Tender trap

Tender trap

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.


  1. Hi Simon,

    Excellent post and awesome that you stood up for yourself.

    We’re actually launching a platform for buyers and translators this summer with the goal of solving some of these problems. In this case, when we talk about price, what the buyer gains with accountability and management by working with agencies, they lose in quality v.s. working directly with translators. Because you can imagine that if they offered you half your rate, the museum did in fact pay your full-rate and had they been able to hire you directly, it would have been to their benefit.

    Anyway, you might signup for our launch notification on our <a href="http://zingword.com/jobs-in-translation" title="jobs page"> and you can zip me a message if you’re interested in learning more about what we hope to achieve for translators in today’s world.

    I can tell you one thing: it’s going to be great.

    P.S. As a museum fan, either you will love or hate our revised Botticelli. 😛

    • Thanks, Robert. Good luck with the platform, as there seem to be so many of them around nowadays.

      • Hi Simon,

        I’m sure we’ll do fine. <a href="http://www.statista.com/statistics/264001/worldwide-production-of-fruit-by-variety/" title="Oranges and strawberries"> are both fruit but in terms of business they are totally different. So it is with such platforms. I agree that there are many, but you will see they are not like Zingword.

        BTW, I provided a link for you to our jobs page in my previous comment, and it should actually be /jobs/jobs-in-translation. Any chance you could edit the comment to fix that? I think I got nervous inserting it into the code line. 😛

  2. I suppose it shouldn’t really, but it always surprises me when some agencies seem resistant to the idea of charging more for better work. As if they were condemned to operate in the same market segment for the rest of eternity – while the rest of us gradually move on up.

    • Thanks for your comment, Oliver. The problem with these tender processes is that they are weighted towards those who pay less, not those who believe in quality.

  3. It is absolutely true that agencies tender with the best CVs and diplomas (sometimes without even asking for permission) and outsource later to cheaper suppliers.
    This is also the fault of the procuring bodies, which should be monitoring the honesty of suppliers. If the tenderer lies, they should be disqualified from future tenders, as it is a clear scenario of breach of contract.
    I have also discovered that it is a lot easier to tender yourself than many people would believe. In fact, in disseminating these mass offers and calls for tenders, agencies are actually informing their competition and potential competition on the actual tender and where the details are located.
    Although in Spain I would tend to think that there may be some dirty dealing in tenders (awarded to friends, relatives and/or people belonging to the same political parties as the institutions offering the work), this is not usually the case of international bodies.
    You can tender yourself, and ask for the rate you want to charge. Of course, there is paperwork.
    I think this is the only way forward for many professionals as the rates offered by agencies are so low that it is no longer worthwhile or feasible at all.
    Leon Hunter

    • Thanks, Leon. The idea of using these "traps" as tips about potential work available is a great idea.

  4. To be added to the comment above:
    Another thing you might find is that some public bodies may give you work directly. If the amounts are small and the officials concerned believe the work is important enough not to outsource it to a bad agency with cheap suppliers, they might award it to you directly.
    As 50 Cent once said: "get rich or die trying"!
    Leon Hunter

    • I have had and do have work from public bodies, although I’ve never tendered for anything. Maybe I’ll have to start trying.


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