I joined crowdsourced translation service Gengo in mid-2014 and at the time was glad for my first opportunity in paid translation, and how easy it was to get started. But once I got higher-paying end clients, I didn’t even bother logging in to the site. I didn’t do any work through Gengo in 2015, and didn’t start using it again until this past July. Several of the things that had seemed problematic to me about the service are still there, so I decided to write this out.
Pro 1: Getting started is super easy
No interviews, no resumes. Just pass their tests, submit a W-9, give them your PayPal address, and you’re good to go.
Pro 2: Payments are timely
Gengo pays out twice a month (although you have to request the payout manually) through PayPal, so you know any money you make is definitely coming to you. I have never had a problem with payments.
Con 1: The pay rate is abysmal
Before I got into translating, I had the privilege of speaking with professionals in the field, and being directed to free online resources such as the Honyaku mailing list. The consensus was that for Japanese to English translation, the absolute lowest rate anyone should be working for was 10 cents (American) per Japanese character (moji) in the original text. Armed with that knowledge, Gengo’s standard rate of less than 2 cents per character (0.018, to be exact) is a pimp slap in the face. The “pro” rate of 0.048 per moji is still less than half of what should be the lowest rate in the industry. At standard level, it’s still possible to achieve semi-decent wages if you can manage translation speeds of at least 1,100 moji per hour, yielding about 20USD an hour, or about 15USD after taxes. However…
Con 2: Speed efficiencies are hard to achieve when jobs cover a massive range of topics
My former main end client (which I’ll get into a bit later) had a rate not much better than Gengo’s at 3 cents per moji. However, after a couple of months, I was able to reach speeds of 1,000 moji per hour on average, yielding 30USD gross, or about 23 net. Sometimes I’d even get close to 2,000 moji per hour, for 60USD gross. Not bad at all! But I was only able to achieve this because I was working within the same framework every time. Every now and then I’d come across a reference that I didn’t get, or some entertainment industry lingo that I had to look up, but overall, I wasn’t reaching for the dictionary much, and I was already familiar with the tone each character/story should have, so I could bust out good translations without even reading through the entire script first as I had been doing in the beginning.
In contrast, on Gengo, while they do seem to be making some effort to better code jobs so that what shows up on translator dashboards aligns with their interests or is at least similar to what they have worked on before (I think I’ve been internally coded as an onsen specialist? Ahaha…), overall, the jobs are all over the place. When there are lots of jobs available, you might luck out and have the luxury of choosing something you’re already familiar with. But when there aren’t many gigs on the dashboard, you might be tempted to take on something that you don’t know about but looks easy enough. I’ve done this a few times, and almost always end up taking so much time that the hourly rate goes below 10USD, which I consider my At Least I Still Have Some Pride bare minimum. Things like Googling place names isn’t hard, but when you’re translating a travel brochure full of them, it is time-consuming.
Also, Gengo doesn’t seem to have enough returning clients (at least, not in the Japanese to English pair) to make the “preferred translator” designation make a big difference. Being a certain client’s preferred translator means that client’s jobs will go to you and their at least one other preferred translator first before being released to the general pool of translators, but if the client is someone that needs something once a month or even less, the chances of you even seeing a job from that client again are low. That I know of, I’ve been designated a preferred translator by three clients, and Gengo set me as a preferred translator for two others. Out of those five, only one posts jobs with any regularity, and even though I’ve mastered the tone this client wants, I still do have to spend a great deal of time Googling place names or people names.
Con 3: You’re expected to provide customer service but aren’t paid for it at all
If 0.018 per moji is what you get paid for the act of translating a character into an English word, what’s the pay for reading a customer’s questions/concerns and responding to them? Nothing. Gengo translators essentially have to provide customer service for free. Granted, not every job will involve talking to the customer at all, but when it happens, it takes up more of your time with no additional pay. What’s worse, it tends to happen most when the customer submitted a very short request (one or two sentences) but didn’t indicate any context at all. It’s hard to know what people are going for sometimes with two sentences and no background, and when you get it wrong and have to go back and forth with the customer, it’s even more annoying because the pay rate was so low to begin with that having to spend even a second more on the job means you, the translator, as a business, are operating at a loss.
The outcome can be the same when customers submit very short translation requests but include 10 pages worth of translation notes which, of course, you don’t get paid to read. Once I picked up a job worth $1.52 to translate a flyer for a neighborhood festival. Or rather, to translate the headings for each feature of the festival. The customer explained what each feature of the festival was in great detail, which helped me come up with the most perfect translation for the heading, but that meant that I had to spend that much more time on it. Financially it was a loss at the point I submitted the job, but I had the further bad luck of the customer being someone who had some familiarity with English and thus felt that they could judge whether what I had written was accurate or not. They were very sweet (I imagine there was a baa-chan or jii-chan on the other end of the internet) but I basically ended up giving them an English lesson over the comments section of Gengo, ultimately spending like four hours on a job worth $1.52. That’s 38 cents per hour. Thirty. Eight. Cents. PER HOUR. That job happened to be chosen for review by a senior translator, and they noted how great my customer service had been, but I felt so, so, used afterward. It would have been much more rewarding to straight up volunteer for that neighborhood association, but to have a company make a profit, no matter how small, while I, who did the work, take a loss? I’m not here to do charity work for for-profit companies!
If you see a job on Gengo where the customer rejected another translator’s work, and they’re being demanding about things like word choice, run. If they know English that much more than the translators, they should’ve translated it themselves. I once took such a job, thinking as long as I avoided the mistakes the first translator had apparently made, it would be okay, but nope. There was the customer, nit picking like “‘Ax’ sounds like a big ax, could you write ‘hand ax’ instead?” and I’m over here like WHY CAN’T YOU DO THAT YOURSELF DO YOU REALIZE YOU’RE WASTING YOUR TIME TOO. Of course I didn’t say that, I just replied in keigo to the effect of “I’m terribly sorry, I will correct it,” but IRL I was more like:
Similarly, sometimes customers will spam the triple brackets feature to try to reduce their cost as much as possible. (Everything written within triple brackets is not to be translated, thus the customer isn’t charged for anything written within triple brackets.) So for example, let’s say the translation is for the text of the classic tale Momotaro. Let’s say the customer submits it like this:
What I would submit as a translator would thus be:
A long, long time ago, in a certain village, there lived an old man and an old woman.
The [[[おじいさん]]] went to cut some trees on the mountain, while the [[[おばあさん]]] went to do the washing at the river.
Do you see the problem with this? Sure, for the customer, it seems like a smart thing to do; once they see that おばあさん gets translated to “an old woman,” they can just plug that in themselves without having to pay to have the same word translated again. But the thing is, in this case, since I didn’t translate obaa-san to “Grandma,” the customer has to know when to use “the” and when to use “an,” something which is often difficult for non-native English users/speakers. Even if I had used “Grandma” like a name to save the customer that particular (articular?) headache, this practice makes me feel used as a translator, because it’s not like I can ignore everything in triple brackets: I may not have to type it out in English again, but I still have to read it and place it at the appropriate point within the English sentence. I can’t merely leave them in the same physical spot they appeared in within the Japanese sentence like:
[[[おじいさん]]] went to cut some trees on the mountain, [[[おばあさん]]] while went to do the washing at the river.
Or bunch them all together at the beginning:
[[[おじいさん]]][[[おばあさん]]] went to cut some trees on the mountain, while went to do the washing at the river.
What kind of sense would that make?
Plus, it also ties my hands as a translator. There could be instances where repeating the thing in brackets would actually be unnatural or completely unnecessary in English, but since the Gengo interface prohibits translators from submitting jobs without every single instance of bracketed content intact, I either have to submit an unnatural translation, or bend over backwards to find a way to include that content even though it’s unnecessary.
So while it’s cheap on the customer’s end to do this, it could potentially have a negative impact on the output, and it’s insulting to the translator. People forget that when they pay for services from humans, they’re paying for that person’s skill and their time. When customers abuse triple brackets on Gengo, they take the translator’s time and skill but rob them of payment for both. I actually had this problem with the game scripts I was working on for the end client as well; there were codes throughout which were not included in the character count because technically I wasn’t translating them, but I still had to read them, interpret them, and write accordingly. These things that I wasn’t translating in the sense of “converting from Japanese to English” but was still having to process could add as much as 10,000 more characters to a script, or $300 worth of work. That’s a nice chunk of change to have to give away for free, ain’t it?
Things Which Could Be Seen As Either Pros or Cons Depending on the Person
Gray Area 1: Gengo is kinda sorta deceptive to customers, a bit insulting to translators in its word choice, and adds to the problem of deprofessionalization going on in many industries which ultimately lowers wages for all workers
I’m giving Gengo some leeway on this because even though I personally believe this is a definite CON, some things could be open to interpretation.
Recently a customer asked me a question I didn’t know the answer to so I looked at Gengo’s website from the customer side for the first time since I first heard of Gengo and several things caught my eye.
First, under “How it works,” it says “Our certified translators get to work within minutes…” (Emphasis mine.) I don’t recall having to submit any proof of certification when I applied to Gengo, not even a resume nor proof of my JLPT score. I’m not a certified translator, unless Gengo counts people passing its own test as certification. If that’s the case, isn’t that deceptive to customers? If I see an agency saying they have “certified translators,” I assume that means they have been certified by an external body, not the same agency offering their services.
Then, in the Customer Support article “How is Gengo different from a traditional agency,” it says “For years people have been paying for translation services from expensive experts. This means (most of the time) you get an excellent result but it costs a lot of money. We decided to to [sic] offer customers something a little bit different. Gengo specializes in doing simple, short texts rather than long, complex documents in specialist subjects. So we don’t charge you for that expertise that you don’t need…” (Emphasis mine.)
Yet later I saw this while reading the Gengo blog post “Eight hilarious localization fails in advertising”: “Find out how Gengo can help your business expand into overseas markets with a community of experienced translators worldwide, who are knowledgeable in specific industries.” (Emphasis mine again.)
Doesn’t “experienced translators knowledgeable in specific industries” imply a certain level of expertise? Expertise which Gengo translators supposedly don’t have which is why customers don’t need to pay so much? And isn’t it deceptive to customers to say Gengo translators are “experienced” when experience is not a prerequisite to become a Gengo translator? In the Translator Support article “What qualifications or experience do you need to translate with Gengo?” it says: “You don’t need translation qualifications or experience to become a Gengo translator; we’re happy to work with anyone who can pass our translation tests and consistently translate to our standards. This makes Gengo a great option for both established translators and beginners with strong language skills.” So Gengo tells translators they don’t need experience, it tells customers the lack of experience is why their service is cheaper, but then it tells customers they have knowledgeable translators.
I suppose in its defense Gengo could argue that references to “experienced translators” refer to translators at the Pro level, but when they make the blanket statement, it sounds like they’re talking about the service as a whole. Realistically, I doubt someone with that much experience and knowledge would be picking up random jobs on Gengo. The higher up you go in the field, the more likely you are to find people so good they actually have to turn down projects. Projects that pay well, I mean. So I doubt they’re working on Gengo unless they’re just really bored and doing it out of morbid curiosity.
Gray Area 2: Payment is through PayPal
Well, now there’s also Payoneer, but I have no idea what that is, and it wasn’t an option when I joined anyway.
For me, getting paid through PayPal wasn’t that great because it severely limited what I could do with the money I made. The only online retailer I use regularly doesn’t take it. I didn’t trust PayPal enough to link it to my bank account either. Eventually I needed cash bad enough that I opened another bank account to use exclusively with PayPal, but for me it’s still a potential security breach which I would rather not have to worry about.
Gray Area 3: You get none of the glory of being associated with the companies that use Gengo
Gengo’s “Case Studies” page is full of brands anyone would love to have on their resumé: YouTube, HuffPo, Coach, Shiseido… But on Gengo, you’re nothing but a number, and you can’t take credit for your work. So while I’ve done translations through Gengo several times for, for example, a certain Japanese design firm I would love to be associated with, I can’t say it. My mouth is NDA’d shut. Furthermore, I have no way to prove that I even did such and such pages on their website, because there aren’t individual per-job contracts on Gengo. Some customers also remove their jobs from Gengo’s database after they’ve been completed, so there’s no easily accessible record, on my end, of my ever having done work for X Company through Gengo. While I was contractually obligated to sign over the rights to the English translations I did for That Certain Mobile Game Company I had been working for, I have the individual contracts (work orders) that prove that I did such and such stories. And while I currently have no intention of looking for work in the game industry again, if I ever needed to prove that I translated some story that had been really popular with fans, I can do so with the work orders. I can’t say the same thing about a lot of the work I’ve done through Gengo.
Gray Area 4: You will see others taking credit for your work
I don’t mind as much when I see the things I’ve translated on websites where no individual is credited for the text, but I’ve done things which ended up being blog posts, and the poster puts my translation on their blog with their name and their photo and doesn’t indicate anywhere that the text is a translation; in short, they’re making it look as if they produced content which they didn’t. Even worse: one time there was a job on Gengo that was a translation of a certain Hikaru Utada song. Was that content even allowed on Gengo? Technically? I’m not sure, but I figured if the person wanted it for personal, private enjoyment, who could object to them paying their own money to have it translated? Especially since there were already at least two translations of the song floating around on the internet. There was one line which I think other fan translators had misinterpreted. So I translated the song, and wrote down the phrase that was particularly unique to my translation so I could Google it later, see if the customer had posted it anywhere or just kept it for themselves. A few days later, sure enough, there was a new translation on the interwebs, and while the person posting it had changed the line I thought others were wrong about to match those perhaps wrong interpretations, there were other tell-tale clauses that led me to believe this person was the client from Gengo. Meh, I can’t really be mad at another fan translator, right? But then I saw the PayPal “Donate” button on their page.
You do not get to pretend like you’re translating this content and then get paid several times over for somebody else’s work! I made what, 5 bucks translating this song on Gengo? But if grateful fans donate to this person, they could potentially make much more than I did doing the actual work! To say nothing of the fact that if there’s one thing that can vindicate fans posting translations of copyrighted materials, it’s not taking money for doing so. Financially, I take a loss translating The Air Moon, because that translation is now the main reason I even pay $110 a year to keep Warped Frost with the space & design upgrades and the custom domain name. So to me, it’s like getting slapped in the face to see other fan translators taking credit for another fan translator’s work and having the gall to ask for donations. Granted, the customer had no way of knowing another fan translator would pick up their order, but still.
Gray Area 5: The main way to be profitable is to not do your best
And I hate this mentality. I hate not doing things as well as they could be done. But if I really sat up here giving every Gengo job the level of serious thought I would prefer to give things, I’d be making three or four dollars an hour, or 38 cents like that one time. And hell if I go down that road! Not for something I can do thanks to four years of college study, four years of living in Japan, and countless hours of independent study. Being able to translate is in itself specialized knowledge even if Gengo doesn’t define it as such to justify its horrible rates. Of course, staying profitable while working fast requires that you already have a very high level of translation ability. I currently have a 9.8 rating from Senior Translator reviews even though I don’t give every job my all. I’m looking at the clock like mad on Gengo. Speaking of which…
Gray Area 6: Decide your schedule yourself
It probably strikes readers as odd that this would be here rather than in the PROS section. After all, being able to set your own schedule is often touted as one of the greatest perks of freelancing. But what’s the major caveat?
BE GOOD WITH TIME MANAGEMENT!
As far as Gengo is concerned, this is probably an area that they ARE good for. You’re given a few hours to do most jobs, and should be completing them within at least a fourth of the time that Gengo gives you anyway, otherwise it’s not profitable. There’s a convenient timer on the top of the job page and the bottom of your browser window that helps keep you on task. If you’re not good with time management, or your schedule is super fragmented due to other jobs, school, or family obligations, the availability of short jobs on Gengo is great.
When I was younger and only had to do one thing at a time (that is, only work, or only study), time management was never an issue. I was great at it. And if I did fall behind, I had the physical stamina and psychological desire to pull all-nighters to get back on track. These days, I’m not as young as I used to be, and more importantly, in work settings I hardly ever come across content I genuinely enjoy reading, much less having to translate. These two things in particular are probably what doomed me in the end with my former main translation client, the game company. When I first started working for them, I had also started attending grad school part time. A couple of months in, and they weren’t giving me not even half the volume their job posting had promised. So I took on another job, with an NPO, and my time management woes began. It was all too easy to let the job which was bringing me the most money but with which I had the least connection take a backseat to the job that made me miserable but was here in real time, in the flesh, as well as to classes and family obligations. Things like having to clean the litter box because my cat just dropped a stink bomb would keep interrupting me while trying to work on my main client’s scripts. I resigned from the NPO job (after gaining 40 pounds because of it) and thought I would be able to manage my time better. At first, after a break, I was submitting work on time. But then, the company started getting back to me late, and the way the producer I was working with was responding, it felt like they were doing it on purpose. So there I was, already not satisfied with the job, but also being, apparently, penalized for being on time when this client had been accepting late translations from me for a year and a half already without docking my pay—which they were totally contractually allowed to do so I wouldn’t have fought it—and I just kinda turned into Petty Crocker. The last thing I did for them I did while I was in Japan for the LAST VISUALIVE, and while I could have submitted it on time if I had followed my original plan of holing up in my hotel room in Sapporo and only leaving for the concert, in that moment, I said to myself, “I’m in a new place, a place that took thousands of dollars to get to, why not take a chance and see what happens?”
You know how they say freelancing’s great because you can travel while you do it?
Yeah, about that.
Realistically, would you want to? Would you want to work instead of play if you’re in a new place? If you can, you’re some kind of special. I bow to your self-control! I learned the hard way that I can’t. I went sightseeing in Sapporo. I spoke to a docent about the beautiful cursive handwriting in hundred-year old student notebooks in the Tokeidai Museum, I walked into an esoteric Buddhist temple right when they were about to perform a goma fire ritual, I found the limited-time Kit Kat Chocolatory and was able to get great souvenirs. Then when I got back to the hotel and started working, I got bored with what I was reading again, and thought, “This is a great chance to watch Japanese TV.” So I turned on the television, and watching commercials felt more fulfilling than what I was translating.
That time was apparently the last straw for this client. A few months after not getting requests from them again, I wrote to ask if they were dropping me, which I would totally understand but would like to know for sure. I was given the ambiguous answer that they might have things for me in the future, but not right now. I took that as a “Yes we’re done with you” and started looking for other work in earnest. It’s been a rough couple of months once I depleted my savings and my car decided it was going to need a new catalytic converter right now, but at least I won’t go hungry because you can reload a Starbucks card with PayPal, and I can get money into my PayPal by prostituting myself on Gengo for a bit. Actually, there are probably many working girls who make far more than I do. I’ve read that sugar daddying is a thing now? Like there’s an app for that these days? Unfortunately I’m at the upper end of the Millennial age range, in that ambiguous, sometimes classified as Gen X spot, so I don’t think I can compete with all the pretty young things. orz Ahaha…
On the one hand, if it hadn’t been for this client, I wouldn’t have been able to do half of my Master’s program without student loans, buy a car, “see my mechanic more than my momma” as the song goes, and go to the VISUALIVE. So in that sense, I’m grateful to them. But on the other, “you can’t go forcing something if it’s just not right,” as another song goes. I realized that even though I do get a bit worn down from social interactions, even though I’m pretty introverted, I need to have communication with the people I’m working with. Not just, “Do this, sign that, here’s your check,” which I had thought would be the ideal working environment for me until I was actually in it for a while. Some of the producers were better about communicating than others (I worked with 3 different ones in under two years) but I was still not really connected to the team. And as my horrible NPO job taught me, I will go all out for a job that chews me up and spits me out if I feel like I’m personally responsible to even just one person who will see my face. A trait which I figure will come in quite handy if I manage to get the funds to finish this Master’s and end up an art teacher in a public school. ^o^;