Bad Translators Are Like Big Hairy Spiders

by Translation Guy on March 2, 2012

A blizzard of bad translator resumes blows across our digital threshold every day, piling up in vast digital drifts in the corners of our mail server, a white-out of ill-disguised incompetence and stupidity.

It’s been a long time since I’ve shoveled through a resume slush pile myself, but in repetition, the half-baked dream of half-educated kids are as disheartening, as the half-dead mice  left by the cat on the back stoop.  Oh, the humanity!

If every New Yorker’s second business is show business, then perhaps every bilingual’s second business is translation too, a fallback career, a deuce up every multilingual sleeve.

I was talking with Dina Rodrigues, the operations chief here at 1-800-Translate, about the percentage of translators we saw who were actually competent to work for us. Dina said, “One out of a hundred, maybe?” Which was always my best guess. I admit that the numbers for those who contact us are skewed towards those who aren’t any good. The busy translators, the good ones, the ones we want, don’t turn up at the back door very often. We have to hunt them down.

Recruitment of translators who work to our standards represents our best shot at hitting our quality goals, which has put us at the head of the quality assurance class (NPS score of 95% in 2011!), so finding the best is mission critical for us.

We’ve been taking a look our recruitment process this quarter, so next time, as part of TranslationGuy Blog’s policy to disclose all of 1-800-Translates proprietary top-secret plans, I’ll show you how we separate the wheat from the chaff. A warning to copycats: it’s a lot easier to talk the talk than walk the walk.

I’d love to hear from translation project  managers on what you think is the good to bad  ratio for the contract translators you find on your door step.

And to all you new translators building your business, I hope you aren’t too sore about the tarantula spider metaphor (you probably think I’m not talking about you, anyway.) The thing that I’ve always loved about the translation business is its entrepreneurial nature, which is the direct result of all the independent business men and women who work on their craft and on building their businesses one project at a time.  And bad translators get better, too.  One of our initiatives for this year is to find ways to help translators visiting our site to grow their business and improve their craft.  Still at the concept stage, but we hope to make some steps in that direction later this year.


  1. Vadim says:

    Sturgeon’s Law is ubiquitous, our industry is not an exception.
    My former work as PM/LL pretty much confirmed this ratio.

    • Ken says:

      That’s great, Vadim. Thanks for the link. Reminds me of Hanlon’s law.

      • Stew says:

        Hanlon wasn’t the first to go down that road, but I guess it’s his law because he claimed it…

  2. Deb Kotlarz says:

    I know there are a lot of translators out there, especially start ups that are pretty small, but how much translating really goes on? Actually, how much recriutment really takes place to get new translators?

    • Ken says:

      We spend a lot of time on it. 30 billion annual means a lot of translators, that’s for sure. 50,000 in the US is a number I picked up somewhere.

  3. 90-95 percent is a little high for what I have seen. I could actually haire about 1 out of every 25. Maybe I don’t pick them as well? But, I have some good translators now.

  4. Poptart says:

    I have a lot of the same applicants each time I look. I usually ask them what they have done to hone their craft since the last time we met. Does anyone else see the same applicants a lot?

  5. Ron Pepka says:

    Ken, when you wade through the vast digital drifts of bad translator resume’s, do you ever offer them feedback as to how they can improve?

  6. I may be new at this, and being called a hairy tarantula does bother me, but to show us as dead ones on the hurts. J/K. Inciteful post.

    • Ken says:

      Fabian, I’m sorry. I didn’t think any readers would actually recognize that I was talking about them. I hope my post wasn’t too inciting though, since I don’t want a repeat of that torch and pitchfork incident at my front gate again.

  7. Jaz says:

    I am a small biz, but everytime I look for new help I usualy get a few dozen resumes over the course of a few weeks. At times it has been difficult to narrow it down, and not because I had so many good applicants, rather because I had to choose between the people that I felt had potentiel and I needed someone right a way.

    • Ken says:

      I think every business owner has to struggle with the urge to hire and be done with it. I find the whole interview recruitment process to be deeply depressing, and hate spending time on it. But for small business especially, hiring a bad employee has the potential to put you out of business faster than anything. So now, if we don’t get Charlie Tuna on the first drag, we’ll cast the net again, even if it takes months. Because the hassle of a hire is nothing compared to the time and money you will lose on a bad employee. Have you ever had a good outcome on hiring someone you didn’t really want to hire in the first place?

  8. Thanks for the link to the Hindenburg. I watched a few times and it made me pause and think. Thanks

  9. If more than 90% of everything is crap, why is it so? Who do we blame? How can we improve on this?

    • Ken says:

      I thought it was the law of nature, Jakob. I can live with it.

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