Premium clients can certainly afford “affordable DIY MT systems”, but do they really want to talk to their clients via machines? Or rely on anonymous and invisible “vendors” behind the Chinese wall of intransparent “Big Data” agencies? What kind of language service providers do provide the best benefits for their clients? How can we help our clients identify value amid the offerings in a marketplace?
My previous blog post was largely about quality differentiation in a highly segmented translation market. I was still thinking along these lines, when interviewing Christina Guy, a Dutch to English legal translator living in the Netherlands and the founder of Stridonium (named after an island in the Adriatic, the birthplace of St. Jerome, the patron saint of translators and scholars).
Valerij: Hi, Tina. We’ve been talking about Stridonium, machine translation, agencies and all the usual suspects on today’s agenda. The translation market is growing by all accounts. Does the increase in quantity go along with lower quality standards and less transparency in the market?
Tina: Not necessarily. The market may be expanding, but I think it’s also fragmenting. The market for high-quality copy produced by specialist professional translators is still clearly defined – as is the market for machine translations of bulk texts or low-importance “gist” work. And at no point do they overlap!
Seriously though, all of us have to adapt and evolve to keep in tune with the market: that’s just good business sense. Look at how the translation agencies have diverged to reflect the changes in the market: although a lot felt pressurised into moving into the low-cost “budget” end of the market, some had the courage to focus on high-end niche services (and of course we mustn’t confuse low-paying agencies with low-earning agencies!).
Valerij: Talking of translation agencies, I was recently both annoyed and amused when three translation agencies approached me simultaneously with a request for the same job and the same client, copy-pasting the client’s email. The client apparently preferred to contact intermediary agencies instead of a translator directly, even if it was a freelancer (me) who eventually got the job. Why do you think a potential customer might contact an agency rather than contacting a freelance provider directly? What makes an agency more attractive and, to recall my previous post where I make a case for high pricing: do translation providers who charge more communicate more value and appear more trustworthy?
Tina: Well let’s be fair, Valerij, most customers wouldn’t have the faintest idea that you would end up with the work. In my experience customers often imagine that an agency has in-house translation staff beavering away behind the scenes, not that they outsource the work to a network of freelancers like us or – even worse – that they take the project and then hunt furiously for someone to do it because they don’t even have the right translator on their books.
Customers – and that includes companies who buy a lot of translations – have very little idea of how the translation process works (and why would they?). Agencies do a lot of aggressive marketing and many do purport to be all things to all men. A cleverly designed website offering every language combination under the sun gives the impression of an enormous organisation, even if there are only one or two people behind it. How is the unsuspecting customer to know that? And don’t forget the “better the devil you know” principle. Even if the customer isn’t totally satisfied with the agency, he might prefer to stick with them for that reason alone.
Valerij: And yet many freelance translators have the experience and resources to take on multilingual translation projects or share large-scale translation jobs among trusted colleagues. “Outsourcing translators“ amounted to 11% of those who participated in my survey [on quoting different prices for different translation quality]. If being an agency is advantageous in terms of marketing, and we’re effectively doing that already, why don’t we all call ourselves agencies?
Tina: Ah, but would we all want to? I absolutely agree with you that most translators could operate as agencies – and would probably excel at it! But a bit of outsourcing here and there doesn’t make you an agency and those of us who outsource to colleagues are usually doing it to help the customer. Most of my colleagues wouldn’t be interested in marketing themselves as an agency because they don’t want to be project managers or administrators – and if they were successful, that’s exactly what they would become. I can only speak for myself, but I enjoy translating and I value the freedom that comes with being a freelancer. I wouldn’t want to give up either.
Valerij: So what are you doing to compete with the agencies in terms of marketing?
Tina: The main challenge for service providers is to adapt to changing markets. That doesn’t mean we throw the baby out with the bathwater – traditional values and common sense will always play a large part in my business – but all of us must be open to change. The market we’re operating in today is a world away from the market of twenty years ago – the competitors we face now are very different from those faced by our colleagues then. In addition to using modern marketing methods such as Twitter and Facebook we must change the way we think.
I’ve noticed that we’re hard-wired to think in black-and-white terms of translator OR agency – but is that the only choice? I don’t think so – in my view there’s a third way, where freelancers cater for larger projects by coming together in flexible, bespoke teams. That would also counter the stock agency argument that freelancers aren’t able to cope with volume.
Valerij: And you are doing that on Stridonium now?
Tina: Yes, we’ve just introduced Strido TagTeams. It’s our “third way”, if you like.
It dawned on me that in Stridonium we had a very valuable resource for customers. Not only can we advertise ourselves as professional freelancers, but we can form tag teams to take on larger projects.
All of us on Stridonium have come to know and respect each other and we’re happy to endorse each other’s work. That in itself is an extremely valuable asset.
Valerij: With regard to managing team projects, do you envisage there being managers who will be in charge of administrative functions rather than translation?
Tina: No. This is all about thinking outside the box, the third way – the last thing we want is to be yet another agency in all but name.
Flexibility is the key word. Each team will decide on its own approach – and they will liaise with the client. We are just using the Stridonium portal to bring the two together.
And last but certainly not least, I recently told a new customer about the Strido TagTeams project. Having stayed with an agency for a couple of years despite being unhappy (a great example of “better the devil you know”!!), he now wants me to find someone on Stridonium.
I think that goes some way to proving the point, doesn’t it?
Well, I can certainly see the advantages of opening a third way. If we could help our clients benefit from flexible, scalable, easily customizable and dedicated teams of qualified translators, we could overcome the limitations of both agencies and freelancers. We could bridge the gap between volume (Tina’s “stock agency argument” against freelancers) AND quality (freelancers’ argument against agencies).
I for one can certainly testify to Stridonium being an insular spot for very talented language professionals. My main question (which I hope to address again some time soon) is how to communicate this value to our clients. How to translate the advantages of Strido into tangible benefits for a potential translation buyer (to use the marketing speak).
We need to start building bridges and reach out to our clients. What are transparency and personality worth for the client, what do TagTeams mean in terms of reliability and turnover time, but also as regards communication (who is in charge and who to contact). As a “marketing guy” I believe that success of Stridonium (which I wish could become a trend setter) largely depends on how we help our clients to answer a simple question: Why should I as a translation buyer choose Strido (or the Strido model of translator communities teaming up to tackle translation projects) among other market players – agencies, freelance translators, affordable DIY machine translation systems and the rest of saints, dragons, angels, humans and machines in every thinkable combination.
I look forward to taking up a client’s perspective in our next conversation. For the time being, I wish Strido much luck for its first “strides in the Third Way direction” (and towards the clients) and thank you very much for the interview, Tina!
(Photo: Swedish Maritime Administration – Lifeguard 901, 2011)