Money Rules II

On the 4th of July, with an email to prospective speakers, Peter Reynolds announced that TM-Europe 2013 would be canceled due to the lack of sponsorship from the same companies that have always extended their support to the event and contributed to making it possible.

In Peter Reynolds’s words, “the crisis on the market is taking its toll and our industry is now suffering badly.”

That is quite strange to read for an industry that has been given as constantly growing at two-digit pace over the last two or three decades.

What’s happened then?

First of all, there are too many events, reflecting the age-old typical fragmentation of the industry. In most cases, events are the only raison d’etre for many organizations. Organizers seek a hard trade-off in attendance fees trying to keep events profitable and affordable at the same time. And yet, to be popular and get reasonable attendance figures, programs are rarely original and increasingly unattractive. Most events share the same speakers and the same topics, and often even the same audience, and almost never end clients.

This generates too much competition with almost no differentiation, echoing the state of the industry as a whole.

Finally, no potential sponsor would invest in any event offering no return, and the traits of translation industry events above are actually disincentives.

Secondly, but no less important, the crisis affected the translation industry to the same extent as other economic sectors. Translation is functional to the differentiation of offering for reaching global demands. The almost constant growth of the last three decades has been mostly a side effect of the exponential growth of content, which is mostly another kind of content than the one that traditionally fueled the translation industry in the past.

This growth in content has not gone along with a growth in compensations. On the contrary, technology advances and the digital nature of content have made translation easier and easier, while also fostering the belief that it is trivial, manageable, and profitable. The largest translation companies helped spread this belief on the client side and triggered a price war that is still being battled.

All this happened in less than a quarter of century, making translation evolve from a luxury to a commodity, and soon to a utility.

On July 5, Jessica Rathke shouted a “Customer service is king!” on Twitter signaling a blog post meaningfully titled What We Can Learn From London Taxi Drivers.

The post is really interesting for the analogies it brings with protected versus open markets and with cabs and the translation industry.

In an open market, competition is on price, while in a regulated (protected) market players must follow a service code. Obviously, not always a regulated (protected) market is the ground for a monopoly, and it doesn´t necessarily imply poor service. Likewise, extreme competition is not always good for consumers.

Open market and extreme competition are typical of the NYC cab system, with crappy cars and poor service, but very low fares. NYC cabs are much cheaper than London cabs, which generally offer a definitely better service. NYC cabs are really a public means of transport, and a fair alternative to subway and buses. Yet, London cabs are convenient only when the Tube stops running, for a night ride back home or to catch very early trains or planes: the Tube is generally more efficient, cheaper, and faster.

Just like public transportation, price and speed are primary requirements for translation. Almost any professional translator knows that a 3,300-word legal text can’t be reliably translated and sworn in less than 24 hours, by a single individual, just like almost any LSP should know that no real professional translator is supposed to do it for US $ 0.10 per word.

So why sending out a mass email? Is it professional? Certainly it won’t compromise the company’s quality system certification, as long as this line of conduct is envisaged in the quality manual. An inexperienced, ill-informed, unknowing, or simply cunning customer could trust this company and luckily even get the job done.

Have crowdsourcing, machine translation, and large-scale outsourcing turned translation into a low-paid, low status work? Definitely not. There has always been and will always be a market for cunning customers, parasite middlemen — however big — and uncaring providers. And no supposedly authoritative self-absorbed, vain, dogmatic old-style-translation jingoist could see any bad-cop-good-cop negotiation strategy prove effective: as television producer Bernie Brillstein suggested in The Little Stuff Matters Most, one should never forget that “Good cop/bad cop means there’s two bad cops.”

Good cop/really bad cop

Jessica Rathke, in an interview with Paul Sulzberger, also reminds us that “most LSPs are very concerned about commoditization and downward pricing pressures. The two go hand-in-hand. If the customer perceives no difference in services, they will make price a differentiator. The problem is the industry’s slow or lack of response to this shift in the market.”

In her book, Quality in Professional Translation, Joanna Drugan writes that Google and Facebook “rejected established translation tools and implied workflows” and “invented new models and their own tools for MT, TM and translation management, largely bypassing the translation profession. They harnessed linguistic and product expertise rather than translation skills, then relied on user feedback to improve output quality.”

It’s not different from Frederick Jelinek’s encouragement to linguists to find alternative employments, to allow NLP systems performances to improve.

As curious as it may seem, SDL sponsored a webinar on “Attracting and Retaining Top Linguists,” stating that “rates would seem like the most obvious key to soaring to the top of linguists’ favorite clients list. However, paying more than everyone else will not necessarily get you there if you fail big time in other areas important to the best freelancers. You are likely to rank higher if you pay relatively well, but not top rates, but you stand out in other areas”.

Lately, value is the most recurring word in debates on translation sales. But what is value? Value is in the competitive advantage a vendor could provide customers with. This requires different thinking, wearing the customer’s shoes. What if your customer is not an end customer but a middleman? In that case the customer knows what you are providing, and you certainly can’t educate him/her. The best answer then is: differentiate and breakdown your prices, value your services — not your (supposed) quality, — offer alternatives.

The translation industry is still at a vendor management stage, which is, by the way, the largest cost budget item. It could be huge for companies with hundreds or thousands of vendors, requires dedicated technology and staff and involves delicate tasks like quality assessment and several vendor managers to rotate to keep healthy relationships with vendors. Alternatives should then be cared for by vendor managers as well.

The amount of text being translated is certainly soaring, but prices are not. Should we thank uncaring providers for this? Definitely yes. Can we do anything to correct this trend? Maybe not.