The Real Cost of Cheap Translations How inexpensive translation services can damage your business reputation.

Greater than 4 minutes, my friend!

The translation industry is growing at a fast pace and it’s creating a huge demand for translation services all over the world. Freelance translators and translation agencies are competing to get a piece of the market, but to achieve that they are creating a frantic run to sell translation services for the lowest prices possible. Although, one thing comes to mind when I see translation services at such low value: Is it the quality of the final translation worth paying for it at all?

Hiring cheap translation services and ending up with a poor final text can damage your business reputation due to grammar mistakes, lack of clarity, offensive and culturally insensitive content. I outline below some reasons why cheap translations services can turn into huge problems, costing you and your company a lot of money.

Cheap translators will not take your goals into consideration.
Business and individuals need translations for a variety of reas
ons: to increase website traffic and boost sales; to offer products and services to foreign companies; sell to a neighbouring country and the list goes on. Whatever your goal, a translator being fairly paid will spend time with you to learn what is the goal you want to achieve and focus on a text that will bring such results. Translators getting paid 0.03 cents, or less, per word, will not have your goals in mind simply because they need to translate huge amounts of words every day to make a living. So, attention to detail and your end goal might be ignored considering they have to finish the job as fast as possible and jump to the next task.

You cannot expect an error-free translation
Sometimes buying cheap translations will lead to an extra expense: hire a proofreader to double check your text after it is delivered to make sure that the translation is accurate, if the grammar is on point, if it makes sense to your target audience, and if it is culturally appropriate. Besides the time lost waiting for the translation, you will also have to wait for the proofreader to do his job, and if the text has several mistakes and makes little sense, the proofreader will need to work longer to correct or rewrite your text. It happens more often than you think.

You may get a translation made by a machine.
Several agencies and translators charging a very low price for their services will actually post-edit the text. That is, your text will be translated by a machine, like Google Translate, and then will go through a review to fix major issues. Even though machine translation sounds like a great solution to get very cheap translations, the results have proven to be disastrous most of the time. You will need a pair of human eyes to make sure everything is on point, anyways.

Cheap translations will often be produced by people without the necessary qualification or experience.
I often receive urgent requests to correct translations because the previous translator didn’t know the correct terminology or produced a text full of grammar mistakes. I have seen translators working on a medical text and on a marketing material at the same time, having little to no experience in neither the medical nor the marketing fields.

If you need to translate large volumes, your file will be sent in bulks and handled by several different people in different parts of the world.
Consistency and privacy are an issue. When you have 10 translators, with different backgrounds, in different parts of the world working on a file, the text will probably come back lacking consistency. You can find all kinds of discrepancies that will make the final product look unprofessional, e.g. different terms to the same item, different meanings to the same term, and discrepancies choosing the currency symbol. Also, how to expect the total privacy of your document if the contents will go through the hands of several people in the translation process?

Here are some true stories about bad translations and bad grammar.

“Do Nothing”– Before the tagline “The world’s private bank”, HSBC went for the tagline “Assume Nothing”. However, a mistake translated the tagline to “Do Nothing” in several countries. Not the message a large corporation wants to send when selling their services, right? This little mistake cost HSBC $10 million and years of rebranding.

The $1 million dollar comma – The largest Canadian cable television provider, Roger Communications of Toronto, and the telephone company Bell Aliant entered into a dispute. The telephone company wanted to cancel Roger’s contract regarding the use of their telephone poles. The contract’s English and French versions had been approved by the governing regulatory agency six years prior to the dispute, but the following sentence gave the victory to Bell Aliant:
“This agreement shall be effective from the date it is made and shall continue in force for a period of five (5) years from the date it is made, and thereafter for successive five (5) year terms, unless and until terminated by one year prior notice in writing by either party.”
The regulator understood that the second comma meant that the sentence regarding the one year notice for cancellation also applied to its renewal and, therefore, the telephone company could end the contract after just one year.

The embarrassing ad blunder – When launching their new ballpoint pen in Mexico, Parker Pen chose an ad that read “It won’t leak in your pocket and embarrass you”. However, the translation came out with a classic mistake in Spanish. The company translated the word “embarrass” to “embarazar”, which means to impregnate in Spanish, and the final ad was “It won’t leak in your pocket and make you pregnant”. Nothing else needs to be said…

Now, you can have an idea of how important it is to invest in a professional translator to handle your communications in a foreign language. Professional translators will help you to get your message across effectively, they will give your project the attention it needs, they will let you know the better way to communicate culturally with your audience, and will save your money and lead to profits in the long run.

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Flavia Luz

About Flavia Luz

Polyglot translator helping businesses to master their communications in English or Portuguese. Living and working around the world. Passionate about travel, language, photography, art and technology.

24 thoughts on “The Real Cost of Cheap Translations How inexpensive translation services can damage your business reputation.

  1. Thank you for pointing this out Flavia! I must admit that there is a huge discussion about what are low rates and cheap translations, but those $ 0.03 per word prices are really ridiculous. Last Friday I stumbled upon a job at with 60.000 words for today. Imagine the terms: “team of translators”, “volume discount” and “ongoing cooperation”. I can’t believe the client will ever be satisfied with the quality (but unfortunately they will be to a great extend because they don’t speak the language and assume everything will be in order).

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    1. That is exactly right, Pieter! Sure that low rates are debatable, but there is a trend now to get “free” translations. Paying 0.03 per word to a translator is unacceptable and I am sure that if our clients understood the circumstances of cheap translations they would think twice before hiring such services. As well as we would think that there is something wrong with a doctor charging 0.03 cents per patient. This is why I think we need to educate people out there on how important translation actually is and the value of a good translator.
      Thanks for your comment! 🙂

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  2. Thanks Flavia. These kind of articles are necessary to “educate” clients. I just hope clients have the chance to read them, specially end-clients. Regarding the 0.03 fees, I believe one must be more precise regarding it being unnacceptable or what. I don’t know if Einstein’s theories have any influence here, but relativity clearly has a part. For some people 0.03 can be unnacceptable, while for others it can be 0.01 or 0.07, it all comes down to if you can make a living with it. In fact, in some cheap countries people might be very happy translating for 0.02 (maybe in very poor countries, without working irresponsibly, it is possible to make a living with that fee). The question is, can that translator (assuming he/she is a professional) be competent to produce a high quality translation according to the requirements of the job? Maybe, a marketing text to be translated into Hindu, that should be targeted to local culture and slang, can only be translated with competence by that 0.02 translator. And maybe, the buyer, also part of that poor market, can’t pay more than 0.02, and both of them enjoy that low fee because they can move around in that cheap market. Different is the case if that same translator, offered that same fee for a similar job targeted to the German market (in German, of course) or to the Chilean market (in Spanish, of course). In Germany, probably, no one in his full senses would charge less than 0.10 for that kind of text, unless he recently migrated from a poor country or is an amateur as you have pointed out. In Chile, probably the cut-rate would be 0.05 for cross-border clients. And so on in different countries. That is why clients should never focus on the fees translators charge, but instead on the profile of the job, and if the potential translators show signs they are competent enough to fulfil that profile. Once they have the shortlist, then they can focus on the fees if they want to. Regretfully, most end clients don’t know how to identify these signs, and some even know nothing about the translation process, so they lean on such subjective features as someone else’s recommendation, language nativeness or a list of previous translations (which can be very badly translated by an amateur). Hopefully your article, and others, will get to the eyes and critical judgment of clients.

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    1. H, Richard! I understand that the low rates are relative. The 0.03 cents is just an example because it t is a common practice of some translators/agencies working within Europe. Also, I think that when it comes to translations we should have a basic and consistent rate across the board. If we watch closely we can see that the agencies paying 0.03 to a translator in Brazil, my home country, are charging “European prices” to their clients. Plus, new agencies start paying fair rates to their translators and when they start growing they want the translator work basically for free. I’ve been through that several times. But the focus here is to really educate end clients on how we can add value to them and open their eyes to those fast, cheap, and perfect translation services that are being offered out there. I know we have a long way, my friend. I had to educate several of my direct clients and when they understand what we can do for them, they understand what they getting and the benefits we bring to them. We will get there! :D) Thanks a lot for your comment!

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      1. I don’t work with agencies, mainly due to a bad practices issue (I believe some of these are forced on to agencies by big end clients) and not giving in (I can’t say that has made my life better, but if I gave in, I’d have to hide in the bushes for the rest of my life). This is something that makes me doubt the sincerity of those translators who say their amount of work is increasing day after day, while they “adhere” to the same good practices I do. Finding end clients is not that easy.
        However, if I did work for agencies I believe it would be a waste of time bothering about how much the agency charges the end client, as long as I get what I need. The nice thing would be if the end client finds out how much he can save if he worked directly with me (and I’m not just speaking of price). If you keep up your “educating”, he should find out sooner or later.

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        1. I understand, Richard. However, many of us do work with agencies and have to experience this sort of behaviour. Also, there is the fact that PMs are taking a chunk of the translators’ rate (they can make some extra money if they convince you to work for 0.03 instead of 0.05). I got to a point where I am investing all of my time to acquire direct clients but it takes time, investment and patience, something that many translators out there cannot afford. Let us keep trying to educate them and see if we can change that scenario.

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  3. This is very interesting indeed. In Brazil it is getting so bad now that a DIRECT client asked for a discount of over 75% on my price for proofreading work. The excuse was the same, ‘sorry, you are perfect for the job and have the skills we need, your time frame is acceptable, but we won this contract through a best-price auction and will receive XXX, so we can only pay YYY’ The price they wanted to pay was less than USD 0.01. I shall share this material with the translation group here in Brazil.

    1. Yes, Paul! Please do share! I will write the same article in Portuguese as well. I completely understand what you mean and at this point, I hardly work with clients from Brazil for this very reason. Thanks for your comment! 🙂

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  4. Great article Flavia! Fascinating discussion. It would be interesting to extrapolate what a monthly income (or lifestyle) might equate to working for 0.03, 0.07, 0.12 or 0.15 per word in different countries. Good to know about the clients in Brazil! I haven’t had any clients there yet so now I may not try to find any. Please do let me know when you have your article available in Portuguese.

    1. Hi, Sarah! Thanks for your comment! And yes, a very interesting discussion and you gave me an excellent idea! I will try to make a research on the lifestyle of the translators according to the rate s/he charge. It would be great to understand the different realities within the industry. Now, I do have a few Brazilian clients, however, I had to educate them and prove that the service I am offering will bring them a ROI. So, there are some customers there willing to pay for good services, I mean direct clients. I gave up on agencies in Brazil. I will let you know as soon as I have the Portuguese version of the article! 🙂

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  5. Flavia what you say is true and is a constant in my translation life. I am even taking a course now on a internet based university which offered translation and transcription courses for freelancers and stupidly I bought the course. The first thing I heard was ‘you don´t even need to know a second language to do this job’. So they showed what you had to do: you bid for a job on a platform like Workana, O’Deask, Elance and you charge 0.02 or 0.03 per word and once you get the job you get the document and have it translated with one or two programs of machine translation and here is much better if you know the second language because you have to edit the translation now that you have the idea of what the document talks about. At this point I couldn’t know if they were laughing at me or they were really serious. The only thing I can say is I have never won a bid because my price is always over every one elses.

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    1. Claudia, that course is a disgrace to our profession! I’m sorry you paid money for it! I would call it out or write an article about it to draw attention to their unethical practices. I’ve found platforms like those to be reverse auctions, like you indicated, and not very good for finding work.

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    2. That is a huge issue, Claudia. Our end clients have no idea of such practices because if they did they would be horrified! The point is that translation it is not a commodity and we need to work together to point out these bad practices and make our clients understand that such service will only damage their reputation. There is a lot of misconceptions about our work and one of my goals is to show everyone that a good translator is an asset that can lead to profit instead of being something that can be replaced by a machine. Thanks for your comment! :

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  6. Thanks for writing that. I just recently received an offer of 1.5 CENTS per source word, for a specialized technical translation. OUTRAGEOUS!
    And texts in this specific area might save or ruin a person’s life (or many people for the matter).
    Sad thing is that there is always someone who will accept that, and the wheel keeps turning 🙁
    But I loved that you gave examples with the figures of how much it costed…

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    1. I’m glad you liked, Mariana. It’s great that we can show to our clients some very real consequences of bad translations. And I completely agree with you! I get this sort of proposals every single day as well and you are exactly right about the problem. Someone else will do it. However, we can help fellow translators and educate them, as well as educate our clients. Every client of mine, agency or direct, knows exactly what I am doing for them, how I bring value, and how important it is to have a good translator collaborating with them. It is a way to bring a better understanding of our profession and to make clear that they are benefiting from our services.

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