Most translators are familiar with the main forms of bait-and-switch that are commonplace in the translation profession. Most are usually a variation on the following:

1. Impress them with the starter

The client hires a translation agency for the first time, or perhaps the agency is responding to a call for tenders. Whenever they know the client is looking, or whenever the client complains, the agency hires a more competent translator than they will hire to do the rest of the work.

2. The CV-switch-a-roo

The translation agency is asked to submit an assortment of translator profiles or CVs, and guarantees that these are the translators who do the work. In reality, the agency requests or even takes the CVs of more qualified translators, wins the work on this basis, but all work goes to cheaper, less-qualified translators.

But there is a third form (with two sub-classes) that we don’t see discussed quite so often:

3. Window-dressing

a) The translation agency hires a competent native editor to edit their website and marketing materials. Not really unethical, just perhaps slightly misleading – as most clients may well expect work to be of a similar standard.

b) The translation agency hires – or, I should say, attempts to hire – a more expensive, perhaps even ‘premium’ translator for the translation or adaptation of their website. This translator is out of their normal price range. They, like many real-world clients, may be willing to delve a little deeper into their pockets for such a special investment. In turn, the translator may also be offered the fee they ask for… But to accept would be tantamount to participating in fraud, misleading unwitting clients that the work purchased from this company would be of a similar standard. Worse, when these agencies are charging less than the translator, any translator helping such an agency to win clients with their work would essentially result in that translator undercutting themselves.

How else do agencies get their own websites translated?

I have in fact translated a couple of translation agencies’ websites in my time, before I stopped working with agencies altogether. In each case, these were small, colleague-run agencies who treated me and other translators fairly, paying comparatively well and on time. I also had confidence in their abilities as translators, and since I genuinely did work for them at the time, there was no risk of misrepresentation.

However, I have not worked with translation agencies for some time now, having dumped them all around 2012-2013. Despite this, and the many warnings against the woes of hiring or working with translation agencies both here and on my professional website, I’ve still been approached by translation agencies to translate their websites or marketing materials on occasion. Sometimes they have either not been upfront about what they do, or at best, not totally understood that they, too, are a translation agency.

You don’t translate FOR us, but we want you to translate our website!

This happened again today. The client originally approached me in December, describing themselves solely as a writing agency at the time. Following a call back then and again last week, everything all sounded good to go – they just had to finalise their website first.

Then early this morning, the texts arrived for me to provide a quote. But there was a problem: the texts revealed that they not only operate as a translation agency on the side, but their rates are substantially lower than my own…

With this obvious conflict of interest, it was clear I had to turn the job down. But then I had to consider how.

Thanks, but no thanks.

A high-end professional political strategy consultant once shared a piece of wisdom I try to live by:

“Before attempting to educate someone, consider whether they are capable of learning.
If they are not, neither of you will walk away any happier.”

As friends will agree, I could do with considering this more closely. But in general, I believe it is important to attempt to explain my reasoning to people, especially those who have been polite and courteous in their interactions with me, and are by no means out to intentionally exploit or attack me or my colleagues. This was the case here.

These pleasant people were apparently working with a different understanding of our profession. They were perhaps, even in Switzerland, unaware of the existence of (and considerable demand for!) a ‘premium’ market. They appeared to be similarly unaware of Switzerland’s leading translation association’s recommended rates, or perhaps they had dismissed these as merely pie-in-the-sky aspirational rather than a comfortable reality enjoyed by some.

Explaining my decision

Either way, I believed this not-so-much-potential client to have both earned an honest explanation and to be capable of learning from my take on things, so this is how I responded after failing to reach them by telephone (translated from German with confidential details omitted):

Many thanks for sending over the texts. I have now had a brief look over them.

While reading, I noticed that you also operate as a translation agency. That was unclear to me in the beginning, otherwise I would have clarified that point sooner. I don’t work with translation agencies as a matter of principle. The reason being that they tend to stand in the way of quality and good cooperation with customers, while expecting a financial reward in return. Of course, this is not always the case, and I wouldn’t mind if a translation agency were to pay my normal rates to compensate my work and that of my excellent editor.

But you also quoted your rates on the new website, which are much lower than my own (approx. 35%), as well as the rates recommended by the Swiss ASTTI [translation association in their country]. This makes any long-term collaboration unlikely. For that reason, I naturally hold some reservations regarding translating your website. As we both know from our experience in the industry, our websites are the equivalent to shop windows, where we exhibit the best of our writing and translation skills to lure clients in. It would therefore be more than questionable to translate for a company that will rarely (if ever) hire me and my editor in real life. I would essentially be undercutting myself.

On the phone you explicitly stated that you would like to work with translators who translate more than just words. Such translators are very rare, but more and more clients are noticing the difference. That’s why we are in such high demand. Our services are also more expensive as a result of this strong demand, our collaboration with competent colleagues, the time required to do good work, and the cost of ongoing investment in our own skills.

Nevertheless, I was very pleased to get to know you by telephone. I wish you every success with your project.

As you can see, I was both blunt and polite. I genuinely do wish them the best, and I do believe them to be honest in intent – we have all seen far more exploitative rates in our time. But I can’t help but be a little bemused that they did not peg at any time that the rates of someone they were ‘so happy to have found’ may have been somewhat higher. Or worse, they anticipated my rates or inferred as much from my FAQs, and were going in with their eyes wide open. I fear the latter, because I am almost certain I revealed my hourly rate to them on the telephone back in December.

How widespread is this problem?

I am curious to hear other people’s thoughts on this and similar ethical quandaries, especially in relation to bait-and-switch tactics and ‘window dressing’ as described above.

Do you have a similar policy? Does it extend beyond translation and copywriting?