Why Pay for Translation if You Can Get it for Free?

It was nice to wake up this morning and see this article in the New York Times about the emergence of machine translation and volunteer translation (aka crowdsourcing). These are two very important developments that every companies needs to be aware of — and possibly champion.

That said, I do wonder how this article is going to be received by the translators of the world who actually expect to be paid for their services.

For example the for-profit, invite-only conference company TED saved about $500,000 using volunteer translators. Clearly TED could have coughed up the money.

I can see this article spurring on CEOs across the land to think that they too can get free translations.

One thing I mentioned awhile back is that you need to be translation-worthy to get away with pro-bono services, particularly if you’re a for-profit company.

Facebook, Google and, now, TED appear to be translation-worthy. But I wouldn’t expect to see, say, General Motors succeeding in this area (though they could certainly use the help).

But the larger issue here is to the extent that volunteer translation for companies that can afford to pay for translation undermines the translation industry. I don’t believe machine translation undermines human translation because companies generally use it to translation text they would never have hired people to do (or they use it as a first pass before bringing on the human translators).

But volunteer translation is different.

Are  volunteer translators taking money away from their colleagues? After all, TED and Google and Facebook certainly can afford to pay. Or are volunteer translators raising awareness for the value of their work, thereby benefiting the translation industry as a whole?

Personally, I think we’re entering a dangerous area where companies that don’t know better are going to think they don’t have to pay for translation. This all reminds me of Seinfeld‘s George Costanza’s aversion to parking garages: Why should I pay, when if I apply myself, maybe I could get it for free?

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5 thoughts on “Why Pay for Translation if You Can Get it for Free?”

  1. I don’t see much difference between companies who don’t know better getting translations for free and getting them for next to nothing, which they’ve been doing all along anyway. This is an ongoing annoyance to any translator with an ounce of self-respect, but imho nothing new to worry about in terms of job security.

  2. Quote: Personally, I think we’re entering a dangerous area where companies that don’t know better are going to think they don’t have to pay for translation.

    I agree.

    There is always a cost. For example, if a company uses machine translation or volunteer translators, the translation cost is close to zero. However, an incorrect translation can lead to legal proceedings, which have a high cost.

    The problem is neither machine translation nor volunteer translators. The problem is ignorance. Companies need to know when machine translation, volunteer translation, and professional translation are suitable.

    As one analyst at Gartner states, a company must optimise costs, not cut costs (http://blogs.gartner.com/dave_mccoy/2009/05/16/method-to-the-madness-applying-a-methodological-approach-to-cost-optimization/)

    For the record, I am an advocate of machine translation.

  3. Ah, one of my favorite topics. I just spoke at length at a translation conference in Chicago about the danger of giving away your product or service for free. From an economics point of view, there is no such thing as a free lunch (TINSTAAFL), so obviously someone must bear the cost of the “free” translation (the translator, because of opportunity cost). In general, I think being a volunteer translator for very worthy, cash-strapped non-profit organizations is a fantastic idea, and I am happy to contribute to non-profits. However, for-profit companies need to understand that translation, just like any other highly specialized professional service, is not free. Lawyers and accountants are not free, either, nor does anyone expect them to be.

    My advice to translators who are trying to grow their business is to volunteer their translation services to non-profits in their community or elsewhere who might not have sufficient funds to properly outsource these services.

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