Monday, January 30, 2006

Translation bullshit

I was reminded once again today just why I chose not to become a translator.

Skrivanek is a large translation bureau that fairly recently opened an office in Estonia. Back in those days I didn't have a day job, was in college etc., so I registered in their database. Not the first translation bureau I freelanced for, and I am probably in the records of more of them than I remember.

Anyway, on Monday I get a call from them asking if I'd do a translation for them, from Estonian into Russian. I take a look at the text - user manuals for Chinese scooters, technical stuff, stuff I know - and agree. We set a rate, per word, which is slightly unusual: written translation tends to be charged at 1800 characters per unit, which is equivalent to an A4 page of single-spaced text in Times New Roman, size 12.

The deadline is two weeks, but I'm done with the job by Saturday. The final volume is 17 740 words, which comes out to a decent little bit of extra cash to spend on fixing up my new car.

Today, I get a letter from them saying they'll only pay me for 14 513 words, which is what some analysis software they're using tells them should be the amount.

I get in touch with a friend who is a professional translator, works fulltime at a bureau, and ask if it's legit. She tells me it's not a practice she'd ever encountered, outside of some specific work using translation software. I fire off an angry email to Skrivanek saying they'd better fucking pay me for the work I actually did. Then I go and check the volume of the original text. 15 387 words.

Now, discounting the fact that common sense suggests one gets paid on the work done, exactly what sort of analysis would come up with the result that the volume of text shrinks by 5.7% as a result of being translated from Estonian, a language with a lot of Germanic influence, into Russian, where (for example) composite words are very rarely used?

The woman from Skrivanek, who said she was a project manager, tried to convince me over the phone that it's accepted practice to use the analysis software, as it's the only way the bureau can predict what the translation will cost and charge the customer accordingly.

Besides the fact that it is singularly not reasonable to expect a Russian translation to be shorter than the Estonian original, what exactly is the purpose of a translation bureau? In my understanding, a bureau represents translators, and as such one ought to expect its employees and business practices to boast a modicum of competence. If Skrivanek's project manager is incapable of correctly estimating the translator's fee and realizing that a freelance translator will expect to be paid on the job done, not on some inexplicable number generated by a proprietary script (I am not saying Skrivanek attempted to screw me personally, I fully believe that their fulltime translators and more desperate freelancers have accepted this ludicrous way of doing business) - in that case the person on the other end of the phone is not a project manager, but in fact nothing more than a secretary shuffling emails back and forth.

After a fair bit of arguing on the phone, and dropping the names of previous bureaus I worked for (ones that didn't pull bullshit like this), I finally got them to promise to pay me based on the work I actually did for them at the rate they offered. Of course, they said, this means they would not be cooperating with me again. Good riddance.

The tragic thing is that while I have not had this particular trick pulled on me before, I expected something similar. Any freelance translator, in this part of the world at least, must expect to get shafted at every opportunity, and work hard to avoid it. I have a day job, so I can afford to lose the benevolence of translation bureaus; a lot of people out there can't.

This is the first post on AnTyx where I mentioned the real name of Small Country. I have also intentionally used the real name of the translation bureau. The reason for this is that I would like this post to be found by fellow freelance translators looking for impressions on Skrivanek and advice on whether to work with them. So here is my advice: if you get a translation order from Skrivanek - accept it, but be absolutely clear on how much you are getting paid, and on what basis.

There are many reasons why I chose to go into technical writing. Translation bureau bullshit is one of the better ones.

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