Home » Archives for Alex » Page 3

Author: Alex

Rates and the GFC (again)

My earlier comments about rates were prompted by the fact that for some months my own order book has been slacker than it used to be. I must, on the other hand, say that for the last two or three weeks things have been more like what was familiar for years: I’m repeatedly having to turn work down for the simple reason that I just have no more time available.

I had come to the conclusion that rates really have been falling for one, simple reason – one agency for whom I have done a lot of work over a number of years simply stopped contacting me. After around four months I wrote to them, asking if everything was ok. After all, bankruptcies happen, company principals die or get taken ill – there are all sorts of reasons why a source of work might suddenly dry up. Their answer was very simple and very clear: although (they were kind enough to say that) I am “certainly one of their best translators”, my rates were simply too high. When they ask their own customers for the same money that they use to charge, they simply no longer get orders. They would only be able to make use of me, they said, if I could restructure my charges in such a way that I would be getting only something like 75% of my former rate. My relationship with this trusted customer is a good one, and the circumstances make it quite clear that this was not a “try on”. I should point out that I had been charging this client the same as I charge everybody else. On the other hand, I don’t know what their own margin is, and I therefore don’t know how their charges to end-customers compare with those made by other agencies.

The implication was clear enough to prompt me to write to all the clients for whom I have done jobs in the last two years, bluntly asking them whether my current price is a problem. Every single one was kind enough to reply, and every single one said that no, my prices are perfectly normal and perfectly acceptable. All of them but one said that they were simply finding that there is, at present, much less work about, and that companies who need translations done are trying to reduce the amount, postpone the work, or in some other way put less translation out onto the market. The only one who claimed to be as busy as ever is quite a small concern, and focused primarily on French rather than German, so perhaps not typical of my other clients.

There does seem to be still plenty of support for the old wisdom that if people will not pay a decent price, they may indeed get translations, but that he quality will be very poor. If a bargain-basement approach were to become a trend that characterised the whole market, good translators would eventually become altogether hard to find.

Conclusion? I don’t know, but it’s food for thought.

Backstreet translation

I must confess that times are harder. Under the current economic conditions I have found that the familiar old scenario of fighting off customers, having to turn them down again and again because there just isn’t time to do all the work that is offered, is no longer my everyday experience. For years, however, I have done negligibly little marketing, so I have been using the breathing space to take a look at some of the new ways in which businesses are making contact through online networking.

Some of it is promising, there can be no doubt. But some of it is appalling. The translation business, like shopping for gifts, is largely unregulated. There is good quality material available, but it is up to the shopper to find it. As I looked at some of these sites I felt as if I had wandered off the street of high-quality department stores, where carefully selected perfumes, clothes and other desirables are displayed under favourable lighting behind polished glass prior to being sold, gift wrapped and paid for by credit card. Somehow I had found my way into back-alleys where the cheapest tat, knocked-off copies and toys made in the correctional institutions of China were being touted at the lowest possible prices – just don’t bother going back and trying to find the stall again when it turns out that your toy is covered in poisonous paint, is broken, and wouldn’t be likely to work even if it were in one piece. Two examples may illustrate what I mean.

Some time ago I joined twitter, but somehow never quite grasped what the point of it was. (I’m “wildingtranslat”, by the way.) So I recently invested an hour finding some people to “follow”. One of them, going under the name of LyricLabs, was generating a huge number of tweets about translation jobs involving every thinkable language combination. I clicked on one or two, to see what the deal was, but in every case I found no details about the job, but was just led instead to the company’s main website. I held out no hope, but for the sake of being annoying I mailed them to ask why this was. To my surprise I got no less than two answers:

Dear alex
Twitter is to get keyword listing in SE. Have told my office to be in touch with you


Dear Mr. Alex
Thanks for contacting us. We have rooted our twitter links to our website only
Pl. send your updated CV
Thanks & Regards,

You will realize that I have cut-and-pasted these messages, so there is no need to put (sic) all over them to assure you that the mistakes are theirs. In other words

  • although the site is run in English, they are not very good at the language
  • they are too lazy to press all the necessary keys

and they are willing to admit that

  • the job offers are all fakes, and they are simply pumping them out on to twitter in the hope that the links to their own website, included in each tweet, will improve their ranking on Google.

Needless to say, I am not following them on twitter any longer.

As a second illustration, I found what did seem to be an actual job offer on another site. The Word file was available, so I downloaded it and estimated that at my standard rate I would have wanted about EUR 190 for the job, say USD 250. Perhaps I would have been willing to negotiate down, let’s say $200. The potential client was offering between $10 (yes, ten) and $20 (yes, twenty). One respondent had offered to do it for $10, adding (again, I cut and paste – all errors of spelling and puctuation are the message author’s):
Please allow us to do you a accurate and professional work.
Someone else, offering to do it for $20, asserted:
I completed my work. Your document is ready. i already completely translated your file. now tell me where to send you this file. thanks.
A third respondent, perhaps feeling that $20 really was too little, and perhaps therefore capable of a higher quality, offered to do it for $60, supplementing the offer with the message:
Hello, I hace checked your text completelly. At my price I can provide Native German Translation and Proofreading by Native English. My service is perfect,check my reviews. Best Regards.

I now just need a little video of myself walking away, shaking my head in disbelief.

The Phenomenology of Business

The other day I received a marketing e-mail from an old comrade out of university days, Alan Rae, of Punch Above Your Weight. Alan now works as a consultant to small businesses, analysing how they do or can grow. One of the key points in the mail was the difference between demand-limited businesses, which are therefore scalable, and production-limited businesses, which are not. For the first business, if you get more demand you source more product, whereas in the second case once you’ve sold it you sold it. Clearly, these types of business need different marketing strategies. The message continued:

It’s local vs national that makes the difference. A local business can get its leads by networking locally. But a national business benefits from the extra reach and randomness that online working gives you.

The comment I send back was that “In many cases, no doubt. But in my case, it’s hard to be more international, yet I am entirely supply-limited. Once I’m booked, I’m booked, and outsourcing would be extremely unprofessional”, to which Alan replied (tongue in cheek, I assume) that I am therefore officially a “gifted amateur”.


By implication, freelance translators in general are “gifted amateurs”, a label that we might not all be happy with. (Yes, yes, I could say “a label with which we might not all be happy”. But I won’t.)

It struck me that this kind of misjudgement happens most easily when we try to analyze a field by sheer conceptual juggling, rather than referring to the phenomena that are out there. As the word “phenomenological” crossed my mind, I was further struck by the parallel with the shift from “comparative religion” to “phenomenology of religion”. Those of you who are not familiar with the field may think that “comparative religion” is an innocuous enough term. It might suggest an earnest, open-minded seeker with a clipboard and a checklist (with the results stored, no doubt, in an Excel file), noting that the Woobalists believe in Blongtarraby, while the breakaway Darishnymites assert that Blongtarraby should really be called Longbartnabing. Interesting stuff, eh? The fact is, however, that “comparative religion” got a bad name as it came to be associated with the almost Victorian notion that one could begin with a preconceived hierarchy, into which discoveries could be fitted as they were made. And yes, the top of the pyramid was monotheism, even “triune monotheism” – wouldn’t you just know it! The “phenomenology of religion” was intended to counter this thinking by putting the central focus on religious phenomena, whatever they may be, and only on that basis proceeding to look for underlying patterns or structures.

Well, academics have to make their living out of this, so the whole field is of course complex and subtle, but I am asking Alan to comment on my suggestion that the problem with his chart is a result of working from preconceived notions rather than from business phenomena.


Now that I have lived in Sydney for a little while, I have naturally started to notice Australianisms. It’s the subtle ones that I find most interesting. Australians are well aware that things about the way they speak are particularly Australian, and there are plenty of books available on Australian slang. Many are now just corny cliches – I’m not sure if anybody still seriously refers to their mates as “cobber”. I imagine that most Australians who speak of putting “snags on the barbie this arvo” knows that this is Australian. I was not sure if I needed to explain that it means “sausages on the barbecue this afternoon”, but since my spell checker wanted to capitalize barbie, presumably in the belief that I was referring to a plastic doll, I thought perhaps I should.

I am more interested in the kind of Australianisms that a reasonably well-educated person would use when speaking more or less formally and perhaps not realize that an English (or for that matter Scots, American or what have you) English-speaker would find the expression odd, and perhaps detect that the speaker was Australian. As an example from elsewhere, I noticed in Ireland how the word “avail” was used in an extremely un-English way. For a start, the Irish say “avail” quite commonly, where in English English it is relatively rare, and rather more formal than Irish usage. What grated on my sensitivities when I first heard it, until I realized that it simply is the normal Irish way of speaking English, is that they do not use it reflexively. So where the English person might be judged to be pompous, but correct, to say “I availed myself of the opportunity to enter the dwelling”, an Irish grocer might put up a notice saying “Just collect coupons to avail of our half-price offer”. To see “to avail yourself of” in that context would be a surprise.

Inevitably I have now forgotten most of the subtle Australianisms that I have noticed until now, so this post is an opportunity to collect them over time. So far I have these:

  • Trifecta – something like a hat-trick. Scarcely known in English English (well I, at least, had never heard it before) but not at all uncommon here.
  • Identity – used in a context where English English might say “figure”: one hears, for instance of “underworld identity Bruce Smith” rather than ” underworld figure Bruce Smith”.
  • Bash – whereas I would think of this as a somewhat colloquial word for a blow or series of blows, as when one bashes a nail into the woodwork, or even bashes somebody in the eye, in Australian English a bashing is used quite formally (again, I’m thinking of television news, for instance) to refer to somebody being mugged, beaten up or seriously assaulted. In the 19th century the word was sometimes used for a flogging – perhaps that is the origin of this usage?

And I know that I’ve noticed more, but what were they?