Monday, 2 November 2015
A long open letter to SDL
I attended your London Roadshow at the Sofitel London St James Hotel on 22nd October 2015. This was my third SDL Roadshow. It was my first as a freelance translator. I was a translation buyer/project manager and client on the two previous occasions. I wish to share my Roadshow impressions with you from my multiple perspectives on the localisation industry.
As an MSC student in Translation Technology, I gained experience in a wide range of software including SDL Trados, Multiterm and Passolo. My preference back in 2005-7 was Déjà Vu. Since turning freelance in 2012, I have preferred Kilgray's MemoQ as more intuitive. I have also tried WordFast and OmegaT. It was in hearing of the improvements in SDL Trados from fellow professionals that I signed up for this year's Roadshow.
As a former marketer, I couldn't help but be impressed by the new slickness of SDL's marketing and event organisation. I liked the way you extended an equal welcome to all your different types of clients - even humble freelance translators. The coloured-edged badges made it easy for your sales team and attendees to find each other. Your sales manager came up to us early on and made it known where we could make enquiries or seek answers to technical issues. Not pushy, just available. I liked that.
The presentations were well planned. The room was wider than it was long. It had a screen for both sections of the room. This meant that it was easy to follow the software demonstrations.
Listening to clients
My biggest impression was that SDL is taking much more notice of its clients' and end-users' opinions than it did in the past. A number of developments in SDL Trados Studio 2015 relate directly to such customer requests.
As a translator with a Smart Cities' specialisation, I was particularly interested in SDL's focus on the Internet of Things (IoT). This demonstrated to me that SDL is thinking well beyond client requests too. The videos and explanations to explain that vision were very clear.
I liked the use of interactive questions with the audience using their smartphones and tablets to respond. The analysis was available in real-time too. 66.67% said that they had a much clearer understanding by the end of the Roadshow. What a great way to measure how your audience is responding to your messages during a live session. It was so much better than a cagey show of hands.
Open to criticism
Your Roadshow team invited comments from the audience - good, bad and indifferent. I was generally very impressed by SDL's Roadshow. I do have one major misgiving.
My concern relates to how SDL has responded to project manager requests over word counts. It was very hard to hold my tongue when I hear that SDL allows project managers to "manipulate data". Someone is losing the plot when word count scrutiny gets to the level of quibbling over whether a hyphenated word should be one word or two.
Surely it cannot be common sense for SDL to spend valuable IT development time on such "manipulations"? In the demonstration, a word count was reduced from 112 to 79 words.
If we take a very average rate of say £70 per 1000 words, 33 fewer words mean a saving of £2.31.
Maybe company project managers feel the "manipulations" are worthwhile on large projects? Such quibbling is responsible for creating bad feeling between translation companies and freelancers. It makes freelancers feel aggrieved towards SDL and other tool manufacturers too.
Translation company salaries
I understand that SDL is responding to project managers' requests. Not every client request is practical in the cold light of day. The translation industry is not noted for its financial acumen. Salaries in the industry have fallen behind other fields.
I remember reading in the lead-up to the UK's ATC conference that even a senior translation project manager could only expect a salary in the £20,000 range. I pity junior project managers trying to survive near the breadline in London. Maybe this explains why £2.31 seems so important?
Clients are looking to save thousands or hundreds of thousands in their documentation processes - not £2.31. Process streamlining is more likely to deliver real savings. Translation makes up a very small fraction of a project's costs. The real savings are always to be made in multilingual design and other production costs.
As a client, I valued and set a value on my time. It strikes me that while a freelance translator and a project manager are quibbling over £2.31 neither can be working productively. The freelancer will not be earning at all. The project manager's time will no doubt have far exceeded the saving he is pursuing too. And what price do you place on the damage to a working relationship?
I fear that SDL must shoulder some of the responsibility for the bad blood between freelancers and translation companies. I was a client when SDL and other agencies started selling their discounted rates based on full and fuzzy matches. The words "discounts" and "savings" are always music to clients' ears. They impress senior management and go down well in performance reviews.
Clients are not responsible for the translation industry's ludicrous pricing system. They readily accept hourly and daily charges from other suppliers working on the same projects. Clients generally want a bottom-line translation price to add to other project costs. They need the reassurance of price comparison to ensure that they are paying a fair market rate for their stated quality level.
My colleagues never fully understood the complexities of translation pricing. One translation company presented a price study that claimed massive savings. The claimed savings exceeded our annual translation budget.
How realistic are TM savings?
With translation company help, I set about analysing actual translation memory savings over the long-term on live projects. Unfortunately, I no longer have access to the figures. I would be unable to reveal them for confidentiality reasons anyway. However, I can say that for marketing texts, where there is far greater originality from job to job, the TM savings were minimal.
Greater savings are made in repetitions on financial and legal documents. Such projects involved hundreds of pages and were produced in multiple language versions. I would still argue that TM savings are insignificant by comparison with the cost benefits from genuine multilingual design and streamlining production processes.
TM discounts v. Quality
In my view, the translation industry's focus on TM discounts has been to the detriment of quality. When translators do not get paid for 100% matches, they understandably do not waste valuable time on pressurised projects checking them. This approach once resulted in large chunks of English copy appearing in a Spanish prospectus after a problem with SDL Trados extraction. To add insult to injury, the said prospectus was then certified to be a fair and true translation of the original. It still was the original...
A project experience
I remember that my mildest-mannered colleague once became practically apoplectic over a marketing translation. The English sentences had been reworked into a different order. This meant that every single sentence in the German version started in exactly the same way. It strikes me that when a software system and pricing focus override creativity and common sense, then something needs to be done. My colleague got a very poor impression of the translation industry from this particular translation.
Translating Europe Forum 2015
There was an amazing new generation of confident, entrepreneurial at the Translating Europe Forum in Brussels last week. They are digital natives. Many have a Masters in translation and are trained in translation tools. (Only 50% of Proz translators use translation tools). SDL's Roadshow demonstrated how much these new language professionals are needed. The demand will outstrip the supply. There are concerns that they will not stay beyond five years after training.
During the forum, it was possible to gain access to the training materials for TransCert. There were 182 slides to explain translation estimating and invoicing. This demonstrates how ridiculously complicated translation pricing is. I pity both trainers and students grappling with the subject.
In switching sides of the industry, I have become aware of how some translation companies take advantage of newbie translators. The best favour that SDL (and other translation tool providers) could do for the next generation of language professionals is to drop TM discount calculations from its software. This would encourage simpler and fairer time-based pricing. It would bring localisation pricing more in line with what clients expect from other creative industries.
This new generation of language professionals is talented, confident and entrepreneurial. They will be poached away by other industries if the word-based pricing approach does not change. SDL's own Roadshow showed how much they are needed. We can't afford to lose any of them. We need to attract many more enthusiastic recruits.
SDL, I reiterate that you are not to blame for the way the translation industry has implemented your software. The ball is in your court (and that of other translation tool providers now). You can help to drive the localisation industry towards the sustainable pricing strategy that it so desperately needs.
I hope this letter will empower other translators, project managers, buyers and clients to give further examples in support of this change from their experiences.
Thank you for an impressive, informative and friendly event. I hope you will see this letter in the positive manner in which it was intended - as part of your own drive for continuous improvement.
Thank you for reading.
Former client/translation buyer/translation project manager with 15 years' experience