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Translation Scams

When you think about “online scams”, your mind immediately wanders towards the classics, Nigerian princes, phishing attempts, auction frauds and fake lottery winnings.

You might even spare a thought for all those poor suckers who get taken by unscrupulous scam artists.

However, aside of these big obvious scams, there are a lot of “specialized” scams in various lines of work and unfortunately translation does have its bad apples.

In this brief write-up, I will try to give you a bit of a warning against an increasingly common translation scam.

But first, let’s go over how scams work :

Scams all have pretty much the same anatomy: the scammer makes you believe that you are getting a good deal, gets you to give him something (usually money) and then fails to deliver on his end of the bargain.

Example: Some “Nigerian prince” offers you to earn millions of dollar in exchange for a little help in moving the funds. If you bite, the scam artist tells you that you need to pay $$$$ for some paperwork. You pay and then discover that the millions you were supposed to get don’t exist. If you don’t realize right away that the paperwork is useless, you may be taken by the next wave of demands “Just another $$$$, to clear customs”, “$$$$ for me to take the plane and come to the bank”, “$$$$ for…”

As long as you pay, the fees will add up until the scam artist is sure that he can’t get anything more from you.

The translation scam

This translation scam works slightly differently from most other scams but the bottom-line is the same. It goes like this:

You are looking for an agency to translate your documents/website/manuals/… into various languages. The way you see it, translation is a cost-center (something that doesn’t directly make money but needs to be paid) and you are of course price-conscious. After all, translation is done by translators, and just because a translator is more expensive doesn’t mean he is better, so why not look for the cheapest one that looks good?

So, as you start looking for a provider to translate your 20,000 words user manual in French, you find all kinds of prices, roughly ranging from $0.03 to $0.30 per word (and more). Instinctively, you suspect that the $0.03 provider isn’t quite as good as the $0.30 provider, but objectively, there is little to differentiate them. Your $0.03 provider will usually have a customer list that reads like a Fortune 1,000 listing. He may very well have an ISO 9001:2 certification, nice quality processes (on paper) and a fancy looking website.

Now, you are pondering offers ranging from $600 to $6,000. You may have misgivings, but if you are not familiar with the costs of translation and the work involved, $600 may not sound cheap. You would like the translation done by next week and it so happens that our $600 provider assures you that he can do it on time, when some other providers ask for extended deadlines or rush fees. The provider is responsive, the ISO certs check out, everything looks good. Too good really, but the truth is that you really don’t know what you are doing. You can ask for references, and they will have many.

And the clock is running. You need your translations done. The time you spend on looking for a provider is not free either. It’s a tedious task and the sooner it’s done, the sooner you can get back to doing your work.

You finally go with one of the cheapest providers. You send the files, pay the money and like clockwork, you get the translation on time. Everything looks good, service was great… you speak a little French and it looks ok.

Congratulation, someone just got screwed and it’s probably you. Here is what happened:

The “translation provider” received the document and spent a whole 5 minutes to run it through Google Translate or Bing Translator or any other machine translator. Then a freelance translator got paid $30 to “proofread” the first few pages to make it looks somewhat acceptable.

If you are like most clients, you can’t check the translation and consider yourself quite happy with the results. You might even contract the same company again over and over until you finally find out the quality is actually garbage (and that could take years, because let’s face it, few clients complain about the translation quality of the user manual – when was the last time you contacted a company to complain about the quality of their translations?)

Result, you just paid $600 for worthless nonsense you could have had for free and the “translation provider” made $600 for half an hour of work!

And even if you notice the translation is worthless, so what?

They might try to fix it by scamming a greenhorn freelance translator into doing a full rewrite at extra cheap proofreading rates (in which case you get a poor translation and the translator is the real sucker of that deal) or they will offer a 10%-50% discount to make you go away, or simply ignore you.

$600 barely covers the cost of talking to a lawyer about it so you aren’t going to do anything about it, and if you actually go as far as talking to a lawyer, he will tell you that it isn’t worth going further.

It’s unfortunate, but the number of “translation agencies” running this scam seems to be on the raise lately.

Avoiding the scam

The rule “If it looks too good, it probably is” will detect almost all scams, including this one, but truthfully, you want things to be good, and how do you decide what is too good if you don’t know anything about translation?

A bit of logic and understanding will go a long way:

How much a translator can translate varies from translator to translator and depends also largely on the languages involved, but as a rule of thumb a translator has a capacity of 2,000 to 3,000 words per day and is seldom booked to full capacity. In Western countries, freelance translators pay about 40-50% of their income in taxes.

Let’s do a little bit of math: $0.03 x 2,000 = $60 for a day of work. After taxes, $30/day. 15 to 20 full days of translation per month (some time is spent on administrative tasks, finding customers, etc., and there are of course week-ends and days off).

Add this all up. $0.03/word means about $450 to $600 per month for full time work, and we haven’t even deducted expenses.

Can you imagine a skilled professional working in France for $600/month? That barely covers rent!

And the $0.03/word “translation agencies” want you to believe that $0.03 is enough to cover their commission + the French translator’s fees + the French proofreader's fees + the project manager’s time?

If you believe that, you might as well believe that a genuine Nigerian prince wants your help to transfer 100 million dollars for him. Who knows, maybe there is one!

So back again to this rule of thumb, but this time with a bit of subject knowledge: Price is not everything, but if a translation agency (as in, a company with offices and utilities bills and salaries to pay, etc.) offers you $0.03 per word to translate into French (or even double that price). The maths simply don’t work… somebody is planning to pull one on you.

Now, different languages come with different price points. A Chinese translator living in mainland China (NOT Hong Kong) can get by with $0.03/ word, but a French translator will starve at that rate.

You are trying to save money on your translations? I can understand that, but below a certain level, why bother paying at all? $0.06/word from an agency will get you the same nonsense you get for free on Google Translate, and Google Translate is faster.

If you need professional translations, understand that you are hiring skilled professionals and that you are going have to pay accordingly. You don’t go to a lawyer and offer him $10/hour to defend you, unless you really want to see the inside of a jail. You don’t go to a dentist, pay $10 a tooth and expect a nice ceramic implant.

Not because you want to pay more, but simply because you understand that at that rate, the joke is on you.

A translation agency usually takes a 30% - 60% margin (to cover project management, translator recruitment and testing, customer relations, file preparation, software purchases, expenses, etc.).

A translator in a Western country earns anywhere between $20 per hour and $150 per hour (sometimes more for translators in some exclusive fields like high finance). If the workflow includes editing / proofreading / delivery checking / testing / etc. remember each of these steps are done by people who have to be paid.

I don't want to give you our prices and tell you everyone else is a scam, but quite frankly, we are based in Asia, we have lower expenses and taxes than most other companies the world over and we have privileged relationships with our translators... objectively, we have very competitive rates. You might luck out and find a good competitor with better rates, but I wouldn't count on it.

Finding a good translation provider

Simple! If you are on our website, you've already found one!

There are many tricks that people use to find a good provider and there are just as many ways to get around them. Tests can be gotten for free by agencies using genuine translators – it means nothing when it comes to the paid translations that you order thereafter. Recommendations are all too often a matter of the blind leading the blind. Referrals can be gamed and I would worry about a translation provider disclosing confidential information and the contact details of his customers.

At the end of the day, you will have to take a small leap of faith, at least at the beginning.

We do our best to provide good, reliable translation services to all our customers. If you are going to take a chance, take a chance on us. We won’t let you down.

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