Katja Virtanen, President of EUATC's Finnish member Suomen kielipalveluyritykset ry (SKY) Katja Virtanen, President of EUATC's Finnish member Suomen kielipalveluyritykset ry (SKY)
Jul 30


The debate about the price of translation work has again become a hot topic in the translation industry, writes Katja Virtanen, President of EUATC's Finnish member Suomen kielipalveluyritykset ry (SKY). In a news article, the Finnish Broadcasting Company YLE described a part-time translator selling translations for peanuts as an expert, and the rock-bottom prices received a hammering in discussion forums. In April, The Symposium for Translation and Interpreting Studies KäTuwas organised in Turku. It was devoted to discussing from different perspectives the price of translation and who ultimately pays for it.

I often hear that translators should be paid a higher compensation, a so-called expert compensation or salary, because translators usually have many years of university studies behind them. As much as I value education, I find this argument alone quite feeble. In reality, the end customer or the language service company recruiting translators is more interested in what they are getting for their money than in the details of a formal certificate. Price is based on value, and education and experience provide a good basis for producing value in the translation industry. But, in the end, the true value of an expert lies in how good they are at what they do and if there is a demand for it.

A translator’s expertise is often reduced to the end product, that is, the quality of the translation they produce. However, in translation services, quality also refers to many other things. In addition to the translation itself, quality is weighed by factors such as competence related to language technology, meeting deadlines, flexibility, customer service, the ability to co-operate and, especially with the new data protection regulation in mind, the ability to protect confidential data according to the requirements set by the customer and the GDPR. A careless translation full of typos has as little value to the customer as a carefully thought-out and finalised version if it is delivered too late for the customer to use it.

Translation quality in itself is not a differentiating factor but a basic requirement. When turning to a professional, a customer expects to get a high-quality translation—it’s not something they should have to pay extra for. This is comparable with the service provided by, say, a law firm. We expect our agreements to be legal, but we don’t expect to pay extra because our lawyer knows the content of the law.

In the price discussion, we shouldn’t focus too much on individual pricing factors or word prices. One cent here or there doesn’t tell us anything about the quality of the service or the profitability of the translation operations. I don’t think individual translators or language service companies that offer good overall quality have to be worried about whether they will have enough work with appropriate compensation. If someone disagrees and still blames the customer, the platform economy or bigger LSPs for too low prices, maybe they should consider whether they could add some value to their own operations to justify a higher price.

On the market, prices are defined by supply and demand. Demand has exploded with globalisation, but so has supply, aided by digitalisation and a low threshold for entering the market. The competition is fierce and this pushes down prices. Mere education, expert status or quality are not necessarily enough to drive up the value of the service so that you would get a better price for it. Overpricing is not sensible and underpricing is not profitable, for anyone.

I suspect the best way of increasing your value on the market is specialisation. You can find your own superpower by, for example, providing translations for niche areas, rare languages or possessing skills with a specific translation tool. Similarly, you can also specialise in availability, flexibility and reliability. There is also a demand for the early adopters of more recent language services, such as post-editing of machine translations and SEO translations. The list is endless. You don’t have to know or offer everything, but you, as a professional, do have to be very good in what you do offer.

Also, as an industry, we have a long way to go. The good language skills of end customers and the lack of knowledge about modern language service solutions do their part in decreasing the value of professional services in the eyes of end customers. One of the most important tasks of Finnish Language Service Providers (SKY) is to increase the awareness and visibility of language services. If we want the entire value chain of language services to make more money, we must be able to increase value in every link of the chain, and also communicate and justify this increase in value to our customers.

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