Translation services are experiencing a drop in demand due to the slowing of the economy and rampant unemployment in most of the world economies. Entire industries have been nearly shut down, causing translation companies that serve in these sectors to run for cover. This is especially true in the following industries which are international in nature and therefore drive demand in the translation business.
Airlines and Aerospace. This industry is responsible for the employment of thousands of translators, directly and indirectly. Airlines are mostly shut down and losing billions. Aerospace companies like Boeing and Airbus are hemorrhaging.
Retail. Large US retailer J Crew last week declared bankruptcy. This is one of possibly many more retail giants in the US and worldwide that are anticipated to go bankrupt or even go under.
Automotive. It is estimated that new car sales can drop as much as 50% and even more. There are many translation companies that specialize in translation for the automotive industry and these translation agencies are hurting.
Movie and entertainment industry. Disney, one of the leading companies in the entertainment industry, lost a whopping $1.4 Billion in Q1 of 2020. Production of movies has halted, leaving translators that create subtitles, voice-overs and dubbing out of work.
Conventions and trade fairs have been cancelled or at least postponed. These events typically drive demand for translation services due to their international nature.
With most courts of law shut down, many court interpreters are out of work now.
Many freelance translators are being threatened with their very existence. The good news is that many countries are providing loans to freelances to soften the impact of COVID-19.
So what is all of this doing to professional translation services rates? It is obviously driving prices down. Lower demand in many industry segments leaves more translators and translation companies competing for a piece of the shrinking pie.
Some companies are offering translation at very low prices in order to retain both their workforce and customers alike. Day Translations, which is a large LSP, is offering a rate of $1 per minute for Spanish interpretation services. This is considerably lower than the standard rate of $80-$120 per hour.
Another company, Translation Services USA, has dropped prices by 50% due to the COVID-19 pandemic.
If you are a buyer, great deals available
If you are in the market now for translation services, you can probably get a better deal by negotiating with multiple vendors. Some companies are desperate for business which means you may get a very good deal professional translation services.
In the translation and localization industry, translation prices are typically quoted on a per-word basis. So if a document or file has one thousand words, we multiply the number of words by the price per word to get the translation price per 1000 words. It is a simple pricing system which seems to work. Translators and LSPs are happy with this pricing scheme (as long as they are getting their price). Buyers are generally also happy with the translation price per word system since it gives them good control over expenses. A fixed price per project can be easily negotiated with no hidden costs or cost overruns.
Translation should be paid on an hourly not word rate according to @JochenHummel who helped introduce the word rate #tc41#Asling
This reality has prevailed for as long as I am in the business. But a few weeks ago I saw this tweet that proposed changing the basis for translation prices to a per-hour basis. This proposal came from none other than the inventor of SDL Trados, Jochen Hummel.
As anyone who uses Trados or any other TM software knows, the software counts the number of words in a file and classifies each text segment as a match/repetition, fuzzy match or no match. This word count is usually the basis for any price negotiation in the localization industry.
Why the need for change? PE(N)MT!
There is a ancient proverb that goes like this: “if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it.” So why would a man who bears major responsibility for the cost structure in today’s translation industry push for such a dramatic shift?
I put this and other questions to Mr. Hummel and this was his response:
In the post that Mr. Hummel wrote last year in the Multilingual magazine blog, he says that human translators will become obsolete and all of the translation work will be done by NMT (Neural Machine Translation) systems. The only human input in the workflow, per Mr. Hummel, will be by multilingual subject matter experts who will review the MT. These people will be paid by the hour.
What do freelance translators think?
Today, many if not most translators refuse to review MT output, which means that a per-hour rate may not be feasible. Here is an excerpt of a chat that I recently had with one of our senior translators, which I find to be typical across the industry:
… as I see it more and more only offer post-edit at xxx rates…. (I don’t work with them) .. and the majority are killing rates … albeit a minority then wants to pay for quality.
On the other hand, some translators are not opposed to move to a per-hour rate: many translators also provide interpretation services and are used to getting a per-hour rate. Interpretation better lends itself to a per-hour rate, as the work is done on-site either in a courtroom, a business office or in a conference setting; or on the phone, and that can also be easily measured in time-units. Indeed it is impossible to bill for interpretation work on any other basis but per-hour. Transcription services, the translation industry’s cousin, is also billed on a per-minute basis.
But even if we ignore the PEMT debate, most freelance translators prefer per-word pricing. They know that their expertise in the use of CAT tools and their control in the languages gives them an advantage-their throughput is high and they can therefore make much more per hour than any employer would agree to pay. The following tweet by Rodrigo Gonzalez supports this popular sentiment.
If you are paid by the hour, you will be paid less over the time, due to progress in MT. Pay the translator by the hour, while bill the client by the word.
For the translation services buyer, going to a per-hour rate is also problematic: how can we know how much time is actually spent on the task? If it is a per-hour rate, does it include coffee breaks? Trips to the bathroom? I don’t mean to get petty here but if we move to a per-hour rate, these questions become relevant. Whereas in a per-word rate, these questions are irrelevant. Let the translator work IN the bathroom for all we care, as long as the work is delivered on time and at the expected level of quality.
Mr, Hummel seems to believe that the entire industry will move to a per-hour rate, and projects will be negotiated in hours instead of words. This will require a high degree of trust between LSPs and buyers, and will also require an accepted scale of how much work can be accomplished in an hour.
Has (N)MT reached human parity?
Mr. Hummel states that NMT has reached human parity. But does this mean that NMT is as good as human translation? Well not exactly. According to Mr. Hummel, in a workflow where every translation is reviewed by a second translator as standard, the source of the first draft is not critical. A reviewer can revise a MT output in the same way that they can review professional human translation. And the final result, after review, will be the same.
Mr. Hummel is not alone in this line of thought. I heard some similar arguments by One Hour Translation‘s Yaron Kaufman in the Slatorcon conference in Amsterdam in November. Yaron also said that NMT will become good enough to replace human translators. And that software will be used to automatically determine which sentences need post-editing. Those sentences, and only those sentences, will be send to a subject matter expert.
In that kind of workflow, it does make sense to pay the reviewer per hour. But is that workflow close to reality? Will translators need to find another line of work?
The current state of the industry
The NMT revolution/vision that Mr. Hummel and others are proposing is still very far from reality. Indeed for someone like myself, who is working in a small LSP, it seems like science fiction. Human translation is still MUCH better than any MT that I have seen. And this probably holds true for the vast majority of all translation tasks.
To the extent that it exists today, the NMT revolution can only be found in large projects of at least several hundreds of thousands of dollars. For projects of such a large scale, training the NMT engines to produce good translation quality can be done cost-effectively, provided that the company/LSP has the resources to do this kind of work (which is far from being technologically simple).
And even in these scenarios, who is doing the post-editing work? It is hard to say. As we have already stated, most freelance translators do not want to do this work. Is it done by in-house staff? Perhaps, but can any company or LSP maintain multilingual subject-matter expert reviewers in all languages and in all fields? It sounds like the job that Noah had in getting all of the animals in the world into one Ark.
The NMT vision
The vision of people like Mr. Hummel and others is that what today is the privilege of a few large companies, will become available to more and more companies in the future. And cost barriers will be reduced. And the NMT servers will be cloud-based with easy access to all. So even small jobs will be run through the NMT and only require review by a subject-matter expert. Suitable online review tools will need to be developed for the subject-matter experts.
My own opinion?
I have been saying this for years: the NMT revolution may not happen in my own lifetime. It probably will happen in the future, but in how many years? Nobody can predict that.
The effect of the NMT revolution on translation prices
Whether we are talking per word, per page or per whatever: it seems obvious that translation prices are dropping. Is this because of the NMT revolution? That also seems obvious. As more progress is made in the field of NMT, and as the workflows based around PENMT improve, more downward pressure will be made on prices.
The effect of the NMT revolution on translation jobs
Professional translators will become more specialized and more skilled. They will need to become subject-matter experts in order to stay employed in the translation business. But that is not so far from the current state in practice: the good translators today usually stick to one domain (e.g., legal, medical, technical). Translators who lack industry and/or academic focus and depth will find it increasingly harder to get work in the future.
Lots of people are searching the Internet for cheap translation services. But can cheap document translation services also be good quality?
Debunking the ‘cheap is not good’ argument
Many of you have heard of the project management triangle. In any given project, you can pick two out of the three following things: fast, good and cheap. If you want it good and you need it fast, you won’t get it cheap. If you want it cheap and need it fast, it won’t be good. If you want it good and cheap, it won’t be fast.
Does the project management triangle hold true for professional translation services? Well sometimes it does, but there are a lot of caveats to it and I would like to use this post to explain.
The cheapest translation is the one you will never buy
Ever since I was a child, I remember the TV commercials that told you how much money you can save by buying this and that. And even as a kid I knew that this was a load of rubbish. How can you save money when you are spending money? If you REALLY want to save money-don’t buy anything. The same holds true for translation services. Do you really need the translation? If the answer is no then skip the purchase. If you are required by law to furnish a translation (like in a court proceeding or when distributing medical or chemical products in a foreign country)-then buy it. Shop around for the best deal and wisely make your purchase.
Cheap languages vs. expensive languages
Some languages are cheaper than others. It’s all about supply and demand. Spanish translation is relatively cheap because of a glut in the market. Spanish is spoken in a few dozen countries and there are many thousands of very good professional Spanish translators that need to make a living. On the other side of the cost spectrum, Danish is an expensive language. Danish is only used in Denmark and there are about 6 million people living in Denmark. Here is a table that shows expensive vs. inexpensive languages.
Cheap (around 10 cents/word at GTS)
Medium (around 15 cents/word at GTS)
Expensive (over 20 cents/word at GTS)
Of course, this is not to say that a Spanish translation will be of lower quality than a Danish translation. If you order either of these languages from a reputable translation company, both will be excellent quality. But if you want cheap translations, better to target your efforts in Latin-America or in China than in the Scandinavian countries. The cost of translation will be much higher in the Scandinavian countries.
Cut out the middleman and go straight to the source
One way of lowering your translation costs is going straight to the source while cutting out the middleman. If you can find a professional translator to work for you directly, you will save money. There are numerous job boards where you can find professional translators. Here too, there are expensive and cheaper options. Some of the higher end boards are Proz and Translators Cafe. At the lower end you can find boards like Fiverr and Upwork. It is recommended that you use caution when selecting translators in this manner because there are some dishonest people out there who will rip you off if given the opportunity. Here is website that lists thousands of scammers that pose as professional translators. These people will take your money and deliver worthless translations.
Use in-house staff
Before I mention this option, I must say that it is not always recommended. First of all, even if you have a native language speaker on your staff it does not mean that they can do a good job in translation. Secondly, their time costs money too and it is not always worthwhile to have this person spend time on translation. Your VP Engineering who is a native Korean and makes $275,000 a year will not be good choice for your in-house Korean translation tasks. And if you have a lower level staffer, they may not have the in-depth language skills to do a good job. Still, many companies are tempted to use this option.
Use Machine Translation (MT)
MT is not just cheap, it is free! I am talking about programs like Google Translate and Bing Translator. MT can be good for certain types of translation, when the text is controlled and uses short sentences. But as most people know, MT can yield results which are ridiculously funny and stupid. So MT should be used with great care.
Perhaps consider using MT and have the in-house staff we mentioned previously edit the result. Maybe you will come out ahead. Most language translation companies won’t take on post-editing MT work. But some companies offer this as a low-cost option with the caveat that the quality won’t be as good as human translation. This includes Stepes and Translated.
Start to plan well in advance
In the first paragraph of this post we mention the project management triangle in which one of the triangle axes is ‘fast.’ So don’t leave your translation purchase to the last second and start shopping around ASAP. Give your translators or translation agency a long lead time and that may get you a cheaper price.
Compare apples to apples
When you get quotes, ask each of the bidders for the identical specifications. This includes the lead time, the service level and the translator credentials. If you send out the same spec to each bidder, and if you make sure that each bidder is capable of providing your requirement, then it will be easy to select the cheapest price out of all the bids.
When you need to cheap translate an official document, like a birth certificate or a high school diploma, the requirements are pretty simple. The body you are submitting the translation to, such as a state immigration office, will need a translation and proof that the translation is accurate and authentic. When this is the case, determine the level of certification required and choose the cheapest offer you can get. Translating these simple documents is very straightforward and any decent company or translator will deliver a good quality job.
At GTS Translation, we made a strategic shift about three years ago and started to sell document translation services online. It is a simple concept which is used by several other companies like gengo, onehourtranslation and translated. The customer only needs to upload her/his documents and select the source and target languages. They get the translation price quote online within seconds and can then complete the order and payment online. Delivery and approval of the job are also done online. Many customers prefer this method of buying over the traditional method of yesteryear, when they had to call up the translation company by phone, sent files by courier or email, etc.
We also prefer the new way of selling. We can deliver faster and at better prices. Overhead is reduced which means cost savings and happier customers.
The key difference between serious and non-serious online buyers
We noticed something interesting in our transition to selling online. Many non-serious buyers ask questions instead of placing an order. Serious customers that want to buy online just do it (like it says in those Nike ads). Non-serious customers engage our chat lines, send emails or call on the phone to ask questions. We usually make the effort to respond to these questions, but in analyzing hundreds of such queries, we have concluded that over 90% of these inquisitive customers end up not buying. Which is really not fair, if that word can even be used in a business buying situation. These customers are not only wasting their own time, but sadly they are wasting the time of other people who can be doing better things than responding to questions which can easily be answered by checking the company website.
The buying signals
Anyone who has read books about selling will recall one or more chapters about how to interpret buying signals. Questions like “does the product come in black or brown?,” “how long is the warranty,” and “can you deliver it next week?” were considered to be buying signals. I also recall reading in some of those sales books that a lack of questions usually indicated a lack of interest on the part of the buyer and a lost sale.
That may have been true then, but when selling online it appears to be mostly the opposite. Not that questions always result in no sale-some customers are serious about buying and can’t find the information they are looking for online. So they call up or send an email. Some of those customers convert and do end up buying. But they are a minority in the world of online sales. If you have a company that is selling online, I would not recommend that you invest too much effort in responding to these queries and learn to weed out the non-serious buyers.
Typical sales queries
Here are some of the queries and questions that we tend to encounter frequently.
1. Customers who are shopping for general price information, especially for a future project. Even worse, customers who are preparing a large bid in which translation services is just one of the components. There is ZERO percent chance of getting any business out of these inquiries. Don’t put any effort at all into these scenarios, unless it is a customer who has bought from your company in the past.
Automate your query response system
AT GTS we rolled out a translation cost calculator tool that allows customers to select languages and enter a number of words to get an instant price estimate. If you are selling translation services online, either develop a similar tool or feature a website page with general translation price information. Then when the non-serious buyers call you can send them the link and put your time to better use.
2. The files are not ready yet, the final version is not ready, the files are confidential.
These statements tend to come from non-serious buyers. If the files that the customer needs to translate are not ready, how can the customer be a serious buyer? In 99.99% of these scenarios, the customer will get the information and then disappear. The files are confidential you say? We’ll be happy to sign an NDA should be your response. If they disappear on you then you will know that they are not serious.
3. The project is scheduled to launch in Q3 of next year.
If a customer is asking for a price quote for a project that is in the distant future, the chances of getting a sale are very slim.
4. Are the translations done by humans? Are they certified?
On the GTS website, we have this information spelled out in great detail. In fact, our home page slogan is “Best Translation Quality Humanly Possible.” We also have several pages on our website that describe what kind of translation certification we provide. Yet we receive many chats, phone calls and emails asking these questions. Most of these queries are from non-buyers.
5. We want free translation samples
This is a classic. People who ask for free translation samples will take the sample and disappear 99% of the time. Serious buyers have better ways of doing due diligence like calling customer references and checking online reviews. My recommendation: don’t waste time on these requests. Imagine the response you will receive if you walk into a McDonalds and ask for a free Big Mac as a sample.
6. What are the translator credentials? or We want to see the translator CVs
Again, these questions usually indicate that the buyer is not serious. As I wrote in the last paragraph, there are better ways of doing due diligence.
7. Can I get a price discount if I give you a longer lead time? My document has a lot of numbers, can I get a discount for this?
These types of questions are not as bad as some of the previously mentioned ones. But still, most of them indicate a non-serious buyer on the other end.
8. Request for Proposal (RFP/RFQ)
As a translation company with a high online profile, you probably get a lot of RFPs. Some of them are very serious and potentially very lucrative. But they are sent out to several companies and the competition is usually fierce.
Additionally, some corporate buyers have already decided who they will order from. They just want competitive quotes to better their leverage with the supplier. And from experience, some of these RFPs can take hours or even days to prepare. As a translation company sales manager, you need to decide which RFPs to accept and which to decline. And if you accept, be prepared to get rejected which means time spent for nothing.
9. Can we pay against a PO after delivery? Can we pay 50% in advance and 50% after delivery?
These are actually good questions and very often result in a sale. Check out the customer and make a decision. If Apple or Microsoft are asking for you to front them translation services against a PO- Go for it! If a customer is negotiating a 5 or 6 figure purchase and has a good credit rating, 50% in advance is a great deal.
10. My credit card is being declined. The word count I received in the quote does not match the my own records. Can I get the translation sooner?
These are serious questions. The low-hanging fruit in online selling. Answer these queries quickly and with alacrity.
Summary of the online selling paradigm
If your website is layered correctly with a clear sales funnel; with content targeted to each stage of the buying decision and process; and an easy process for ordering online. Then the majority of the questions you will receive are from non-serious buyers. Treat them accordingly.
Search for patterns in the inquiries you receive and make your own conclusions on what are the buying signals.
Buying professional translation services isn’t rocket science. But it is more complicated than buying gasoline for your car. Or bread and milk at the supermarket. First of all you are not dealing with a commodity but with a personalized, custom-made service. You can give the same text to five professional translators and get five different results. There are other variables involved in the purchase including the target languages, file formats, service level and time of delivery. All of these, as well as other factors, need to be considered when purchasing the translation service. And these and other factors may impact the price you will pay for the service. This post will try and provide you with some guidelines which will help you make an intelligent buying decision.
Get a few quotes. This is a no-brainer which is common practice when purchasing any big ticket item. Get a few price quotes.
Write up a bid spec. If your project budget is in the thousands of dollars and up, consider writing up a basic bid spec which you will send to prospective suppliers. That way you will be comparing apples to apples. Here is an example of an RFP that we received from one of our clients:
From its hub in Dubai, flydubai strives to remove barriers to travel and enhance connectivity between different cultures across its ever-expanding network. Since launching its operations in 2009, flydubai has created a network of more than 90 destinations across 35 countries and operates on average more than 1,500 flights a week. The airline currently has a fleet of 47 new Boeing 737-800 aircraft and has more than 100 Boeing aircraft on order. flydubai has also enhanced Dubai’s economic development, in line with the Government of Dubai’s vision, by creating trade and tourism flows in previously underserved markets. flydubai launched its cargo operations three years ago building on the growth, expansion and success of the airline. operational efficiencies and offering the passenger more choice.
The Client is seeking an experienced, translations service provider to support their Marketing, legal and Public relation department by providing quality translation services.
Agreement and service level will be shared with the shortlisted suppliers.
Ask for a translation sample. Before getting into this point, I should add that at GTS Translation we do not provide free samples under any circumstance. But we encourage our clients to order a short, test sample before committing to a large purchase. And many other translation companies will provide a free sample if they are interested in your business.
As I wrote at the start of this post, human translation services are subject to stylistic and cultural preferences. You say tomato, I say tomahto. Getting a translation sample is only recommended if you have someone that can review and evaluate the sample. Like a distributor or agent in the target country. If you get a sample from each of the prospective vendors, you and your language people can determine which one is best for your company.
What is the service level? Another important point to consider is the service level you will be receiving. Is the translation purely human or does the company deliver edited machine translation. Is the text reviewed by a second linguist? What are the qualification of the translators? Are they certified by an recognized accreditation body? If you don’t need a high level of certification or industry specialization then maybe you can negotiate a better price from your supplier.
What is the price per word? Try and find out the per word rate you are being charged. This is very easy if you are ordering translation services online. But even if you are not ordering online, the person you are ordering from will provide you with this information. Once you know the per-word price, try and get a frame of reference on it and see if you can negotiate a better per-word price.
Can you get a discount for late delivery? When ordering from a translation agency, this point will usually not get you any price discount. Yet many customers ask anyway. Even though it may not get you a discount, try and bring it up as part of the negotiation process and when weighed in with other factors, it may get you something.
DTP/Page Layout considerations.
Does the document you are translating contain graphics, charts, diagrams? Do you need to have them translated? Are they editable? Some graphics, like in a technical manual, may not be editable or the source graphics files may not be available. In that case the translation company may need to recreate the graphics which will increase the price. Make sure that you know this in advance and if you need to translate the graphics, factor this in the price. Are there files that you need to translate that are in an exotic file format like Framemaker or Corel Draw? This too can jack up the price and you should factor this work into the price as well. Does the customer expect the translation vendor to deliver print-ready Powerpoint and MS Word files? Text can expand in translation and require touching up the final files. Will the vendor do it or will you have to edit the work yourself?
Other file considerations. Translation of website content and software applications can require working with special file formats like XML and RESX. Verify that the files will arrive in the formats you need and make this part of the agreement.
Will you be getting a repeat text or TM discount? If you are submitting multiple files for translation, there may be some text repetition across the files. This should convert into a price discount for the job. Do you have legacy translations. Consider giving these to the translation company and asking for a TM discount. Don’t be shy, these are your hard earned dollars and if you can get a discount then why not?