Caught in the Web
Part II: Internet T&I Brokers—The Response

By Stafford Hemmer

In September, NCTA members were invited to participate in a 25-question online survey of their experiences and opinions of translation and interpretation broker sites. Thanks to the contributions of 57 translators and interpreters, and 6 agencies or industry agents, we are now able to offer a member-based assessment of the T&I marketplace on the Web.

Responses to the multiple choice/open comment survey questions cut a broad swath of sentiment, from the favorable (“My experience is quite good. I’ve made contact with many employers through ProZ.com, and several of them have continued to contact me for other projects”) through the web-curious (“I have very little contact with them, but would be interested in finding the useful ones.”) to the quite unflattering (“It does not work. It is definitely not the real world out there.”).

Yet the T&I market continues to be an underused (which isn’t to say untapped) resource for a variety of reasons. Perhaps the most salient indicator is that three-quarters of the respondents have joined at least one T&I website through free membership (suggesting that the resource has indeed been “tapped”), whereas a whopping 68 percent express frustration at having never gotten a job, or found a contractor, from T&I websites (which may explain the “underused”status of the resource).

A few grains of salt regarding the survey: despite generous support from 63 survey participants, many respondents decided to skip one or more questions here and there. Hence, the first 13 questions were short of the full 63 responses by a range of 12-19 responses. The decision to “skip” increased exponentially for the subsequent 10 questions. It is unclear what prompted survey participants to skip questions: unclear wording, too many questions, or some other reason. The consequence is that the percentages discussed in this article reflect the responses of those who replied to a specific question, and not the sentiments of the group as a whole. All percentages have been rounded.

Additionally, the survey allowed for respondents to answer “I do not participate in the bidding process at all” to three different questions, resulting in three different percentages. While these variations are mentioned below, bear in mind they are cited within the context of the respective questions posed in the survey.

Membership

The virtual T&I market is familiar terrain to NCTA members. Respondents confessed to having signed on, for free, to at least 1-3 sites (67%) or even as many as 4-6 sites (11%). By contrast, 23% indicated they hold no free memberships. This was perhaps a common choice among those translators who, as one respondent indicated, “ … don’t use T&I websites because I have enough work from reliable sources that I know are reliable and pay what is fair without the extra hassle.” The chances are good that this latter group has opted out of T&I websites altogether: when it comes to taking that extra step and upgrading to fee-based membership, 59% of respondents decided against, while the remaining 41% limited payments to only 1-3 websites. Of those, 26% pay over $100 in combined annual dues. While 16% of respondents believe upgrading is significant to optimizing website exposure, another 18% regarded this as of minor importance, and 18% felt it made no difference at all.

If a T&I broker were to attend an NCTA meeting in the hope of increasing hermember base, she should brace herself for disappointment: exactly 0% of respondents were inspired to upload resumes to a broker’s website on the basis of a conference presentation. Using the survey results as an indicator, the most effective method for a broker to increase its client base is to trawl for prospects through a mass email that includes a start-up free membership offer (33%). Almost as many respondents (30%) were encouraged to sign up by colleague recommendations, while 15% joined websites based on Internet advertising. An equal number said they never join T&I websites.

The bidding process

If resource utilization is proportionate to login activity, then the survey results established that the web-based T&I market is largely ignored by NCTA professionals. The benefits of membership privileges are negligible to the majority of those respondents who said they used broker websites, since 40% indicated they logged in less than once a week, compared with 23% who login 2-4 times per week, and 14% who login every day. Although finding job offers/contractors was rated as one of the most important features of T&I websites, the relative inactivity among NCTA members is further reflected by the 43% of NCTA professionals who, when asked if they would lower rates to win a bid, said they did not participate in the bidding process at all.

“Membership rates should be based on how many jobs you actually get via the website,” suggested one respondent, “I’ve paid $30 but have gotten exactly zero jobs.” This perspective is likely shared by the 68% of translators and interpreters who have never gotten a contract from a website, or the agencies that have not awarded a contract through a website. While nearly 21% reported a successful bidding experience within the last 60 days, only two respondents (less than 5%) reported having any real success within the last seven days. Another respondent complained, “These sites seem to be designed for either extremely specialized, high-end work, or extreme bargain basement prices, with nothing for the rest of us.”

Income

The “bottom feeder” phenomenon to which the above respondent alludes is indeed a common complaint among those who have struggled with website job searches. “The prices are always below what I could afford to charge,” that same survey respondent continued. This disparity in pay rates may be reflected in the 60% who, when asked what percentage of income they attributed exclusively to T&I websites, indicated they do not participate in the bidding process at all. Would it make a difference if an interpreter lowered his rates in order to win a bid? Despite the fact that 24% of respondents said they would never lower their rates, 17% would consider a reduction of 1-10%, and 5 respondents (11%) said they would even consider lowering rates up to 20% in some circumstances. Not an entirely unreasonable proposition if a project is big enough or a client important enough for the service provider to offer entry-level rates.

Still, competition is no picnic for any job seeker. The online T&I marketplace can turn the battle into a feeding frenzy. It is difficult to match the lower rates offered by competitors who can snap up job offers quickly when the net is cast 10 time zones east or west of the Left Coast, where the cost of living may be a fraction of the Bay Area’s. So it should come as no surprise that 40% of NCTA members who were asked to rate the bidding process overall said they never participate, while 34% of respondents rate the bidding process as “an enormously frustrating waste of time,” and a mere 21% use it as “a backup resource when the river’s dry.” Only one respondent felt the bidding process to be an invaluable resource overall. As for results, 25% estimated that less than 10% of their efforts resulted in contracts, and only one individual felt he or she had a greater than 50% success rate in the bidding process.

Features

Show me the money: When it comes to money matters, 37% attribute less than a quarter of their income to T&I websites, while 60% do not use the websites for income-generating purposes. So is it the other website features that inspire language professionals to open up or maintain memberships to these sites?

As mentioned earlier, the top-rated feature among survey respondents was paradoxically “job assignments/hiring contractors.” This was followed by “payment practices/contractor ratings” and “forums and other translator/interpreter/agency contacts.” By contrast, the one feature considered “totally useless” was “teamwork on projects.” Promotions of T&I software, books, and other resources were considered “superfluous, but interesting,” while online glossaries were rated as “interesting and sometimes useful” by a majority of respondents.

Half the respondents said they never submitted a terminology question to a website. This was followed by 34% stating they submitted terminology questions only as a last resort. As for replies, 42% of respondents said they never post replies to terminology questions, whereas 40% post replies only on an occasional, ad hoc basis. Only one respondent said he or she responded frequently. Overall, the terminology assistance was seen as somewhat reliable, but it doesn’t always hit the mark (56%), whereas 22% felt the assistance was not very reliable.

The envelope, please: based on the votes tallied, the award for the best broker website in the virtual world goes to … ProZ.com. Interestingly, the site also bears the dubious distinction of being voted the worst website as well. Indeed, it was the single website cited most by name in both categories. Oddly enough, the same phenomenon applies to the websites which tied for second place—Aquarius.net and TranslatorsCafe, which were likewise voted both winner and loser in equal measure.

Winners and Losers

This equivocation characterizes the broker survey overall: sites were voted best and worst simultaneously, called useless by default and yet useful by chance, or esteemed as an invaluable resource and a complete waste of money. Harvesting the most from a broker membership ultimately depends on the specific needs of the individual translator, interpreter, or agency. The broker phenomenon is well known to NCTA members, and the reasons for accessing or ignoring the benefits and features of these websites are as diverse as the variety of language groups they serve.

Perspectives

On the negative side

“I am negative on T&I sites since members have no credentials (some exceptions of course exist) and jobs almost always [go] to the lowest bidder which in a global market means working peanuts per word. This is a totally out-of-date system of assigning value and so is the Euro per-page concept. Our clients get a fixed, hourly-rate quote based on deadline (and difficulty).“

On the positive side

“It is mainly important as a marketing tool and to stay on top of the new developments in the business. You can sometimes establish durable client/translator relationships. I noticed that very qualified agencies also bid on these sites.”

And some sage advice

“I bid on ProZ.com jobs only during my dry periods. I only bid on jobs that appear serious. I never alter my standard rates. The ‘serious’ jobs (i.e. rates acceptable for U.S. cost of living, reliable payers, etc.) may only account for 10% of the jobs posted, and I may only be awarded 10% of the jobs I bid on, but that has nonetheless resulted in tens of thousands of dollars in work over the past few years and often a steady, direct relationship with the outsourcer. My advice is, therefore: first sort the wheat (10%) from the chaff (90%), then bid on jobs that suit you and your specialties. Be prepared to lose most bids, but one successful bid, especially if it leads to followup work, can easily justify the annual fee and the time invested with the site.”

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