Volume 15, No. 2 
April 2011

Fire Ant
Fire Ant

Worker Bee
Worker Bee


Front Page

Select one of the previous 55 issues.

Index 1997-2011

TJ Interactive: Translation Journal Blog

  Translator Profiles
One Translator's Journey
by Heidi Holzer

  The Profession
The Bottom Line
by Fire Ant & Worker Bee
How do you Deal with Requests for Discounts?
by Danilo Nogueira and Kelli Semolini

Technical Translation
Specialization in Translation—myths and realities
by Charles Martin

  Translators and the Computer
An Analysis of Google Translate Accuracy
by Milam Aiken and Shilpa Balan
The New Five-Year-Rule
by Jost Zetzsche

  Translation Theory
How to Avoid Communication Breakdowns in Translation or Interpretation?
by Sahar Farrahi Avval
A Taxonomy of Human Translation Styles
by Michael Carl, Barbara Dragsted, and Arnt Lykke Jakobsen

  Language & Communication
Words of Greek Origin
by Aikaterini Spanakaki-Kapetanopoulos
Translation and Neologisms
by Forough Sayadi

  Literary Translation
'Speaking in the Feminine': Considerations for Gender-Sensitive Translation
by Kate James

  Caught in the Web
Web Surfing for Fun and Profit
by Cathy Flick, Ph.D.
Translators’ On-Line Resources
by Gabe Bokor
Translators’ Best Websites
by Gabe Bokor

  Translators' Tools
Translators’ Emporium

Call for Papers and Editorial Policies
Translation Journal
The Profession

The Bottom Line

by Fire Ant & Worker Bee

Practical tips for practicing translators.


Dear Fire Ant & Worker Bee,

I'm in a quandry. From time to time I receive solicitations and requests from companies that have a Web presence only. Bricks and mortar are so 20th century! However, most of these companies are unknown to me, frequently based abroad, and often claim to offer a wide range of services that are not always a good match with those I offer my existing clients.

For example, I was recently approached by an establishment that goes by the name TextKing (http://www.textking.com/). The company is unknown to me. They sent me an e-mail message (phone calls are also very 20th century, I suppose), with the picture of a smiling and contented looking young man, inviting me to team up with them.

However, as far as I can tell, they are not in need of translation services but want to operate as a go-between between me and potential clients. For a generous fee, of course, a rather generous fee of 30% in fact.

So my question to FA&WB is the following: How does one go about determining the authenticity or legitimacy of such offers, especially when they are exclusively Web-oriented and the individuals behind them could be located anywhere in the world?

Onshore Offshore


Dear Onshore,

We've seen and tested similar offers. And even as we admire (sort of) the entrepreneurial spirit behind them, we are convinced that the basic pitch is skewed for anyone—client or translator—targeting serious provision of genuine professional services.

The reason is simple.

Cutting out the bricks & mortar overheads may sound like a cool idea for people who know nothing about how translation is commissioned or performed, in this case a team of online marketing experts and a language school operator.

But their business model is flawed.

TextKing's founders say their model, based on the latest web technology, ultra-low overheads and a steady stream of customer feedback, worked well for an earlier venture, Holidaychecks. And why not? It's clear that if your holiday rental is crawling with cockroaches, the shuttle fifteen hours late, the food ptomaine-inducing, well, yes: many buyers who have paid out their vacation money will be rightly indignant and speak up to complain. The vacation broker can then spread their views around and market forces will kick in to set things right.

But translation is different, since only a minute percentage of buyers are actually able to judge the quality of the work they buy.

So if that Portuguese/Chinese/French brochure is scuttling around on hairy insect legs, letting off a vile smell 24/7, with errors in both content and style—how will the buyer know?

Despite the founders' genuine enthusiasm, this looks like yet another database of self-described "professional translators" signing up and announcing the text types they "feel comfortable" with, and committing to deliver their best shot for relatively low prices. The patently fake translator profiles and photos are a testimony to marketing copywriters, not the skills you'll find here. Why? Because the prices are too low and nobody's taking responsibility (read the small print).

Implementing effective QA to create satisfying long-term relationships has been addressed by translation suppliers for decades, with patchy results. Serious suppliers know that the only way forward is raising client awareness and developing continuous vetting processes—at which point a 30% margin is the strict minimum, incidentally.

Our opinion? Aside from beginners looking for experience, sites like these are not where a professional translator wants to be.



Dear Fire Ant & Worker Bee,

I was doing research on a certain technical subject, and as luck would have it, I found a very informative website. After reading it, I still had some questions, so I contacted the author with a few questions. He replied, and I thanked him for his considerate answers.

The next week I had some more questions, like clues for a crossword puzzle. He replied again and after a little exchange he wrote,  "Now I know where to go for a technical translation if I need one."  I don't know if he'll ever be in the market, but wasn't that nice?

It's just like you say in your articles. I never had any doubt, of course, but I love it when life imitates books.

Research N. Relationships


Dear Research N.,

Thanks for the confirmation that courteous, targeted questions are a terrific way to engage with experts who are passionate about what they do—and useful additions to your professional network!



Dear Fire Ant & Worker Bee,

I notice that you describe yourselves as "association boosters."

So am I, and I need advice on a recurring situation.

I work on various committees for our country's professional association for translators. We do our best to keep prices as low as possible (break-even for us). But even so some members regularly contact us with personal tales of misfortune and hardship, asking for special rates for training courses, reductions in their membership fee, lower price for our annual dinner, a "break" on the premium for our association-negotiated insurance policy, and so on.

When I field the call or email, I am friendly but firm: no reductions.

Yet even so, some members come back again and again to plead their "special case." Some act as if I am being unreasonable or even imply that I am conducting a personal vendetta against them. What is an effective response to these no doubt sincere but financially troubled people who just don't get it?

No Meanie


Dear No,

If you have clearly explained your association's break-even policy—both to individuals seeking special breaks and to the membership at large at your annual general meeting, for example—we see three options:

  • Tell members seeking special treatment that such requests must be made in writing. This will free up your phone line for more rewarding and useful work during office hours. Should written requests materialize, answer with one of a selection of prepared responses (have your board vet these beforehand; they should be both courteous and firm).

  • Suggest that people who cannot afford association activities give it a miss this year, but start saving up now for more active participation next year. This puts the onus on them.
  • For certain events, consider offering members in occasional dire straits an opportunity to participate for free in exchange for on-site labor: arriving at 7.00 a.m. to set up the room, for example, or manning the registration desk. If this can take some of the pressure off other volunteers, it may be a good investment. (If the set-up time is moved forward to 6.00 a.m. they might even manage to scrape up the cash.)

No matter how difficult times are, it is simply not reasonable to let people with ongoing financial problems define your association's priorities and policies. And even less reasonable to have the membership as a whole subsidize them.



Dear Fire Ant & Worker Bee,

I am fed up with rock-bottom vendors contacting me to offer work. Recently I received an offer of a job at 0.05 a word. These people drag the entire market down. Who do they think they are? I'd like to shut them up forever. Can you give me and your other readers a good reply?

Sick of Peanuts


Dear Peanuts,

We're reading you loud and clear, Peanuts, but admit we find translators who insist on getting upset about low-ballers a tad tiresome.

Translation prices range from 0 currency units a word to, well, the sky is really and truly the limit.

That's the market. And it's up to you to decide where you want to be. If you spend all your time fussing about clients you don't want to work for, you'll likely postpone the analysis and hard work needed to get you there.

OK, highlighting the soft underbelly of big, increasingly shaky suppliers trying to throw their weight around can be entertaining.

An example is Traductor-financiero's skewering of Lionbridge when that industry giant announced an across-the-board reduction in rates for its suppliers in November. (Note: at the time, Lionbridge was already operating at rates far below what most skilled translators demand. Its 2010 results, just published, show another loss—watch that space!).

A seriously entertaining set of exchanges ensued. But that level of response takes a lot of time, and not many people write as well as Miguel Llorens.

May we suggest as a quick and professional alternative the admirably clear "not available" message used by Nick Hartmann, an experienced G>E patent translator in the US:

Dear [name],

Thank you for your inquiry.

I am not available for the assignment you describe.

For future reference, my standard rate for translation into [language] is [XX] per word. My schedule usually fills up several weeks in advance, so I am seldom available for short-deadline work. Further information about my experience and capabilities is available at my web site (address below), from which you can also download a complete information sheet in PDF format.


You can easily make this a "signature" file, sendable in two clicks. And invest the time you save in hunting down more attractive clients.



Dear Fire Ant & Worker Bee,

In your last column, you mentioned translators who go out of their way to highlight their eccentricities, and you wrote:

"Curiously (or not) this is often done in the name of intellectual or moral straight-shooting."

I'm not sure what you mean by "intellectual or moral straight-shooting," and was wondering if you could elaborate.


Reading Between the Lines


Dear Reading,

We were thinking of translators who (cluelessly or eccentrically) get on an "I know more than anybody in this room, let me prove it now" kick or "Most people including you people are hopelessly corrupt, look at me, I'm pure and good."

An example of the former came when we were involved in negotiating on behalf of translators with an institution in a European country. The representative of a partner association was an intense and terminally indignant tech translator who, rather than focus on the business at hand, indulged in long tirades on the history of the French language and its enemies. A latter-day and far less distinguished De Gaulle on amphetamines came to mind. Negotiators on the other side of the table didn't know what to make of him (neither did allies like ourselves), but it was far harder to be taken seriously in his wake.

In a similar vein, a Swiss colleague has mentioned how some translators lose points when discussing their work with financial experts by insisting on explaining obscure grammatical points (ze eyes glaze over) rather than behaving as walking, talking thesauruses. The latter is far more productive.

And moral purity? At a client dinner several years ago, another translator decided to explain why bottled water was a threat to the third world; he scolded the waitress for not providing tap water, then lectured her (us all, actually) about how article X of law Y required restaurants to do so. And by the way this restaurant's prices were outrageous, and yada yada yada. Not timely. Simply not appropriate.

Sporting exceptionally inappropriate clothes (where creative would be OK) is another example.

Curious, isn't it. You definitely want to differentiate your services to win good clients. But to establish the credibility you need to make your pitch, you have to adopt social behavior that lets you blend in.