Money for nothing and words for free

By Nigel Hillen

The world of translation isn’t what it used to be. Large, cut-price translation companies that pay their freelancers a pittance are muscling into the market. Have highly educated, experienced, specialist translators suddenly decided – en masse – that it would be a really great idea to cut their income by 50%? You tell me. And are these aggressive new boys on the block really a threat to top-end translation companies? The simple answer is “No”. They are not in the business of handling complex, technically demanding texts. The name of their game is bulk translation. Clients who want important, high-quality documents translated had better look elsewhere.


High-quality documents and websites need high-quality translators who can deliver tantalising text that leaps off the page and grabs the reader’s attention. In the world of bulk, low-quality suppliers, different rules apply. There is a lot of quick and dirty translation at the bottom end of the market, and for some purposes – like getting the gist of large volumes of non-critical text – the work of B-grade translators is definitely fit for purpose.

One size does NOT fit all

Many experienced translators have previously qualified and worked in specialised fields such as scientific research, finance, business and the law. You can rely on these professionals, for example, to correctly translate the maintenance manual for a vital piece of medical equipment on which your life might one day depend. In addition, top-end translation companies continually invest in their own people by allowing them to attend professionally accredited training courses. Nor do they count the cost when it comes to getting the best computer-aided translation tools that money can buy. This is all about quality and consistency. So one size does NOT fit all. By all means, let the B-grade translators handle bulk, non-critical translations, but be sure to entrust your important, complex, demanding documents to those with the skill, the training, the experience, and the tools to do them justice.

Easy come, easy go

Aside from the obvious gulf in terms of general product quality, another important difference between low-end and top-end translation companies is the way they treat their customers. Customers come and go, this is a fact of life. But top-end translation companies work hard and make sacrifices to keep good customers. They have faith in their staff, their freelancers, and their product. Given the flood of complaints that indifferent work inevitably generates, the bulk operators must be prepared to accept a high customer turnover as part and parcel of their business model. In the immortal words of Abraham Lincoln “You can fool some of the people all of the time, and all of the people some of the time, but you can not fool all of the people all of the time.”

Vive la différence

Change is neither intrinsically good nor bad, but it is inevitable. Indeed, as any Zen practitioner will tell you, the entire world is nothing but thoroughgoing, constant change. The present upheaval in the translation ecosystem is simply a periodic re-adjustment. Low-end, budget companies have their place, as do their high-quality counterparts. In time, discerning customers will come to know and appreciate the difference.

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