When Science Defeats the Knights of Low-End Translation

defeated knight

Not so long ago, in one of my posts, I criticized the “knights of low-end translation” for defending the indefensible. In context, we were discussing a certain company that allegedly pays $0.01/word for translation. One knight claimed that if you’re located in a geographical area where conversion rates work in your favor, there is no reason not to work for such fees. Some of us pointed out that for a translator with an average output of 2500-3000 words a day, 0.01/word means working for $25-30. When asked where one can live with $25-30/day, one of the knights claimed Portugal. When we consider that Portugal has a gross domestic product per capita of US$21,733.07, the knight’s claim is just silly.

Later that week, someone messaged me saying that there are countries where one can live with as little as $1000 a month and directed me to a post from 2012 where the author claimed you can live well in Nicaragua, Malaysia, Ecuador, Panama, and Mexico with that level of income. Of course the author factored in rent, utilities, maid, groceries, maintenance for one car (though savings or credit were not considered, so I guess you’d have to steal the car, because there’s no way you can purchase it with their “equation”), clothing, entertainment (whatever they mean by that), and healthcare (contemplating four visits to the doctor per year, so as long as you don’t actually get sick, you’re covered!). I’m a hopelessly positive person, but this was too much even for me! It was like reading a diary entry from when I was 10 about what my life was going to be like at 25. Nice try… but someone needs to retake Home Ec and Math 101.

However, in said debate, quality of life was not the only strong argument against cheap translation. When someone sustained that cheap translators are inherently bad translators, that statement really struck a nerve with the knights. They immediately tried to debunk any claims that their price could somehow affect the quality of their work and denied there was any correlation between large workloads, time allotted to translation, and quality. “Who says you can’t do great work even if you’re working a billion hours a week?” cried the knights. Science! That’s who, my shiny knight friends!

Apparently, a peer reviewed study by Stanford University and IZA reveals empirical evidence of what any respectable translator already knows: working too much (perhaps to make ends meet when you work for peanuts) directly (and qualitatively) declines productivity by the hour when your work week exceeds 50 hours. The study is brilliant, but there’s a lot of math and numbers, which the knights seem to really struggle with, so here’s the gist: if your fees are too low then you have to work too much to pay for all those grown up things not accounted for in your magical $1000 a month site, the more hours you put in per week after the human burn-out point, the more your productivity qualitatively and quantitatively declines. So you basically wear yourself out for nothing. If, instead, you work for a decent fee, then you can afford to take time off to rest, unwind, and reload. This means time to read for pleasure, continue your education, have a social life, even exercise! All of which have been found to increase your productivity and make you a better translator.

Even without the science, there are strong common-sense reasons not work for 0.01/word; but while the knights prepare to comment claiming to be the exception to the rule or to know great translators that put in billions of error-free hours, just remember: inductive thinking (i.e. extracting a rule from an individual case) is a logically invalid form of reasoning. There may very well be a couple of outliers, but they will never be statistically significant enough to debunk the science against working for peants. Also (and this is just a thought), wouldn’t all that time spent defending the indefensible be better off spent on strategies for increasing your fees anyway?

10 thoughts on “When Science Defeats the Knights of Low-End Translation

  1. The most commonsense reply to the Knights is that the less time you spend on the translation, the lower the quality. The less you get paid per word, the more words you have to translate in the same time period. Therefore, you have no time to consider whether you actually understand what is being said and no time to gain an understanding of the field or subject or the manufacturer, etc. It’s not like assembling a car where you can minimize wasted movement and maximize efficiency, doing the same job over and over all day long. No. In translation every sentence is new. Every job is new. Unless … Oh, now I get it. These people are translating parts catalogs! Yes, of course!

    Liked by 2 people

    • That’s an excellent point! But one must have a certain level of professionalism and respect for translation to understand it. I’ve seen them argue that rushing through projects doesn’t affect quality of their work because they are just THAT good. 😉

      Liked by 1 person

  2. Thank you for this article, Paula.

    More than a few studies into work hours conventions that I’ve seen in the past suggest that productivity increases with proper time management. Focusing the effort into short runs usually increases the effectiveness and efficiency if the work.

    Other studies that I’ve seen suggest that most people (and I acknowledge there are always exceptions to every rule) have 3-5 hours of creative (design, writing, etc.) work in them, and the quality and productivity in each additional hour decreas considerably. The conclusion is to use the creative hours (and then there is the debate about day vs. night time, which is strictly an individual matter) to do the core creative work, and the rest of the day should be spent on administration, CPD, business development, etc.

    Not to mention that a good business practice is to cover your weekly expenses by working 2-3 days a week – not a full week – for reasons irrespective of creativity, concentration, or alertness levels.

    The poverty culture apologetics are free to do whatever they want (I suspect the livelihood of many of them is not dependent on the translation work they do, and some promote a certain agenda – but I don’t want to get into this right now), and good for them if this works for them, but let’s never get confused and pretend, on behalf of political correctness, they give a good or even valid advice.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Absolutely, Shai! I really don’t think we should be taking their arguments as valid; but unfortunately, their “reasoning” is sometimes blindly repeated by newbies, which is why I think it’s important to constantly refute their discourse before it’s internalized by younger or less experienced professionals.


  3. Making $1000 a month is a decent wage here in Chile. Only 50% of the population makes more than $500. The sad truth is that only about 20% of the population actually earns $1000. It mostly has to do with income inequality being astonishingly high here.

    According to Gonzalo Durán, an economist and researcher at Fundación Sol, a non-profit organization that focuses on labor issues, “…90 percent of working Chileans make less than 650,000 pesos per month, totaling USD 1,300.” In other words, “Nine out of ten workers in Chile make less than the average minimum salary in developed countries.”

    BTW, this has nothing to do with charging low rates. I support your claims in that regard.

    Source: http://www.24horas.cl/economia/cuales-son-los-verdaderos-sueldos-en-chile-1568841

    Recommended reading: http://www.counterpunch.org/2014/12/15/chiles-plantation-economy/


    • Wow! These stats are amazing, Gonzalo. Thank you for sharing this valuable information!

      I’m sure if stats in Argentina were reliable, the reality here would be revealed to be very similar to Chile’s. Unfortunately, our government agencies are notorious for mickey-mousing labor and well-being numbers. It seems to me in countries under such conditions, the international translation market should be a source of income improvement and not a source of exploitation. 😦


  4. Isis says:

    Paula, your assumption seems to be that translators who work for low fees have no demand problems. The translators I know who lower their rate do that because they don’t get enough offers so they think a low fee is better than nothing or they are still new and need to gain a foothold in the market. Market volatility, stiff competition, pressure from clients, there are many reasons that make translators just give in to low rates, it’s not only because they are content with little…


    • Thank you for your comment, Isis. If that is the impression that readers are getting from my post, then perhaps I need to review it and explain my ideas more clearly or, since this post is actually part of a series, I need to link to the whole series together so readers can get the gist of what I’m saying.

      In several posts throughout this blog, I have sustained that supply and demand are ultimately what drives price in a market economy (this is just basic economic theory that everyone can easily grasp). Many translators are stuck in a dominant and perhaps even expanding market (though I’d need evidence to prove it’s expanding) that tends to equate translation to a commodity and to apply commodity manufacturing principles to translation (for example, bulk discounts, which are feasible and even economically sound strategies when manufacturing goods, but can’t really be applied to intellectual service, such as legal services, medical services, or translation services given the inherit differences in manufacturing goods and producing intellectual work).

      Now, having said that, I also sustain in several posts that if translators want to escape the low-end translation market, bottom feeding agencies, or substandard rates, they need to switch market segments. Being as I am someone who managed to escape the low-end market and move into what Chris Durban and other translators refer to as the “premium market”, I try to make a point in this blog of reassuring translators that there is such a thing as a premium market and that there are effective strategies for capturing said market. Ultimately, translators have a choice. No matter what a person’s financial constraints or even if, like me, they live in a developing country with a struggling economy, there are strategies for shifting segments gradually, so as to be able to support yourself financially while shifting. That’s really the point I’m trying to make.

      Some of the posts I’m referring to can be found here:
      1) One how much money goes into translation (this is the first post in a 3 post series).
      2) How supply and demand affect rates
      3) Another one on supply and demand
      4) How to calculate your rates: a simple math formula

      Liked by 1 person

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