E.g., 04/06/2020
E.g., 04/06/2020

Oxpeckers, Water Buffalo, and the Great Translation Balancing Act

By: Dan Johnson (Wordbee) - Wordbee S.A.

06 March 2015

Caution: You have arrived at the intersection of business clichés, ‘win-win’ relationships, and what can go wrong. It’s time to ask yourself some difficult questions. Balance can be elusive and getting there is not always easy. Why is it important, and what are the factors at work in the language industry? 

When Andy Jones presented a list of topics to discuss in this issue of GALAxy, my interest gravitated towards two simple concepts we all know and we all hear a lot about. They are directly related, and you can’t have one without the other: ‘win-win’ and ‘what can go wrong’. They are opposite sides of the same coin when we think about the supplier/customer relationship. I propose that where there is balance, everybody can win and when things go wrong, it is a sign that things are out of balance.

Nature provides countless examples of win-win relationships and frequently demonstrates the price paid when relationships are imbalanced. Marlin Perkins and Jacques Cousteau had a big influence on me as a kid – providing examples of win-win before someone hung that redundant name on the concept.

Wild Kingdom. Who’d have imagined the tiny oxpecker bird and the water buffalo could get along so well? Neither survives without the other. Like the shark and the remora, it is an example of a balanced, symbiotic relationship. To consider the flip side of the coin, think about the weather and what happens when high and low pressure systems are out of balance. Not surprisingly, we see parallels to these “natural” balancing acts in business.

Our industry is filled with oxpeckers (why are you snickering?), remoras, water buffalo and sharks, as well as high and low pressure zones. Relationships between contributors, suppliers, buyers and consumers work when we strive for balance. When people reach too far, ask for too much, or make sudden, unpredictable decisions, we experience imbalance and disruption.

Inner Balance

Whether you’re a translator/editor, a freelancer, you work for an LSP, or if you’re on the buying side of language services, hopefully you strive for and have experienced balance in your professional life. Balance can be elusive and getting there is not always easy. Why is it important, and what are the factors at work in the language industry?

  • Economic balance – Let’s face it, whether you’re providing, brokering, or buying language services, are you getting paid a fair amount for the value you contribute? If you spent years and years going to school, gaining real world experience, and honing your craft, can you look at your compensation and feel good about the work/contribution transaction you make each day? Is that daily transaction enough to keep you interested?
  • Opportunity cost – What else could you or your organization be doing that could bring higher value, more fulfillment and satisfaction, more enjoyment, more security?
  • Contribution – Without your or your company’s contribution, would your customer’s process, or your corner of the economy grind to a halt? Are there 100 others equally capable, nipping at your heels and waiting to step in and replace you? In other words, without your contribution – does anything change?
  • Differentiator – What is your differentiator? What do you bring to the table and how does that enable your internal or external ‘customer’ to get things done?
  • Alternatives – Is there a ‘crowd’ out there that can do your job? Is there a TMS that’s so efficient as to make your position redundant? Is the latest text-to-speech application good enough, often enough?

Interdependent Balance (i.e. Win-Win)

We hear a lot about how fast things change in today’s economy. How does change relate to balance? Are you able to keep winning, at least more often than not?

Looking at this from a professional point of view, how does your contribution to the language services industry stand up to a win-win litmus test? When you assign projects, accept tasks, plan resources, negotiate contracts, and plan budgets, are the other contributors on your internal/external teams able to win? If someone along the way isn’t winning, why?

No matter if you’re a translator, translation buyer, or agency, it’s absolutely essential that no matter your role, each contributor finds a way to win often enough to make their time worthwhile. If not, what’s the point? In a world of free(ish) enterprise, everyone has a role as producer and consumer.

Are we an industry where individual contributors, large and small suppliers, and buyers, can all win often enough for all the hours and hard work to be worth it? Absolutely. Will machine translation suddenly sweep in and displace human translators? It hasn’t yet. Will TMS systems render project managers obsolete? Not that we’ve seen. Is the ‘crowd’ going to take the place of the professional translator any time soon?

Each of the below examples illustrates an obvious imbalance, and a trigger for change:

  • If the corporate buyer of language services drives the price per word down to the point where it’s not worth a translator or agency’s time to do the work, how long before balance is restored?
  • If a linguist charges a huge premium for their work, will there always be customers out there willing to pay above the market for their services?
  • If you have a TMS system that’s old, complex and costly to maintain, at what point do you take a fresh look at alternatives that are faster, less complex, and easier to use?

Learning from Others

Perhaps we can find some answers from other industries. There are only a handful of buggy whip manufacturers left to choose from, and you can be sure those remaining are the absolute best, the most dedicated to the craft. This example was made famous by Harvard Professor Theodore Levitt, who made the point that successful businesses focus on what the customer needs, rather than on a specific product or service. During the period when our ancestors switched from horses to cars, who were the winners and who were the losers, and why?

Segments of the horse and buggy ‘industry’ that adapted and thrived during the transition to automobiles were the component manufacturers with expertise in metallurgy, bearings, and the like. Those that focused on making wooden chassis, carts, carriages and buggies mostly failed. The few that had the equipment and expertise with metals and fabrication had a fighting chance to survive and thrive.


In the language industry, what conclusions can we draw from this? We have natural forces and interdependent relationships. We’ve thought about our individual role in the industry. We’ve made an argument for focusing on what the market wants rather than what we happen to produce.

Weather changes. High and low pressure zones are constantly moving, never in a final balance, and that generates some of the most beautiful, and sometimes dangerous and uncomfortable weather imaginable. Weather is an everyday example where balance is good, but simply not attainable. That said, weather creates opportunity. Wind sails ships. It generates power. Without the oxpecker doing his thing, does the water buffalo merely become uncomfortable, or completely overwhelmed by pests? 

When thinking about our role in the industry and the deals we negotiate, does a ‘win’ for me equate to someone else losing? If so, how long can we continue in current patterns before the imbalance has an impact? In our industry, quality may suffer if costs are squeezed out abruptly. If a freelancer or LSP charges above market rates, how long can that imbalance sustain? At what point does the buyer or consumer decide the value doesn’t compute with the price, and walk away?

What does balance look like from your perspective? When things go wrong, could imbalance be the culprit? Take an introspective look at what you and your company do, how that compares with others in your space, and how it contributes to your corner of the language industry. Do you seek balance and do your actions and decisions reflect this?

Dan Johnson jumped into the language industry feet, not head, first in 1999 and hasn't come up for air since. He's been fortunate enough to learn from some of the most talented people in the business, and has worked for both the biggest, and smallest companies in the industry. Dan hasn't yet found the limits of where the language industry can take him, which may say more about him than the industry. He bats left and throws right, identifies with the tortoise but trains with the hare, has experienced the boom and bust of several economic cycles, and the unique opportunity to focus on both language services and technology. He knows there's plenty room to grow - especially when writing in the third person.