07 Internal audit – Our main weaknesses

21 May

IMG_3358 best cropped to 320 x 200 shortOK, the mission:

The translation profession’s mission is to differentiate itself from the translation ‘industry’ (agencies, brokers, intermediaries and paraprofessional translators), and establish world-wide recognition as Certified Practising/Professional Translators (CPTs), working independently or in professional practices/partnerships, providing reliable, high-quality language translation services and associated professional advice.

As I said in the previous post: to be successful, we must exploit our strengths and work to reduce, if not eliminate, our weaknesses.  Common sense.  So let us start with looking at the weaknesses we have that may impede our path to success.

As our colleague Jose Ribeiro pointed out, and I am sure he meant it in the best possible way, “freelance Translators would be ‘one-man-organizations’ if they had the skills of translators, IT experts, Finance Managers, Marketing wizards, DTP experts and some others, besides the ability to multi-task different projects and manage them successfully”.  

There are lots of weaknesses to choose from…

He makes a very valid point that I will get back to.  However, professional translators are not organisations or business, they are individual, self-employed professionals.  My doctor or dentist, and even my accountant, do not have any or all of those skills either, that is why they operate as self-employed professionals or buy into a small professional practice (partnership), and are not CEOs of large companies or organisations.  If we are to get anywhere, we too, must understand that we are not ‘businesses’, but self-employed professionals, a very different animal, even if there are some similarities.

Business is a general term used for describing commercial activity.
However, there are many types and classes of commercial activity, e.g. ‘manufacturing’ and ‘trading’ come to mind in this context.  Being an independent, self-employed professional is a very specific commercial activity, with very specific characteristics, ethics and responsibilities. It is usually well-remunerated (though not always as we know to our cost), because of the burden of responsibility they usually carry, the early and ongoing training and education required, and the high standards of ethical conduct to which they are held, the key ingredient for generating the necessary trust required to do things well.

So, back to our weaknesses as they relate to professional success (or, indeed, the lack thereof):

  1. Most professions have a clear and obvious career path, including training and education, mentoring requirements, rules against incorporating to limit personal liability, etc., which tends to produce a fairly homogeneous group of people. Internationally, their language may differ, but their levels and type of training will be very similar.  Within one country, where everybody speaks the same language, this makes it reasonably easy to put together professional associations and institutes to protect and advance the interests of the profession as a whole and its members individually.  After all, they probably even think the same way!  However, I do not have to tell you what an eclectic lot translators are; and because our profession makes it almost mandatory to operate internationally, it is a true tower of Babel as far as individuals are concerned.  In short, the very difference of backgrounds, education and training, cultural diversity and economic environments, puts ‘organizing translators’ on a par with ‘herding cats’;  I know, because I have tried it within our institute in Australia.
  2. Because most translators do not follow a career path that includes a period of mentoring by experienced, certified practitioners, such a ‘clerking’ in the case of graduate lawyers and 2 years of ‘slavery’ for a registered CPA whilst attending professional development classes in the evenings before being admitted to the accounting profession, few among us find out how to deal with the commercial aspects of being an independent professional.  Think about marketing, costing, pricing, billing, accounting, forming partnerships, computers, software, taxes, insurance, PD, etc. ad infinitum, all of which lawyers and accountants see at close quarters whilst learning the ropes as ‘trainees’. This probably goes a long way to explaining what Jose pointed out so elegantly above.  Whilst explaining it does not fix the problem, it at least identifies it as a weakness, so that we can develop the strategies to overcome it.  I have run workshops for colleagues here in Australia, so I have some idea about what the challenges are.  More about the solutions and strategies in the step after the internal audit (knowledge and understanding before judgement).
  3. No doubt the frequent absence of commercial skills among professional translators is also partly responsible for how the profession has been subordinated by intermediaries. In the absence of a well-defined, visible  profession made up of certified individuals, the intermediaries have created a value chain that effectively locks translators into a very weak position commercially, i.e. at the end of the value chain, which is always the weakest position.  I regard this situation as the most serious of our weaknesses, i.e. the status quo in the market for translation services, and where it appears to be headed, i.e. ‘into the toilet’.  In other words, we are way behind the eight-ball and not only need to get out of this value chain as it is slowly collapsing the profession, we also need to build an identifiable professional profile (like a CPA) to inspire confidence in potential clients and to make the good ones think twice about using cheap/unqualified translators or intermediaries.  Of course, we could continue to fight with the intermediaries/agencies for a fair slice of the cake from the position we are in now, but that reminds me of  ‘The Ingenious Gentleman Don Quixote of La Mancha’ and his faithful assistant Sancho Panza  😦
  4. Because of the state of the profession (as part of the aforementioned value chain), professional translators have had to lower their aspirations, so there is little money available to make the changes necessary to recover from the disaster it is today.  However, in terms of creating perceptions and professional status-building, money generally provides little more that a shortening of the time-frames, e.g. with advertising, promotion, PR, etc., you can get to your objective quicker.  Since we do not have the money, time will have to be our weapon of choice, so we will need to adopt long, rather than short-term term objectives and strategies for achieving them, and be patient but persistent.
    Not everybody’s cup of tea I am afraid, but reality is a hard task master.
  5. Because of the aforementioned diversity among members of our profession, and the general lack of knowledge and training in commercial and strategic matters, it will also be slower and more difficult to agree on strategies and objectives.  In my own experience within our professional institute, I have found that few of the strategies I have proposed from time-to-time, have been acted upon.  In analyzing why this has been the case, I have come to the conclusion that when people do not fully understand something, they are reluctant to act on it.  Decision-making also takes courage, and like most things we are afraid of at first, the more you do it, the easier it gets. In general terms, translators are probably not the most experienced decision-makers one might meet everyday.  So we will experience the same problem, at least to some extent.
    I regard it as the current we have to row against, so we’ll just have to pull that little bit harder.

  6. One more weakness that I have already touched upon, is the ‘variable’ quality and lack of effectiveness of our professional institutes and associations.
    It will be self-evident to everyone, that an institute of management consultants or company directors would do better than an institute of ballet dancers or translators, particularly if managed by volunteers from their respective professions (don’t put any money on it, I know it is not always true).  In my case in Australia, this is exacerbated by the fact that we have a mixture of professional and para-professional members in our institute.  The former want to lift the profile of their profession to achieve better recognition along the lines that we are working on, whereas the latter are looking to unionize in order to extract better ‘wages’ from the handful of agencies they work for.  A cart with a horse before it pulling one way, and a horse at the back pulling in the opposite direction.  This only works if you want ‘draw and quarter someone’ like in the ‘good old days’.  We face the same problem, but there are solutions I will  discuss later. Bear in mind that we will be judged by the lowest common denominator; and, last but not least,
  7. The willingness of some colleagues to be treated as casual, semi-skilled labour.  It reinforces the exact opposite of what we need to achieve.  I know this is a tough one, but here too, there are strategies we can use to initially improve things, and to move to a more desirable position in the long run.  Working for a discounted fee is one thing, but doffing your cap and pulling your forelock in humble gratitude sends the wrong signal.

As with the previous posts, I have focused on the main, generally-known and critical issues.  It is not a detailed, academic study, but a practical analysis for the purpose of developing appropriate, broad strategies, so any sensible input is welcome.

Next, I will deal with our strengths, and you will be surprised at what we generally ‘hide under a bushel’ for some reason.  Perhaps one of our traits is modesty and reserve 🙂  Nothing wrong with that in a professional person, but we also need to be practical and look to our own future.

More in 08

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

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