To define oneself or to be defined by others

1 Jul

IMG_3358 best cropped to 320 x 200 shortIt seems to me that the way we are perceived will calibrate a future client’s expectations of what we will be able to do for them, and by extension, what we should be paid for doing it if ‘hired’.

I used the term ‘hired’ in the last sentence, because it is a word most often used by translation ‘industry’ intermediaries (agencies, LSPs, brokers, entrepreneurs, hucksters, etc.) to define the process of engaging the services of an independent translator.  They also use terms like vendor, free-lance/r, member of ‘their’ team, etc., in a deliberate attempt to lower the perception of a translator’s importance in their scheme of things, i.e. the product chain they have created and control.

As part of their overall strategy, intermediaries will also insist that translators fill in ‘application forms’ even though their profiles are readily available on the internet sites where they advertised the project.  They often demand that the translator sign a contract disguised as a confidentiality agreement, and they insist that the translator accept the intermediary’s ‘terms and conditions’ and agrees to a piecework rate of pay in advance of being considered for any (potential) engagement.

These terms and conditions usually include very generous payment terms (funded by the translator for the benefit of the intermediary), yet the intermediaries generally offer little or nothing in return apart from a promise of ‘potential’ work provided the ‘price’ is right.  This is clearly where a free-lance translator will be offering his or her lance in return for whatever wage is offered (ProZ, Translation Directory, etc.)

The terms used leave little doubt that most intermediaries see independent and free-lance translators as casual employees or day labourers at best, and they expect them to work at their direction and for piecework rates that reflect this perception.  Yet, when viewing the often spectacular internet sites of the same intermediaries, they claim to have ‘as part of their team’ a selection of the best qualified professionals that the world has to offer. As Transperfect puts it: “a network of over 5,000 certified linguists and subject-area specialists”, which appears to be the only reference to the people who actually provide the services they sell.

So why this apparent contradiction in the way they present the resources they claim to have available and the way they treat the very same ‘certified linguists and specialists’.  Well, the principle is a well-established one and simple enough.  To succeed as an intermediary/trader/business, you must sell high and buy low (the bigger the difference, the more money you make), so intermediaries do battle on two fronts:

(1) they sell their services in a very competitive market of their own making, i.e. the market for translation services or the ‘industry’.  Supply (the number of intermediaries) in this market is plentiful because anybody can hang out a shingle; and as a result, demand (for translation work) is limited by being spread among the many competitors.  This makes it tough to sell translation services, and pricing is often the blunt instrument used by those with little else to offer.

(2) once an intermediary secures a ‘sale’, they need to find a ‘supplier’ for the service they have just offered to provide, i.e. a competent, professional translator, and at the best possible price/cost (you can see how having a long list of translators with fixed rates per word can be very useful in the context).  Thanks to the internet, free entry into the translation ‘profession’ and the market power of the intermediaries facilitated by various blind auction sites like ProZ, supply in this case is also plentiful whereas demand is limited by the number of projects available.  This makes it easy (and cheap) to ‘purchase’ what is needed, and allows the intermediaries to set and control conditions and prices, almost at will.  In other words, a failed market.

If you are a little confused after reading the last paragraph, just remember that for an intermediary, getting the business is tough, but finding a suck.. (oops), I mean a translator to do the work is easy.  It’s the same reason why many famous brands of expensive clothing and footwear spend a fortune on sales and marketing, and pay the poor sods that make the clothes and the runners from the loose change in their petty cash tin.  Hurray for for good old unfettered crapitalism, corruption and modern slavery.

So, from from the intermediaries’ perspective, they have adopted the correct business strategies.  From a professional translator’s point of view, however, the situation is clearly undesirable if not disastrous.  I am not telling you anything new here, however, the question begs to be asked why so many recognise that there is a major problem, and yet so few appear do anything about it.

Whilst changing the world is not the easiest of tasks, there are strategies that will, even if only incrementally, change things for the better if there are enough people tilting at this windmill.  The first and foremost of the things we can do is what we are supposed to be expert at: getting the nomenclature right.  We must make up our own mind about who and what we are, what we do, and how we do it, and we must express it in a language of our own, instead of allowing intermediaries to label us in the self-serving way they do.

Even more importantly, we must stop using the labels they have assigned to us to serve their own objectives, and start using our own.  I cringe every time I hear a colleague referring to himself or herself a being a free-lancer instead of a self-employed professional; being part of an ‘industry’ instead of a ‘profession’; being a ‘vendor’, a ‘supplier’, or having ‘a business like any other’.

Notwithstanding some ill-informed comments made by some contributors to various translator forums, including a few professional colleagues who are unable or unwilling to understand the distinction, being a professional translator is NOT a business.  We are not businessmen any more than your doctor, dentist or lawyer would regard themselves as businessmen (trust me, I have been a businessman for a large part of my career).  We do not buy and sell products or services.  We practise a professional skill based on knowledge, training and experience acquired through education, work experience and professional development, and we abide by ethical standards and codes of conduct that would be regarded as extremely onerous by most businesses.

Our incomes are not made up of gross sales – cost of sales = gross margin.  We do not generate a gross profit after deducting operating expenses from our gross margin.  Our incomes are made up of fees charged for highly specialised, professional services and advice, most of which make up our direct personal income (around 80%+ in my case, and I venture in the case of most of my professional colleagues).
So, if you accept the reasoning outlined above, we can move on to some of the things we can do to begin with.

As I have indicated in previous posts, we first-of-all need to differentiate ourselves as (certified) professional translators, as opposed to para-professionals or free-lancers.  In my view, a professional translator is university educated and is experienced enough to independently deliver a quality translation project or specialised advice in the language pair and field of specialisation.  He or she will have kept abreast of the latest technology used to improve the processes, consistency and accuracy of translations, and will take pride in their professional skill and conduct.

We (should) refer to ourselves as independent, (certified) professional translators rather than free-lancers, we (should) quote a fee or estimate for a project after careful examination of the source documents and the client’s requirements, rather than a rate per word (in advance of knowing what is required).  We (should) set our own terms and conditions, quality and ethical standards rather than accepting those stipulated by an intermediary who is not a qualified professional.

In other words, we must start acting as professionals if we have any hope of ever being regarded as professionals, and we must resist the pressures of the translation ‘industry’ who want to dominate their relationship with translators in order to control (reduce) their costs.  There is much more we can do, but this would be a good start.  Anything we do without getting these basics right, is probably going to be a waste of time and effort.

For more details about my professional profile, go to:

18 Responses to “To define oneself or to be defined by others”

  1. Halina July 2, 2013 at 6:36 am #

    Louis, I would like to congratulate you once more on taking up this enormous challenge of changing the system and reversing the tide, that clearly has taken the wrong turn and that’s why we all, the professional translators, are paying the price for it. And that price is that the work, i.e. our livelihood has now dried up.

    I appreciate your attempt at re-defining the translator status in professional, rather than commercial terms, challenging thus the intermediaries, which by their very nature use the latter. However, I wouldn’t go as far as denying those terms. They just form a different set of categories. We are selling our professional services, so we are professionals, but we’re also vendors or sellers. I call myself a freelancer, because I work independently for myself, i.e. I set my own terms of business and don’t accept intermediaries or re-sellers of my services to impose their terms upon me. Or at least that’s what I would like to do. The reality is that we are getting bullied by those intermediaries into submission, i.e. into accepting their terms. That’s because they have an upper hand over us, being able to choose from the vast resources of professionals and (what I call) pseudo-professionals or imposters. And it’s the latter ones that undercut the rates. They are more eager to accept the prices imposed by the agencies, which results in the lowering of standards. With no high standards required, professionals are squeezed out of equasion and the imposters proliferate. This aspect was actually not taken into account in your piece.

    • louisvr July 2, 2013 at 10:15 am #

      Hi Halina,
      The aspect you refer to in the last paragraph has been covered elsewhere. My blogs are a series rather than incidental essays. BTW, we do not sell our professional services, we provide them to the client for a fee (honorarium). Only agencies buy and sell translation services.

      Yes, the impact on the profession by imposters and para-professionals is at the heart of our problem, which is why differentiation is so important. If accountants did not differentiate themselves from bookkeepers, their incomes would be greatly reduced because of the much smaller fees demanded by bookkeepers.

      Your assertion that a freelancer can set his/her own terms, fees, etc., is a problematic one. The term ‘free-lance’ stems from a time not so long ago (1820 by Sir Walter Scott) to describe a medieval mercenary warrior (in the book Ivanhoe) to indicate that his lance is not sworn to any lord’s services, and that his lance is not available free of charge). In other words the ‘freelance’ would agree to carry his lance (fight) for any lord who offered to hire and pay him. The lord decided whom to fight, where to fight, when to fight, how much he was willing to pay; and also when the employment of the free-lancer would end (if he survived :-).

      The free-lancer may think of himself as being independent, but this is an illusion for the most part. His independence was limited to a single decision only, i.e. whether to accept the wage offered and join an army. After that, all decisions and control were very much in the hands of his lord, including his execution for desertion in the face of the enemy.

      It is the very antithesis of a independent professional, who generally works alone, independently determines his/her own fees, when to work and where to work, and who is responsible for the quality of outcomes, winning each battle as it were, whereas a freelancer only has to survive to fight another day when discharged from his current contract (of adhesion).

      Calling ourselves freelancers runs counter to a strategy designed to lift our standing and ensure our economic survival as professionals, so why do it?

      Every pseudo translator, imposter and para-professional calls him/herself a freelancer, the value is not in identifying ourselves WITH them (indeed quite the contrary as we now know from experience), but to differentiate ourselves FROM them to lift the ‘profession’ above the level to which the ‘industry’ has reduced it, i.e. begging for work at sweatshop wages from intermediaries who have taken control of the ‘profession’.

  2. Halina July 3, 2013 at 8:43 pm #

    Granted, I have not read everything you’ve written and my comments are based only on this piece.

    To me the problem is not with the terminology, but with the devaluation of the status of a freelancer and a translator due to the lowering of standards by the non-professionals. I believe we cannot escape the existing terminology to seek higher status, we just have to assign a higher meaning to it. You’ve described the origins of the term “freelancer”, but its meaning has evolved to describe the way you operate, rather than what you provide and it differentiates from being in somebody’s employ. The term “provider of translation services” on the other hand, describes what you offer, but not how you operate.

    Anyhow, terminology is but a trivial aspect in the greater scheme of things. To put it in a nutshell, what essentially needs to be done to remedy this undesirable state of affairs is to squeeze the intermediaries (administrators), pseudo- and mediocre translators from the market, which would considerably reduce the number of suppliers and leave the market to the core of reliable professionals. If you can come up with the workable solution for achieving this, you will have solved the problem of a translator status.

    • louisvr July 4, 2013 at 12:58 pm #

      The piece you read is a small part of the solution, Halina.
      Please read the series of blogs and their analyses, so that we repeat each others’ words and go around in circles.

  3. marialoose July 23, 2013 at 7:02 am #

    Louis, thanks for writing this very interesting blog. I am a professional translator specializing in legal and financial translations. After having workes as a lawyer for a couple of years and having worked as a translator for 25 years I am now coming back to translation and I am really shocked by the low fees paid by translation agencies. We have got to do something.

    • louisvr July 23, 2013 at 10:00 am #

      We do indeed, thank you for your support.
      I am working on it and will reveal all when ready.

  4. ribeirojc August 25, 2013 at 12:39 am #

    Good point, but…

    For those who think Darwin’s insight hold some value…

    Our ancestors (the apes) were very selfish individuals. Their survival depended on collecting fruit and other foodstuff (and, of course, having intercourse 😉

    When we evolved, those two things got tougher. Once on the ground and on foot, killing a mammoth needed cooperation! Also, family ties helped the survival of siblings. Therefore, grouping was adopted as a survival resource by our species.

    Now, with everything so handy (again) – instead of stretching your arm to grab a fruit we can access the internet and the world is a click away – we have gone back to the arboreal stage. Individualistic survival once more!

    End clients want it cheaper. Intermediaries want a larger margin. Translators want jobs (at whatever rate).

    A tough trend to break.

    • louisvr August 25, 2013 at 11:11 am #

      Sad, but true! As we saw in the 2007/08 crash, the prize of winning is shared by a very select few, whereas the cost of failure is shared by the many. Capitalism is becoming a euphemism for opportunism and exploitation of the powerless. We have come full circle indeed!

      The biggest animal eats first and as much as he or she wants (mostly he).
      The northern European and Scandinavian countries have shown the way forward, however, strong social cohesion/support and responsible government is not ‘competitive’ in a world where the principle of ‘every man for himself and the devil take the hindmost’ dominates, particularly when supported by military might.

      I’m glad I’m getting old Jose 🙂

      • ribeirojc August 25, 2013 at 11:21 am #

        Welcome to the club… I’m hoping I won’t be here to witness the (real) Armageddon I see ahead.
        I said to a friend, earlier today, that I’m here just waiting for my term. And having a hard time too!
        Reminds me of a song, ‘Ol’ Man River’, which says “I’m tired of living but I’m scared of dying” (the voice of a slave in a Southern State).
        And I’m older than you… 😉

      • louisvr August 25, 2013 at 3:14 pm #

        ‘Ol’ Man River’ indeed; perhaps this is not a time for despair or for joy, but for melancholy and reflection.
        Our children face a tough future, and they are ill prepared.
        It seems we are unable to achieve and maintain social justice in this world, other than temporarily, through violent revolution and bloodshed.
        Perhaps Einstein was right: “The world is a dangerous place to live; not because of the people who are evil, but because of the people who don’t do anything about it”.
        In my view that is what is wrong with our profession as well; everybody is waiting for someone else to set it to rights. Yea, right, pigs might fly!

  5. Malika Lakbiach October 22, 2013 at 10:19 pm #

    Thanks Louis for speaking up and speaking on our behalf and for pushing for change.

    I am one of those passionate professional translators who are trying to bring about change in the deplorable state of the translation these days. I am fed up with the way we are treated and seen as a mere production machine of translated texts: very tight deadlines, sometimes even impossible to achieve, unreasonable requirements, low rates for which one has to bid, and, to top it up, belated payments for which one has to beg.

    To become a professional translator one has to invest time and money and continue investing in order to keep the linguistic, social and cultural knowledge of the source and target countries/societies up to date. This knowledge is extremely essential in facilitating communication between different parts of the world. The translators possessing this knowledge should, therefore, be valued differently and treated with respect.

    For these reasons I refuse to lower my fees to compete with the pilferers and refuse to “produce” more than 1500 words a day (as a single translator). Also, if a client/translation agency states in their TCs that payments are done more than 30 days after invoicing, I refuse to work with them. Recently a translation agency I had worked with once before and it took me hundreds of emails to finally get my invoice sorted, approached me again if I was available. I replied saying that in principle I was available to take on the job, but on the condition that the payment would be done in advance. Of course, I never heard back from them 🙂

    • louisvr October 23, 2013 at 2:44 pm #

      Thank you Malika.
      If more of the professionals acted in a professional attitude, I believe that agencies would soon have to change their business model, because they cannot survive in the long run by using para-professionals.
      I know that we have long ago passed a tipping point and the road back will be an arduous one.
      However, a journey of 1000 miles starts with the first step….
      I am developing a code of practice and conduct for professional translators, but it takes time.

      • Jane Lamb-Ruiz March 22, 2014 at 11:39 pm #

        Your blog post was truly excellent. For me, the solution resides in translators grouping together much like lawyers, doctors and dentists who have “a group practice”, often as LLC’s and do the their own marketing/advertising. Now, how do those groups market themselves? Much like any other company but they retain their professionalism and their rates do not go down due to market forces. This partnership arrangement I am in favor of calls for a change of mentality and it also calls for setting up, organizing and investing in the ressources to do so (which needn’t necessarily be that high).

      • louisvr March 23, 2014 at 11:19 am #

        Thank you Jane, I continue to work at the solution to our problem.
        I will be lecturing on the issue at an AUSIT workshop on 3 May in Brisbane, and I am developing the systems to bring about a differentiation between the ‘profession’ and the ‘industry’ that is exploiting the ‘profession’.
        It will take time, but I sense a groundswell of support, and I am keen to bring this about.
        Keep in touch

  6. Kevin Lossner (@GermanENTrans) December 29, 2014 at 7:02 am #

    Excellent points, well made. Thank you, Louis. I’m sorry I didn’t see this long ago or I would have long since changed my own vocabulary.

  7. Milena Calderari-Waldron March 12, 2016 at 5:13 am #

    In an effort to raise the public’s awareness of the role of translators, interpreters, transcriber-translators and terminologists, a group of leading professionals convened to draft an outreach document describing who we are, what we do, and how we do it.

    For eight months, OSTI President Helen Eby and National Association of Judiciary Interpreters and Translators (NAJIT) Chair Esther Navarro-Hall led this team of colleagues from start to finish, gathering comments to draft a consensus document that could be endorsed by national professional associations. The purpose of this document is to advocate for the profession by educating third parties about the role of professional interpreters and translators. This will result in an improvement of the public image of interpreters and translators as well as a demand for higher standards and quality from those using language access services.

    Please distribute this document as you see fit.

    • louisvr March 12, 2016 at 7:05 am #

      Thank you Melina.
      I note that your association accepts corporate members.
      This suggests that your association is not a professional association as claimed in your ‘about’, but an industry association with a mixture of professionals (persons) and corporations (entities).
      In my experience the interests of corporations involved in the translation ‘industry’ is often at odds with the interests of the ‘profession’ and by extension translation clients.
      As a professional, I would be most reluctant to join a ‘professional’ association whose membership is not restricted to properly qualified professionals.
      BTW, the link to the document does not work.


  1. Hello, again! | translation, untangled - July 10, 2013

    […] How translators define themselves in the profession (or let others take over), by Louis Vorstermans […]

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