Do the pros of working for quick-turnaround online translation platforms outweigh the cons, asks Jonathan Downie
Anyone who has spent any time on online translators’ forums will have seen how new arrivals to the profession are quickly socialised into the idea that translation is split into the premium and bulk markets: the good clients and the bottom feeders. For some translators, any agency or platform offering quick turnaround or budget translations would fall into the latter category. But is this the reality? To find out, I spoke to translators who have worked for them.
“There are times when you have a bit of spare capacity, right? We help you turn that spare capacity into a reduction in your expenses.” That was the slick sales pitch I heard recently for a new business bartering service, but it could easily be the pitch for quick translation companies such as One Hour Translation and Gengo. And it’s true that many translators do often have spare capacity when they don’t have any projects booked.
Lara1 has been translating full-time for three years and used One Hour Translations while studying for her PhD to supplement her diminishing savings. In that time, they were her sole client and the work kept her going, while their automated payment system meant that she didn’t have to chase unpaid invoices.
For Mina, who has been translating full-time for eight years, the bonus of quick translation platforms is that they provide small, easy jobs that she can fit in, even while she is in the middle of a project. They have played a part in her business since she returned from a placement abroad in 2011. Given the depressed market in her home country, working on a few quick-turnaround projects can see her earning more than she would if she worked for local clients.
Jason’s experience is somewhat different. With a physical disability that restricts his ability to travel, he struggles to find work. Working for quick-turnaround platforms allowed him to work flexibly while moving into interpreting.
With the feast-and-famine cycles familiar to many translators, having a service where it is possible to pick up a bit of work to tide you over – or provide a bit of extra cash – can be helpful. Yet it would be unfair to ignore the stories of those translators who don’t find such platforms lucrative.
Rachel signed up with MyTranslation early in her career with the idea of using the platform to expand her portfolio, but their rates and conditions have been too low for her to accept. Bidding doesn’t take long and could still lead to work, but her rates mean that she has not won a job so far, despite having worked in the sector since 2012 and holding a Master’s in Medical Translation.
Process and expectations
The key to the success of quick translation platforms is in the high level of automation. Each One Hour Translations project starts with an email about a possible job. Clicking on the link takes you to your personal project page, where you get up to ten minutes to decide whether or not to take the job before it is passed to someone else.
Once a job is accepted and confirmed, the deadline clock starts ticking. These deadlines are wholly dependent on the word count. Penalties are often applied for misdemeanours ranging from slightly missing deadlines to spurious or genuine client issues. Everything is handled through the platform, including project submission, quality assessment and payment. Contact with real humans is almost unknown, and Lara points out that support for translators is awful. Jason remarks that the sites tend to want projects returned “in a matter of seconds, which we cannot do”.
Mina’s experience is similar. All the projects she receives through One Hour Translations are small jobs she can complete quickly, assigned on a first come, first served basis. They are focused on tech and social media, with Facebook posts, apps, gaming and dating sites all making an appearance, alongside finance and recruitment.
The projects that translators can bid for depend on the reputation they have built up on the platform. Lara explains that new translators are expected to take on lots of tiny jobs to earn a track record. Given that there are no humans involved in the process and no contact with end clients, she says it’s important to be strategic by taking on jobs that either further your reputation or can be completed quickly using CAT tools. Since the platform doesn’t apply any reduction for repetitions, a judicious use of technology can make a big difference.
Mina explains that on One Hour Translations it is common to be asked to review others’ work for free as part of growing your reputation. The better your rating, the more projects you are asked to review and the more translations you are offered. This process creates conflict. While reviews that are unfair can be referred to the site and deleted, translators do earn more credit for spotting errors. Mina tries to avoid reviewing as much as possible as she does not like this system, but it is not possible to avoid it completely.
Who has the upper hand?
As someone steeped in the premium/bulk market dichotomy, I had expected that the translators I spoke to would be oblivious to the wider professional issues involved in taking on work for platforms with such stringent conditions and low rates. Yet these are not amateurs looking for a quick buck. Every translator I interviewed has at least one relevant degree and knows what is expected of a professional.
Rachel, for example, complains that quick-turnaround platforms tend to take client requirements and complaints as read, without seeking the translator’s point of view – a criticism echoed by Lara, who has had her account suspended more than once for inactivity.
It’s no wonder, then, that translators on online forums often complain that quick-turnaround platforms tend to lower standards and keep rates artificially low. All platforms with bidding systems have been accused of encouraging a race-to-the-bottom mentality, where clients and translators fixate on the final price and not on the quality of service. At a time when leading translation writers, such as Chris Durban, Corinne McKay and Judy and Dagmar Jenner, are encouraging translators to get to know their clients and work with them directly, the enforced gap between translator and client, and stance of waiting for work to become available, encouraged by these platforms could create a mindset of subservience.
Although Rachel sympathises with such frustrations, her attitude is that if translators don’t like the conditions and working methods, they shouldn’t register. Mina also finds it difficult to understand the antipathy expressed since working with the platforms is optional.
Lara’s reaction is less sanguine. For her, it’s clear that such platforms are undermining the market, but her view is that many other agencies do so too. Her relationship is purely commercial and born of convenience. She plans to drop them completely when they no longer serve a purpose.
Simple model, complex reality
The thought that these platforms serve a purpose, even if some of us might view them as undermining the market, is just one of the paradoxes I found when researching this article. There is no doubt that these platforms use questionable methods and have a negative effect on the market, yet every translator had their own valid reasons for working with them. I had expected that quick (and often cheap) translations would be done by those who only live in the moment and don’t care about the future. But these are real professionals with definite career development plans. Taking the odd job from a quick-turnaround platform can form a strategic, if temporary, part of that plan. At a different stage in my career, I might have been tempted to join them.
The reality of the translation market is more complex than I could have imagined. People working for these platforms may be fellow professional translators, with the same commitment to continuing professional development and the good of the profession as those who don’t. Trying to understand their decision might go some way towards explaining the role these platforms play, and the realities of working in translation experienced by many of our colleagues.
1 The translators asked to remain anonymous and their names have been changed.