The Argument Against Pro Bono Translation

Providing services pro bono can be a way for professionals to assist those in need while at the same time gaining experience, making new contacts, promoting professional services, etc. During my career as a freelance translator I have done pro bono translation work for worthy organizations on several occasions, but my experience in the industry over the years has led me to doubt the wisdom of providing translation services free of charge. In this posting I will argue that pro-bono translation manipulates natural market forces and lowers the value of professional translation work product.

The translation and localization industry is often misunderstood by outsiders and there is a tendency to assume that the translation process consists of nothing more than just “changing the words”, running a text through Google Translate, waiving the magical wand of technology, etc. In light of this widespread misconception, perspective clients often underestimate the time and costs required to have their materials translated properly.

Why is human translation expensive?

  • specific skillset

  • limited capacity

  • business costs
First, proper translation of context-specific texts suitable for use in critical public health, scientific, legal, business, or financial contexts requires not only linguistic skills, but knowledge of the industry in question as well. Being bilingual in and of itself does not make one qualified to translate such texts. Second, given that the translation process requires a certain amount of time and resources to research, compose, and proofread a text before it can be called professional translation work product, translators do not have the option of increasing earnings by increasing output as in other business models. Third, most translators are freelancer professionals who must absorb their own business costs, including not only training and professional certification, but a suitable office, computer hardware, software licenses, self-employment taxes, occupational risks, health care, sick days, vacation, retirement, etc.

Pro bono translation interferes with the translation project vetting process

The inevitable cost of human translation obliges stakeholders to vet potential translation projects on the basis of cost vs. benefit. Those projects with the least potential benefit that do not justify the cost of professional translation can be either discarded or translated through machine translation (Google Translate or similar), while mission-critical projects can be viewed as a budget priority and assigned for professional translation. However, removing the cost from the equation changes this vetting process entirely. In the absence of natural market forces, stakeholders are much more likely to assign projects to volunteer professional translators without sufficient benefits to justify the cost to the translator. Once the limiting factor of cost has been removed, the resource is spent without regard to its fair market value, lowering the value of professional translation work product.

I would like to clarify that my arguments against professional translators working pro bono are not meant to imply that there is anything wrong with charity, and of course there are many organizations out there meeting vital needs that are deserving of our assistance. On the contrary, I would encourage humanitarian-minded linguists to make charitable contributions to the organization that they deem most worthy, and the beneficiary could then decide whether or not to engage a professional translator for a given project based on its potential benefits vs its costs. However, I am opposed to providing professional translation services pro bono because I feel that by removing the cost, we are lowering the value of professional translation work product.


Images courtesy of hywards and Stuart Miles at FreeDigitalPhotos.net

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