Why the decline is everywhere

Greater than 5 minutes, my friend!

Everywhere in the translation industry people are experiencing decreasing rates and increasing pressure. Translators are not the only professionals who face tough challenges though.

A struggle to survive

It is more than two years ago that I wrote about my neighbour, who is a carpenter. Living in The Netherlands, my neighbour, a genuine craftsman was facing hardship because people nowadays tend to buy cheaper products from countries to where the production of furniture is outsourced. My neighbour’s story told me five important lessons. The most important one to me is that you’re worth your price:

‘A lesson that can be drawn here is that despite the market, it is not a solution to lower wages to the very lowest levels. You’re worth your price because it reflects your experience, wisdom, business costs and investments in tools. Like in the furniture industry, lowering your fees will result in missing prospects but clients who value your products will still pay for them – and enjoy them every day’.

It is needless to say that since August 2016 the situation for many professionals in the Western world has not necessarily improved. While the economic crisis is over now, and thankfully people in Europe can live as before to a great extent, the crisis still continues to leave its mark. What was said during the crisis proves to be true: it is difficult to abandon a path once one is committed to it. Rates that were lowered because of economic pressure do not necessarily rise now that the crisis is over. Professionals (and not so professionals) that have joined our industry in the past years, decided to set low prices to attract new clients and adapt to the existing market situation. Now their rates are challenging existing conventions and determining the rates of the industry as a whole.
Fortunately, there is another side to the rates coin too: there are indeed companies willing to pay for a translation, who know what a good translation is worth. The rise of intelligent translation engines however, has shifted perspectives on what is good, cheap and reasonable.

Same patterns in other industries

While watching trends in their industry many translators are prone to complain about the rates. During many translation conferences and in personal encounters with my colleagues the rates debate is fierce and sometimes worrisome. Yet, it might be a good idea to look beyond our industry: the decline is everywhere. And a close analysis reveals almost the same pattern. I would like to illustrate this with two examples from my own experiences with other professional industries.

The news industry

Avid readers of this blog know that I am eager to share my knowledge and to educate other people. That is why I originally started offering text and translation services. Since the start of my business, now about 10 years ago, I moved to offering translations, translating for about 95% of the time and writing texts for clients the rest of the time. I really love it. Visiting projects and clients is not only inspirational, but it also helps to make some visits possible beyond my limited area. That is why I reported on the new Eurostar connection between Amsterdam and London earlier this year and wrote about fuelling fighter jets above the North Sea last week.

Report on the Eurostar connection between Amsterdam and London for Reformatorisch Dagblad

Having been in the news industry for ten years now, I am starting to see the same complaints from colleagues as in the translation industry: rates are too low, there is a high pressure to deliver, and a new generation is rising that lacks all quality standards. New journalists who join the profession need to spend hours on a project for rates as low as € 0,08 per word. At the same time they do not know how to write linguistically correct sentences or simply lack good research skills.
The explanation for a great deal can be found in the rise of new technologies and disruptive companies and business models: an average consumer can find the news for free, while advertisers are shifting their expenditures to other platforms because their audiences seem to be a better fit.
The result: journalists need to work harder for lower rates and cannot compete with neighborhood journalists who blog and vlog and even submit their articles for free in return for some editorial credit.

The photography industry

Being a photography lover I have been selling photos to clients and press agencies for years now. While I do not pretend to be a full time photographer and won’t compete with them because translation is my core business, I still like photography jobs. In all the years that I have been in business I have sold my pictures to various news outlets all over the world. They like newsworthy pictures and love to pay for unique images for which they cannot afford to send a staff photographer.
However, in this industry the same complaints are heard as in the translation and news industries: clients are no longer willing to pay a decent rate for quality images anymore. When I started selling my images via international photo agencies they often offered tens of dollars for each photo sold. Nowadays these agencies have lowered the bar for contributors and I am only receiving $0.36 for each picture sold. The main reason: images can be found on each corner and it is even possible to capture newsworthy pictures with a mobile phone.
Apart from that, news companies can buy a subscription from photo agencies, which enable them to buy their pictures cheaply. For instance, one of my clients refused to buy my pictures of the opening of the Dutch parliamentary year directly because she had to pay around $40 per image if she bought them from me. Instead she bought the images from the photo agency, which paid me some $15 at most for each image sold.

His Royal Highness King Willem Alexander of The Netherlands during the opening of the parliamentary year

His Royal Highness King Willem Alexander of The Netherlands during the opening of the parliamentary year

A lesson from the decline

So the rise of technology, hobbyists competing with professionals and companies being pressured to lower rates are not only found in the translation industry. They are characteristic of various other industries as well. That, however, should not be a relief because the sheer knowledge of other professionals being in the same position does not help us out.
Drawing an important lesson does however.

Whatever occurs in the translation, news or photography industry, professionals have to compete with people who are not, in fact, competitors. Industries are flooded with people who think they can offer great work for low rates, but in the end they only bring the industry down with average work and below average rates. However, companies are still willing to pay for great work. That requires professionals to make clear that they are doing an outstanding job. In a time when clients are looking to find simple ways to buy their goods, professionals need to go the extra mile. Their presence on an online marketplace might help, but having a great portfolio with amazing work and outstanding client reviews would also certainly pay off. However, that requires an investment in time and energy. Nowadays, in a world full of average performers, it is not difficult to perform above average but it requires a great deal of energy to distinguish yourself. It nevertheless offers a return: once a client chooses you for your great translations you’re settled and able to ask for the rate you deserve.

Pieter Beens

About Pieter Beens

Freelance translator English-Dutch. Works for high-profile clients worldwide. Professional. Punctual. Passionate.

One thought on “Why the decline is everywhere

  1. Pieter!

    I’m so glad you included the photography world in your review. I saved this audio clip from Sept 30, 2014! Host Tom Ashbrook on National Public Radio’s “On Point” interviewed Nicholas Carr about the future of automation technology. That’s over 4 years ago! Here’s the original link where you can listen to the original 46 minute interview.

    link to wbur.org

    I saved this audio clip of a caller at the end of the interview because it sounded very much like a translator’s situation, but the caller was a professional photographer. — Enjoy!

    link to slate.rocks

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