I don’t think many people could imagine a lawyer bidding to get a contract in reply to an ad saying, "Legal advice needed for big company, please offer your best price, no more than $5 an hour please." Yet this type of ad is seen every day on the main translation portals, with price being the main, if not only, selection criteria. I believe that there are a number of reasons why this focus on price is not only wrong, but also bad for the translation profession. As well as setting these out below, I also have a suggestion for pushing translation portals in a better direction.
Before I begin, I want to say that I am not lambasting colleagues from countries where $0.02 a word allows a decent lifestyle. They are benefiting from the economical situation in their country and the globalisation of services. I also understand that there will always be desperate people out there, with children to feed, who will charge low rates to undercut their competitors. However, the problem with this is that clients then expect all translators, even those living in expensive cities such as London or New York, to agree to such rates, which is simply untenable.
At the heart of the issue, I believe, is the fact that a lot of clients don’t really understand what is involved in translation, and hence price is a determining factor in distinguishing between the numerous translators in the market place. Bidding systems help neither clients nor translators; clients don’t necessarily get the best person for the job (if clients see that someone will bid on a job for $0.04 a word how are their minds ever to be changed?) and translators are led to compete on price, not on quality or specialised skills. The result: poorly translated documents become the norm and the quality of language as a whole suffers. From an outside point of view price may be as good a starting place as any, but going back to my original example, although a lot of people don’t understand the law, they don’t expect to haggle with a lawyer. Ours is also a skilled profession requiring years of study and practice and this is something that we need to promote.
However, bidding systems do exactly the opposite: by posting an ad giving a ridiculous rate (which has been the norm lately) and waiting for translators to "fight" over it, they considerably damage the image of our profession, and job offers for $0.04 a word also give the impression that translation is a cheap service. It only reinforces the idea that anyone with a couple of languages can translate, a myth that must absolutely be debunked. In line with every other profession, we as translators need to continually develop our knowledge, skills and resources. Most professional translators invest regularly in dictionaries, software, IT equipment, courses, translation software and marketing tools such as websites. All of this brings returns in terms of quality that is inevitably lost if, for the last piece of work I did, I got paid less than enough to live on, let alone invest in continuing professional development.
In my opinion, the best way for translation portals to be a positive force for translators, clients and quality is to be used as a professionals’ directory. Clients could easily search professionals according to the criteria of the job they need doing, get in touch with a few candidates and make their selection based on more than one factor. Some of them might still use price as a determining factor, but with this system, communication is favoured with the clients, which is the best way to educate them and help them make the right choice.