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Words Are Only Part of the Equation

Not long ago, a colleague was trying to justify the practice of charging less, imposed by some agencies, on work performed using CAT tools. I do have an issue with that concept. I mean, when my doctor gets more accurate and expensive equipment, his rates go up. When my mechanic upgrades his shop’s equipment, his fees go up. The same applies to my dentist, and many other professionals: they upgrade their practice and their fees go up.

I am not a typist

Why should it be different with translators? “You are reusing words and phrases you have used before, so you don’t have to type them.” Well, if I were working into English 100% of the time, I might consider that a bonus. Unfortunately, I work with a Latin-rooted language and its speakers take pride in the versatility and richness of their vocabulary. It is expected of me, the translator, to reflect that in my work. Plus, I am not working as a typist: translation is intellectual work, its demands creativity and knowledge that goes beyond word choice. My response to his argument was, “Agreed. But that does not mean accepting substandard, unjustifiable pay. Words may be a commodity, but I work with meanings, nuances, cultural bias, the message, not mere words. The guy who came up with ‘Just do it’ did not charge per word…

Words are not the beginning and the end

And that is the crux of the issue. We do not work with just words. If it were so, anyone with a good dictionary could be a translator.  We work with language which is much more than words, and our job is to convey the message in all its splendor – or lack thereof. We also charge for our time. Time to research, to discuss options with colleagues, to check on similar work in the client’s website to see how certain matters were addressed.

Many colleagues now advocate charging based on project rather than time or words, the traditional units. I have used all three and I found out that clients really do not care how we calculate our fees. They want a fee that makes sense (not too high, not too low), they want the job done right the first time, they want to trust they can come to us for corrections or questions, they want to be satisfied with our services. They need a number, not a novel telling them how we got to that number.

How well do you know your output?

Charging per project means I must have a good idea of how familiar I am with the subject matter, how good a typist I am, how long it takes me to translate a given number of words. So, I may be able to do a 5-page letter, double space, font size 12, on a simple subject in two hours without breaking a sweat, and that will go for $XX. A 5-page legal brief will take me longer, so I charge $XXX – even if it is the same amount of words. The work is different in nature and will demand more focus and more time, hence the higher price.

Again, I am not a typist and I don’t juggle words for a living. I am a translator.


Photo by Dave Michuda on Unsplash

woman with grey hair, in a red dress

Brazilian-born Giovanna “Gio” Lester, Co-Chair of NAJIT’s PR Committee, started her career in translation and interpreting in 1980. Gio is very active in her profession and in the associations she is affiliated with. In 2009, she co-founded the Florida ATA Chapter (ATIF), served as its first elected president (2011-2012), and later as president of its interim board. As an international conference interpreter, Gio has been the voice of government heads and officials, scientists, researchers, doctors, hairdressers, teachers, engineers, investors and more. Gio has been a contributor to The NAJIT Observer since its inception in 2011, and its Editor since 2016. In 2017 she was appointed Chair of the Miami Dade College Translation and Interpretation Advisory Committee, which she had been a member of since 2014. In 2018, Gio was elected to the Executive Committee of the Brazilian Association of Translators and Interpreters,  Abrates, as its General Secretary. You can follow her on Twitter (@cariobana), learn more about Gio on her website, and she can also be reached at gio@giolester.com. Click here to read other posts by Gio.

12 thoughts on “Words Are Only Part of the Equation”

  1. Angela Chenus says:

    Thank you, Gio, that was very well put! How often interpreters run into the same arguments, just stated differently. We have all heard; “Just say what she said,” or “His son interpreted last week, and it was just fine. We got along and understood each other, but I guess we have to have you for; X,Y,Z.” (Fill in: court hearing, post-op results, domestic disputes between two LEP individuals that led to prison for one party.) Language is a complex, profound, fascinating cultural phenomenon, not a robotic feat of word for word.

    Ditto for the equipment; interpreters also make an investment in good audio equipment to improve the efficiency and quality of the work provided, not to replace any of the skill involved.

    1. Gio says:

      you are so right! It also affect interpreters in that clients see us as parrots who speak in foreign languages too. What a nightmare.

      I have had so many nightmarish situations while interpreting due to lack of understanding of how our work is done.

  2. Carmen L. Sáenz says:

    Beautifully put, Gio! I no longer do translation work for agencies which base payments on like or fuzzy words. Not my style. A professional translator is responsible for a coherent, well redacted, flawless final work. It is simply not a matter of word substitution or deletion. As long as translators allow this practice to continue, our profession will not be given the respect it is due.

    1. Gio says:

      I agree with you, Carmen. The fuzzy match pricing will continue while we, professionals, accept it and that directly affects how our profession is viewed.

  3. CAT translation is a machine that supports the human translator. The CAT includes standard dictionary and grammar software, terminology management, etc. This facilitate human translation but does not provide translation. The Machine Translation, on the other hand, has a program that analyzes source text trying to produce a target text without human intervention, product that 97% of the time requires human pre- and post- editing. It requires serious and lengthy human intervention to “program” the machine to translate something professional. There are unedited translation tools on the internet like Google translate, which at least in my language – Romanian, leads to nonsensical, sometimes humorous and confusing results. There are also pop-up windows that show more possible equivalents for each word or phrase. It requires more work for a translator to pre-post-edit these, so our fees should be higher. However, the language agencies are notorious for paying translators 20-30% of the fee they get from the client so I am not working for them either. However, these agencies then use bilinguals to edit CAT and MT translations and pay them 10% of the client’s fee. This not only hurts the professional translators by driving down the fees, but also it destroys the image of what a good, professional translation looks like, at least for “rare” languages like Romanian. I will teach a continuing education class in Translation Theory on Octobr 26, 2019, via internet.

    1. Gio says:

      I think it negatively affects the image of what a good, professional translation is like for all languages. But we can’t do much more than keep doing our best work and not accepting those fuzzy matches.

      Good luck on your class!

  4. I work into English and the same applies. I do tend to charge by the word, but the rate per word changes based on several factors (complexity, legibility, deadline, formatting) and sometimes I will charge by the product instead. I avoid CAT tools like the plague, mostly because they slow me down. Their “fuzzy matches” are often way off base, and even some of the 100% matches cam be problematic Coming into English they will often pick a wrong pronoun, (“dijo” can mean “he said” in one paragraph and “she said” in another). “Si” will come in as “if” even if in context it clearly meant “yes,” when the writer left off an accent mark. I could go on. So when a client wants a discount for repetition, I only give it to them when there are actually lengthy repeated passages, not on the basis of a computer generated analysis of “repeat text.”

    1. Gio says:

      I can fully relate. I received a very long document form a client and was already imagining how good a month that was going to be for my wallet when I realized I had done that work before. In reality, comparing the old and new document, there was only a one paragraph difference between them. I promptly translated that one paragraph and charged the client my minimum explaining the situation.

      The client was surprised and happy. And I went to sleep with a clear conscience.

  5. Siddhi Talati says:

    Excellent! Gio, You are speaking of what I have in my mind. I refused many projects where I was asked to use translation memory tools because I am so tired of editing the files translated using those tools which are very expensive and in my languages Gujarati and Hindi a term used in different contexts has different meaning and different gender has different spellings. So I bluntly tell the clients that I don’t use the memory tools.

    1. Gio says:

      They should worry about the quality of the final work not how you got there. Exactly.

  6. Terri Shaw says:

    To be a little frivolous: Your comment “I am not a typist” reminds me of a sign in the beauty salon I go to:
    “I am a hairdresser not a magician.”

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