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B Corp + Business for good

Why fair trade human translation gets better results

On September 30, we celebrated International Translation Day to pay tribute to the work of language professionals around the world. Translators play a key role in bringing nations together, facilitating dialogue, and building shared knowledge, understanding, and cooperation – all while strengthening global business, world peace, and security. 

Translators are also at the heart of the localization industry. Here’s why we believe fair trade human translation gets better results for our clients.

HOW THE LOCALIZATION INDUSTRY OPERATES

The localization industry could do better with the fair treatment of staff and international resources. Many businesses are unaware of the way their chosen language service providers (LSPs) operate. And it matters, especially when it comes to driving international growth via marketing localization. Here are a few ways that localization norms can work against the human talent that localization buyers rely on:

1. Most traditional language service providers focus on delivering high-volume translated content at very low rates.

This creates transactional and aggressive relationships between LSPs and freelance linguists. As many LSPs fight to compete on price, their freelance networks shoulder those lower rates. This leads to low pay for professional linguists. And, often, tight turnaround times go with it. Many LSPs will demand discounts from their freelance resources and aren’t receptive to any rate increases. (No matter how long a translator has worked with them.) In addition, poor cash management often leads to late or non-payment to translators, putting even more pressure on them. The CSA’s recent report, “The State of the Linguist Supply Chain,” found that only 13% of professional translators can survive on their translation work. The rest have to work multiple jobs to support themselves in the work they love to do.

Translators often feel they have to lower their rates in order to get enough work to maintain their professional status. And they don’t often have much bargaining power, especially with the major players dominating the industry. As one of our valued translators put it, “While it is difficult for individual translators to ask for higher rates, large agencies should be in the position to educate clients on why translators should be paid rates that are adequate for a profession that requires not only a university degree but also extensive experience and dedication in order to provide high-quality services.”

2. Over-emphasis on software solutions devalues human translation.

Many LSPs offer software solutions as a fundamental part of their services. And those software solutions are a major source of their revenue and business models. In recent years, there has been much talk in the industry about whether localization has, in fact, become part of the tech industry.

Software solutions, implemented correctly, are critical to scaling efficient localization processes and delivering cost efficiency through content leverage. However, many LSPs look to bolster their low-low rates with software subscriptions, which can contribute to the commoditization of language. For marketing localization, an over-focus on technology can prevent companies from achieving their market potential by overlooking the human element of translation they need for long-term brand success.

Many of our clients have come to us after experiencing repeated quality issues with traditional localization delivery models. Our observation is that relentless focus on cost efficiency of translation (rather than on the effectiveness of its outcome) is the heart of the problem. For marketing localization, which is all about driving ROI by maximizing international engagement, our translators’ experience, partnership, and insight is key. We recognize the value they add to creating content that’s locally authentic and relevant. And the truth is, it’s possible to drive success in-market while being sensitive to budget goals. And without resorting to devaluing human translation.

3. Transactional relationships lead to low-quality work.

LSPs are essentially gatekeepers. They inform the type of relationship developed between translation buyers on the client side and in-country linguistic resources, many of whom are independent contractors. Many LSPs keep their translators at arms-length and fail to include them in discussions about end-client goals or style preferences. This, combined with increasing pressure for quick turnaround at low rates, often results in transactional relationships and lower quality translation. As one of our translators said, “Big global agencies have a hard time connecting to individual suppliers. It is hard to get rid of this ‘production line’ feel.”

Operating in isolation and working under extreme pressures to deliver fast and cheap can certainly lead to low-quality translations. LSPs often ignore the human element of translation, boasting of global freelance networks into the tens of thousands. In doing so, they fail to invest in human talent and meaningful relationships. When translators feel undervalued and disconnected, quality suffers.

WHY FAIR TRADE HUMAN TRANSLATION GETS BETTER RESULTS

As a certified B Corp, we take fair trade principles seriously. We believe in the B Economy. It’s inclusive and creates opportunities for all people of all backgrounds and experiences to live with dignity, to support themselves and their families, and to make a contribution to their communities. This principle applies to our work in marketing localization and is why fair trade translation is so vital to how we operate. 

Fair trade translation means paying fairly and on time, while creating engagement and development opportunities for professional linguists, many of whom live in low-income communities. It means building transparent and accountable long-term relationships based on trust and respect. Beyond being the right thing to do, we believe fair trade human translation gets better results – not just for us and for our clients – but for translators and the industry as a whole. Treating translators with respect is ultimately a win-win situation for everyone and is possible to scale for efficiency without compromising human value. Here’s why:

1. People always do better work when they feel valued.

Our in-country linguists are engaged in our business. We work hard to make them an extension of our team. This results in better linguistic quality, better support for project managers who know they can rely on our linguists to deliver, and – ultimately – a better service for our clients and a better experience for their customers. Here’s what one of our Italian linguists (who’s been a Wordbanker for over 12 years) had to say. “I like working with Wordbank because I feel I am treated as a human being and not as a commodity.”

2. We value longevity in our relationships, and it pays off with higher engagement and preferential treatment from the most experienced freelancers.

Skilled linguists, especially for marketing and creative content, have choices about who they do business with. In our view, it’s both unethical and incredibly short-sighted to dismiss them as expendable. A freelancer’s longevity with an LSP is an indication that they feel valued and invested in their work. In the same way that buyers use employee retention rates and reputation ratings as an indication of a company’s success and stability, translator longevity is a sorely missed metric that many buyers would do well to pay attention to. 

We have specific targets for increasing our longevity and survey our freelancers to see how we can do better. We’re proud that 65% of our 4,000+ strong in-country network has worked with us for 5+ years, and 31% has worked with us for 10+ years. We often get preferential treatment from talent that would rather take one of our projects over another LSP’s because they value the longevity of our relationship and the way we work. And our clients get better quality and consistency with translator teams onboarded to and invested in their goals. One of our Portuguese editors pointed this out: “That is something you can see when editing jobs. I don’t remember having had to edit poor translations. Translators are carefully chosen. Wordbank’s QA methods excel in providing consistency as opposed to some of the companies I partner with.”

3. Human translation is an investment, but one that pays by producing higher quality and better results.

Marketing localization is about moving people to take action. If you are humans marketing to other humans, the only way to go is by valuing and connecting with in-market human talent. Bringing translators onto the team with client-specific onboarding and production models leads to better quality work. Translators are part of evolving feedback cycles that involve clients at their discretion. Giving clients a choice in who sits on their teams creates buy-in, gives them control over their content, delivers results, and often decreases the pressure around budget. This ultimately helps raise the value of language as a whole in the industry.

FINAL THOUGHT

Language is the ultimate human connector. It has the power to bridge divides, inspire people to take action, and stay informed about the world. Even in a high-tech environment with automated processes, human translation is the best way to connect those dots and should be valued as such. Translators and language itself form the backbone of everything we do in the industry. And while technology is incredibly important to our work, it isn’t the be-all, end-all. Language technology is only as effective as the human talent that works with it.

As an industry, we owe it to ourselves to promote and protect the value of human talent, as well as technology, in the delivery of our services. For us, that’s an obvious choice and always has been. Marketing localization success is best achieved with outward thinking, sustainable, inclusive business practices, and lasting partnerships with people who feel valued and passionate about the contributions they make. 

As one of our Japanese linguists said: “The translator community is very active, we talk together, we compare our rates, we help each other in our business. We could all learn a lot from our experience and background if a company put a bit of effort toward a sharing culture.” In a time with huge divisions and uncertainty, that sharing culture and human connection certainly becomes even more important.