Why I don’t like bidding systems

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.

By | 2016-10-18T15:51:14+00:00 April 20th, 2005|Freelance Translation|32 Comments

About the Author:

I am Céline Graciet, a freelance English to French translator. Since 2003 I’ve been writing on all sorts of areas linked to translation and the life of a translator.


  1. Christian Hansel April 20, 2005 at 1:29 pm

    I must say, that after our last “debate” in your blog I had hoped for a more provocative statement asking for the introduction of a minimum price per word for projects, not for the abolishment of portals like babelport.com.
    –Of the Record —
    Turning portals like babelport.com into mere directories would mean an enormous drop in page views since projects are the main attractor. We have already banned rush jobs with bidding deadlines of just a couple of hours and experienced a 30% drop in PageViews in the days after. Planning, implementing, maintaining, researching and writing news for a site like babelport is a lot of work and does require, just like the translation profession, an adequate education. If one, like myself, wishes to offer most of the services for free, pageviews are the only key to advertisements being the major income for such a site.
    I even dare to say that proz.com would not for long be around if projects weren’t posted anymore.
    Directories offer very little advantage to outsourcers. In fact, not having a single starting point to address potential contractors will make them get back to the yellow pages of their home town. Translators would have fairly little gain in that. Furthermore, online directories would almost automatically become a source for spam and, since project communication is initiated mainly through email, you would have only little means to verify the identity of the outsourcer, not speaking of information about payment practices etc. I know, babelport.com cannot yet offer a lot of this kind of information, either, but in time it will.
    We are honestly considering the introduction of minimum prices for project postings, thus at least partially eliminating price dumping as a problem. Other than that there is little I can do except as to promote the principle not to bid for low-rate jobs. I still think that this is a promising way. Outsourcers having been returned bad translations won’t offer projects for $0.02 again, don’t you agree?
    Besides, imho, the example of lawyers is rather mischosen, since lawyers as well as physicians have national agreed upon tariffs in most countries. But what about architects: similar way of education, bidding just the normal way of getting projects. Same holds true for consultancy firms, software service contractors, etc. Even in simple job applications you are asked “How much do you want to earn?”. In the end it is not solely the price but the qualification, experience and sympathy that will make the decission makers decide (I agree that even there the price/payment plays a major role, but not solely)
    Don’t get me wrong here, I certainly am not a friend of this side effect of globalization, but I’d say to 70% or so fighting price dumping is the contractors responsibility..
    Best wishes,
    babelport.com SiteFounder

  2. Jean April 20, 2005 at 2:09 pm

    Hmm. Chris makes it all sound very reasonable. It is, from the portal’s point of view. Not from the translator’s. I can’t think of any way of combatting this – or many other frightening and unpleasant symptoms of globalisation, of the way we live and work today – than just to refuse to participate, vigorously cultivate attractive, functioning and humane alternatives, refuse to give up and join in.

  3. céline April 20, 2005 at 2:25 pm

    Indeed Jean, Chris does put his point of view across very well and I think it’s great he’s willing to engage in such a touchy debate.
    Of course from a portal’s manager’s point of view, the more clicks, the better, and losing the jobs section will necessarily mean less traffic (although I never realised that it was so central to a translation portal, so thanks for clarifying that Chris). However, I for one would rather pay a hefty subscription to a good, professional translation portal so it wouldn’t have to rely so heavily on advertising, and then losing the job section wouldn’t be a big problem. There are quite a few translation portals inviting any kind of member out there, qualified or not, and they are very useful, but none specialised in listing recognised/qualified/experienced translators. Maybe there’s a niche there?
    I don’t understand why “not having a single starting point to address potential contractors will make them get back to the yellow pages of their home town”. A translation portal offering the contact details of professional translators would be such a single starting point, wouldn’t it?
    “since project communication is initiated mainly through email, you would have only little means to verify the identity of the outsourcer, not speaking of information about payment practices etc”
    There are other means out there to check that an outsourcer is reliable, like payment practices lists, which work extremely well and have helped me so far avoid major payment issues.
    I still think that a directory system would be much preferable to a bidding system. Translation portals are an extremely valuable tool for translators, as they offer a wealth of information and support as well as networking opportunities to freelancers, but the bidding system is the one thing that stops me from contributing regularly to them.

  4. Trench Warrior April 20, 2005 at 3:06 pm

    I agree with Céline. I subscribe to u-jobs, have a profile on Aquarius, TranslatorsCafe and ProZ, and have only gotten a few jobs through those services.
    The vast majority of my new business comes from my listing in the BDÜ directory. It’s only available to translators with a certification from a recognized authority, or to people with a degree in translation from a recognized university.
    I tend to ignore any calls for bids. It’s interesting to see what other people are willing to offer, but it’s always far beyond the pale.
    Bidding sites do have a purpose: serving the low end of the market. They can have it, as far as I’m concerned. Major translation clients know what end of the market to go to simply because they have so much experience with translation.
    Directories that carefully vet their members, however, are invaluable. I would readily pay a fairly sizeable fee to be listed in there. It’s advertising, after all.

  5. Trench Warrior April 20, 2005 at 3:08 pm

    Let me clarify that: I already pay sizeable fees to be listed in the BDÜ, ADÜ-Nord and ATA directories. Babelport could easily be added to my list, if it were to become a reputable directory.

  6. céline April 20, 2005 at 3:21 pm

    Same as Trench Warrior when it comes to jobs. I’ve gained excellent clients from being listed on the Institute of Linguists’ website, none from any translation portal.

  7. Christian Hansel April 20, 2005 at 3:29 pm

    @trench warrior: Thanx for considering babelport, also let me thank you for your short article in your blog (I know the logo is hideous)
    As I said/mailed/blogged(?) to Céline before, I am open to suggestion and, yes, babelport.com aims at being reputable directory. We are youngm, though, just give us a bit of time.
    @Céline: As Trench Warrior said : “They can have it, as far as I’m concerned. Major translation clients know what end of the market to go to simply because they have so much experience with translation” Exactly my point

  8. k’alebøl April 20, 2005 at 3:48 pm

    Translation bidding systems

    Re Céline’s post here attacking bidding systems on translation sites: I’m sure cranky old Mr Smith would be delighted to see that people of the same trade have not yet given up meeting together for merriment and diversion, the conversation ending in a…

  9. language hat April 20, 2005 at 5:08 pm

    Well, one obvious difference is that when people hire bad lawyers, they lose cases and lots of money (or in extreme instances go to jail), so they have tremendous incentive to pay whatever it takes to get a good lawyer. When people hire bad translators, the translated version may be poor, even laughable, but there are no immediately obvious adverse consequences, so it’s not as clear why they should bite the bullet and pay more than the minimum. Sure, you can try and convince them they’ll have more business if their site/document/whatever is professionally translated, but it’s an uphill struggle when their wallet is whispering in the other ear.

  10. Jean April 20, 2005 at 5:49 pm

    Sorry, my perhaps rather absolutist comment was not directed at you personally Chris and I too appreciate your willingness to discuss. I do participate in discussion forums and read articles on translation portals. And why should anyone provide such useful services for nothing? we all want and need to make a living. But I seriously wonder, and all the more so having read your explanation, if the benefits of such services are outweighed by the destructive effects of the associated bidding markets. I appreciate that this will not become clear except through experience. So far, though, quite a lot of the experience is not good, I think.

  11. MM April 20, 2005 at 9:37 pm

    Great post, Céline.

  12. Christian Hansel April 21, 2005 at 9:29 am

    It is remarkable that a single post can draw so much attention, isn’t it? With the kind permission of Céline I have republished it and linked it to our discussion board – I hope that a similar lively discussion will start there.
    I have read these comments as well as those on transblawg and k’alebol (trevor’s) (did I miss any?) again and again and the first thing that comes to my mind is that translators seemingly suffer from a great portion of self-underestimation.
    How come that translators repeatedly refer to the nonsense fact that their work is not as appreciated as that of lawyers, or let’s say physicians? Do you honestly think it is different in any other trade? Just because the ‘general’ society does not value your work accordingly does by far not mean that your clients and their clients won’t. It is very much the same with any other trade that primarily offers a service and not a product. Web designers usually have great difficulties to explain why they need to charge certain amounts and why it is not possible to design websites for under 1000 $. But there are some who do. Is their service then less valuable – no because companies knowing what they want will value their work and pay accordingly. Same holds true for most of the trades around – Just because their works’ results may not be as obvious as that of lawyers does not mean people don’t value it.
    We are all struggling in the same system, and again my point is, and Trench Warrior seems to agree: quality will pay in the long run, no matter what kind of trade we’re talking about.
    I still believe that education and information on the one hand and the willingness to be informed on the other is an appropriate way to deal with many of the problems faced in the industry. That is what people call ‘self-organization’ as opposed to ‘market-regulation’ However, again it seems to me that the very fact that most translators are freelancers hinders this, and the self understanding of freelancers increasingly seems be that of ‘warriors in the trenches’ (@TW: Sorry to use your pseudonym but it was fitting).
    As I have just yesterday posted in news section of babelport.com the EU is paying up to 4500 € basic salary to their translators – not because it’s the EU but because they value their work. The whole discussion again seems to concentrate on the ‘freelancer’ experience not on the trade in general…
    @Jean: Don’t worry I very much do understand your point of view and won’t take it personal.

  13. céline April 21, 2005 at 9:36 am

    I’ve posted this on babelport but as nobody seems interesting in the discussion, I’ll post it here:
    I’d like to make a very practical suggestion: I think that babelport looks great and has a “quality” feel about it (resources, news, articles), so instead of developing yet another translation portal just like the other main ones, why not offer something different and concentrate on the high end of the market? Why not, like I said before, be the main resource offering clients a directory of recognised, vetted professionals, instead of being the usual free-for-all? If this became a portal well-known for the quality of its members, not necessarily the quantity, serious clients would certainly turn to it for quality translation, translators would be willing to pay a subscription fee (after all, we all invest in marketing and advertising) and the high number of clicks generated by the job offers wouldn’t be needed any more.

  14. The German-English Translator April 21, 2005 at 4:12 pm

    Bidding systems

    Here’s an interesting article on bidding systems for translators. A lot of translators love this sort of system (I suppose you’d have to be a real competitive nut), but I don’t think much of it. I have so much work

  15. Jemima April 21, 2005 at 5:21 pm

    I am not a translator, but work for a company that very very ocassionally may need to employ a translator for a job. How would I go about that? Well, I’d first ask around and see if anyone knew of anyone. If that drew a blank, I’d look online. And this may be the problem. It seems to me that if I came across sites that indicated the way to get a translator is to request bids based on cost per word, I would go along with that, not knowing any better. I would request bids and then select based on price and CV (including qualifications) and references. From the sounds of this discussion, though, many good translators would not apply, so my pool would be of lower quality and my experience of translators would end up being bad. I might then resolve that next time I needed a translator I would try a different way, but if my organisation only needs translators very ocassionally, I may not remember, or may not be the person dealing with it the next time around.
    As I say, though, I’ve not researched this, and perhaps a quick look online would lead me to a wealth of fantastic translators and obvious ways to choose between them.

  16. Trench Warrior April 22, 2005 at 8:08 am

    This is a novel experience: an actual dialog with a portal operator.
    What we should understand is that Chris has built this portal with his own two hands. Kudos to him for that. He has a business model, and if he mimics BDÜ, ATA or any other member-only directory service, he will have to rejig his business model.
    So I just thought of a compromise. It should work within Chris’s business model, tell clients the difference between good and bad translators, and use accreditation:
    Have two classes of translator profiles: accredited and non-accredited.
    “Accredited” means belonging to a member association of FIT (http://www.fit-ift.org/ ). There might be a way to expand it for people in countries that don’t have a professional association that’s an FIT member. But that’d be a good start.
    Non-accredited is everyone else. Anyone can sign up as a non-accredited member. Then you can request to have your profile bumped up to accredited, once Chris has verified that you are indeed a member of an FIT-certified organization.
    Would that work?

  17. Trench Warrior April 22, 2005 at 10:52 am

    A quote from Translator’s Cafe:
    “I believe that rates will continue to decrease because, on one hand, more and more translators from countries where the cost of living is lower will be able to use the Internet and, on the other hand, agencies and direct clients in the West will gradually realize that the quality of translation coming from those countries is acceptable. Sometimes, high quality work is not important. Almost everybody now uses inexpensive high quality mother boards from Taiwan. It will be the same with translation. People that don’t realize this are hiding their heads in the sand.”
    For the record, my mobo is a top-of-the-line Asus. I resent the insinuation that I would use anything less.

  18. céline April 22, 2005 at 10:59 am

    This argument has one flaw: I am sure the developing world is full of wonderful linguists, but what about the all-important “native speaker” criteria?

  19. trevor@k'alebøl April 22, 2005 at 1:32 pm

    I wonder what the native speaker fetishists would have made of Erasmus, who did after all write some rather good Latin. Most clients are quality/price fetishists, and sometimes second-language speakers provide them with a better deal.

  20. RobinB April 22, 2005 at 1:37 pm

    I second Margaret’s comment, Céline: a really good post.
    I think the received wisdom used to be that bidding platforms were only for the low end of the market, where non-critical translations were often auctioned off to people with no known native language. But I’ve seen signs of this changing recently. Here’s an interesting, and possibly instructive, tale.
    Earlier this year, we had to turn down a job for a large corporate client, even though there was a relatively long lead time. Pretty complicated financial stuff, so right up our street. A few days later, I saw what was unmistakably this job posted on one of the online bidding platforms. I spoke to our client about this, who said that out of desperation (middle of the annual reporting season, all good translators busy) they’d given the job to prominent international agency X. They then contacted X who told them they’d “had to subcontract” the job to Y. But the job was actually posted online by Z, which was most definitely not a western European agency. So it ended up as a daisy chain transaction, with absolutely no value at all being added for the client, who was ripped off, fair and square. A couple of finance people then had to sacrifice a long weekend to rewrite the rubbish translation that was returned.
    The problem isn’t the online bidding platforms as such, I think, but rather the appalling lack of high-quality translators in the first place (certainly in my language and subject area combinations). And I don’t think that Trench’s “accreditation” suggestion is at all feasible. The only outcome would be some sort of institutionalised mediocrity. Belonging to a FIT member association has nothing – absolutely nothing – to do with whether somebody can actually translate or not, in the same way that a translation degree is just a piece of paper, not evidence of ability to translate.

  21. Jean April 22, 2005 at 2:44 pm

    I’d be interested to know what some more people feel about Trench Warrior’s suggestion. I do feel that membership of the British-based Institute of Linguists is a good indicator for high-quality translation, since they require either their own (very tough) diploma + substantial experience and references or even more substantial experience and references. The Institute of Translating and Interpreting is even more stringent on experience required. But I don’t know myself if this is true of all FIT member organisations.

  22. Christian Hansel April 22, 2005 at 2:54 pm

    I don’t know why members of babelport.com don’t want to participate in this discussion. I must say I very much value this discussion as it does give me inside into things I haven’t (yes I admit) considered before.
    RobinB’s comment is an interesting one which shows what is in my opinion a critical fact: What actually is a translation agency. There are numerous out there just consisting of only one or two managers who do nothing else than to outsource again.
    I also agree that accreditation or not is not really a criteria for the quality of a translator: When I attended university some of my professors have earned a huge reputation for their litarary translations of major works without being members of ATA / BDUe etc., I know some that also have published translations in their fields of expertise as engineers or chemists, w/o being accredited.
    Nonetheless, it is a criteria, and here I do agree with Trench, for proven qualification, just like A+ certicicates or the MCSE in IT. I will consider such a feature for babelport relaunch, but mostlikely won’t make it a exclusive knock-out one
    Btw: What t.h. is Harrumph?

  23. Christian Hansel April 22, 2005 at 3:02 pm

    I meant ‘insight’ of course

  24. Trench Warrior April 22, 2005 at 3:30 pm

    “Belonging to a FIT member association has nothing – absolutely nothing – to do with whether somebody can actually translate or not, in the same way that a translation degree is just a piece of paper, not evidence of ability to translate.”
    Robin, you have more experience with evaluating translators than I ever hope to have.
    I therefore humbly beg your Harrumphness for forgiveness, and possibly a job or two in the future.

  25. Christian Hansel April 22, 2005 at 4:02 pm

    Now that trench agrees: What then is there to evaluate the criteria (if you don’t have a look at prior translations)
    This is one of the reasons babelport allows for translator rating, based on quality, deadline management, and project communication etc. Wouldnt that offer an adaquate solution to the problem, then. OF course, this information needs to be collected first, but once it is there would that not be a valuable criteria for outsourcers?

  26. inkamaria April 22, 2005 at 8:17 pm

    @Chris: it sure wd but only if you actually get some end-clients / direct_clients to be part of the babelport.com community. that is the main default with all portals up and running. they all are maintained by translators and used only by translators. the end_client is not aware of such a handy tool (?) and thus the problem starts… alexander von obert is trying to set up something similar (u-jobs.org) soon if i am not mistaken…

  27. RobinB April 23, 2005 at 11:24 am

    @trevor: native v. non-native argument: 1) Literary translation doesn’t apply to the “commercial” translation model. 2) While I’m happy to admit that there are a few translators who are not native speakers of English, but who can translate into English as least as well as many native-speakers, especially today’s semiliterate (post)graduates, it’s not as if they come anywhere close to the top native-speakers. 3) If you think that non-natives can offer a better “deal” than a good native speaker, then you automatically accept that accuracy/quality isn’t an issue. That may be the case in your market, but it isn’t in mine.
    @Trench: 1) Want me to send you our test pieces?
    2) Accreditation etc. Sorry, but I have no easy solution to the problem. Perhaps we should be moving towards the accountant/lawyer model, with professional exams for all, irrespective of education. But that would have to be on an EU-wide model (though open to the whole world, of course, we don’t want to create more hidden barriers). But think of the politics…. (maybe something to get back to another time)
    @Chris: You’ve mentioned criteria for translators. But the whole thing is only feasible if you also develop and apply criteria for outsourcers, too, i.e. quality and reliability on both sides. But I guess that would hit your bottom line….

  28. Christian Hansel April 23, 2005 at 12:20 pm

    The debate is getting hot…
    @RobinB: But I did! Outsourcers = Agencies can be rated according to their project management skills, project communication, payment conditions, payment practices as well as personal contacts, office size, would you work again with/for them etc.
    That is the whole idea behind the rating system of babelport: More transparency. That there is only little information available currently, is of course a factor, but babelport has just been online for 2 months, but time will hopefully change this.
    I am not saying I reinvented the wheel, but I did try to consider many aspects. Besides, my bottom line is somewhere else.

  29. RobinB April 24, 2005 at 8:07 am

    Chris: Yes, I understand there’s a facility for rating outsourcers by “soft” criteria. But I wonder whether some more objective criteria wouldn’t be more informative. Examples: company form, company age and other registration details, capitalisation, have any owners/directors been owners/directors of bankrupt outsourcers, that sort of thing. And how about a undertaking to comply with EU-wide payment term rules? Or a statement that translators work directly for the outsourcer, not the outsourcer’s client, and that payment to the translator is not contingent on payment by the ultimate client. Maybe that would go some way to weeding out the cowboys. I suppose it would also give Babelport some sort of USP over its competitors by – in theory at least – attracting a “better sort of outsourcer”. Just a couple of thoughts, anyway.
    But the real problem I have with bidding platforms is the necessary underlying assumption that the “product” offered by the bidders (translation) is interchangeable, i.e. that what translator A is offering is essentially identical to what translators B-Z are offering. This is a *really* difficult nut to crack, I fear.

  30. Christian Hansel April 25, 2005 at 3:42 pm

    @RobinB:Thanks for these hints! Some of the criteria should be implemented, I agree. But I guess it will be sort of problematic to get agencies to uncover internal information like “capitalisation, have any owners/directors been owners/directors of bankrupt outsourcers”.
    Also I think the feature “payment to the translator is not contingent on payment by the ultimate client” certainly is worth considering. However, I don’t think that a “statement that translators work directly for the outsourcer” is quite undoable since a translation agency’s biggest advantage is the capability of managing multi-language, mult-process-level projects, don’t you agree? And client wanting to outsource such project are exactly expecting this sort of service in order not to deal with x+ translators, proofreaders, editors, layouters etc.
    As for, as you stated it, the “underlying assumption that the “product” offered by the bidders (translation) is interchangeable, i.e. that what translator A is offering is essentially identical to what translators B-Z are offering. This is a *really* difficult nut to crack” …
    I agree that no service provider is interchangeable and the potential results between A-Z do necessarily vary, but again, that is not a specific feature to translators alone, rather subject to the customer’s expectations and experience. This, however, is not a bound to bidding systems on- or offline but instead a general rule.
    Also something I think is widely misunderstood, bidding systems do NOT necessarily promote price dumping: If an X wishes to outsource a project P, he usually makes inquiries for price, time in which P can be done etc., and then decides to (or not to ) outsource to let’s say contractor Y based on whatever decisionmaking process X may have.
    Bidding systems are just an online way of doing this. Promoting price dumping would mean to implement a reverse ebay system (as done by e.g. jobdoo) where all “bidders” can underbid each other. This, however, is not the case for babelport, and to my knowledge any other translation portal I know of. What ever potential contractors offer in their bid is subject to their bid and can only be viewed by X. No other “bidder” knows what his “competitors” have offered. That rates differ is only a natural thing and subject to personal needs, experience, and service (A translator capable of working directly in layoutted document may charge a lot more than a translator only capable of dealing with plain text – This is something an outsourcer may consider as well).
    Don’t get me wrong, I don’t want to convince any of you already opposed to portals like mine to “give up to resist and join in” – but I’ld like to hear your reasons and experiences so I can learn and make changes for those interested.
    Thankful for all comments

  31. Christian Hansel April 25, 2005 at 3:44 pm

    I of course meant to say :
    However, I DON’T think that a “statement that translators work directly for the outsourcer” is quite DOABLE …
    However, I DO think that a “statement that translators work directly for the outsourcer” is quite UNDOABLE …
    Not both in one…

  32. trevor@k'alebøl April 25, 2005 at 4:27 pm

    @RobinB: Relax, I haven’t got a market. All I’m saying is that in any market there is always a tradeoff between price and quality, and that many clients are perfectly content with lower quality because it costs them less. If you’re really interested in quality, then I’m sure you’ll agree that the whole native/non-native thing is a bit of a red herring, the primary proof being in the pudding not in the cook’s steamy past.

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