E.g., 11/18/2019
E.g., 11/18/2019

Everything’s a Commodity

I went out for drinks the other night with my friend Liz and we happened to run into one of my prospective clients at the bar.   Of course, Liz and I didn’t know who the man was when we started talking to him because he’s my contact’s boss, so he and I had yet to meet face-to-face.  He actually came up to us because he thought Liz was pretty, which – trust me – is a much more common reason for being approached in Louisville, Kentucky, than to talk about translation.

So he and Liz were chatting it up and the poor fella made the mistake of saying, “So, what do you girls do?”  Liz is in restaurant sales so there was a bit of banter about that, but once he found out what I did – well, the whole conversation changed.  Perhaps it’s more of an indicator as to why I’m single than my vocational prowess, but I have to admit, it was the highlight of my evening when he said, “My content manager tells me translation’s a commodity now.”

Turns out, that afternoon he and my contact had been discussing how their new translation management system (TMS) affects project purchasing. The TMS they use pits language service providers (LSPs) against one another in reverse bidding wars.  I say low, you say lower, and the two of us go back and forth until someone finally gets tired and goes home.

Personally I hate those things.  To keep with the bar analogy, they feel sort of slimy to me -- rather like looking around the dance floor at 2:00AM to see who’s still there. There is always a handful of exceptions who are still quality but are staying in the club for whatever reason, but the majority of the folks still around that late in the game are what my grandma would call “cheap.” That’s because that’s what those reverse auctions are -- they’re competitions to see who’s cheap.

You can’t blame the reverse auction, though. It has its place. For many clients, price is the number one factor.  Or it’s a contributing factor together with flexibility or turnaround time or – yes – even quality. The reality is that we work in a world where it takes money to pay for things and where saving money can be a virtue, a requirement, or both. The reverse auction didn’t create commoditized translation; it merely organized it.

“So,” the man said, “translation’s a commodity now.” And I agree.  It may be translators’ greatest fear, but it’s not a nightmare – it is reality.  And like most things that are real, whether you like them or not, you have to learn to deal with it.  We’ve become a commodity.  So where do we go from there?

Step One: Realize everything is a commodity, even good things.  Flour, Mercedes Benz, Tiffany engagement rings.  Anyone who’s ever baked a cake will tell you there’s a big difference between bleached and unbleached flour; if you’ve ever driven a Ford Fiesta, you know why a Mercedes costs more; and no matter how down-to-earth she may be, there’s not a woman in the United States who doesn’t swoon when she sees that little blue box.  But at their core, all these things – baking staples, cars, gold – are commodities.

Step Two: Acknowledge that being a commodity is nothing to be ashamed of.  There are many more shameful things in our business, like being dishonest with clients and partners, or breaching confidentiality.  Our industry has spent so much time fighting commoditization, but how about we fight a battle that would actually hurt us if we lost? Like the continued truculence in the freelance translator community to embrace new technology, or government regulations that hold our industry back.

Step Three: If you think your clients come to you just for translation, you’re missing the point. They don’t.  It’s what they do come to you for – the non-measurable aspects of our business – context and meaning – that matters. Only by acknowledging the commoditized nature of translation can we start offering consulting and other services that can’t be commoditized in order to educate our clients and truly serve. We’re talking added value here, people!

You’ll never get me to like reverse auctions. (Another reason why I’m single is because I’m picky. I’d rather be single than be with some slime bucket left in the bar at 2:00AM.) My company has this philosophy as well – we pick and chose our clients just like they pick and chose us as a translation partner.  It’s an equal relationship, a lot like romance is supposed to be. But that’s our decision. And, yes, we do lose business sometimes because of it.

The growing prevalence of reverse auction or bidding-style TMS isn’t necessarily bad for the industry. (As pretty as the box may be, a Tiffany engagement ring isn’t for everybody.) But each company has to choose how it will handle the reality that, as the man said, translation is a commodity.  The three steps I’ve listed are my advice to handle it.  If you need cheesy pick-up lines and 2:00AM dance moves, you’ll have to ask someone else.