Pay special attention to this translation or else

A translator is many thingsDon’t you just love it when the agency says in the very last email of the exchange about a job, when the conditions are supposedly already done and dusted: “Oh, by the way, the client says this translation is extremely important so please make sure you pay special attention to doing it well.” Even when they sweeten this a little by adding “We know you always do”, it still exasperates me no end.

Let’s analyse what the parties might actually be saying here. If the client informs the agency that the text they’re entrusting them with is “extremely important”, then what they actually mean is that they plan to publish it, either on their website or in promotional material, etc. When the agency says those same words to a translator, what they probably mean is that the client either: a) hasn’t paid them for a publication-ready translation (perhaps because they’re not savvy enough to explain to the client the difference between an information-only document and one that needs to go through several processes before publication, and, of course, charge more accordingly), but that’s what they need to provide anyway; or b) the client has paid a surcharge but they’re hoping to pocket the extra money they should pay a reviser by putting pressure on you to provide an error-free translation, which will then only actually be revised by another translator if the client complains (so fingers crossed they don’t).

All this thoroughly annoys me because if this wasn’t a translation and the client wanted a publication-ready document, they would get the brightest spark in their company who can also write to produce a wonderful piece of prose, or use the services of a copywriter, or a combination of both. Once they had a completed text, they’d send it to a copyeditor to check it ticked all the boxes and then onto a proofreader to make doubly sure there wouldn’t be any glaring errors giving clients the wrong impression about the quality of their services. (Please click on the terms to see a description of them on the CIEP website if you’re not clear about what these professions entail).

However, when it’s a just a trivial translation, which machines can now reproduce in a few seconds (let us be in no doubt here that the vast majority of people outside the translation industry have no idea what MT is and is not currently capable of), they expect the outcome to be perfect at a fraction of the price paid to produce the original copy. Effectively we translators are not only expected to be gifted writers who can craft a flawless natural-sounding text in our native tongue from a foreign language, but also editors and proofreaders to boot, in other words four professions rolled into one. This doesn’t sound fair to me, especially if we look at the average salaries earned by these jobs on the Salary Track website (this data, accessed on 1 July 2014, is based on permanent positions in London, so I’m using it merely as a rough guide). Copywriting comes out on top at a whopping £9,000 to £15,000 more per year than translating. The other jobs I checked, editor, copy-editor and proofreader, all had significantly higher salaries than a translator (at least 20% more).

Going back to our scenario, if we translators make a mistake in any of the roles we need to assume to produce a document that the client wants to publish, then the agency can always dock a percentage off our fee (this I believe is quite common practice). They could also refuse to pay us altogether to further line their pockets whilst they continue to skirt their responsibility, since they are the ones ultimately at fault for giving clients the impression that they can have publication-ready translations for next to nothing.

There is something very rotten in the translation business. And it does more than just annoy and exasperate me, frankly, but I’ll refrain from swearing on my blog.

This post was first published on 01/07/2014 on my previous blog.

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