Monday, March 29, 2010

The Translation Industry's Fee Structure

One of the comments about my last post on machine translation (The Changing Role of the Translator) was that while post-editing machine translations pays less, it also takes less time. That's true -- if the machine translation was a reasonable understandable rendering of the source text in the target language. This is sometimes the case, but not always. I have worked on some translations (even ones purportedly performed by humans) where the effort to "fix" an incoherent -- or just plain wrong -- translation didn't take significantly less time than translating the document from scratch.

That's why, in the context of becoming post-editors of machine-translated texts, we need to change the current fee structure in the translation industry. We should be charging by the hour, not by the word -- at least for editing work. This would be fairer to both sides. If the translation being edited is in reasonably good shape to begin with, the client pays a lower rate than he/she would if paying per word. And if the translation performed by the machine (or another human) is really bad, the translator doesn't lose money by spending hours fixing it and being paid only for a fraction of that time.

Many other service professionals charge by the hour - lawyers and accountants, for example. If I hand my accountant a well-organized set of records already in digital form, he/she spends less time producing my tax return and I pay less for that service. If I hand him/her a shoe box full of receipts, I have to pay for the time it takes the accountant to sort through the mess -- at accountant rates. This should provide an incentive for me to keep decent records in the first place. (For the record: I use accounting software compatible with my accountant's and send her the digital file at the end of the year.)

Similarly, a per-hour charge for post-editing would provide an incentive for end clients to use translation software that may not be free, but will produce reasonable-quality results, rather than using rules-based online freeware. And if the end client insists on using the free online service, the translator at least gets paid for the extra time he/she has to spend to fix that translation.

Look, for example, at Joanne Moss Design's Bloopers page for bad translations. The shoe tag she shows needs to be re-written from scratch to be comprehensible. The text about Ludwigshafen, on the other hand, doesn't need much work to make it flow smoothly in English. On a per-word basis, however, editing the Ludwigshafen text would cost the client much more then the shorter shoe label, while taking the post-editor much less time. If post-editing per-word rates were based on the time it took to "fix" the Ludwigshafen text, the translator/editor would lose money when confronted with the shoe tag. If the rates were based on the time required to edit the shoe tag (we should be so lucky!), the client would overpay for the Ludwigshafen text. A per-hour fee, on the other hand, would do justice to both types of text.

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