Compiled and Edited by Chris Durban
Michael Binkley, a character in Berke Breathed’s Bloom County, was a precocious, neurotic and celebrity-obsessed ten-year old who was regularly visited in his sleep by creepy crawlies from his “anxiety closet.” I imagine that if you opened the average freelance translator’s anxiety closet, you would find a rogue’s gallery featuring crowdsourcing, machine translation (MT), pressure on rates from the larger agencies, outsourcing to lower-wage markets, the industry’s knock-off cyberevangelists and just plain dismal news about the world economy. These are just some of the anxieties that keep linguists awake at night, endlessly pondering the fight or flight dichotomy.
But are the only options open to the stressed-out freelancer either “Remember the Alamo!” or signing up for an MT webinar?
The publication of The Prosperous Translator, a selection of twelve years’ worth of a regular advice column on the translation business written by Chris Durban and Eugene Seidel, is timely. However, it probably will remain useful for some time to come, despite the daily drumbeat from some corners that technology is shaking up everything (“soon you will be working with a Bing app on your iPhone!” “Uh… why?”). Even the messages from some of the columns that are now more than a decade old remain relevant. Reading the book feels like sitting down and talking shop with experienced practitioners of the treasonous craft. And mostly from the point of view of dollars and cents, which is so yummy but so infrequent because of what the authors call the “poverty cult.” As in any good semi-structured conversation, the truly memorable comments are serendipitous. And not just valuable for people taking their first baby steps. The book is well worth reading even for the experienced translator.
One pearl: “[T]here is not one translation market, rather a multitude of segments, including those driven by rock-bottom rates and/or lightning turnarounds, with quality a distant third” (p.75). Why is there always someone ready to charge less than me? “In translation, the barriers to entry are so low as to be non-existent. Every single day new people are coming in hoping to undercut you and take away your business” (p. 106).
So, are you stuck in the lower-end of the market and frustrated by increasing pressures? One of the authors’ central messages, reiterated gently but frequently, is to go upmarket: “[U]se this as an opportunity to detach yourself from the clutches of slap-dash agencies like this one and go after your own direct clients” (p.179). Throughout Fire Ant and Worker Bee’s interactions with their readers, a recurrent theme is to strike out on your own, be more entrepreneurial, and seek greener pastures when the current ones become overrun by penny-a-word crowdsourcers. And they do this with varying degrees of softness or grouchiness. Witness one reply to a Ph.D. with almost two decades of translation experience who complains that direct clients are not beating a path to his door: “What you seem to want is a fairy godmother to wave her wand and bring you high-paying work without you having to do a thing. And maybe give you a little kiss to make it all better” (p. 120). Ouch.
Tough love. Because the authors aren’t selling an easy or guaranteed road to success. Translators faced with worsening conditions:
bite the bullet and raise prices high enough to earn a decent living. They specialize. They invest in marketing and advertising, and they accept that they are full-time entrepreneurs with all the risks and benefits that entails (p. 92).
The authors don’t address faddish buzzwords such as crowdsourcing and machine translation, because they don’t really need to. When you take a step back (and this book helps), the barbarians at the gate all really come down to the same phenomenon: commoditization. If you’re stuck in the subprime side of the market, the pressures are only going to increase. You only have two ways out. Ape the machine. Take the MT webinar. Try to ride that hamster wheel faster and faster. Reach the goal of picking 10,000 words a day from the cotton fields. Until the next wave of pricing pressure comes along.
Or follow Fire Ant and Worker Bee’s advice. Swim upstream.
After all, if a company is paying a supplier $0.40 per word today, do you think they’re really going to be interested in the output of a post-editor with a humble undergraduate degree and no knowledge of the industry? If you are paying top dollar, even MT that improves 200% will still not fit the bill. You pay top dollar for that little extra something. The machine translation push is designed to vacuum up the pennies-per-word segment. And that is OK. Probably 90% of the text produced for commercial translation is well-suited for commoditized outsourcers, some of which will be driven into the ground by slightly better machine translation.
It is not a moral issue. If you are an independent translator working for direct clients and you want to use machine translation, that is up to you. It is a business decision. Just like using translation memory.
Now, if you’re down in the holds of an LSP trireme, bound and shackled and forced to use the MT oar (because it is just soooo much more productive than that old wooden oar), it is a whole ‘nother ball game. And that can be scary as heck. But as The Prosperous Translator reminds you, the commodity end of the market is not the whole market.
My intuitive view is that anyone charging below $0.20 per word is a future victim of the subprime barbarians. I’m not quite there yet. But I’m tryin’, Ringo. I’m tryin’ real hard. Because every time I hear that computers won’t replace translators, I think: “Yeah, and that’s the problem!” Those bells are tolling mighty hard and methinks they toll for thee and me.
I am not a libertarian. I realize that jumping overboard is not that simple for someone who depends on the trireme for a large chunk of his or her income. And the whole “you’re free to reject our crud” from vendor managers is appalling. I fully realize that. Believe me, I find the sleaziness of large outsourcers contemptible too.
But the metaphor of being chained to the trireme is just a metaphor. If you’re reading this, chances are good you live in a free society. And you are free to strike out on your own. If you hail from Eastern Europe or from places like my native Venezuela, you probably know (or at least have heard of) people who literally went to prison to bring you that kind of freedom. Don’t underestimate the value of that.
Is jumping overboard a sure-fire road to success? Hardly. The downside of liberty is the liberty to fall flat on your face. “For the record, we’ve never said that creating a successful translation practice is easy. It takes language skills, business savvy, hard work and a willingness to strike out in new directions” (p. 120). As Durban and Seidel soberly intone: “There are no guarantees, no magic formulas. Failure is always possible. But there is no alternative” (p. 92).