What is OpenBorder? Is it just another translation job board trying to catch a middleman’s fee for putting buyers and sellers together? Or does it offer something tantalizingly different?
Online translation marketplaces and job boards have been around for as long as the internet began to impact the translation industry. Many have come and gone… Another one is unlikely to excite a lot of interest…
… unless OpenBorder is something completely different and offers something of real merit to its potential users.
Here’s the reaction of a small language service provider who emailed me after reading the original story  outlining how OpenBorder could work:
“… it’s very hard not to get excited about it. It is, after all, not just one novel idea but a whole raft of them that, together, offer a very coherent and comprehensive solution to age-old problems faced by buyers and sellers in the translation industry. It is not only a new solution, or a much better one, but the first one of its kind.”
Sounds like a good review. But what are these “age-old problems” which supposedly bedevil the translation industry? And what are the innovative solutions that OpenBorder actually proposes? Is there some practical utility behind the idea? Who will it benefit?
This blog post is to introduce a series of articles which will explore these questions and the ideas which lie behind the OpenBorder idea. They will also touch on questions such as:
- Why do translators often feel so undervalued and underpaid? (And how do we change that?)
- In an expanding global market, why do translators think their rates are under pressure? What can they do about it?
- Why do many small and medium-sized translation companies struggle with profitability issues? What practical steps can they implement to boost profitability – apart from squeezing the rates of their most valuable asset – the translators?
- Why do translation buyers have trouble correlating price and quality? Is there such a correlation? Or should there be?
- Why do buyers have a hard time selecting translation providers appropriate to their needs? Can we help them make more rational choices?
- Buyers want to pay less and translators want to be paid more. Can both win?
- Buyers want their work delivered sooner, but translators often need more time. Is this an unresolvable contradiction?
- How can translation quality standards be better leveraged by all translation players – freelancers included?
- Can we have our own banking process that will guarantee payment for translation providers willing to take on new, unknown customers abroad? And ensure they get paid in their own currency?
- Can we ensure that translators are paid promptly within days (not months) of delivery?
- What about a cast-iron dispute resolution system that protects the interests of all parties and which everyone will find quick and fair?
The big “gap”
What is the impetus behind the OpenBorder idea? It comes from the huge gap in the understanding of core issues surrounding translation between buyers and providers. This “gap” negatively impacts on the business relationship. This is no surprise to translators who are often keenly aware of the fact. But new, inexperienced translation buyers usually have no idea that their knowledge, attitudes and beliefs about translation (and how to buy it), often differ very markedly from the suppliers they hope to have a business relationship with.
We cannot really blame many of our customers for their apparent lack of even a rudimentary understanding about languages and how they work – this is one of the “facts of life” linguists must live with. After all, we didn’t pick it all up overnight ourselves.
However, this knowledge gap has serious practical ramifications for the language services industry. Not only do translation buyers have difficulty distinguishing between different suppliers and making sensible purchasing decisions, but many are not able to evaluate whether or not they end up getting good value for their money. Given the subjective nature of the “product” and unable to read the translation for themselves, even a most conscientious buyer can be led astray by misinformed criticism or remain convinced that a faulty translation is “top quality”.
What other industry suffers from these sorts of unusual dilemmas? This knowledge “gap” is surely one of the defining characteristics of the industry.
A sensible answer to a question like “Would an EN15038-certified company or a competent freelancer be an appropriate choice for the current job?” is beyond a buyer who has no concept of what a “competent translator” might be, let alone what “EN15038” might represent. Otherwise highly intelligent business people earnestly seeking to buy translation services may believe that if you’re a translator, then you probably translate into many different languages and that the translation process is somewhat akin to a “retyping” task.
The idea that even the simplest translation task might touch on a “collision of incompatible linguistic universes with few one-to-one correspondences” must sound like a bunch of hyped-up gobbledygook that we should avoid saying to customers (so as not to appear foolish). The humblest of translators, hunched over his current translation, struggling to find a way to express a concept which has no established currency in his own native language might think otherwise, however…
Not all buyers have primitive notions about our industry of course – as time goes by translation buyers become increasingly savvy. But even sophisticated translation buyers have views which are often at odds with those held by their professional translator counterparts. CSA wrote about this “gap” in these terms:
“Discussions about quality in the translation and localization fields usually take place in vacuums. […] Vendors congregate at association conferences to discuss the finer points of linguistic nuance and quality assurance processes. Meanwhile, the clients that foot the bill work largely in isolation, defining quality as it relates to their business needs. These silos have led to a large communication gap within the industry. Much like ships passing in the night, none of these parties regularly talk to each other about their diverse views, methods, and concepts in the area of quality.” 
What are the consequences of this gap?
Lacking even elementary knowledge about the industry, the novice translation buyer hasn’t got a lot to go on when trying to choose an appropriate vendor for his work. The translation community itself doesn’t always help. Your website (and mine), all cry out that we deliver work to the highest possible standards. Since we all look alike, it’s probably no wonder that the inexperienced buyer ultimately resorts to the only criterion he really understands – price.
Huge efforts have often been made to “educate the buyer”. There are some wonderful brochures available from organisations such as ATA which give detailed explanations of the whys and wherefores of professional translation and which warn of all the famous traps for young players . Twitter is awash with terrific articles for buyers on how to avoid the pitfalls… I retweet them myself.
However, I’m always left with the impression that trying to explain it all is a bit like talking to someone in a foreign language. The conceptual framework to understand the important issues simply may not be there for the words to be understood!
It’s so easy to make fun of the “poor, dumb client” who asks to have his business card translated into Thai /tai/ because he is going on a business trip to Taiwan (true story of course). But making fun of the customer (even behind his back) is a sure way to lose business and is certainly no way to build a successful and profitable translation business.
Many buyers do become sophisticated in how they deal with their foreign language needs, but it takes time – usually a lot of time. CSA developed a scale for measuring how smart organisations have become at localizing their business . They estimated that it can take up to 10 years for organizations to reach the highest level on their “localization maturity” scale! Learning how to deal with foreign languages is clearly not a trivial matter.
So the “gap” ensures that often things go wrong: Jobs are often poorly specified and the customer ends up with something which doesn’t meet his needs or the customer fails to engage translators appropriate for the task. Translation companies often take on too much low-margin work and struggle to survive. Skilled independent translators end up with customers who don’t realise the value of their skill – but don’t have the muscle or know-how to find customers who do.
Bridging the gap
Given that the “gap” can be an impediment to successful business between buyers and suppliers of language services, OpenBorder has developed an innovative win-win approach to help bridge some of these problems . It provides an online venue where both buyers and translators can communicate within clearly defined terms and do business with each other so that both get a pay-off.
The pay-off for the LSP or independent translator is to find new customers who value what they offer and who are prepared to pay for it. Customers are not going to pay more for a service unless they can understand the value they are going to get in return. So OpenBorder helps to make the connection between value and price – and gives the buyer a simple mechanism for figuring it out. So the pay-off for the customers is getting a better understanding of their own needs, and finding providers who are appropriate for their work and who give them greater value.
Over the coming weeks, I plan to publish a series of articles which outline the specific ideas OpenBorder has developed to achieve these goals and the practical ways it plans to implement its “win-win” approach.
The task of building a platform which achieves these exciting goals will not be an easy one. To a large extent, OpenBorder’s success may well depend on the critical discussion of its ideas by translators and buyers alike, and on picking up new, fresh ideas from its users.
 This fictionalised account of a single day in the life “OpenBorder” in its original conception is available online. It tells the story of a Japanese translation buyer Kazuo and a Yael who runs a small translation company in Israel and how their business lives become inextricably connected. [8,000 words, pdf]: The OpenBorder Story.
 The Buyer-Supplier Quality Gap, How Customer and Language Supplier Views of Translation Quality Differ (2008), Kelly, N., and DePalma, D. A., Common Sense Advisory, Inc., Lowell, Massachusetts, United States of America.
 See ATA’s great brochure “Translation: Buying a non-commodity”, a pdf downloadable from www.atanet.org/docs/translation_buying_guide.pdf.
 Localization Maturity Model (2006), DePalma, D. A., Beninatto, R. S., and Sargent, B. B., Common Sense Advisory, Inc., Lowell, Massachusetts, United States of America.
 The economic basis of OpenBorder’s “win-win” approach is outlined here: The Win-Win Economic Model.
 Standard Guide for Quality Assurance in Translation, F 2575 – 06, ASTM International, http://www.astm.org/
This is a personal blog and the views expressed here are my own and are not necessarily those of OpenBorder Ltd.