Nice or nasty? Which translators finish first?

In a previous post, I looked at a phenomenon known as the Prisoner’s Dilemma. In the translation industry this is where competitors cannot resist the temptation to win more work by undercutting each other on price. Simple mathematics shows that they end up worse off than if they had kept their prices steady.

Translators, both freelancers and LSPs, often find themselves unwittingly thrust into this sort of dilemma.

Luigi close

Luigi Muzii, Rome, Italy, has been in the language industry since 1982 as a translator, localiser, technical writer and consultant. He was visiting professor of terminology and localization at the LUSPIO University in Rome and is the author of several books and many papers and articles on translation issues.

I discussed this thorny problem with my colleague, Luigi Muzii.

We looked at whether there is a way out of the dilemma for players in the translation industry.

Paul: Do you see a way out of the Translator’s Dilemma, Luigi? Is there a way to break the downward spiral of poor pricing and low remuneration?

Luigi: There are most certainly ways out of the dilemma—but getting translators to collaborate to their mutual advantage is not a simple task.

Translators can often be a fractious lot. For some there seems to be no other more satisfying sport than pointing out translation errors made by their supposedly less gifted colleagues, or damning others for charging outrageous fees (while wishing that they could earn at the same high level).

Some like to blame the promoters of emerging technologies for ruining what they think of as a beautiful, intellectual profession. Others appear only concerned to exploit translators’ skills and expertise (even by resorting to the Devil’s own technology) to force down rates in order to undercut their competitors. LSPs often fail to collaborate with each other because they are suspicious of each other’s motives. Many freelancers fear that some of the translation agencies they work for are only interested in ripping them off.

Paul: Suspicion and distrust are hardly the right ingredients for nurturing mutually beneficial collaboration! The spectacle of a profession engaging in a global, self-destructive price war is very disheartening.

An intractable human problem?

Luigi: Many scholars consider the Prisoner’s Dilemma an intractable human problem. Of course, the dilemma is not unique to translators. It’s a game that is played out in fields as different as international politics and sustainable economic development.

Paul: You’re right. In 1968, Garrett Hardin published a now-famous paper entitled The Tragedy of the Commons [1]. He describes pastureland shared by local herders. The pasture is limited in size and the herders know that overgrazing will make it useless for everyone.


However, given that the farmers’ incomes are determined by the size of their herds, each individual always has a powerful incentive to add more animals to his own herd.


Cartoon adapted from an original by Ryan North (

Whether it’s the problem of conserving fish stocks, reducing greenhouse gas emissions or pricing wars between translation agencies, the underlying conflict is between short-term individual gain and the long-term benefits that individuals might get from collaborating with others.

Luigi: Yes, the “field” that translators have to play in is certainly not a limited resource—the global translation market is expanding like never before. There are new opportunities opening up every day for language professionals and entrepreneurs alike. However, the industry as a whole behaves as if the market were extremely limited. It’s as if survival depended on open warfare against professional colleagues by outright price competition. Constantly pushing the price down is clearly not a sustainable strategy in the long-term interests of the professional translation community.

Can we achieve more win-win outcomes?

Paul: So, let’s look at some of the ways that the theorists have proposed to break out of the Prisoner’s Dilemma.

Luigi: OK. For the purposes of our discussion we might define “co-operation” and “collaboration” between translation industry players as a willingness not to cut each other’s throats by competing on price alone. However, as we know from the Prisoner’s Dilemma, there is a built-in economic motivation not to co-operate because there is always something you can do to get a better short-term outcome (irrespective of what your competitor does).

This is the dilemma!

At issue here is how translators can increase the odds of avoiding lose-lose outcomes (or even better, how to achieve more win-win outcomes).

Paul: Yes, this very issue has been investigated in thousands of experiments made in university classrooms and laboratories around the world. Often small sums of money are used to motivate players in such experimental Prisoner’s Dilemma games. Interestingly, the research has shown that under certain circumstances people actually co-operate more often than the theory might lead us to expect. For example, if the same competitors play the basic dilemma game over and over again, they often find that they increasingly adopt “nice” co-operative behaviour.

By repeatedly playing the game, players quickly figure out that they will be better off if they co-operate. It’s only towards the end of the series of games that one of the players figures that they can make a super profit by not co-operating—they can safely be “nasty” because it’s too late in the game for the other player to retaliate.

Luigi: That’s right! We don’t have to be “saints” to co-operate with each other. The Prisoner’s Dilemma shows us that we all tend to cheat if we can get away with it. The trick is to set up the environment so that there is a selfish, but positive incentive to co-operate.

In real life, when we’re actually out there competing in the live marketplace, there’s no point at which the “game” comes to an end. So we always have the potential to engage in co-operative arrangements. We have the choice of playing the game as a series of one-off betrayals (such as undercutting each other on price), or as a continuous process of mutually supportive, tacit co-operation (where, in theory, we’d all be better off if we resisted the temptation to drop our price).

Generosity, empathy and altruism…

cash-envelopePaul: I agree. A study done by the economists Iris Bohnet and Bruno Frey shows how co-operative behaviour can emerge from very simple things [2].

Students who had never met each other before were divided into two groups. The students in one group were each given $10 and told that they could choose to keep it all for themselves or put some of it into an envelope that would be given anonymously to one of the students in the other group. Twenty eight per cent of the students gave nothing and kept all the money for themselves.

In a subsequent test, each student who was going to receive an envelope was asked to stand up so that the students who had the money could see who was going to receive it (although the recipient would never know who gave it to them). Remarkably, this time the number of students who gave nothing went down to 11%!

In a third test, the givers were told some personal information about their receivers—what they were studying or their hobbies etc. Amazingly, even though the giving was still quite anonymous, not a single student from the giving group gave nothing!

The average amount freely given away also changed dramatically over the three tests—from about 25% in the first test to 35% in the second and to 50% in the last test.

The level of spontaneous generosity increased dramatically on the basis of relatively limited interaction between the two groups of students. This sort of gratuitous altruism is very surprising!

Luigi: (Grins) Yes. The simple conclusion from this experiment is that the more humans know about someone else the more empathetic they become. Empathy clearly plays an important role in social behaviour—particularly in co-operation and collaboration. The implication for the translation industry is that mutually beneficial collaboration is more likely to occur as industry players simply get to know each other better.

Participation in professional organisations, international conferences and even personal exchanges via social media such as Twitter, Facebook and LinkedIn all make their contribution. As competitors get to know each other, strategic alliances form and sharing of resources where both parties might benefit is more likely to occur. Contact as simple as exchanging tweets have the potential to break down the walls of mutual suspicion and encourage the development of the sort of empathy needed to establish trust and a willingness to co-operate.

In this way industry players gradually develop a sense of professional kinship with each other. The downward spiral of self-destructive price warfare can simply be arrested as mutual trust between industry players grows.

Of course, this can all sound a bit overoptimistic. On a personal level, even I don’t always become more ‘empathetic’ towards my colleagues just because we exchange tweets or meet in conferences. On the contrary, I think that some of them use social media and networking as weapons in their crusades against colleagues and phenomena they are scared of.

Paul: (Laughs) Of course, the sort of co-operation needed to strengthen the professional interests we all have in common doesn’t imply that we have to actually like everyone else!


Robert Aumann received the 2005 Nobel Prize in Economics for his work in the development of the general theory of tacit co-operation in repeated games.

But I guess you are introducing one of my favourite approaches to dealing with the Prisoner’s Dilemma.

One of the 2005 Nobel Prize winners for Economics, Robert Aumann [3], analysed the dilemma game from the perspective of infinitely repeated play (as opposed to the “one-shot deal” in which both players’ best move is to betray the other). He showed that, in the long run, co-operative behaviour can be sustained—even by players who still have their own self-interest at heart [4].

The repeated games approach is the underlying raison d’être of institutions such as merchant guilds and professional associations—an approach where players compete but gradually get to know each other, begin to appreciate each other’s strengths and weaknesses and begin to find ways to co-operate to their mutual benefit.

What’s your opinion, Luigi? Do you see much scope for increased levels of co-operation between translation industry players?

Luigi: Most certainly. But co-operative behaviour doesn’t happen instantly! Its evolution depends on individuals being able to make use of the opportunities as they arise—and people with “practical intelligence” are good at this. The American psychologist Robert Sternberg defined practical intelligence as the ability to adapt to everyday life by drawing on existing knowledge and skills [5]. These individuals understand what needs to be done in a specific setting and then they go out and do it. Being “socially savvy” (like knowing what to say to whom, when and how), maximizes the effect.

Some people have great analytical intelligence—the ability to complete problem-solving tasks—but little practical intelligence (or vice versa). Rarely does anyone have both.

For co-operation to occur, both parties have to see their interaction as mutually beneficial—and people with practical intelligence are best able to take advantage of the circumstances that come their way, even though imagination, hard work and repeated efforts are needed to act on opportunities that may be hidden or not so obvious.

Vampire bats to the rescue!


Paul: Indeed. Some authors see the evolution of co-operative behaviour as a socially adaptive survival mechanism. The evolutionary biologist, Richard Dawkins is one of those.

In the book that first made him famous, The Selfish Gene, Dawkins devoted an entire chapter to the problem of the Prisoner’s Dilemma [6]. He saw the entire natural world of both plants and animals as engaged in a ceaseless struggle with this kind of dilemma.

He cites evidence from the natural world where mutually supportive co-operative behaviour can develop into an evolutionarily stable strategy.


Clinton Richard Dawkins is an English evolutionary biologist. He is an emeritus fellow of New College, Oxford.

Dawkins gives the example of vampire bats that feed on blood at night. It’s not easy for them to get a meal, but when they do it’s likely to be a big one. When dawn comes, some individuals will have been unlucky and will return home hungry. Those who struck it lucky sometimes donate blood to their less fortunate comrades by regurgitation.

Such generosity is typically shown to other bats who are frequent roost mates or ‘friends’ (rather than to strangers from different caves).

Amongst translators, we also see such altruistic behaviour when they share valuable resources such as glossaries with Facebook friends or Twitter followers who are nominally their competitors.

Dawkins argues that in the natural world, small clusters of co-operators tend to prosper and grow. As they grow, they spread out and begin to invade populations dominated by “nasty”, non-co-operating individuals who, in a Prisoner’s Dilemma, typically choose to betray one another.

Luigi: Correct. Local clusters of non-co-operating “nasties” not only do not prosper, but in the long term do especially badly in each other’s presence. Co-operators help each other and strengthen their community while “nasties”, always trying to outdo each other, fail to thrive.

For translators, being “nice” therefore means being happy if a competitor wins just as much money as you do, as long as you are both are winning more from the customer. This is when prices can potentially begin to go up (or at least stop going down)!

Paul: In this view, the difference between being nice and nasty is whether we try to rob each other to get ahead or whether we strive to earn more from the customer. Is this a realistic hope, do you think?

Luigi: There is plenty of evidence to support this. I would say that other professionals—the ones that translators so often like to compare their work with—have found a way out the Prisoner’s Dilemma and have developed their own evolutionarily stable co-operative strategy. Seldom do we see such professionals trapped in ongoing, downward price competition—and most of them would still prosper without the protection from any statutory body. I don’t see why translation professionals cannot, in the long term, do the same.

Paul: If co-operation implies not undercutting the other guy on price—how do we go about earning more from the customer?

Luigi: Some of the “nastiest” people in our industry (lol!—I’m nasty myself to most of them) obsessively invite us to “educate the customer”.

The idea might make some sense if professional organisations—rather than individual translators—took full responsibility for educating translation customers. Publicly speaking out with a loud and clear voice on our behalf would certainly be very powerful and likely to be a great deal more productive than their usual navel gazing. For this to be effective, though, it may well require a higher level of co-operation between industry players. But, to date, the silence is deafening.

Nevertheless, earning more from the customer (as opposed to fighting each other over a few miserable scraps) ultimately relies on vigorous competition. We might leave the topic of how translators can be both “nice” and yet still compete vigorously to our next conversation.


[1] Garrett Hardin, 1968, The Tragedy of the Commons, Science 162 (3859): 1243–1248.

[2] Cited by Yochai Benkler (2011), The Penguin and the Leviathan – The Triumph of Cooperation over Self-Interest, Crown Business, New York, pp. 84-89.

[3] See

[4] Tom Siegfried, 2006, A Beautiful Math, John Nash, Game Theory, and the Modern Quest for a Code of Nature, Joseph Henry Press, Washington.


[6] Richard Dawkins, 1976, The Selfish Gene, Oxford University Press, London.

[7] Richard Dawkins, 1976, The Selfish Gene, Oxford University Press, London, pp. 231-233.

This blog piece has also been influenced by:

John Cassidy, 2009, How Markets Fail, The Logic of Economic Calamities, Farrar, Straus and Giroux, New York.

Luigi Muzii, 2013, Trembling and Stumbling in the Rumble Seat, The Big Wave (

Robert Axelrod, 1984, The Evolution of Co-operation, Penguin Books, London.

Harold W. Kuhn & Sylvia Nasar (eds), 2007, The essential John Nash, Princeton University Press, Princeton, N.J.

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11 Responses to Nice or nasty? Which translators finish first?

  1. Pingback: Nice or nasty? Which translators finish first? ...

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  3. Fascinating blog! Love the insights.

  4. This is an excellent analysis and I thoroughly enjoyed reading the exchange! This paragraph was particularly spot on:

    “Co-operators help each other and strengthen their community while ‘nasties’, always trying to outdo each other, fail to thrive. For translators, being ‘nice’ therefore means being happy if a competitor wins just as much money as you do, as long as you are both are winning more from the customer. This is when prices can potentially begin to go up (or at least stop going down)! […] Some of the “nastiest” people in our industry […] obsessively invite us to ‘educate the customer’.”

    I couldn’t agree more, Paul!

  5. Great blog! Thanks for sharing. 🙂

  6. It would be better if competition drives translators to become the best that they can be, and not figure out how to out-best the other one. If such a case happens, imagine just how much the industry would improve. It is good that being nasty competitors contributes to failure to thrive, and if that is the case, then translators will only be focused on beating the other one instead of delivering what is just for the client.

  7. Pingback: Posts of the Day – May 2014 | Tranix Translation & Proof-Editing Services

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  9. Gertrude says:

    Great. Thanks for sharing

  10. coffeebreak says:

    Thank you for such interesting and useful analysis! Great post:)

  11. In Brazil, we sadly have an aggressive competitive translation market. My agency is quite new and I had a bad surprise after my first price research. Many translators have to work for international translation agencies (most of them in Portugal) or accept the Brazilian market prices. I myself, as a translator, always charged a high price and it worked quite well for me – but I never had a Brazilian client…

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