The Illogical Series (When a Big Translation Is a Big Problem)

When I was young(er) and looking for work, I had to fill out a lot of application forms, remember all sorts of data and take all kinds of tests: i.e., draw trees, draw mountains, draw myself, describe Rorschach’s vertebrae (because we all agree that those inkblots are vertebrae, right?) And then came the logical series questions. I would have to complete logical series like these:

Monday, Tuesday… (oh, right… Wednesday!)
Red, green, red, green, red… (oh, right…green!)
4, 8, 12, 16… (oh, right… 20!)

That was how you were supposed to continue down the page filling in the “logical series.”

So anyway, now, when I’m all grown up and considering translation proposals for large-volume jobs, this idea of “logical series”, comes back to mind, but with a twist: when applied to the time translators put in on their work, these become “illogical series.”

The client’s e-mail message says the job coming up will be hUUUge. And so you smile and lick your chops in anticipation of the succulent check that will accompany such a job. But that dreamy smile gets wiped off your face by the next line: since the job is hUUUge, the rate paid will be tiny. The client’s argument is that since what’s being offered is a lot of work, you should charge less. (And so we see the approach of the trend that overshadows us today: that of considering translation to be a “commodity”).

Shouldn’t it be utterly obvious that this reasoning is incorrect? Clearly, I mean from our standpoint, as translators. Sure, for the client, it’s just swell!

Now, I may be a right-brain thinker, but I’m tempted to run through the equation:

If they give you 1,000 words, they pay you USD 0.10 per word.
If they give you 2,500 words, they pay you USD 0.09 per word.
If they give you 5,000 words, they pay you USD 0.08 per word.
If they give you 10,000 words, they pay you USD 0.07 per word.
If they give you 20,000 words, they pay you USD 0.06 per word.
If they give you 30,000 words, they pay you USD 0.05 per word.
If they give you 40,000 words, they pay you USD 0.04 per word.
If they give you 50,000 words, they pay you USD 0.03 per word.
If they give you 60,000 words, they pay you USD 0.02 per word.
If they give you 70,000 words, they pay you USD 0.01 per word.
If they give you 80,000 words, they pay you USD 0.00 per word.

STOP!!! Watch out, now, Colleagues! WATCH OUT! Because according to this, when we get to 80,001 words, we have to start PAYING to translate!

Come on now… Do we look like we were born yesterday?

Is it logical to accept giving a discount on a big job? I think so. Okay, but:

– What exactly is a big job? How many words merit my accepting a discount?

– And just what kind of percentage discount can we be expected to accept?

Some time back, a colleague (who runs a translation firm in Buenos Aires) called me and offered me a job at ARS 0.06 per word (six centavos in Argentine currency or about 1.5 US cents per word). I couldn’t believe my ears, but I limited myself to saying I wouldn’t accept the proposal because it was such a terribly low rate. She immediately rebutted, saying: “But it’s 10,000 words! And later there’ll be 10,000 more!”

So, is 10,000 words a big project? No. It’s not a big project.

In terms that our colleagues with fewer “flying hours” can understand: We translators have a daily average production of 2,500 words. Just divide 2,500 into 10,000 and it’s easy to see that this is a four-day project and a four-day project is not one that warrants any kind of discount.

Let’s suppose I quote USD 0.10 per word for X agency. If they offer me 10,000 words, that’s my rate. If they offer me 20,000 words, that’s my rate. If they offer me 30,000 words, that’s my rate.

Will my price come down if they offer me a lot of work? Yes. Maybe if they can come up with 50,000 words, I’ll give them a “little” discount. And the key word here, Colleagues, is “little.” What, 2% or 3%? Something like that. As everybody knows, that price will depend on the project’s many variables.

The illogical series only makes sense to those who continue to try and take advantage of our beloved profession. In the client’s mindset: Just look at the excellent project I’m offering you! (= so excellent that I’ll only pay you a couple of bowls of rice to translate it). What we have to remember is that if we accept a tiny per word rate because the project is hUUUge, then we’ll be all tied up and unable to accept the better jobs when they come along. More important still, we will be aiding and abetting those who seek to consolidate what, for us, is a nefarious idea: translation = commodity.

Aurora HumarĂ¡n
Translated by Dan Newland
Illustration: Juan Manuel Tavella –