On a round-table discussion with project managers and owners from translation agencies last year I discussed the concept of offering different quality standards to clients. While the concept has been used for years already, a new approach was introduced to manage price pressure and satisfy varying demands from various types of customers. But will offering different quality levels to customers work for freelancers?
The benefit of attending conferences for translation agencies
From the conferences I have attended until now there have been a few that mainly targeted translation agencies. A disadvantage of such conferences is that they offer no topic of interest whatsoever for freelance translators. Most of the presentations are on topics like managing businesses, merging with others or not and how to survive the competitive market. (Last year I also participated in a round-table discussion on machine translation and, strikingly, I was the only participant out there with hands-on experience in post-machine editing, which gained much attention from agency owners and discussion leaders alike.) While attending conferences for agencies can create a feeling of estrangement, it also has a clear benefit: one will learn what is happening at the agency level, how agencies think and what they expect to do in the foreseeable future. Freelance translators can anticipate that, in the current landscape, because it is mainly agencies shaping the life and business of freelance translators.
Different quality levels for agencies
Translation agencies often expect the highest quality from their translators – and so do freelance translators themselves. However, the tough competitiveness in the industry has put considerable pressure on agencies to reduce their prices, which is often passed on to freelance translators. During the round-table discussion on offering different quality standards an employee of TAUS put forward the concept of leaving customers the choice: would they have a one star translation (the cheapest version, only offering translation without editing), a two star translation (an intermediate level with translation and editing) or a three star translation (the best quality for the best price)? Of course that concept could be extended to further levels. There was even the suggestion to offer a cheap translation service with a translation by a translation engine, whether or not edited by a human translator (in which case a client might save on translation costs by simply using Google Translate or an equivalent).
The concept of offering different levels of translation quality is interesting and worth a discussion. Indeed agencies need to rethink their business models in order to survive the killer competition of cheap translators and wannabe agencies, and working with quality levels could be one option. In the past 18 months I have seen some translation agencies that already offer such an option with the customer paying only $ 0.03 for the lowest quality level – sometimes a ‘guaranteed human translation’.
The images below are taken from a website that offers different quality levels (“Service levels”) for translations.
(Source: http://www.quicksilvertranslate.com/. Last accessed on May 13, 2016)
Offering different quality levels will enable some to attract a diverse client base with companies that require top-notch translations and companies that are always looking for the cheapest translation – no matter the quality. It can offer those agencies a great way to stay competitive for the future, but it is not necessarily promising for the future of the industry. Indeed, it can drive translation prices even lower. In some cases a low-level translation for a low-level price can eat up the whole margin that is needed to compensate for overhead costs. Attracting only clients for low-level translations could then only accelerate the end of a business.
Different quality levels for translators?
During that round-table discussion (and I think in any subsequent discussion thereafter), the most important aspect of this new approach for freelance translators was totally overlooked. Indeed, if translation agencies plan to offer different quality levels this suggests that they have several quality standards or levels for translators as well. If a customer chooses the lowest quality level he will get a translation from a student, someone who is unemployed and looking for some money, or someone who does not mind quality but loves languages. If the same customer is to choose the best quality level he will get a translation from a veteran, specialized in the particular subject, and with years of experience. That, however, does not have to be the case. There is a chance that the client for all quality levels relies on the same translator, whether his/her translation is edited or not by a colleague.
Flaws in the concept
The strange thing in this concept, however, is that there is not necessarily a clear or big gap in the quality of a low-level or high-level translation. Indeed, there can be no gap at all. The addition of an editor to a translation can avoid obvious quality problems in translations but does not offer a guarantee that the latter translation is of better quality.
Whatever path a translation agency chooses, it will still demand the best quality possible of a translator. Until now there has not been an agency that offered translators freedom to deliver sloppy work because the client demanded it. A concept with quality levels therefore will never release a freelance translator from the professional duty to deliver great work. Meanwhile, it can even increase the burden on translators because they need to deliver the same satisfactory quality as in the past while their word rate is reduced to satisfy the client. And even if translators are willing to deliver a translation for a lower price without any quality checks or guarantees, they may still feel the moral dilemma in delivering a translation they are confident in – thus increasing the burden for themselves.
The concept can also have an undesirable side effect for translators. In the past, I have worked for an agency that first lowered the word rate by one cent (which was surmountable) but afterwards seemingly scrimped on editors and demanded that translators deliver TEP service: they had to Translate, Edit and Proofread, delivering each phase in a separate folder with a different timestamp so as to make clear that the translation was thoroughly edited and proofread at different times of the day.
Offering different quality levels can therefore be great for agencies, but it is questionable whether it will work for translators. Professional translators dedicated to deliver the best possible outcomes for the client, the agency and themselves will probably never agree to work with different quality levels. If and when they want to, it will be a huge challenge to make a distinction between several translation qualities. In the end the approach can work for the end client, but it won’t help the industry to survive the price wars.