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02 Identifying the challenges for the translation profession

23 Apr

LouisAs I said in my introductory post, I see the translation services sector as consisting of two distinct parts, i.e. the original ‘profession’ on the one hand, and the relatively recent arrival of the ‘industry’ on the other.
The ‘industry’ is essentially a supply chain created and controlled by agencies, brokers and middlemen, who have inserted themselves between the professional translator and the client.  Because of their position in the supply chain (direct relationship with the client), and because of a number of other reasons discussed below, they are increasingly able to exploit the profession, thereby causing the profession’s rapid decline in prosperity, and possibly its eventual destruction.
Killing the goose that lays the golden eggs and winding up with a duck that lays rocks 🙂

This would not have happened, of course, unless there were reasons for it to occur.
The main reasons, as I see it, are:

(1) the rapid growth of global trade and the advent of the Internet in particular, which has meant that many clients need to have their documentation and their internet sites translated into a wide range of languages at the one time, exceeding the limits and capacity of most self-employed professionals and small professional practices who handle a limited number of languages they are able to guarantee in terms of quality;

(2) the profession has failed to differentiate itself from the industry, making it difficult for a potential client to separate a professional translator from a para-professional, or even an amateur or indeed a fraud.  This has led them to hire agencies/middlemen/brokers to make the choice on their behalf, being unaware that this may not be a good decision these days;

(3) the rise of CAT tools, making relatively routine translation projects easier to manage, with paraprofessionals to handle most of the work; and last but not least,

(4) the establishment of internet auction sites like ProZ, the TranslatorsCafe and others, which have provided agencies, brokers and middlemen with a system that allows them to offer ‘professional translation services’ they cannot perform themselves, and to recruit free-lance translators (casual,contract workers) to do the work for them.  The sites allows them to list their projects and recruit translators through a blind auction system, driving down translation rates to what is in most cases an unsustainable level already.  The fact that this also drives down quality standards is yet to be discovered by many of the end clients, but time will tell.

There are no doubt other, less significant reasons, and though they are not essential for the purpose of my arguments, I am happy to hear them if they are relevant.
It is not my intention to deal with the ‘industry’, the supply chain issues or those willing to work within the supply chain; that is a problem for those who have a stake in the ‘industry’.

My focus will be on the ‘translation profession’ and how to slow down and hopefully reverse its decline by differentiating it from the ‘industry’ and by developing the strategies needed to succeed as a professional translator/practice.  This will include what I believe needs to be done to allow end clients to find the reliable, high-quality advice and services they often require (and do not get any more from  agencies/middlemen competing with each other on price), and to ensure that translation professionals can survive and prosper as the sector matures and the inevitable fall-out occurs.

I intend to do this by developing a strategic framework that can be used by most if not all self-employed, professional translators and small professional practices (owned by qualified language professionals guaranteeing the work), starting with a vision of what the future of the profession could be, based on what can and needs to be achieved to be successful.

So watch this space and read Blog 03.

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

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