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Translation agencies: When price is more important than quality

A recent article in the January/February issue of the ATA Chronicle* written by John M Milan discusses the “Economics of Language Services” and more specifically why freelancers find it difficult to raise their rates.

The article zeroes in on the several points: value, scarcity, marginal utility, supply and demand, consumer perception and competitive markets to mention most but not all of the topics.

Mr. Milan appears to have a good grasp of economics but fails to point out that often freelance translators are not able to raise their rates because they lack significant volume.

In today’s world anyone, anywhere can set themselves up as a translator with expertise in almost any subject and, in order to gain a greater share of the pie, they try to undercut their competitors. Here the proverbial “competitive markets” notion exerts its leveling force. (Point given.) However, most translators rely on translation agencies for their work, and the Agency with an almost unlimited supply of providers can almost impose rates.

These same translation agencies will often gravitate towards the least expensive source while sacrificing quality, if necessary, to make greater profits.

A translator in Quito can undercut one in Chicago when translating from Spanish to English, for example. The non-native, in Quito, though very cheap, may prove to be less than satisfactory as far as accuracy and proper use of idiomatic expressions and prepositions.

Some agencies don’t really care very much since it is unlikely that a client will look very carefully at the final result and may not even be able to understand it. This can result in “loss in translation” or improper messaging to the client’s intended recipients.

This race to the bottom is probably the single most important reason why translators are unable to raise their fees. Macro economics may play an important part as Mr. Milan suggests but since most freelance translators rely on translation agencies for most of their jobs, it is just as likely that avarice and short sightedness may play an equally significant role.

*Jan/Feb American Translators Association 2018 Volume XLVll Number 1


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