Commodity Translators vs Service Translators

The translation agencies’ race to the bottom – endlessly undercutting each other’s rates and claiming to provide the best for less – has led many new starters and less confident translators to accept unsustainable rates, creating two increasingly apparent categories: the “commodity translators” (slaves who translate for agencies or clients unwilling to pay decent rates) and the “service translators” (business-aware linguists who work primarily with direct clients for reasonable rates and who do more than just translate).

Many commodity translators have another job to complement their income, while others eventually give up on this career after a few years of working long hours, including weekends, and still not earning quite enough. Service translators are usually committed full-time to their business and charge more because, apart from the fact that free evenings and weekends are a worker’s right, the quality of our work depends on how awake and alert our brains are. Working 60 hours a week to make ends meet makes little sense.

Service translators also tend to be more specialised, have relevant qualifications and/or experience and a higher level of professional membership, all of which give them the confidence to approach specific clients directly. Generalists are in a weaker position to offer their skills directly if they have no expertise or credentials in a specific market, and are therefore more likely to hide behind agencies. And although agencies may have the perfect linguist for each job on their databases, they often refuse to pay a rate to match the expertise level and commonly assign specialised documents to less suitable candidates.

Beyond the actual translating task, a service translator will also help clients to source fellow translators working in other languages. They know where to look and what to look for and it is their way of looking after their clients as well as protecting both the client and the industry from crooks. I have been asked by commodity translators how much I charged for that: I don’t; it’s part of the service I offer. These colleagues usually reply that they don’t have time for favours – understandably, since they are overworked and underpaid. But my view is that help is no more a commodity than translation is.

Another sign of a service translator is how determined they are to get it right. A client recently hired me to translate a short wall text for an art exhibition due to start only a few days later. The text was straightforward enough, but the title of the exhibition was problematic. Despite much research, I couldn’t grasp what it meant or referred to and, as it was past 6pm, I couldn’t contact the gallery. I looked the artist up on the internet and, although nothing came up that could shed light on the title, I found her website and phone number. So I called her. She explained that it was a complex pun and that she’d rather it was left in English. So I sent my translation, with an explanation as to why the title was not translated. From what I have read on forums, many translators in a similar situation would venture a guess or at best submit a list of options for the client to choose from.

While commodity translators stick to the narrow duty of translation, service translators choose to go further to help their clients. And since languages are a skill, not a product, translation can only be a service.

flooded crossroads

Photograph: Jens Buettner/EPA

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