In a recent moment of uncharacteristic whimsy, I responded to a ProZ enquiry by a private client, who needed a certified translation of various documents.
The client’s response to my offer of assistance opened follows: Thank you for your response! I am rather dismayed that, of the dozen or so responses that I received via proz, yours was the only one without English spelling, grammar and usage errors. But I suppose I should look on the bright side: if I want to sign up with proz myself later, as a translator, the competition won’t be as tough as I had thought. :-)
She is a native English speaker, and her compliment initially lifted my spirits; after all, most people are reluctant to compliment one’s professionalism, lest they be thought of as patronising. It is a rare treat, therefore, and should be savoured. On reflection, however, I understood that her words should not be regarded as a compliment about my skills and professionalism, however tempting that may be.
Her words should be understood for what they really are, i.e. a serious indictment of the so-called ‘translation industry’ that has sought to harness and exploit the skills of translation professionals through global sourcing mechanisms like ProZ et al. This is sometimes erroneously, but more often than not fraudulently, referred to as an innovative expansion of the ‘free market’. There is nothing new about this sort of opportunistic, exploitative and long-discredited c[r]apitalism, of course, and it is not going to be abandoned in favour of more ethical but less profitable alternatives any time soon.
It would be easy to dismiss it as a minor incident of little consequence, but I have come across disappointed, and sometimes despairing, clients before; so I think it is worthwhile to have a closer look at the details and what they imply:
1) The client clearly indicated that she needed Dutch translated into English and that she preferred a native speaker of the target language. If we lived in a rational world, having to spell out the latter requirement would be regarded as redundant, but it seems we don’t.
Why then would all responses, bar mine, be from people who are either not fluent in English, or worse, who are not very articulate if they are native speakers of English?
2) She also asked for a certified translation. Am I to assume that all the responses came from ‘accredited’ professionals? Or did those who responded believe they would be able to ‘fake’ it; or worse, believed they could get an ‘accredited’ translator to do it for even less than what they quoted?
Are we seeing the beginning of the end of the ‘free market’ global sourcing model for translations? Are those who are qualified to handle a translation like this no longer responding to the ‘offerings/opportunities’ on ProZ et al? Did our professional colleagues wake up to the idea that depriving predatory language services brokers/agencies of their expertise, though perhaps counter-intuitive, is the obvious way to improve their own professional status and career?
In view of the warm feelings of appreciation the client engendered in me, I felt I owed her a warning about entering the translation profession on the basis of assumptions derived from the responses she received via a blind auction site like ProZ. I pointed out to her that linguistics, professional competence, knowledge or expertise, are not necessarily the deciding factors for an ‘industry’ that uses ‘global sourcing’ to hire casual or freelance translators.
What really saddens me about this, is that yet another person will talk about her very ordinary experience, without clearly understanding and differentiating between the translation ‘industry’ and the translation ‘profession’.
It is mostly our own fault. Many among our colleagues appear unable or unwilling to decide whether they are free-lancers (casual, contract workers), run a small business (selling services for profit), or whether they are self-employed professionals (in private practice). Until we decide among ourselves who and/or what we are, we will not convince anyone else.
As a consequence, we will have the devil of a job protecting and advancing our personal, professional interests and long-term careers.
When the current, downward spiral hits bottom and the opportunistic part of the ‘industry’ hits the wall, the ‘profession’ will both gain and lose. We will, of course, be blamed by the very entrepreneurs/opportunists responsible for the cause the collapse; after all, they are not likely to blame themselves for the poor quality of the translations they have sold and subsequently procured from dubious sources, are they?
Hopefully though, the end clients will learn that having a close and enduring relationship with a professional translator delivers better quality at the same if not lower cost. The critical factor in this, is whether the end client understands the difference between an intermediary sourcing the cheapest possible translation through the internet, and a well-established, accredited, professional translator. Even more importantly, whether a client will be able to locate and identify a professional translator. If not, the client will choose an agency to ‘find the translator’ (read: handle the translation), and we will be right back where we started.
There are a number of solutions, but until everybody agrees on what the problem is, no solution will be seriously considered or accepted. This is where my innate optimism takes a bit of a beating. Discussions among translators suggest that every 12 of them have 13 or more different opinions on whether translators are free-lancers (i.e. casual employees hired by agencies), self-employed professionals, or business owners/vendors of translation services. Few of the opinions demonstrate any knowledge or understanding of the differences. Yet, it is the thorough understanding of these differences that determines the strategies that are likely to succeed and/or fail.