Does the best bid win?
Like many translators, I’ve become very suspicious of requests from agencies to help them participate in tenders for work. It’s very easy to waste a lot of time preparing documents and evidence of experience only to find that no work is forthcoming or, in the worst case, that your details have been used to win a contract for a job which is then done by a cheaper, less experienced translator. For this reason, I usually ignore them or politely decline.
But the request I received a few weeks ago was different. To begin with, the job was a really interesting one, involving museums, one of my specialist areas. In fact that was why the agency in question (I’ll call them Agency A) wanted my help: they realised that I had the experience they needed to do a good job. And then there was the agency itself: not my biggest customer but one of my favourites, in fact one of the few agencies I still work for on a regular basis after putting up my rates at the beginning of the year. So I filled in the form they sent me, tweaked my CV for them with some extra relevant experience and sent it all off. They did ask me tentatively if I’d be prepared to reduce my rate to help them win the contract, but when I firmly told them I wouldn’t (the job may have been a good one but I am in business after all) they accepted it with good grace.
Last week, they wrote to me with the result: they’d narrowly missed out on the job, so unfortunately I wouldn’t be getting the work. There were no recriminations, just a shared sense of sadness at having missed out. In fact, the news came as no surprise to me. I already knew that neither I nor Agency A would be getting the job.
A few days before last week’s message, I’d been contacted by another agency, I’ll call them Agency B. I’ve never worked for Agency B before, although I know quite a bit about them. In fact their owner (Ms B) ran a course in marketing for translators I attended several years ago. It was at a stage in my career when I’d decided I needed to break out of the vacuum I’d been working in and start selling myself and some of her advice proved useful. However, there was something about the woman herself I didn’t connect with. She was too brash; too pushy. I perhaps should have given her my card, but something stopped me. I couldn’t imagine that I would enjoy working for her.
It wasn’t Ms B who contacted me, it was a project manager whom I also know from when she used to work with a different agency. She wanted to offer me the chance to revise and edit a large job I immediately recognised as the museums translation. I might even have done it, despite the fact that was a high-risk assignment, which, depending on the quality of the translator or translators used, it had the potential to turn into a nightmare. There was just one big stumbling block: the PM was offering me barely half my normal editing rate. I explained that the rate was far too low and that they would be unlikely to find anyone remotely professional at that price. The project manager, meanwhile, had the nerve to argue her corner. The rate wasn’t so bad, she maintained. She had her pride and she wouldn’t get involved in projects paying unreasonably low rates. Well all I can say is that her idea of low and mine were very different. I politely told her where she could stick the job. She said it was a pity.
And, it is a pity, although not for her, for Agency A, or even for me. She is presumably being paid, although I doubt she’s being paid very well, to coordinate a bunch of second- and third-rate translators and editors receiving starvation rates. For me and for Agency A, there are plenty more projects to pick up from clients who are will to pay a reasonable rate for a job well done. The real loser is the client, a public body that had carried out the tender process according to a points system, which meant, in theory, that price wasn’t the only factor taken into account. We can only assume, though, that it was the most important, and the client had clearly been hoodwinked by Agency B into settling for what, considering the prices being paid to the people actually doing the work, seems bound to be an inferior and substandard job. Once again the image of translators and translation will suffer. All we can do, if we value our livelihood, is to continue the fight and refuse to collaborate in this cheapening of our profession, in all senses. Some we win, and some we lose.