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The concept of online job boards is great. Clients who need a translator (writer, graphic designer, etc.) can post their project and get a bunch of bids, then pick the person they like best. Translators (etc.) can connect with pre-sold clients: clients who already know what they need and are ready to pull the trigger once they find the right person.

In reality, the situation is more complicated. The standard job-board setup encourages a race to the bottom. Clients get tons of bids, or don’t really understand the service they’re buying, and thus latch onto factors that they understand. Typically those are price and speed. Factors on which experienced professionals really don’t want to compete. But yet, the phenomenon continues, with typical job-board rates going lower and lower. To be clear, I’m not conducting a finger-pointing exercise here: when you take a soup pot and throw in ingredients such as:

  • The language industry (in the US, at least) having no barrier to entry
  • Clients needing/wanting a fast and easy way to connect with translators
  • Clients seeing a way to potentially find a good translator who’s not expensive
  • More and more people seeing freelance work as a viable “real” career path
  • More clients needing more content translated on tighter deadlines
  • Beginning translators needing a point of entry into the industry
  • More part-time and hobbyist translators who don’t want or need to earn a full-time living from translation
  • More translators using productivity enhancements such as TM, MT, and speech recognition, and figuring that they can charge less per word and earn the same hourly rate

It’s not hard to see where the perfect storm comes from. And despite each new job board’s assurance that it’s going to do things differently, we have yet to see a real sea change in that market. I definitely hear from freelance translators who have found good clients on job boards, but I feel like that’s the exception rather than the rule. But my question in this post is, is there a better way? Is there a way to connect clients with translators online without creating a reverse auction situation? Answer: I think so.

I think so, because the freelance writing world seems to be moving in that direction. Here’s a recent post from one of my favorite non-translation blogs, Carol Tice’s site Make a Living Writing. In this post, Carol looks at four “content mills” that seem to be focusing more on quality, value for money, and best-fit-for-the job, rather than “how low can you go.” After I read this post, I poked around and saw other freelance writing job sites like this, using strategies such as:

  • Having the site’s staff select a small number of writers (like five) to quote on each job, based on their backgrounds and profiles. This frees the client from sifting through hundreds of proposals, getting overwhelmed, and just going with the cheapest/fastest person.
  • Pre-screening the writers who are allowed to have profiles on the site; not taking beginners or people who do not freelance full-time. Translation job boards could do this by having a “premium” section, taking only translators who are certified, have a Master’s in translation, or at least X years of experience with references, for example.
  • Requiring clients to meet a minimum rate in order to post their jobs. Some of these writing sites explicitly say, “no jobs below X dollars per hour.” Some translation job boards could easily do this, because they already know the average rate that translators on their sites charge (no jobs below the average rate, for example).
  • Making it totally clear that they exist to connect quality-conscious clients with professional writers.  Showing that they add value by screening the writers, or by selecting specific writers who would be good for the client’s job. This is more of a mindset shift than a tangible factor, but I think it’s important.
  • Requiring clients to name their price up front, rather than seeing how little someone will bid on the project.

This is a thorny issue. I tell students on a regular basis, “You’re not going to put the globalization genie back in the bottle, so you need to find a way to compete on quality, service, specialization knowledge, and a personal relationship with your clients.” The fact that clients can shop worldwide for translators is not going away anytime soon. But I think that it’s time to look at the job board model and ask if there’s a better way to do things.

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