A response to a reader’s comment about Gengo, quality, and rates for translation

By | June 11, 2016

Recently I received a long, interesting comment from scalesoflibra, a reader and fellow blogger on one of my posts about the translation service Gengo. You can see that person’s full comment on the previous link, but I’ll give a brief summary of it here:

Gengo charges around 5 cents for a standard level translation job, which means that the translators are making only a fraction of that, and as a result (depending on the amount of research required) they can end up making $10 an hour or even less, reaching minimum-wage. This brings up a few dilemmas: Should translators really work such a low rate? Does that push wages of the industry down? And do the clients giving out the work have a responsibility to choose standard level only when appropriate, and upgrade to Gengo’s “pro” level (which clearly has a higher level of entry for translators) when the material warrants a more natural, accurate translation, or when a specialized domain (such as medicine) is involved?

And now for my response:

First, while I haven’t done any extensive research, I’m pretty certain that Gengo standard-level translations have some of the lowest prices for their relative level of quality, and clearly provide better translations than any automated translation software, at least for Japanese->English which is my specialty. Becoming a translator at Gengo seems to be a bit easier than with other companies since there is no special credentials required, although several tests must be passed meeting their acceptable quality standards. A key point here is that anyone who is bilingual and can write reasonably well in one of the languages has the potential to become a Gengo translator, which of course is a great double-edged sword.

So onto the first question – should translators really work for peanuts, in other words rates that can reach $10 per hour or below?

The financial feasibility of such word clearly depends on the person. For example, if you happen to be a kid who just graduated high school but have a good grasp of two languages (say, you were brought up bilingual), than any amount of money may be a blessing for you. As a side job, Gengo has the major advantage that it can be done completely from home (which could be anywhere), and one can work somewhat at their own times (though this partially is limited by the time zone of the county(s) where that language is spoken, and some time periods during the day may have many more jobs than others). On the other hand, if you already have a reasonably well-paying job and little free time, then Gengo probably isn’t the best thing for you.

However, as I mentioned in at one of my other posts, to me the great thing about Gengo as a translator is it lets you get your foot in the door in the translation business. I haven’t determined whether putting “Gengo” on a resume will help me get any translation jobs, but even excluding that possibility there is so very much to learn: how to manage your time, research effectively, interact with the customer, and of course the art of translation itself. While you can do random translations for no pay on your own time (and you’ll know I do if you’ve read this blog much), it just doesn’t quite have the same imminency to it, and as a result I think there is less to learn from, especially in the area of time management and working with the customer.

Having said that, once you get to a certain point where you are more comfortable with your translation skills, I’m sure many translators reduce their work on Gengo to occasional jobs only when they no other work, or leave the site completely. But it’s going to be hard to get the convenience of being able to find a translation job to fill a free hour somewhere else.

Next question – does working at such a low rate pushesthe wages of the industry down, and lower the respect for translating as a profession? I know some would present a counterargument to this, but I’m going to go with the stance that regardless of whether you do this or not, enough other people will, and as a result no single person will able to really influence how the industry evolves. In fact, my prediction is that these types of “quick, human, but not perfect” translations will get even cheaper gradually as time progresses, until eventually computers catch up to us and can do quality translation without human intervention (for certain languages like Japanese I feel, or hope this will take a while).

But if someone says their don’t want to work at Gengo because they think it’s not the right thing morally, I won’t try to dissuade them.

To me, the profession of translation has started to transform in some ways parallel to how the profession of photography has. In recent years, technology has it made it easier and easier to take photos that look good on the surface (due to higher resolution, higher range, and lower noise cameras becoming much less inexpensive). Sometimes, an amateur may even get lucky (though with some skill) and take a great, award-winning photograph. But nevertheless, no matter what equipment you have, a professional photographer will take better photos consistently which have much more depth and creativity to them, though just like with translation there is an element of subjectivity about what is quality and what isn’t.

Now on to the final question: do clients have a responsibility to select the right level (“standard” or “pro” at Gengo, or another translation company altogether) in accordance with their content it’s context?

When I first started working at Gengo, I was surprised that certain clients would not choose the higher “pro” level for their material, and for certain situations the staff at Gengo will strongly suggest, if not force this for certain types of content like legal documents. But, with a few exceptions, I’ve come to accept that this is mostly the decision of the customer, and I shouldn’t really have any say in it.

To give another example, there is a certain amount of marketing related translation jobs on Gengo, and it’s easy to make the argument that the client’s products, services, or whatever, will likely sell more if they had a person who not only knows two languages, but has some background in marketing and sales. However, it’s hard for me to say how much a difference it will have, and the “pro” level is significantly more expensive (as it should be given the quality you get). But again, it’s not my business to tell the customer “You know, you really might sell more of your product if you get a professional marketing translation”. They’ve choose their level, and if I accept the job it’s my responsibility to do my best, within reason for what I think “standard” quality. I agree with scalesoflibra’s comment that it makes sense to stop and avoid over-researching something which is standard level.

To be sure, there will be times where I think “this isn’t standard level material” or “I can’t do this in a reasonable amount of time”, and I will just simply not accept those jobs. In rare case I may accept a job and change my mind midway through, and that is OK with Gengo as long as I don’t do it too frequently. But just like my answer to the previous question, if I don’t accept the job, somebody else likely will, and the (moral) difficulty there is they might even do a worse job than me. So if I really feel that a job is not appropriate for standard level, then I feel I do have a moral obligation to note that, although historically most of the time somebody has already marked the job as recommended for pro level by the time I got to it.

Also, keep in mind we don’t know how the customer is going to actually use the translated text. It may simply be just a rough translation, which they plan to send out to a more experienced translator once they get the final text finished. They may have it proofread by a native speaker of the target language, or even double checked by a bilingual speaker. I’ve had Gengo clients that are well versed enough in both languages to make intelligent criticisms, and I think that’s great. And sure, there are probably times where the customer just puts out the text somewhere without reviewing it.

But ultimately, I feel it’s completely the client’s responsibility as to how they use the text. It’s just that for certain areas like medical or legal, there is too much risk (somebody’s life or life savings could be on the line), so it makes sense to push back on those regardless of the exact content.

As a final note, I’d like to say that I’m still pretty green as a translator, and as I get experience my opinions on the above matters may very well change. In any case, I’m always open to hear other people’s opinions about this stuff.

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One thought on “A response to a reader’s comment about Gengo, quality, and rates for translation

  1. scalesoflibra

    Thanks for the thought-out answer! Honestly I didn’t think you’d post my comment at all since it doesn’t view Gengo in the most favorable of lights and you’d said you wanted to stay on their good side.

    That said, reading your answer, I think I didn’t make my intention clear. What I was trying to say is that, I believe, if a text requires professional or technical knowledge but the customer submitted it as a standard rather than pro level job, then I feel no obligation to do my best. I could have spent the allotted 6 hours on that $20 job with the METI reference, but that would have made the hourly rate $3. So I spent two hours on it. The client accepted it shortly thereafter, my overall score still stands at 9.7. Everyone’s immediate needs were met (I wanted 20 bucks to put into my PayPal to renew one of my fanclub memberships, ahaha) but I can’t help but think about the big picture. Yes, there will always be someone desperate who steps up and takes the jobs people with options wouldn’t do. But I still believe that if enough individuals get together they can and do make a difference. Even people just starting out deserve better than $3/hr.

    Of course, I don’t say any of this to stop you from using Gengo. You’re getting something out of it other than the money. For me, it isn’t much else. I get more out of doing fan translations for free.

    Have you ever Googled the text you’ve translated? The English, I mean. I’ve done it out of curiosity a few times, and I’ve seen that my translations get used exactly as I submitted them. It kinda sucks when they appear as blog posts under someone else’s name and they don’t mention that the text is a translation (which also makes me wonder how many workers use services like Gengo to fool their bosses into thinking they’re really good at English…the bilingual internet version of that episode in every sitcom where the suave guy feeds an awkward guy lines so he can impress the girl he likes) but oh well. At least with the J-pop ones I can feel like some fan might read the news and enjoy it.


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