Self-Exploitation, Anyone?

We recently learned about the launch of a new website. Its business model made us wonder if the industry has hit a new low. Meet London-based (we are purposely not providing a link to this site, and you will see why).

They seem to find it appalling that translators, just like any other professional service providers, traditionally charge minimum fees. So they set out to change that, offering clients chat-style “translations” at no minimum charge, live and online, whether they need a few words or merely a few sentences (don’t even get us started on the context issue). Info from their website: “Welcome to the first worldwide live system with translators at your fingertips with one click of a button!”

The website in question, seems to view translators as highly exchangeable commodities whose output is measured and billed by the minute, as if they were phone calls to say, a customer service line. We know that the per-minute billing system is popular in the over-the-phone interpreting world, but we hear that the rates are usually quite fair and professional. However, we are not experts in phone interpreting, so we won't delve into that issue. Back to the website in question. Not surprisingly, there is no information about who is behind this company.

As they are quick to point out, you, as a freelancer, are absolutely free to set your own per-minute rates. At the same time, you are encouraged to stay competitive. Sostranslatorschat claims to have “1500 translators available in all language combinations.” We seriously doubt that, since they’re sending out e-mails recruiting translators left and right.

Thinking about signing up? Think again. It’s translators who are willing to exploit themselves who end up complaining about their dire financial situation, blaming the system they help fuel in the first place. By accepting these terms, you devalue translation services to the detriment of all of us. Know your worth and charge accordingly.

Here’s a thought experiment: imagine that there is a new platform for self-exploitation, but nobody shows up for work. Websites like these will exist as long as there are translators out there willing to work for them. It’s up to all of us to change that. Will you join us?


Lionel Dersot on September 14, 2011 at 4:23 PM said...

"The website in question, seems to view translators as highly exchangeable commodities"

Isn't it great time to stop "discovering" and "supposing" what is happening in online interpretation and translation, and has already happened in so many industries? They don't "seem to". They do.

Their business model is exactly centered on the exchangeability of resources indeed.

Prostitution works the same way. Yet you deliver not a single word of warning to users of such service, as is usually the case when condemning prostitution.

I think you are also missing a point which is the precarity of large chunks of most younger generations in many countries who are glad to make bits of money that are better than nothing to them. They even think it's swell, they don't revolt. Also, the exploiters' age is most probably at the same level as the people they exploit. They are no three pieces suits in Wall Street. They wear the same jeans.

Narrative Threads on September 14, 2011 at 4:48 PM said...

The ad reminded me of certain other pay by the minute phone services, and I can't say I felt flattered by the association. I am not a psychic or a lonely co-ed and have no interest in telling anyone what I am wearing.

bonnjill on September 14, 2011 at 5:38 PM said...

Language Line pays its interpreters $7.25 an hour, so no, phone interpreting doesn't pay well either.

Judy Jenner and Dagmar Jenner on September 14, 2011 at 9:36 PM said...

@Wanderjenn: thanks for the laugh, too funny!

@Jill: oh, wow, that's crazy for LanguageLine. We had no idea. Quite troubling.

@Lionel: we couldn't disagree more. We'll just leave it at that.

Marianne Reiner said...

Well said Judy and Dagy!
We often say we need to "educate" our clients about translation and what our profession is. But sometimes I feel like we also need to educate some of our "colleagues".
I see all of us as a sort of "union": we all work hand-in-hand to improve the standards of our industry and our collective well-being.

DawnM on September 15, 2011 at 5:41 AM said...

After about 3 minutes of research, it looks like the IP address is in Arizona and that the person/company behind it does not want to be known - they are registered through "Domains by Proxy", which is a service that hides the identity of the website owner. Probably a good idea in this case....

Chris Durban on September 16, 2011 at 1:11 AM said...

@Lionel: guess I took my stupid pill this morning because I had a very hard time figuring out what you were trying to say.
A few months ago I wrote an item (in FA&WB) about a similar but slightly more upmarket (not hard :)) service, where cheerful, chirpy self-proclaimed "translators" jumped in and volunteered to do stuff, clearly at rock-bottom rates.
In my opinion, the flaw with that business model lies in the notion of fungibility (I think that's what you mean by exchangeability).
That is, there certainly are segments of the market (the least attractive, surprise surprise :)) where any old translator (or should I say "translator") can step in and give it a whirl. Caveat emptor, etc.
But surely the point for anyone who has invested the time and effort to become a professional is to join the non-fungibles. As Judy and Dagmar regularly point out, that group not only exists, but is thriving. It is useful to remind ourselves that many of the gloom & doom contingent in translation (see parts of the recent TAUS at FIT article, for example) don't even know that this market exists, which speaks for itself about their own "skills" and understanding of the big picture.
I don't see too much point in dwelling on the bottom-feeders; that said, anyone remotely linked to translator education who does not hammer the become-non-fungible point home again and again to students is negligent, imo.
Thankfully it's not rocket science :)

RobinB on September 16, 2011 at 5:41 AM said...

I really don't think this sort of thing is worth getting excited about: translation websites like this are appearing out of nowhere all the time. Then they melt away, leaving behind a bit of a nasty smell - like dog turds on a lawn.

If any working translator feels even remotely threatened by this sort of "CFC" (cheap, fast, crap) translation provider, then they're surely in the wrong market in the first place, and they really ought to think long and hard about what they want to do in life.

The commodity translation model typified by this online translation provider exists in a parallel (and much larger) universe to the market for human-driven translations. And although the CFC translation market is gradually converging with the low-end, mass market for human-driven translations, translators affected by this trend can escape the effects by moving up the value chain: by offering unbeatable subject-area expertise, for example.

As a PS, I'd also add that the CFC model itself is probably only a transitional phenomenon with a relatively short lifespan, as it's surely bound to be squeezed out of existence by the growing capabilities of MT.

Anonymous said...

A simple Google search on "" lands you on the "Scam/non-payers" page of
Never mind about low rates, they aparently do not even pay those rates:-)

LearningSpanish on September 16, 2011 at 2:21 PM said...

The question is: Are there humans behind the chat or is it just machine translations that are being thrown back at the person at the other end? I don't see how they can run a 24/7 chat translation service at no fee.

Judy Jenner and Dagmar Jenner on September 18, 2011 at 10:28 PM said...

@Marianne: you are right, sometimes "colleague" education is necessary as well, although we are not sure that we'd even call the folks who work for these websites colleagues -- not even with the quotation marks. :)

@Chris: even if you took your stupid pill (hehe), you'd still be the smartest person in the room. And yes, once in a while we have to get worked up about the bottom feeders -- just for the record and for reinforcement.

@RobinB: good point. Sometimes we just have to speak out about the worst of the worst bottom feeders. It's nice to get worked up sometimes, hehe. Love the CFC acronym -- we might borrow that (with credit to you, of course).

@Anonymous: ah, wow, not surprising at all!

@LearningSpanish: we can only speculate, but we do think there are people behind this service, at least hypothetically. Of course they are CFC translators, as RobinB so correctly points out.

medical translation services on September 19, 2011 at 6:41 AM said...

I believe a qualified translation team with the proper specifications would create a superior product than people without the linguistic background. The ideal situation would be for the message to be professionally translated and go through a technical review phase to make sure both the linguistic and localized needs have been met. I research Quality Translation Services through my work on standards.


Dolores on September 20, 2011 at 1:54 AM said...

Judy & Daggy!
Sooo true!!
Translators are part of this. One should be aware of their own value and do not allow this...
Thanks for sharing and for stressing every day the importance of taking care of our profession, as well as ourselves!

Paul Kearns said...

I fully subscribe to the notion that a professional translator should charge a professional rate. BUT as a new translator struggling to get established, I am not surprised that these type of websites do manage to make money. It's fine sending out CV's to hundreds of agencies that never reply, or to do endless test translations that never produce work, or to read that an agency only wants to know you if you have 5 years experience, or to see that an NGO only want volunteers with 2 years experience etc etc as long as you have another source of income to pay your bills. Until something changes those situations within our profession, those of us who are serious about a translation career will have to deal with students earning a few extra pounds/euros/dollars from websites like these, or from clients who want to pay as little as possible for something cheap that will do the job.

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