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Translation agencies in a crisis

translation agencies

What is it about crises that bring out the best and worst in people? Since the start of the Coronavirus pandemic, I think we’ve all been taken aback by people’s responses, both good and bad. In every corner of the globe, we’ve witnessed the selflessness of those on the front line, literally risking their lives to care for the sick, the genorisity of the public as they dig deep and donate to those experiencing hardship, and a resurgent community spirit spurring people on as they hunker down at home. As a woman from Wuhan puts it, “Because of this quarantine, we have bonded with and supported each other in ways that I’ve never experienced in nine years of living here.”

Yet, as in all crises, there are also those seeking to exploit the situation. Whether it’s hand sanitiser being sold for £24.99 a bottle, or face masks being sold to the NHS for five to ten times their usual price (as a friend in the medical industry told me), businesses and private individuals everywhere are profiteering from Coronavirus.

And, I’m sad to say, the translation industry is not imune to this. In fact, since the start of lockdown, some of the world’s largest translation agencies (whose names I won’t mention) have sent out blanket emails saying that they are slashing the rates they pay to linguists. This was not a suggestion or request, but a measure that would be applied automatically. And this at a time when translators and interpreters are already seeing their income dwindle.

Now, I understand that businesses will have to cut back and tighten their belts given the circumstances, and I have no doubt that their end clients are also putting pressure on them to lower rates. However, this kind of practice is rife in this industry and is not isolated to this crisis alone. 

In 2002 and 2008 (and now again in 2020) a well-known translation agency did exactly the same thing, sending out a blanket email stating (almost word-for-word each time):

“…the market for translation is tightening and we are experiencing real pressure on our prices, experiencing reductions in the region of 15%. Customers are negotiating very hard before placing work with us and we believe this situation is not just for [translation agency] but is industry-wide. In order to ensure our continued competitiveness we are expecting you to reduce your prices also.”

To be more specific, they were “expecting” native English-speaking translators earning 4.5p per word (already low) to accept 3.8p per word. For anyone not familiar with how much translators earn, a good daily output would be 3000 words. So, even if a translator is fortunate enough to get a consistent stream of work, the most they would earn is £114 per day, or about £15 per hour. That may not sound too bad, however, the majority of translators are self-employed and have overheads to pay, they receive no benefits (pension, medical insurance etc.) and don’t get sick pay or holiday pay. Suffice to say, these kinds of rates are not sustainable for professional wordsmiths.

But it’s not just unsustainable for freelancers, it’s also bad for language services providers and their end clients alike. In my experience, and according to what you read across the various different translation forums, highly skilled translators and interpreters simply refuse to work for these kinds of translation companies. By all accounts, after sending the aforementioned email, the company in question found themselves scrambling to win back the talent it had managed to shed.

So, if they pay such low rates to inexperienced translators, why do companies rely on these kinds of agencies? To a degree I suspect it comes down to scale, that is, the impression that small translation agencies are not well equipped to deal with large volumes of content, which really depends on the agency. But really, I just don’t think end clients are fully aware of how these providers operate, that most of the fees are soaked up by executive salaries, sales reps’ expenses and the like, of if they are, they don’t really care.

But this is where the owners of unscrupulous translation agencies are missing something. By 2025, Millenials will make up 75% of the workforce, and research shows that 80% of millennials believe that business success should be measured in terms of more than just financial performance, and should make a positive impact on society and the environment. According to the same report by Deloitte, many [millenials and Gen Z] say they “will not hesitate to lessen or end a relationship when they disagree with a company’s business practices, values, or political leanings.”

So, not only is paying unfair rates morally questionable, it’s also bad for business and will be increasingly so as more people in the workplace become conscious of these kinds of issues. Of course, there will likely always be businesses that aren’t fussed about who does the work, and how much they’re paid. But for those who do care, there are plenty of translation agencies that to pay fair rates and may even let you know who is doing the work. They just have to do a little digging and ask the right questions, which shouldn’t be a problem if the agency has nothing to hide.

Here at Keytext, we pay our translators 80% of the translation fee (7p on average). We can do this because many of our translators work directly with the client, cutting out the need for a project manager. For more information on our range of translation and copywriting services, feel free to get in touch.

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