jump to navigation

Guest post: Do translation customers really care what kind of people they’re buying from? November 18, 2014

Posted by Jill (@bonnjill) in Business practices, Translation.

I don’t normally accept guest posts, but I am making an exception for this one. This needs to be heard and discussed.

Guest post by Terena Bell of In Every Language.

Maybe people really don’t care. That’s what I thought this morning as I got out of bed and read today’s news on my cell phone. Maybe people don’t care, maybe they don’t want a better world, maybe there are no rewards for the good or punishment for the bad.

I’ve written in my MultiLingual Magazine column before about how American culture is trending so that people no longer want to spend money at businesses where they find the owner’s behavior deplorable. Well, I’m writing this blog to say that I was wrong. Or at least I was wrong about how or when this particular macrotrend would affect our industry.

See, there’s this little thing going on right now — maybe you’ve heard of it — Crain’s New York is calling it the TransPerfect Storm. I’ve got to admit, the title’s catchy. For those of you who haven’t seen the press, Liz Elting and Philip Shawe, co-owners of translation giant TransPerfect, are going at it in the courts, in the office, in the breakroom — pretty much everywhere these two can find a place to disagree, according to Crain’s, they’re doing it. And it’s not just Crain’s reporting the story either. It’s The New York Post and The New York Daily News, too. And when The Daily News – which let’s face it, is pretty much a fancy tabloid – starts covering the story you know it’s salacious.

According to Crain’s, the two owners “are suing each other for malfeasance and mismanagement, and each wants the other thrown out of the company. The parties have asked a judge to break the deadlock, and a hearing is scheduled for Nov. 18.” The translation industry will be watching today’s results with bated breath.

See, here’s the thing: Many in the translation industry have thought for years that Elting and Shawe are not what most people would call good people. Multiple media reports of Elting kicking Shawe with her heels and pouring coffee on him during work, all the media reports of the f-you emails back and forth, filing restraining orders against the other, all these reports of what – if true – is clearly unprofessional, childish behavior, well juicy as the news maybe, it’s not a surprise to many who work in translation for a living.

In October of 2013, the blog TranslationEthics.com called TransPerfect a “sweatshop” because of the well below standard rates it pays its translators. As far back as 2011, a different blog, TransPerfect Translation Concerns, reported, “It’s only a matter of time [before] a hungry investigative reporter will has burst the … TransPerfect PR bubble [sic], and release some less than glowing information.” Well, that time is now.

So here’s my question, and here’s what has me writing a blog entry before breakfast: Do clients even care? Court documents for the case claim Fortune 100 clients have either threatened to pull or have already pulled over $20 million worth of work. But there’s a big difference between threatening to yank your business and actually doing it. In the sales meetings I’ve been in with current TransPerfect customers, the topic hasn’t even come up. As a TransPerfect competitor, I haven’t had a single client come to me saying, “Oh my, their ethics are horrible, they’re just not good people.“ Have you?

You don’t become the kind of person who would assault your ex-fiance at work overnight. Nor do you develop so much hate for someone overnight that you would sue them in open court to the detriment of your own business. No. If the press is revealing who the owners of TransPerfect are, if this scandal is revealing the way they live their lives, then they have been the people they are for quite some time. Any client kickback now is simply because the world finally sees Elting and Shawe for who they apparently are. But where is the kickback really?

Maybe I’m wrong. What do you think? Will TransPerfect actually lose business because of this? Will clients actually leave? Do translation customers really care what kind of people they’re buying from?

Terena Bell is the chief executive officer of In Every Language, a language services provider offering translation, interpreting, and localization. She served on the Association of Language Companies Leadership Council. She is a member of the Obama Administration’s White House Business Roundtable, which has taken calls from the president and the vice-president, as well as senior advisors and members of the Cabinet. She writes the “Micro/Macro” column for MultiLingual Magazine, and has been quoted by Inc., Forbes, and CNN Money.



1. Jeff Alfonso - November 18, 2014

I hate to say this at the risk of sounding very negative. I believe that there is a market segment that does care. They want to work with ethical people that do quality work. There is also a very large segment that doesn’t care. Some folks only care about getting a somewhat acceptable product at the cheapest price.

Some people will buy a custom made suit from a tailor and pay a premium. Others will purchase a brand name quality suit from a quality business. Some will shop at the place that advertises a suit for a hundred bucks, and yet others will go to Wal-Mart.

People buying junk know what they are buying. They don’t care. For them it is a temporary fix. People that wish to buy quality, are willing to pay more, knowing that it will last. The same goes for the Language industry.

I can’t see trying to compete with cheap. It is just the wrong customer.

Jill (@bonnjill) - November 18, 2014

Hi Jeff, I don’t think you are being negative. I think you are being realistic. The fact is that some people do care, while some people look at the bottom line. I have shopped at WalMart two times in my life, while my best friend shops there all the time due to their prices (she’s a SAHM, her husband is a laborer and they have 2 kids). I also am one of the people who refuses to eat at Chick-Fil-A that Terena referenced in her Multilingual Magazine column. I like to think that my choices affect companies’ bottom line, but in the end I think it is just a matter of being able to sleep at night knowing I have a clear conscience. I also don’t work for TransPerfect for that very reason – but it helps that I can sleep at night because I am not being bombarded by job requests from them at 2 am 🙂

2. Jeff Alfonso - November 18, 2014

I started my career working only for agencies. I was always stressed and frustrated. I had plenty of work and very little income to show for it. I raised my rates a little and immediately lost one agency.

Although at first I was a little distressed over this, the extra time allowed me to find a very good direct client. I made double the pay with a third of the work or stress. Every time I found a new client I raised my prices just a little. In time almost all my agencies were replaced with direct clients.

Stress is down, but more than that I enjoy working with people that appreciate the value we bring them. 🙂

Mohammad - November 25, 2014


I agree with you on “Stress is down, but more than that I enjoy working with people that appreciate the value we bring them. :)” I think I am in the same phase as you were once although I’m not stressed at all!

3. Evelyna Radoslavova - November 18, 2014

With all due respect, you are missing the point by a mile here. No, Elting and Shawe are not good people. They have made a fortune by exploiting others, and as far as I am concerned, the world would be a better place if they managed to rip each other’s throat out.

But that’s not why clients shouldn’t work with TransPerfect. They shouldn’t work with TransPerfect because its business model is based on exploiting both translators and project managers. And also because it is unethical towards their clients in applying business practices that infallibly lead to abysmally poor quality (negotiating a low budget prior to finding a qualified linguist, promising unrealistic deadlines, splitting jobs in several batches and sending them to different people, not bothering to check the qualifications of those they work with, and I could go on and on forever).

I have limited personal experience with TransPerfect (two or three jobs several years ago), but judging from these, from the job offers I keep receiving despite repeatedly asking to be removed from their database and from what I hear from colleagues who have worked for them, I have no trouble believing the worst I read out there.

And there is lots. A quick search of “TransPerfect + sweatshop” provides a number of sites where TransPerfect and its practices are discussed. I don’t think they will restore your faith in humanity, but they might provide more solid arguments against TransPerfect when you need them. I have inserted a few quotes below.

“We were also asked to get as much for free from our vendors as possible while still charging the client full price.”

“TPT’s business model is quite simple: hire young college graduates promise a shining future, work them till burnout, pay as little as possible, do not invest in them and recruit on a permanent basis to replace the defectors.”

“[Transperfect] finds its own solutions to cut down on costs and time. They just reinvented the concept of proofreading: it no longer implies the verification by a translator of a source doc and its translation, the research and checking of certain tricky terms in dictionaries and glossaries, or the reworking of clumsily built sentences, as we fools may have believed. None of that nonsense. For TP, proofreading is a highly speedy reading operation, purely visual, consisting of a “spot the difference” fun little game. A space missing, a double dot, a line out of the box? TP hires you to solve that. It doesn’t really matter if you don’t speak the source language, you won’t have the time to check the original text anyway !”

“I’m not a big fan of the ProZ Blue Board, which deserves to be renamed the Brown (Nose) Board, but it’s worth noting the number of 1s and 2s (on a “likelihood of working again” scale of 5) that TransPerfect earned from its translators between January 2009 and the present: 24%.”

“The sales people undersell the jobs and hand them over to the project managers, who then have to find someone to translate it. They have to meet a stated mark-up of 2.1 (or the sales people get no commission) and an implicit markup of 3.1 (or the project managers get no bonus, which many count on to balance their checkbooks at the end of the quarter).”

“I had to use good linguists to secure a client (samples, glossaries etc), and promised them “a big project coming up”, and then we would send the bulk of the work to the cheaper ones. To those that worked to get us the client, we would lie that “the client cancelled it”.”

Jill (@bonnjill) - November 18, 2014

I think that is exactly the point. Transperfect is a terrible company for all of the reasons you cited. Since most translators are fully aware of all of this she probably didn’t feel the need to cite all of their unethical business practices, which start at the top with these two.

4. Andovar - Jacob (@andovarglobal) - November 18, 2014

Even if clients don’t care (or don’t know), employees definitely do care where they work, especially the ones who have other options. And this usually means the best ones.

5. Gabriela Lemoine - November 19, 2014

This is my view: If one of my suppliers (of anything) is bringing such internal issues in the company to court, especially at top management level, and this is publicly known, I’d rather be looking for a more stable company to buy from. Sooner or later, whatever the real cause, or whatever actually goes on behind those doors at all levels, such issues at the top will eventually lead to poor results for me as a client. I would care as a client, because it’s in my best interest to have reliable suppliers.

6. Judy Jenner (@language_news) - November 19, 2014

Very well written, Terena, and thanks for posting this, Jill. One does hope that in due time customers will want to work with ethical companies rather than unethical ones (or at least we can do some wishful thinking). That said, companies who treat their employees badly might sooner or later run into a problem of supply: with no translators to do their work, they’ve got no services to sell. That leads me to the other side of the equation: translators need to have more solidarity and refuse to work for peanuts and sweatshop operators. No translator is an island, and every translator’s poor decision to work for abusive companies has an effect on rates for everyone else. However, just like in every industry, there will always be some bad apples. This is a particularly bad apple.

7. Alexander Rus - November 19, 2014

Clients mostly don’t care in my opinion and are more interested in prices, fast work and average but consistent quality. They don’t follow news like this. Why? Because they are in their own niche and have enough on their mind…

8. Mercedes Bourgaize - November 29, 2014

When news of poor business practices of this magnitude reach publications like The New York Post, and The Daily News, some clients are bound to hear about it, and it will likely have a negative impact on TransPerfect’s bottom line. As Judy Jenner says, hopefully, customers will prefer ethical companies, but the reality is that for some people fast work, and low prices is what really matters.

9. Terena Bell - January 20, 2015

Well, I guess we have our answer. 2014 numbers just released, and they’re up: http://www.prnewswire.com/news-releases/transperfect-sets-records-in-2014-300020078.html

Thank you, everyone, for your comments, though. Always great to get feedback from the community.

10. Pepa Devesa Seva - July 11, 2016

I was looking for a way to reach translators who work for Transperfect. I know clients don’t care or don’t get informed. I don’t think everything they do is junk because I do work for them and I am good. And I have lots of complaints about them, especially useless steps or QM by non speakers of the language, etc. What is bothering me lately is not that they offer low rates, it is that people accept them. I just bid higher for a large job (sometimes I do get my desired rate) and before I could submit the job was already assigned. And that was about 0.04 per word (only counting the new, not fuzzy reps).
As someone said, I don’t care what the owners do, but I do care about how they treat employees and translators. And I would like to let translators know that the “negotiate” option exists. I just got 25 for a minimum job, instead of the “5” they offered, that goes to show you that we DO NOT have to accept what they offer.

Leave a Reply to Andovar - Jacob (@andovarglobal) Cancel reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.

%d bloggers like this: