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The two-cent mystery

“It seems like everybody’s got a price,” sang Jessie J a few years ago, “I wonder how they sleep at night.” Well soundly, probably, but not for very long if they’re low-rate translators.

Definitions of “low-rate” vary, but one common stereotype is translation at two cents (euro or US) per word. It’s easy to find offers of translation projects with this sort of budget, and presumably these purchasers find translators willing to take the projects on.

There’s a lot of discussion as to why translators might be willing to work for such low rates but there’s another mystery that has been less discussed – why would a purchaser pay two cents a word for translation? Although the relationship between price and quality is far from exact, you’re very unlikely to receive a good translation for such low prices. And if you want a translation that’s probably okay but not wonderful, Google Translate will give you one for free! Why pay at all if that is the level of quality you are willing to accept?

As a professional translator, I spend a lot of time trying to get into the heads of my clients. What do they want? How are they going to use my translation? I can give you a translation that is highly accurate as to the meaning of the original text In French or Spanish, or I can give you a text that reads wonderfully in English; what I can almost never do is give you both in the same document.

So how do I get myself into the head of the translation purchaser who cannot justify paying the price of a proper translation, but who is still willing to pay two cents a word for something they could get for free? I think we need to imagine what happens when something goes wrong. Machine translation is notoriously imperfect, but human translators are not perfect either. At some point, some time, something will go wrong. The sensible purchaser is aware of this, and, if we think with the mindset of the individual human being who commissions the translation, they will want to ensure that they are not the one to be blamed when something goes wrong. With a human translator, this is easy: it’s the fault of the <insert expletive of your choice> translator! It is more problematic with machine translation: do you really want to be remembered as the person who just stuck the documents through Google Translate, simply to save a bit of money, when your whole project comes tumbling down around your ears?

I have seen examples of human translations sold at two eurocents a word that are objectively worse than the output from modern machine translation engines such as Google Translate or DeepL. One has to wonder how these translators stay in business until one realises that the service they are selling is not translation at all: it is the assumption of liability for the translation. Transfer of liability is big business but these service providers are going into it blindly, which has to be the absolute worst way of going about it. And of course they are still grossly underselling their services.

For me, there are two take-home points from this. Firstly, machines are not going to replace human translators any time soon, and certainly not in the “next ten years.” We have all been told that human translators will be redundant to machines within the next ten years, ever since the mid-1950s, and yet there are more human translators now than at any other time in human history and the number is still growing. Even at the routine level, machines cannot take on liability for their output, and their creators wisely refuse to do so. This is one reason why most machine translation that is commercially sold is “post-edited” by a human beforehand: so there is someone to blame if things go wrong.

Secondly, my rates have to be sufficient for me to run a professional practice and to provide a professional service, one which allows me to assume liability for my work with open eyes. My rates pay for the bookcase full of textbooks and dictionaries behind me in my office; they pay for subscriptions to professional databases; they pay for training courses to keep my knowledge up to date, as well as for the time it takes me to follow these courses; and yes, my rates also pay for my professional indemnity insurance if anything goes seriously wrong. We cannot “forget about the price tag.

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