Skip to main content

The balancing act of crowd translation

Work comes and goes — but what causes the fluctuations? Read on to find out.

Photo by Elisa Ventur on Unsplash

“Where did all the work go?”

This is one of the most common questions we’re asked by Unbabel translators, and it’s one of the ones that’s toughest to answer. It can be tough to work out why one day you’re working for hours at a time, and the next the demand seems to have fallen off a cliff.

Now, let’s get one thing out of the way: for community managers here at Unbabel, it’s part of our job to minimise disruptions for our editors and to ensure there is a steady flow of work. We do this to the best of our ability, and consider it an integral part of our mission to provide a good quality of interesting work to as many people as possible.

Sadly, this isn’t always possible, but there are lots of reasons why this might be the case. For this blog article, I’ve put together the most common reasons why this might have happened. There’s a good chance that the next time you’re finding yourself without as much work you as usual might be able to decipher the reason yourself!

We can only work with what the customer gives us

Any language service provider (LSP) has a variety of customers that they work with, all of whom have seasonal fluctuations and varying numbers in terms of products sold, and so their need for translations will fluctuate over time.

Let’s look at the most basic form of that: we had a customer that produces and sells barbecues, and nothing else. If we do translation for them, then you can imagine July’s going to be pretty busy but January will be incredibly quiet.

Now let’s say they’ve done a sale on barbecues in Finland, and it’s a really, really hot summer. They might have only one Finnish customer specialist in house, meaning they’ve got to rely on us for almost all of their translation needs, which in a small community like Finnish would massively increase the volume for a few months — until demand drops off a cliff in September when the sale is over and the barbecue’s back in the garage.

That’s just the simplest form of example, though. Imagine we worked with an airline that flies from Paris to Nairobi, and suddenly their biggest competitor ceases trading. All of a sudden, they’re going to have a monopoly on that route and are going to need the customer service to match, flooding our community with tasks.

Just like any business, we’re at the mercy of broad market trends

On top of this, there are broader market trends: some predictable, some not. The most we’re asked about this is always during the first few months of the year. This is a factor that isn’t unique to us — think about how busy the shops are on the last weekend before Christmas versus how busy they are in the middle of January. There’s a precipitous drop in sales as customers save money again after their Christmas splurge, and January is the quietest time for almost all of our customers — with the exception of those involved in health and fitness!

That happens every year, but there’s plenty of unexpected things that could happen too. Just in the last few years, we’ve seen the complete shutdown of international travel, huge postal delays due to worldwide lockdowns, shortages of products due to global supply chains, the redrawing of international airspace… the list goes on. Translation as an industry may seem fairly immune to this, but we’re a business, and if our customers have peaks or troughs in their volume, so do we. All we can do is try to keep our community informed and ready for these fluctuations, which we do through our newsletter and emails.

People are almost impossible to predict

The demand for translation within a community isn’t just affected by our customers, though. The way Unbabel works can seem complex, and to be honest, it is — but for the sake of this, it helps to imagine it as simply as possible.

So, let’s imagine it’s what seems like a typical Tuesday to us in Lisbon at the Unbabel office. For Czech, we’re going to have 100,000 words coming in during the day and we’ve got 10 editors available. However, there’s a snowstorm that day in the Czech Republic, and an unusually high percentage of our editors there are parents who need to look after their kids because school is closed. Suddenly, if just 5 editors can’t work that day, the daily average for each editor jumps from 10,000 to 20,000 words.

However, it’s not just that day. Having seen the volumes that day, the editors who were working see that for some reason there’s a lot of work available and so decide to get up early on the Wednesday to make as much money as they can. However, the snow melted overnight and suddenly all the parents are desperate to make up for lost time so decide where they would have just put in an hour or two they’re going to put four or five in. The problem is that through no fault of their own, everyone in the community is suddenly working flat out with no extra volume to sustain them.

But again, we’re talking about one adverse event. If we take the example of people getting full-time jobs, moving cities, learning new skills, cutting down hours in the hopes of working more with Unbabel… these situations are happening all across every one of our communities every single day.

What we try to do — and what you can do, too

As part of our job, we watch over the platform and try to understand and predict these trends, looking carefully to see when a customer is waiting far too long for their translations because there aren’t enough editors to complete them on time, but looking equally carefully to see where editors have too little to work with. This is why we don’t have language pairs open all the time — it would be impossible to control and would lead to no one having any meaningful amount of work at all.

If you work with Unbabel, or indeed any other translation company, my advice would be this: we can’t magic work for you out of thin air, and if the work dries up then there’s not much we can do about it until our sales team find us a fantastic new customer. This isn’t a bump in the road, either; although the larger a community is the less vulnerable it is to adverse events like snow days, it’s part of an inherent truth in crowd translation that not everyone is going to have the same amount of work all the time, forever. The best thing you can do is to keep in touch, check your emails, and plan ahead so you’re ready, whatever the weather.

The balancing act of crowd translation was originally published in Unbabel Community on Medium, where people are continuing the conversation by highlighting and responding to this story.