Volume 16, No. 1 
January 2012

  Yvonne Tsai


Front Page

  Translation Journal

The Profession

The Value of Translation

by Yvonne Tsai

t is hard to embark on a career in translation without guansi, or connections, in the Chinese society. The so-called guansi resembles a network of people, where referrals of translations can be directed. Student translators studying in the home country would benefit from this network well before they graduate with client referrals passed down from teachers who are too busy with other projects, whereas overseas student translators would have to start from scratch for a humble income that could barely keep them alive. Without such a network, it took me a few years of suffering as a contracted translator of a blood-sucking translation agency.

As is the case in almost every other country with translation industry, small-scale translation agencies with less than 5 employees have 73.3% of the market. 56.7% of these agencies usually work with one to ten freelance translators on a regular basis, with thousands more freelancers listed in their database (NTNU & Research 2004). Student translators or novice translators eager for hands-on experience in translation would either cooperate with translation agencies for a low rate in exchange for a ticket into the low-threshold business, or search on electronic bulletin boards for equally low-paid translation work.

It is hard to embark on a career in translation without guansi, or relationship, in the Chinese society.”
Bulletin boards provide instant messages, and create a lot of opportunities for beginners. Most of the clients on the bulletin boards are students looking for help with their dissertations. These students would make use of the “no-income and poor” image of a student, and settle for the lowest “student rate” possible. I remembered a post that stirred furious storm on the translation bulletin board of a popular site, and the fury continued for a few days before it died down. The story began with a postgraduate student looking for a translator to help her with her dissertation. On her post, she noted “Only translations for content are required; so apart from the names, titles, footnotes, etc., the total word count is around 8,000. Reference material will be provided, and the deadline is 5 weeks. Due to the above conditions, I am expecting low quotes, whoever provides the lowest quote would win the bid. PS. The dissertation is to be published on significant academic journal, so translation quality should be of professional standard. I myself have a good command of English; although I do not have much time myself, I would still proofread it in person.”

Many sensed a disrespect for the translation profession, and sent emotional replies. Some sarcastically proclaimed willingness to undertake the translation for US$30 dollars with machine translation tools. Others complained about the lack of respect for translators by trampling on the dignity of “professionalism” with money. One exemplified the act as if one goes to an LV store, and asked for the latest design for no more than US$60. Another gave a similar scenario with a manager looking for a professional employee with at least masters degree, years of working experience, who is willing to work more than twelve hours a day, seven days a week, and in the end adds “by the way, tell me your acceptable salary, and remember, whoever provides the lowest will get the job!” Those who replied believe that if the person making the request is courageous enough to bluntly ask for the lowest price possible, quality would not be of concern, and since she considers herself a person with good command of English, she should do the work herself.

One of the translators commented that the client’s level of English is irrelevant to the price quoted, and that the client should take into consideration her requests for having the work completed. In addition, by noting at the end that the proposed dissertation is to be published in an academic journal, and that it would be proofread, it is implied that the competence of the translator is not to be questioned. This is the by far the most insulting.

I have encountered a situation where the client asked for voluntary interpreting service for him and his supervisor. He was doing a PhD in the UK, and he has scarcely any English communication skills. I helped him once, but later, I realized he had more to ask of me, which is to translate his thesis. He has published a book in Chinese, and his plan was to translate his book into English and submit it for a PhD degree. Needless to say, he who demands voluntary interpreting service would very unlikely to pay for any translation work. What he offered, were empty promises of a blueprint job as his assistant once he graduates and serves as the college dean. I declined the offer and refused to answer any more of his calls. He left a few angry and impolite messages as if I owed him, and after a few weeks, people saw him down the street looking for Chinese-speaking people to do the same voluntary translation work.

However sad it is, the status of translators is low, as most people believe they have a good command of English. This is especially so in the Chinese society, where people receive English education as early as elementary school (or kindergarten, if they can afford it). Consequently, in the mindset of hirers, the need to outsource translation work was simply due to lack of time, and not because they were incapable of doing it themselves. To most people, translation requires no professional knowledge or skill, and is merely an exchange of two languages, where anyone with language competency can do the work.

With such a misconception that anyone with a reasonlably good command of two languages can do the work, the rate offered is low. If you decline a job for fear of jeopardizing your competitiveness, there’s always someone out there willing to accept it for the same price offered, or even lower. That is the reason why one of the translation agencies that I had contact with years ago, which I am going to call agency A, always calls translators to bid on a translation project whenever there is one, and assign the job to whomever provides the lowest rate possible. It would be unreasonable to demand beautiful translations under such a low price, or put up with a limitless number of revisions until the translation is satisfactory, yet supply always exceeds demand in the translation market.

On the seemingly professional website of agency A, it is noted that they only recruit “dedicated specialists” with college degree and above, at least ten years of translating experience, and through careful screening, rigorous tests, and regular evaluations. However, insiders know very well that highly educated professionals would never agree to such an unreasonable pay and disrespectful treatment. Apart from assuring their quality by claiming they have “linguists, translators, editors, and proofreaders involved in every project,” and criticizing other translation agencies with implications of possible disaster, the website also reveals their use of constantly updated translation memory tools, and that sentences with 100% matches are complimentary.

Despite all the professional image and marketing strategies, contacts with the translators were considerably painful. The one and the only employee of agency A never introduces himself when a phone connection is established, and the way he speaks is far from polite. He would first tell you very briefly what the translation request is about, and ask you to provide a quote, claiming that they will store it in their database. I have received several e-mails from agency A, asking me to provide my personal information, and quotes for translation/interpreting services, with a sentence saying “if you have received this email before, please ignore it” at the bottom.

If your quote is higher than the one you provided previously, he would rebuke in a tone that is hardly acceptable, and accuse you of having lied to him in the previous project. If your quote remains the same, he would try all means to negotiate for a lower price, as if bargaining for “buy one get one free” in the market. If you ask for further details concerning the translation, he would be alarmed by saying “you don’t need to know this.” So, the translator would be half blind before they could provide a quote for the translation project. For interpretation requests, apart from the date and the type of interpretation required, you would only know the “city” (not the exact place or anywhere near, because he assumes everywhere is of equal distance).

I feel happy not having taken any work from this agency, for phone contacts were enough to drive me nuts. I remember the first time agency A called, the first thing they asked was for a landline number because it was more expensive to continue the conversation on the mobile phone. Yet instead of telling me the purpose of his call, he spent five minutes arguing with me on the mobile phone not believing that I didn’t have a landline. He persisted for a few more weeks, by asking me for my landline every time he called as his conversation starter.

After all the unhappy encounters, cooperation was deemed impossible. Before he gave up, he called me again for a quote on simultaneous interpreting in an international conference. I provided a quote that I knew would be unacceptable to him, regardless of how fair and reasonable my quote was compared with the average rate. Again, he argued with me for ten minutes why I deserved such a high rate, and questioned me whether I could find any cases at such a high rate. He even asked me to break down the prices, which I consider to be rather absurd. In the end, I had to decline his offers several times before I could hang up on him because he kept saying “I just want to know what your price is for this interpretation, so that I can note down on my computer. Don’t lie to me with different quotes.” Sometimes I wonder: if he is concerned just as much about the telephone bill, why waste so much time giving others a hard time.

Later, I felt relieved when I saw one of the translators complaining about the non-payment and insults agency A gave him/her despite long hours of work without sleep for an urgent translation, yet for a pathetic pay. That translator posted the story on a bulletin board, saying that, when s/he phoned agency A, the one and the only employee of agency A mocked him/her for caring so much about a few thousand NT dollars, saying (and I am not exaggerating): “it’s only a few thousand dollars, what’s the big fuss about it?”

This is not a wide-spread phenomenon, but I believe it is just one in a million that one would likely to encounter. I believe everyone would have a different story to tell on how they started out in the translation business. These are some of the lessons learned from cases I have experienced myself. I believe that clients get a reasonable translation value only when they learn to treat translators properly. On the other hand, the translator must find his/her niche in order to be competitive if translation is really his or her chosen career.


NTNU, & Taiwan Institute of Economic Research. (2004). 台灣翻譯產業現況調查研究總結分析報告.

Taipei: Government Information Office.