Caught in the Web
Part I: T&I Brokers on the Internet

By Stafford Hemmer

Translation and interpretation broker sites: love them or hate them, you can no longer ignore them. In this first of two articles, Stafford Hemmer examines the growing phenomenon of the web-based T&I marketplace. In addition, he asks you to relate your own experiences in a survey, which he will analyze and report on in our December issue.

“Dear Translator! Company XYZ invites you to join our database of professional translators, interpreters, and agencies …”

Sound familiar? Merely being listed as an ATA member will land you at least one of these enticing emails. Who are these people?

Who indeed. They are the relatively new kid on the block in the T&I marketplace—a “new” kid that follows the model of other industries in using the Internet to the advantage of all parties in a transaction. They are the broker site. And they raise interesting questions regarding the ways in which translation buyers and sellers can come together. Where ATA and NCTA online referral services offer one set of advantages, those tend to focus on the respective association’s overall purposes, with translator and interpreter referrals an added (albeit crucial) perk. With broker sites, one must wonder about the prudence of investing in T&I services marketed online. What does the plethora of auction sites have to offer the freelancer or agency? How does a freelancer or agency navigate these websites without getting sucked into a vortex of global bidding wars? How does the user know which site is worth the expenditure of time and money, and which site leads to a dead end?

Unlike agencies, which are corporate entities subject to the governing jurisprudence and tax practices of their domiciles, T&I websites are global marketplaces for vendors and clients. Here, translators typically negotiate job terms (timing, format, payment) directly with a client found on the broker sites. As such, caveat emptor applies: eliminating the agency may have its benefit (no third-party fees), but in direct relationships, both sides dispense with the risk protection an agency offers (QA and liability insurance, among other protections).

One of the best known of these organizations is ProZ (or at least best-advertised: “Tradosis a ProZ.com Partner” boasted the back-cover ad of the April 2005 ATA Chronicle). Founded in 1999, the company defines itself as “a directory of translation services by freelance language translators and translation agencies.” The banner for another popular website, “aquarius.net – reloaded!” extols the power of its new and improved homepage for “the market leader in translation outsourcing … with an ever-expanding network of language specialists and translation customers.” GoTranslators lays claim to a more modest existence as a “world translation directory.” Admittedly, its world is limited to 30 languages. The common thread? Translation & interpretation broker sites are Internet websites that connect T&I buyers with T&I sellers.

Benefits

Beyond this shared purpose, each site distinguishes itself through a variety of distinctive bells and whistles, intended to add value and create synergy in a collaborative virtual office environment. Among its many useful services, offers a weekly report that informs participants how many times their profile was viewed, and how much that profile was “promoted” by the site. The “Content Hit Parade” on keeps translators abreast of the most popular topics and software among users. To lure its members out of their translation caves and into a real live café for an in-person with neighboring translators, established its “Powwow” service. The re-launched site allows users to create “groups” for team communications and ostensibly project communication management through its “Friends, Teams, and Ignore” lists. For freelancers who risk accepting work from an unknown client, shared information on payment practices is an indispensable resource. The sites also fill the void in client education with concise articulation of business conditions.

To some, online collaboration with fellow language professionals on terminology questions is invaluable. Some websites offer incentive bonuses to participants in such exchanges. For the asker, getting the right term is the obvious bonus, although at times it may be slow in coming—a key drawback when you’re in a time crunch. For the respondent earning “KudoZ” points, for example, the precise answer to a perplexing terminology question will boost credentials in the ProZ marketplace; ostensibly, outsourcers seek out high-scoring translators. I have accumulated exactly zero KudoZ points, because I post my own terminology questions to the GLD (German Language Division) list of ATA. That community provides me with virtually immediate and highly reliable answers, and typically provokes stimulating conversation.

It’s possible, then, that one might see more job offers from ProZ if more time is put into researching and answering other people’s terminology questions. The same holds true for other websites as well: “The more Conges points a TRADUguide member has, the more he/she will move towards the top of the TRADUguide translators’ list.” Not a day goes by without a Conges question in my email box posted by a TRADUguide user in desperation. If I know the answer and have time, I will post an answer and, if lucky (and precise), get the coveted points. But I am astonished at times when assistance is required for terms as basic as eins, zwei, drei.

Membership and bidding

Typically, “membership,” whether free or fee, is offered to any taker. Yes, this means anyone, from the person who has two years of high school French to the most pedigreed Arabic-speaking linguist … and everyone in between. Some websites do make a stated effort to “certify” the qualificationsonline. Sign up for Global Vision’s database, for instance, and each of your three references will be emailed a recommendation request as soon as you hit the “submit” button.

“Free membership” is invariably a lure to the better exposure, greater access (e.g., ProZ’s “Blue Board”) and more work promised by “professional membership upgrades.” While brokers make money from advertisers, endorsements, product sales, and sometimes client fees—occasionallytying membership upgrades to product purchases (“Hello, WordFast 5.0!”)—membership fees are a main source of funds for the websites (the broker needs to pay rent too). Different tiers of membership mean you pay for different levels of exposure. Your faith in upgrading from Economy to Business or First Class membership on Aquarius may ease the turbulence you feel when the work conditions are rough. Both TRADUguide and GoTranslators remind non-paying members that such status relegates them to the job offer notifications 12 hours after paying members. Since time is money in this global market place, such a delay likely means someone else wins the bid.

Still, this “open door policy” invites the harshest criticism of the brokering business. Case in point: take the Spanish>English translator, who, assuming she submits a timely offer, bids on a 10,000-word contract at her rate of US$0.12/word. She loses to another translator who may be a non-native speaker living in a country whose lingua franca may be English, and where the competing offer of $0.03/word supports that standard of living. While the T&I buyer might receive a poor-quality translation, if he ferrets the work for “proofreading and editing” to another professional, at $0.04/word, he nets a translation at almost half the cost offered by the native-speaking (and presumably better) translator. This phenomenon makes it extremely difficult to compete in the global market and begs the question: what’s the point of paying for greater exposure on a website, when in the end, you’d have to cut your rates in half to win a contract?

Other models

There are other portals for translators and clients having different formats than the T&I broker website. A company like Choice Translating describes itself as an agency with in-house translators (covered by its liability insurance) that also hires freelancers to meet excess demand. While a freelancer may apply to become a member of the company’s database, the added “perks” mentioned above are not part of the deal, because the freelancer is working for the agency, not directly for the client. Webtra.com is a similar type of companythat has a particular focus on localization and, although multi-lingual in scope, emphasizes its Spanish-language capabilities. Textpark.de is a small shop that’s thinking big: a website now expanding its scope beyond its German-only environment. At the complete other end of the spectrum, the focus of a language-specific website like Übersetzerportal is on industry issues in the German language, even though it also offers job search facilities.

Weigh in and be heard

What is your own experience with broker sites? In the interest of stimulating a constructive, frank, and comprehensive discussion of the subject, we’d like to hear from you, via a survey at the NCTA website. Here, we invite NCTA interpreters, agencies, and translators to give voice to whatever perspectives you may have: positive, negative, or neutral. Through the data gathered, we hope to be able to publish, in Part Two of this series, an objective assessment of the sites, and, with luck, answer difficult questions that cannot be covered in an overview. To participate in the survey, visit http://tinyurl.com/4s57p.

Resources

Aquarius: One of the pioneers, recently remodeled, claiming to be the market leader in translation outsourcing. http://www.aquarius.net/

Babelport: Informs participants weekly on how many times their profile was viewed, and how much that profile was “promoted” by the site. http://babelport.com/

Global Vision: Automatically sends a recommendation request to each of the three references you enter when registering. http://www.globalvis.com/

GoTranslators: Dubs itself as a “world translation directory,” currently limited to 30 languages. http://www.gotranslators.com

MCable: Boasts a “Content Hit Parade,” keeping translators abreast of the most popular topics and software among users. http://www.mcable.net/

ProZ: Home of the “Kudoz,” Monopoly money of sorts. The high-profile website from Virginia has also been the first to attract controversy. http://www.proz.com

TRADUguide: Here, it’s the “Conges points” that will move a member towards the top of the site’s translators’ list. http://www.traduguide.com/

 

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