Things I learned about quality and time

Here are a few -hopefully not too obvious- lessons I learned while managing our translation team. First of all, some obvious facts:

  1. You need money to live. Rent costs money, bills cost money, food costs money, and you need X amounts of it to live each month.
  2. Your time is limited. As we said, work is tiring and you can do it only for a certain amount of time before your attention -and finally your health- start to slip.

Put that together and the conclusion is that you must earn a minimum amount of money per hour to stay in business. More if possible, but not less.

Basic, non-controversial stuff we all agree upon, right? Ok, let's move on.

There is only one hourly rate

When you get in touch with a new client, chances are they will start asking what are your hourly rates. How much do you charge per editing hour? And per review hour? And per testing hour?

I guess their perspective is that you might have different staff in order to handle those tasks. But if you don't (or you don't have any "junior" roles like us), the simple truth is that one hour is one hour. Since you aren't getting any less qualified (or your expenses aren't getting any lower), it simply can't get any cheaper.

In our case we really don't have any hourly rate as such, we simply take the word rate, multiply by 2500 (words/day) and split by 8 (hours in a day) and just repeat it incessantly.

Accepting at any condition equals lying

Sometimes the conditions simply aren't there. Either the budget is too low, or the deadline is too near, or there are too many complications to handle the task properly. If you can't donate some time/budget (see below), you may wonder how to decline a task.

Some like to take this as a chance for educating clients about the importance of translation, for protecting the profession.

Personally, I prefer to make a simple fact explicit. Working when the conditions aren't there means taking a gamble: that we can achieve similar results with less resources. And when I face the client with the possibility of a subpar delivery, they always listen. Because as much as time and budget often seems to be my only concern, quality is firmly theirs.

Dear client I'm not declining this task to let you down, I'm declining it because I DON'T want to let you down.

If it's a good client, they will understand and appreciate that you put the long term perspective (building a trust relationship) before the short term one (making a quick buck). If they don't, chances are that they are here for the quick buck themselves, and that's never good for translators (like we saw, the daily output of a translator is pretty limited, no matter how much you lower the bar).

Everyone is obsessive about detail - on someone else's budget

"Obsessive attention to detail" is one of the favorite pieces of hyperbole of this industry, to the point that it's almost shocking to say that, no, what a real professional delivers is "maximum efficiency within the allocated time and budget". Nothing more, but nothing less.

Unlimited quality is only possible with unlimited time or unlimited budget. Fan translations have both, which helps them punch above their weight, but professionals usually have neither.

Since clients are unlikely to provide unlimited time/budget, the only way to achieve unlimited quality is for the translators to volunteer for it. And that happens all the time: pretty much all the projects featured on this blog, from Cuphead, to Papers Please, to Ether One received many more hours from us than we billed on the invoices.

In factual terms, it was a cost/budget we invested in them, because we thought that building that relationship was worth more than their budget would allow. It can be done occasionally but, like we said at the beginning, at some point we still need to reach that minimum to stay in business. Which brings us to...

Micro-tasks are customer service, not business

Some jobs need a minimum fee. As soon as you sit in a taxi, you will pay a certain fixed amount, even if you just rode around the block. Why? Because taxis have a string of fixed costs that are only sustainable at scale.

When you ride a taxi, on top of your own driving time, you are implicitly buying the time it will take it to come back, the time it took to load your luggage, the time it will take for the next client to arrive... All costs that the driver shoulders for you and have to be covered.

When you are buying a translation, you are implicitly buying also the time for preparing the project, for carrying the necessary research, for making the right questions, for invoicing the task and so on. You aren't paying for those, the translator is. So just like a taxi driver will charge a fixed fee so that the cost of unpaid work-time doesn't exceed the value of the ride itself, translators charge theirs to avoid spending one hour on 50 cents worth of translation.

"Nothing will stick in their mind more than that time you charged them ten bucks 'for one lousy line'"

Or at least, that's the theory, because most clients are offended by it. For all the midnight oil you might have burned for a client, nothing will stick in their mind more than that time you charged them ten bucks "for one lousy line".

What should you do? Waive the minimum fee and accept that your work is really worth 20 cents?

Our solution was to give it away as customer care. If you are my client and you need the odd 50 words because you forgot a saving message, I will give it to you as a free service. Because it saves me the effort of recording it and invoicing it (thus reducing its implicit cost) and because there is no financial difference for me between 50 cents and free: fixed costs make it a negative anyway.

The true difference is that if I accept those 50 cents we're even, if I decline them you are in debt with me, because I did you a personal favor. What's the monetary value of a personal favor? It varies from person to person, but it's rarely zero. At the very least, it leaves the door open for explaining calmly why the minimum fee is indeed needed. After all, nobody expects to receive favors forever.

Hope this helps. Good work!