays between 20 and 25 cents per word for translations into most languages. The translation agency will buy translations in Argentina between 8 and 10 cents per word, or in Spain between 6 and 8 cents per word, and that’s about what usually happens.

What has happened in the last couple of years is that there has been a lot of fluctuation in the exchange rates. So people are moving, they are doing what is called “arbitrage”, they are moving from doing translations in Europe, in German, to the USA, or doing Japanese translations in the USA instead of in Japan, because the exchange rate makes it more favorable.

So the translation market has become a global market and the pricing is not necessarily determined by where you are, but rather the value that you have.

My recommendation to freelance translators is to move away from the “commodity” market. [But I don’t like to use the word “commodity”, even though there is a certain element of commodity in freelance work.]

That is, you have the very good translators at the top of the market, who establish their price.

For example, there is this guy in Portugal who has a translation business, very technical translation, lots of clients, and he charges 10 cents of a euro per word to do Portuguese translations, while in Portugal people are doing translations for 4 or 5 cents of a euro per word. Whenever a company sends him an email with an offer to lower his rate, he sends them an invoice for 50 euros, charging them for “wasting my time”.

Anyway, he is an example of a translator who sets up his price. I know another similar case of a translator in Italy, who only works with international companies because she gets 12 cents per word, while the local market pays 5 to 6 cents, because she managed to carve herself a niche.

Another one who works in financial translations, which is another niche market, and he doesn’t need to worry about work because he has enough and has established his credibility in the market as an expert.

This also has to do with “personal branding”, how you sell yourself, how you position yourself in the market, vis-à-vis your competition; that is, the other translators.

Modestly, I was very successful as a translator and what happened over time when I was doing that is that I would take the time to share my knowledge with other translators, to train other translators, and, invariably, whenever any of them got a job that they could not do, they would send it to me.

Early on in my career my best marketing was establishing myself as an authority among my peers, so that my peers would refer me whenever they had a project they could not handle themselves. That allowed me to charge more.

This is a discussion I have with LSPs [Language Service Providers] all the time: move away from price and start talking about value. What is better, a cheap translator or a good translator who will deliver your translation earlier, better, with no complaints from the client, without multiple rounds of reviews, etc.?

You can manage to show your client, with a little effort, that if they pay you more, the total cost of the project will be lower if they are working with a professional.

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24 Comments

Leave a Comment
  1. Fabio / Jul 6 2009 10:51

    Hi Ivette, thanks for stopping by at fidusinterpres.com and for linking back to my blog. Of course, I am aware of you great translation blog and was already following you via RSS feed.

    Your interview with Renato Beninatto is very inspiring. Thanks a lot for publishing such interesting content.

    • iveclop / Jul 6 2009 11:33

      Hola Fabio,

      Thanks to you for stopping by and for saying such nice words. I will be following your blog as well, as I think as colleagues we can all learn so much by sharing our thoughts and ideas through blogs.

      I am glad you liked the chat with Renato Beninatto (and, as you must have read, he is a fellow Portuguese language expert), because he certainly has “insider information” about the translation market.

      Cheers,

      Ivette

  2. Begoña Martínez / Jul 6 2009 17:48

    Congratulations to Ivette and Renatto. I love this article, I think it is inspiring to try and do things in a different way, a way that would allow good translators to get challenged and improve, to be “the best translators we can be”. I have one question, can you recommend tools to do this? At Matiz we’re now finally trying to make everyone use Project Open to cooperate in projects. Do you have examples of systems used by real companies to Plan, Coordinate, Translate and Publish? My concerns are (of course!) usability and privacy.

    • iveclop / Jul 6 2009 18:29

      Hola Begoña,

      Nice of you to stop by and to make such nice comments! Thanks!

      I will “alert” Renato about your comment, since he is the expert, but I think he had already commented that, as the main idea is to monitor and coordinate very closely the initial kick-off project management meeting, he mentioned that you can actually use even free tools, like private forums, Skype, Google or Yahoo groups, etc. for this (though I am not sure how safe they are, from the privacy/confidential point-of-view). In my own experience, the team-related program I have used the most is Teamworks (from Trados).

      Un saludo cordial,

      Ivette

  3. Renato Beninatto / Jul 6 2009 20:25

    Hola Begoña,

    As I mentioned in the interview, which technology you use is irrelevant. Technology changes and things that were unthinkable months ago become kids’ stuff. At Common Sense Advisory we recently switched our internal platform from MS Exchange to Google Apps. After a little bit of behavioral adaptation, our productivity increased significantly in the are of sharing and collaborating.

    Fortunately, translators are smart people and adapt easily to technology challenges. My recommendation is that you find something that is easy to use and doesn’t require training for the translators.

    My vision is that in very little time, Translation Memories will be shared by everyone, and each translator will be able to work with their favorite tool (Déjà Vu, Trados, MemoQ, Wordfast, whatever). Until then, any sharing platform (Google, Yahoo, MSN) is good enough. Project Open is a very good start.

    Eventually, as I wrote in my blog, Google Translator Toolkit will become the standard platform (I feel like Google has been listening to me all along, since they built exactly what I think a Translator platform should be!)

    And Common Sense Advisory keeps following this space and the tools available in the market… so make sure you become a member :-)

  4. Zeca / Jul 6 2009 21:13

    “Google Translator Toolkit will become the standard platform”
    God forbid.
    If all this really happens, our market will shrink drastically for the sole benefit of corporations. The only reasonable strategy to cope with exploitation is to refuse to participate.

    • iveclop / Jul 6 2009 22:23

      Hi Zeca, good that one of Renato’s comments made you participate and visit. If you stop by again, you are welcome to share your background, your experience and your knowledge with us.

  5. Begoña Martínez / Jul 6 2009 22:32

    @Renato I completely agree. The first time I saw Google Wave I thought: this is it. This would be perfect for translators working on live websites, large projects… anytime, anywhere… A bit of translation memory input, and that’s it: track changes, revert changes, comment on changes, all done by a group of people working collaboratively. But as you say there will be people resisting change, because they see it as a menace (see above! see below!), and won’t be able to (heh) surf it. Even agencies are often reluctant to allow translators to (gasp!) talk to one another about projects.

    I have indeed been following CSA for some time now (you have been in my blog‘s blogroll since the beginning) but I have always been scared of your price tag -I’m sure your research is worth it, specially for the bigger players. For a self-founded bootstrapping entrepreneur like me some of your topics sound like they will be something I will need at some point in the near future, but maybe not just today. Maybe you could prove me wrong, and point me to examples of things Matiz could profit from? ;-)

    @Zeca: “our market will shrink drastically for the sole benefit of corporations”
    Our market? Who is us? Whose market is it? If your market is corporations, then you will always benefit corporations if you are doing your job well. But if you chose your clients right, they will also benefit you.

    Also I don’t see how the current situation (SDL Trados) is any better, given the price tag, upgrade policy (I see in CSA that part of the problem has been taken care of) and quality concerns. There is a lot to improve in the translation memory market from all the “cloud” apps, and only Google has just now the engineering and infrastructure muscle necessary to pull it off successfully. But maybe a couple of students in a garage will prove me wrong in this one.

    I think that the possibility of translating with any computer, any OS, anywhere you can find an internet connection, and without paying an expensive “entry fee” to any multinational corporation, is not the end of the world: quite the contrary.

    “The only reasonable strategy to cope with exploitation is to refuse to participate”. I disagree. There isn’t (just) one only reasonable strategy for anything. You have to listen to your clients and help them get what they need: that’s why they pay, mind you. And the moment you are not providing clients with the things they want to pay for, you’re out, no matter which market you were in.

    But you can control who your clients are, and you can control how you offer to help them, and then “be the change you want to see in the world”. Faceless corporations will be faceless clients, and you will be a faceless provider, unless you do something about it. There’s community to build with clients too.

  6. Kevin Lossner / Jul 7 2009 17:26

    I love the comment about the 50 euro invoice for time-wasting. I’ll have to start doing that :-)

    • iveclop / Jul 7 2009 19:14

      Hey, Kevin, nice seeing you around here. :-)

      I do wonder if the guy in Portugal actually gets his 50 euros, though. :-D

  7. Ofer Tirosh / Jul 8 2009 00:05

    Thank you for a great and inspiring interview although I disagree with a few parts. Renato, you are a real authority and I’d like to thank you for sharing some of your views.

    The best suggestion I take from this interview :

    “Early on in my career my best marketing was establishing myself as an authority among my peers, so that my peers would refer me whenever they had a project they could not handle themselves. That allowed me to charge more.”

    • iveclop / Jul 8 2009 11:42

      Hello Ofer,

      Thanks for your kind words.

      And yes, I am sure many may not necessarily agree with some of the contents of the interview, but it may be a good starting point to reflect about some of the topics mentioned, so if you feel like sharing your points of disagreement, you are welcome to do so any time.

      Cheers,

      Ivette

  8. Kirti / Dec 12 2009 01:30

    I think your readers may also be interested in a presentation that Renato just gave last week at the Translation and Localization conference in Bangkok where he covered many of the same topics and also several new ones.

    The video is available on DotSUB and is ready for subtitling if there are any volunteers.

    http://dotsub.com/view/7da1f3a0-4df2-45a4-b62d-99434c2cf75f

  9. Certified Translation Services / Mar 17 2010 19:23

    I have read some posts and i am going to add this blog to my RSS feed reader.

  10. Frank Wang, MySpace / Mar 19 2010 22:50

    I can pick several flaws in Renato’s argument.

    1. First, the comparison of the translation industry to manufacturing is very strange, if not false. If we need an analogy, software development is a better one, where we see similar practices, such as QA and quality standards based on error catching. Subjectivity is another phenomenon encountered in evaluating software quality. Has anyone in software development proposed to do away with SQA or software quality standards?

    2. “Quality is relative, depending on the client’s requirements.” Should I call this corner cutting? If you charge the same price on two clients, you should deliver the same quality, irrespective of whether one client has higher requirements or not. If you want to deliver relative quality, you should make that clear in your price matrix. Many clients, especially small ones, or those who just started out on localization, do not have dedicated localization professionals inhouse. They have no idea about translation quality or requirements. They trust the vendor and depend on the vendor to provide them with the best quality possible for the price they pay. If you show a client the Microsoft LQA metrics and say “we can deliver this quality with the same price that Microsoft charges (which is typically very low)”, would any client refuse? Introducing concept of “relative quality”, whether in human translation, or in MT, or in crowdsourcing, is basically shunning the topic of quality by making it vague and illusive.

    3. “Do it right the first time.” Here I see a simplistic view on the cause of errors in translation, i.e. it is only caused by lack of understanding of the subject. But, as most people know in this industry, errors happen because of many other factors, including qualification (poor source language and target language proficiency), fatigue (working 12 hours a day), distraction (phone ringing or kids knocking on the door), temporary oversight (slip of the eye), and experience (knowing Trados picked up only half of a sentence because there is a hard return in the middle of a sentence), to name a few. Matching the translator with the subject will not eliminate such errors. So error catching is unavoidable. By analogy, software programmers know well what they are doing and are experts on the tools they use. Do they make mistakes? Yes, many. That’s why there is SQA. That’s why they issue so many hot fixes or roll back their website so frequently. Translation being a human activity, talking about “error free translation” is like daydreaming. It is a matter of more or less errors. That is exactly why quality standards are needed.

    4. Stylistic variations among translators. The “classical” example given in the interview is better understood as terminology inconsistency, which can be easily corrected by asking translators to follow the glossary. The more elusive stylistic variations include the use of active/passive voices, what term to pick from among a group of non-technical synonyms, whether to use a shorter or longer sentence, whether repetitions are preferred or avoided… Listing them all in the style guide is impractical and makes the style guide even less readable. Translation, like writing in the mother tongue, is like finger prints, with its unique features. Besides, there is the issue of competency. If a translator can only translate a string into a 12 word sentence instead of a 6 word sentence, it is no use specifying in the style guide to “use short sentences.” Using fewer translators on the same project certainly helps remove such individual idiosyncrasies, leading to a more consistent style.

    • iveclop / Mar 21 2010 14:11

      Hi Frank,

      Thanks for stopping by to share your point of view about Renato’s comments. I just sent him a message to see if he is interested in replying to your comments.

      And by-the-way, if you care to share with us in which technological area you work, it would be great, because I always like to know more about the background of people who participate in my blog, to get an idea of how their professional background is related to the contents of my blog. No problem if you prefer not to.

      Saludos,

      Ivette

  11. Renato Beninatto / Mar 24 2010 22:20

    Frank,

    I appreciate you feedback, but unfortunately you raise the same arguments that I have heard for over 30 years in the industry. This is why I call them dogmas.

    I will be very brief in my counterarguments:

    1) My analogy is not flawed. Modern software development uses processes like scrum, lean and agile development that are very similar to what I propose.

    2) You are injecting price in the quality argument. Price and quality are not necessarily related. I can charge a lot for poor quality and little for excellent quality. I don’t speak in theory. In the practical word, in the world of language business, quality is relative and not absolute. I quote a former Microsoft Localization Vendor Manager who once told me: “It’s better to be good on time, than perfect too late.” For me, that is proof that quality is relative.

    3) Again, you are talking in terms of traditional processes. When I talk about having 10 translators doing a job, I am also talking about reducing chunks, reducing fatigue, having more eyes see the same document. It’s a give and take. It’s everybody’s responsibility to do a perfect job, period. If you don’t trust your translators, you have picked the wrong ones.

    4) Style and terminology issues are solved up-front, not after the fact. If your argument were true, it would be impossible to have manuals with thousands of pages in the original language that were consistent. In fact, most documents sent for translation are written by documentation teams with tens or hundreds of writers. Why is it that the original can be written by many people, but the translation can be done by only one?

    I don’t expect you to agree with me. In fact, most people don’t. I just want you to think outside the dogma. What if?

    Thanks again for reading my interview and taking the time to comment.

  12. Roman Mironov / Jan 30 2011 10:15

    Thank you for an interesting interview with Renato, Ivette! On a “theoretical level,” I agree almost completely on most points. But I’m not sure though how and when these changes can possibly happen in practice. For example, an editor can indeed easily add errors to translation while reviewing it. From this point of view, it would be of course beneficial to drop the editor for good. But who is going to catch the human errors inherent to translation? No single tool or practice other than a human editor is available yet that would keep translation free of human error.

    Or, Renato says that it is best to use a translator who knows subject matter well enough to produce 8,000 words. Again, this cannot be disputed. But how large is the percentage of translators who can afford to accept work in their area of specialization only? What happens in practice is that most translators have to accept whatever comes their way, mainly for two reasons: (a) they just don’t have the sufficient amount of work in their area, while they naturally want a steady monthly income; and (b) most agencies prefer to use a limited number of translators for all jobs in a given combination, instead of facing the challenges associated with maintaining a large pool of highly-specialized translators.

    In conclusion, the ideas are of course inspiring, and I would love to know which specific methods of implementing them in reality Renato can offer.

    Thanks,
    Roman

  13. iveclop / Jul 10 2009 14:22

    Hi Attila,

    Definitely a polemic idea, the idea of “quality doesn’t exist” or the elimination of the editor, but I see that you have made a rather interesting analysis in your own blog, great.

    I do agree with Renato that some editors are not always better qualified than a translator to change contents, so it is definitely a fact that in some cases an editor can add errors not originally produced by the translator. The ideal would be, as suggested by Renato, to have a truly professional translator who, at the most, would require only a final spellchecker/syntax review.

    Cheers,

    Ivette

Trackbacks

  1. The death of the reviewer? « Terminology, Computing and Translation
  2. Terminology, Computing and Translation
  3. Interview about “Quality Doesn’t Matter” and other topics « Language-File.com
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