Changing the Conversation on Pricing

by Michael Schubert

What’s in a word? Precious little. We all know that we don’t translate words, or even sentences and paragraphs: We translate content, in all its context. (Worte and not Wörter, for those of you who know German.) And yet, most of us bill our services by the word. Why? And what message does this send?

The why is simple: It’s the easiest way to assess the volume of the task and provide a price in advance. And the message? To our clients, it says we are selling a commodity — the very message that, elsewhere, we keep trying to contradict. To ourselves, the message is that the faster we can translate, the more money we will earn. It incentivizes speed, not quality.

Moving away from word rates toward hourly or project-based fees better reflects how we actually work — and how we want our work to be perceived.

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Translation Scams Reloaded and More – Translorial Fall 2018 Edition

Translorial Fall 2018 Edition

NCTA members can now enjoy the latest edition of Translorial in print and downloadable PDF versions, covering a variety of topics.

If you are not an NCTA member, you can join here.


Selected articles from Translorial Fall 2018, Vol. 40, No. 2: → continue reading


The young whippersnappers today have no idea how good they have it. BY INES SWANEY

When NCTA was founded in 1978, any mention of e-mail would have been understood as Express Mail known in the United States as Special Delivery. This was the common way of sending urgent information, all typed or printed on paper, of course.  Fax machines were a luxury that some major companies had at their offices. I still recall my first encounter with one of these devices. Someone explained to me that it worked just like a photocopier, except that you started with an original and then the copy would come out somewhere else, even in another continent, as long as everyone’s telephones lines were working properly and you got to keep the original. My cousin in Houston, who was involved in the energy industry, bragged that he had received a fax all the way from Qatar. → continue reading

Googling Machine Translation

By Paula Dieli

Mention the words “machine translation,” and a translator’s thoughts will range from job security to the ridiculously funny translations we’re able to produce with so-called online translation tools. Should we be worried that machines will take over our jobs? Paula Dieli thinks not, and explains why in this report.

I recently attended a presentation on “Challenges in Machine Translation,” sponsored by the International Macintosh Users Group (IMUG), at which Dr. Franz Josef Och, Senior Staff Research Scientist at GoogleResearch, presented some of the challenges Google is facing in its machine translation (MT) research, and how some of these challenges are being addressed. Excitement about successes in machine translation research initially came to a head back in 1954 with a report in the press regarding the Georgetown University/IBM experiment which had used a computer to translate Russian into English. Since then, over the past 50 years, we have continued to read about the great advances that will be possible in “the next 20 years,” but these great advances never came to pass. When the Internet came of age, online translation tools surfaced and we translators amused ourselves by seeing what crazy translations we could come up with by entering seemingly simple phrases.

The linguistics of MT

So why did the research never produce anything really viable? It was based on a linguistic approach; that is, an analysis of the structure of a language followed by an attempt to map it into machine language such that one could input a source language text and out would come a wonderful translation in the target language, albeit with a few minor errors. As we all know, a language is filled with so many cultural, contextual, idiomatic, and exceptional uses that this task became virtually impossible, and no real progress has been made with this approach in the past 50 years.

Dr. Geoffrey Nunberg, Adjunct full professor at UC Berkeley, linguist, researcher, and consulting professor at Stanford University, had this to say at a recent NCTA presentation: “I asked a friend of mine, who is the dean of this [MT] field, once, ‘if you asked people working in machine translation how long it will be until we have perfect, idiomatic machine translation of text …?’, they would all say about 25 years. And that’s been a constant since 1969.”

The data-driven approach

In recent years, MT researchers have begun to take a different approach, which can be loosely compared to the work you do as a translator when you use a tool such as SDL Trados WinAlign or Translator’s Workbench. That is, you use a data-driven methodology. As you translate, you store your translations in a translation memory (TM), so that if that same or a similar translation appears again, the tool will notify you and let you use that translation as is, or modify it slightly to match the source text. The more you translate similar texts in a particular domain, the more likely it is that you will find similar translations already in your TM.

Similarly, if before you began to translate a weekly online newsletter of real estate announcements, for example, you searched the Internet for already existing translations in your language pair and then aligned them and input them, via WinAlign, into your TM, you might find that much of the work had already been done for you. Imagine now if you were to input 47 billion words worth of these translations. Your chances of being able to “automatically” translate much of your source text would certainly increase. This is the approach that Google is taking.

Google’s goal, as stated by Dr. Och, is “to organize the world’s information and make it universally accessible and useful.” Now before you go thinking you’re out of a job, their data-driven approach has proven successful only for certain language pairs, and only in certain specialized domains. They have achieved success in what they call “hard” languages, that is from Chinese to English, and from Arabic to English in domains such as blogging, online FAQs, and interviews by journalists.

Dr. Och reported that their reasons for progress were due to “learning from examples rather than from a rule-based approach.” He admits that “more data is better data.” He went on to say that adding 2 trillion words to their data store would result in a 1 percent improvement for specific uses such as the ones described above. They see a year-to-year improvement of 4 percent by doubling the amount of data in their data store, or “corpus.” The progress reported by Dr. Och is supported by a study conducted by the NIST (National Institute of Standards and Technology) in 2005. Google received the highest BLEU (Bilingual Evaluation Understudy) scores using their MT technology to translate 100 news articles in the language pairs mentioned above. A BLEU score ranges from 0 (lowest) to 1 (highest) and is calculated by comparing the quality of the target segments with their associated source segments (a penalty is applied for short segments since that artificially produces a higher score).

Challenges and limitations

So what are the limitations of this data-driven approach? When asked by a member of the audience if Google’s technology could be used to translate a logo, Dr. Och instantly replied that such a translation would require a human translator. It’s clear that Google’s approach handles a very specific type of translation. Similar data-driven MT implementations can be used to translate highly specialized or technical documents with a limited vocabulary which wouldn’t be translated 100 percent correctly, but which would be readable enough to determine whether the document is of interest. In that case, a human translator would be needed to “really” translate it.

The Google approach described above deals with a tremendous amount of data and a very targeted use. It works only for some languages—German, for example, has been problematic—and in order to improve in more than just small increments, human intervention is required to make corrections to errors generated by this approach. One example that Dr. Och provided—the number “1,173” was consistently incorrectly translated into the word “Swedes”—confirms that a machine can’t do it all.

And if you think for a minute about the amount of Internet-based data being generated on just an hourly basis, it’s great to have machines around to handle some of the repetitive (read: uninteresting) work, and let us translators handle the rest. That still leaves plenty of work for us humans.

Alternative technologies

There are other approaches to MT, including example-based technology, which relies on a combination of existing translations (such as you have in your translation memory) along with a linguistic approach that involves an analysis of an unmatched segment to a set of heuristics, or rules, based on the grammar of the target language. Some proponents of this approach concede that large amounts of data would be needed to make this approach successful, and have all but abandoned their research. Once again, we can see that any approach that relies even partially on linguistics has not met with a reasonable level of success.

Other advances occurring in the MT arena include gisting and post-editing. MT can be used successfully in some settings where the gist of a document is all that is needed in order to determine if it is of enough interest to warrant a human translation. There are also MT systems on the market that produce translations that require post-editing by human translators who spend (often painful) time “fixing” these translations, correcting the linguistic errors that such a system invariably produces. While this may not be the translation work you’re looking for, I know of at least one large translation agency that provides specific training for this type of post-editing to linguists willing to do this kind of work. This is another example that shows that while machines play a part, there is still a role for human translators in the overall process.

Still other advancements include the licensing of machine translation technology based on a data-driven approach, which can be tailored to work with existing translations and terminology databases at a specific company. As with the Google solution, such technologies typically work on a limited set of languages. However, if they can help translate some of the less interesting, repetitive information out there, with more information being produced at a continually increasing rate, have no fear; there will still be plenty of work for human translators to do!

The road ahead

Where does that leave us? From the typewriter to word processors to CAT (Computer-Assisted or Computer-Aided Translation) tools and the pervasiveness of the Internet, our livelihood has been transformed, in a positive way. We are more productive and able to work on more interesting translations than ever before.

I encourage you to embrace technology; understand how it is helping to make information accessible, and learn how technology can help translators do the work that only humans can do.

more information

The calendar of the International Macintosh User Group (IMUG) upcoming presentations can be found at

You can get the official results of the 2005 Machine Translation Evaluation from the National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST) at

Payment Practices

The Trials and Tribulations of Getting Paid (if at all)

By Ayano Hattori

Ah, if collecting money were only as joyous as it sounds. To most of us, payment is harvest; when the fruits of our labor are expressed with a dollar sign followed by multiple digits (the more the better), we get a sense of justified satisfaction. This, in turn, reinforces our very existence as professional translators. After all, without payments we would simply be volunteers. If you’re one of those people that has never had any difficulties receiving payment, consider yourself lucky—very lucky. More than likely, though, you have had such difficulties and, I’m sorry to say, no matter what the law says or how well you translate, the risk of late or non payment will always be present.

A discussion was sparked recently in the NCTA online forum when one of our colleagues posted a response made by an agency after repeated inquiry regarding an overdue payment. The agency, a corporate member of ATA, replied that its “policy requires … paying [its] translators and editors upon the receipt of customer payment.” The agency reasoned that these measures are taken to stay “financially stable.”

Although I had never seen such small print in translation contracts before, I am all too familiar with it. I have found them in contracts from one of my specialized areas, the architecture and construction industry. It is commonly known as “pay when paid,” and unfortunately sometimes turns into “pay if paid.” These clauses put a tremendous burden on the subcontractor. Depending on the industry, the longer this chain of subcontracting extends, the longer one has to wait for the actual money to trickle down, if ever.

The legality of such clauses have been a hot-button issue and multiple states (including California and New York) have had legislative actions against such clauses. Late payments ultimately have greater impacts on smaller businesses because of the financial impact one missing payment could have. It has been such a problem that the Prompt Payment Act was introduced to help regulate the payment standards even for the U.S. government.

As in the case of our NCTA member/colleague, independent translators are in a contractual relationship with the agency, not the end user. Because the translator is not participating in the selection process of the original monetary source, the responsibility of collecting payment in a timely manner should be left to the agency (the party in contractual agreement with the end user), not the translator. As with any responsible business, translation agencies need to be able to account for the monetary lag between paying their independent contractors and getting paid by the original source, if or when such cases arise. It is the basic fundamentals in preserving the wellbeing of suppliers of the translation service and ultimately the business itself.

The Better Payment Practice Campaign states on its website: “As well as being unethical, the practice of deliberately paying later than the agreed terms is wrong for sound economic reasons:

  • It weakens your organization because it harms your reputation.
  • It damages your supply sources and strains your relations with suppliers.
  • It weakens the economy as a whole because it constricts growth.
  • Late payment is often taken as an indication that the buyer is in difficulties. If you create this impression with your suppliers you may find that their terms worsen.”

Some tips for decreasing risks and “confusion”: As with any business decision, know your options and choose carefully. Select payment terms and collection methods that you feel are comfortable and competitive. Check with your state (or country) laws for legalities and amounts.

  • Know your client. Do a little digging on the Internet for any “priors” an agency may have.
  • Have your payment terms in writing by stating them in a contract.
  • Take an advanced payment or retainer before the job begins.
  • Issue invoices on time and note the contractual terms. Use special payment terms if you feel this client is risky.
  • Charge interest and/or late fees.
  • Offer discounts for early payment.
  • Allow different methods of payment.
  • Sometimes, it’s a matter of convenience. If you can afford to make it easier for the client to pay, it may be worth it. Considerations include electronic transfers, accepting foreign currencies and Internet payment systems like PayPal.
  • Have insurance, such as Legal Expense insurance (an option if you feel you may have to use legal expenses to collect). Underbidding by extreme percentages and letting translators “fight it out” in online bids is only creating artificially low pricing that confuses clients and hurts our profession as a whole.

If we can establish personal contact, even if only over the phone, often the transaction can be brought back to a human interaction, where we have a chance to bring the focus back from price to precision, and thus re-establish the meaning of value.

Actions after the fact

Here are some paths you may choose to pursue if the client doesn’t pay on time.

  • Be persistent; remind the client consistently but professionally of the work provided and the payment terms agreed upon.
  • Help others know the risk of working with this client/agency. Post in online forums and payment practice lists.
  • Write to translation/interpretation organizations to help educate the larger business community on sound business practice. (Try places such as ATA Business Practice Education committee.)
  • Get someone else to do the job by utilizing collection agents.
  • Pursue non-court action through third party negotiation, mediation, conciliation or arbitration.
  • Seek the assistance of debt collection lawyers and legal agencies for either/both advice on the current law and use of one in other actions.
  • Take legal action through the court system. 


Bidding for Trouble: The Problem With Online Auctions

By Dagmar Dolatschko

Few of us language professionals have managed to escape this new and troubling phenomenon: online bidding for translation work. Why has price become such a major focus? Even the government has changed its bidding requirements from “the lowest qualified bidder” to “the lowest bidder”- the “qualified” part has been dropped lately.

The world is changing at the speed of light. Location doesn’t matter any more and there are well-educated and experienced translators all around the world with widely diverging costs of living. I do not mean to slight colleagues from countries where $0.04 cents per word affords them a good standard of living. They should be deriving the benefits of the globalization of our industry. The problem arises when clients and bid-lines then expect every translator to bid as low, at the risk of being outbid, and put out of business.

The core of the issue is that many clients don’t seem to care about quality, don’t understand what is entailed in translation, and don’t want to understand why a second linguist (and additional cost) is required for editing and proofing.

At my own agency, we had our first wake-up call two years ago when a high-tech client demanded our participation in an “online auction” where the lowest bidder wins. The process was so disheartening that my colleagues and I were speechless as we watched the numbers going down, graphically supported by online charts that showed the bidders and their pricing in comparison to each other.

In the meantime, many outsourcers are using the new online bidding forums such as,, or And then there is GSA Advantage, for those who have worked hard to obtain federal supply schedule vendor status only to have to engage in online bidding and keep losing business to the lowest bidder – qualified or not.

I came across an interesting blog by the founder of, Christian Hansel, stating that he had actually considered introducing minimum prices for postings to stop the price dumping. He, too, hopes that outsourcers and clients will learn from their mistakes and understand that a $0.02-per-word translation is worth just that. He also makes the point that any businessperson in his right mind wouldn’t buy the cheapest legal or medical services available, but would instead value the professional’s experience and reputation.

It must be said, of course, that services in other professions – such as architecture, consulting, and software engineering – may sometimes be purchased at below-market pricing, and one may occasionally get lucky with a talented novice. Still, as Hansel says, the contractors – that is, professional linguists and translation service providers such as ourselves – need to fight the price-dumping battle ourselves and continue to educate our clients.

Low-cost language service providers are able to stay in business (some only for a short time), largely due to their bypassing of the editing and proofreading functions – or using “cheap” edits/proofs carried out by a native English speaker or a multilingual language “wizard,” working both into-English and into-foreign.

What can we do as a professional community to ensure that our line of work is recognized properly, achieving status similar to that of accountants or medical professionals? In my view, there are three key areas:

Client education

Besides using our own communication skills to educate clients about the differences in translation quality and the various quality assurance steps (editing, and then proofreading by additional linguists), we can point them to a professionally presented little booklet called Getting it Right, published by the ATA. This publication is available online at

Translator education

Translators need to understand that there is and should be a pricing difference when working with an agency and when working with a direct client. Mentoring programs should focus not only on the technicalities of translation, but also on the business side, including issues concerning proper pricing. Translators are doing themselves a disservice if they undervalue their work (especially to direct clients), and in turn cause downward price pressure to other professionals.

Agency education

This is a free market economy and I don’t want to propose price fixing. Yet, agencies who feel pressured to make the sale need to be aware of competitive pricing and should know that they often hurt themselves in the process when they “spoil”their clients. The low-margin, fly-by-night, online translation outfit that manages projects by price alone using online bidding portals has its place. But the output will be commensurate with the input.

We have to do our part to educate our clients about why quality matters. We have to educate new translators to ask a fair price and encourage them to negotiate and also educate their clients in turn. And as agency owners, we should show some pride in our profession and stick to our quality commitment. Underbidding by extreme percentages and letting translators “fight it out” in online bids is only creating artificially low pricing that confuses clients and hurts our profession as a whole.

If we can establish personal contact, be it only over the phone, often the transaction can be brought back to a human interaction, where we have a chance to bring the focus back from price to precision.