01 The future of the tranlation ‘profession’

19 Apr

IMG_3358 best cropped to 320 x 200 shortI have long resisted the ‘temptation’ to start a blog.
Apart from the obvious hesitation about saying things that may offend or cause controversy, possibly even anger, I admit that procrastination also played a part.   A further hurdle has been the question that everybody but the supremely ignorant must surely ask themselves: “do I have anything worthwhile to say?”

Whether I have anything to say will have to be my decision, but whether it is worthwhile, will have to be judged by my readers (if any :-).
I have been the CEO of several companies for more than 25 years and I have an MBA for which I wrote a thesis on ‘strategic issues facing industry associations’ in 1997.  I have been a part-time translator since 1992 and went full-time in 2003.  The knowledge gained as a full-time translator and a 3-year stint as national treasurer of our professional institute in Australia (AUSIT), has given me the confidence of knowing that I may be able to provide some useful input into the many discussions about the booming ‘translation industry’ on the one hand, and the parlous state of the ‘translation profession’ on the other.

I might as well cut to the chase here.  The quotation marks surrounding ‘translation industry’ and ‘translation profession’ were put there to draw your attention to the fundamental issue I want to raise and discuss in this blog.  In my view, translation professionals have failed to recognise and differentiate between the two, and the fundamental problem this is causing for them.  Even a few of the professional institutes, like my own, have not understood and tackled this issue, much to the disadvantage of their membership, I think.

We all know that being bi-lingual does not necessarily a translator make.  I think it is generally accepted that a professional translator has either a degree in translation studies or equivalent, or has a university degree, not necessarily in translation, together with five years of translation experience.  There will be exceptions, of course, but it should serve as a general rule for the purpose of my dissertation.

Unlike most other professions, translation is a ‘free profession’.  In other words, all you need to do is hang out your shingle (put up an internet site) and you can call yourself a translator, or better still, a ‘Translation Services Provider (agency)’.  The latter are becoming a particularly common sight, because it does not even require the knowledge and skill of expertly handling one language, let alone more than one.  They simply market translation services and when accepting a project, turn to their database or the internet to find the cheapest translator available to do the job.  Extraordinary, but true and commonplace.

As I said in the previous paragraph, entry into the ‘profession’ and the ‘industry’ is open to anyone who believes he or she can do the job, and even those that can’t.  The results are both predictable and easily observed these days.  Fly-by-night operators are undercutting professional translators and agencies to get the business, and by using cheap (mostly unqualified) free-lance translators, are delivering translations of poor quality at best.  The problem is masked somewhat by the fact that even well-qualified, professional translators are driven to accept assignments from such ‘agencies’ at well below their normal fees, just to keep the wolf from the door in these difficult times.

However, Economics 101 would suggest that when things start picking up, many qualified professionals will leave the profession to take up better-paid employment, and the seriousness of the problem will become clearer, particularly after a number of clients have been sued over problems caused by errors in translation (medical, legal, safety instructions, etc.).

Yes, the above is a simplification of the problems associated with a complex and very diverse profession operating within a service sector dominated by agencies, but the impact on many highly-trained and experienced professionals is real enough.  Their incomes are being eroded as we speak, and many of them are forced to find employment elsewhere, or at least supplement their income with other activities.  I am writing this blog in the hope that we as a ‘profession’ will take steps to at least partly turn around a catastrophe in the making.

I hope that I will be able to use future blogs to provide some ideas on how we may be able to protect both our clients and the ‘translation profession’ from becoming the victims of the race to the bottom caused by the ‘translation industry’.

It may well get ugly, but doing nothing is not an option, is it?

For more details about my professional profile, go to: www.doubledutch.com.au

5 Responses to “01 The future of the tranlation ‘profession’”

  1. venetiabell April 21, 2013 at 3:28 am #

    I agree. It is a general problem. You can see it in almost every industry. Le moins disant and not the mieux disant. The lowest, not the best bid gets the job with the results you can see everywhere. Thank you for sharing your ideas and views.

  2. geraway May 20, 2013 at 5:34 pm #

    it is good to see more translation professionals speaking out on the state of our industry. When I set up my business three years ago it was after I had spent many years in companies both in Netherlands and Ireland and had developed skills writing in both languages. I also had a business degree and had completed language proficiency courses. I believed that companies who were serious about their international image would be prepared to pay for a quality translation or copy. Not so. Price is often more important. And if we cannot convince companies of the effect a poor translation may have on that all too important first impression then cheap will win out over quality.
    Louis I am with you. what can we do to turn the situation around?
    I too blog about the profession and the importance of delivering quality and building sustainable relationships with clients based on transparency and reliable service at a REALISTIC price.
    We must stick to our guns, have some respect for the profession and for ourselves.

    • louisvr May 20, 2013 at 7:40 pm #

      Watch this space Geraldine,

      I was initially trained as an engineer, so I have this terrible need to fix things rather than just talk about them. I am also from Mars, of course 🙂

      Once I finished the analysis, I will start working on the solutions, some of which are ready now, but I want to take everybody through the process.

      All I need is for you guys to support what I do.
      Keep watching 🙂

  3. Jayne Fox May 7, 2014 at 11:46 am #

    Hi Louis, I’m interested in your work and would have loved to attend your recent presentation for AUSIT. I was looking out for some feedback from the event and was glad to see that Nicole Y. Adams has written up a review on her blog: http://nyacommunications.wordpress.com/2014/05/04/29/
    I wrote a comment on Nicole’s blog as I agree with her that, as translators, we are both professionals and business owners. Nicole stated that this is not your view – so I would be very interested to hear your reasoning behind this. I think that in all situations, our professional ethics and values have to come first, and profit second – but this should be true for all ethical businesses. I don’t think that’s inconsistent with being a business owner. What’s your view on this?

    • louisvr May 7, 2014 at 5:28 pm #

      Thank you for your comments Jane.
      A three-hour presentation was already a very condensed version of a complex issue, some aspects of which are difficult to understand without some training in business management and strategic planning. So, I am not surprised that there were some misunderstandings and misinterpretations.
      I have today posted a series of corrections to Nicole article. It is my understanding that she needs to approve my comments before they are published.
      The essence of my argument is that managing a ‘business’ requires a different mindset from managing a ‘professional practice’. I have managed both during my career, and I’ve learned that lack of clarity undermines what you are doing and potentially leads to a lack of success.
      A clear strategic focus, is essential for achieving the best possible outcomes. Yes, there are many commercial aspects to running a professional practice, but we are not a businesses selling a ubiquitous service. We provide a personal, professional service requiring talent, education, strong ethics, and substantial training.
      The former is available at rock bottom prices around the world, the latter should justify a realistic fee. We need to make a choice.

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