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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:

Translator credit for agencies/intermediaries

9 Jun

IMG_3358 best cropped to 320 x 200 shortWhen it comes to translators complaining about LSPs/agencies and other intermediaries, their ‘payment practices’ are right up there with the pressure on ‘rates’ (if you are a professional translator, please charge a fee for the project, instead of agreeing to ‘rates’).

I recently terminated a successful, long-time working relationship with a colleague, who has operated a one-man, well-established translation services practice for more than 30 years.  He sent me a lot of Dutch/Flemish>English translation work for almost a decade.  He liked the quick turnarounds, my knowledge, expertise and experience in the technical/commercial/legal field, all of which allowed him to build a reputation for being able to provide high-quality technical/commercial/legal Dutch>English translations.

His payment practices were somewhat erratic, averaging 60 days from date of invoice/completion of project (some one-man operations are a bit like that), but I weighed this against the regular volume, the close and collegial collaboration, and his willingness to pay my very reasonable fees.  I also knew what he charged the client, so a solid professional relationship worth looking after.

However, when the financial tsunami hit Europe, (once again) caused by the Wall Street Casino, things went pear-shaped and he admitted that things were getting difficult, so I agreed to be flexible and to help in any way I could.
However, when I started noticing that work dried up once accounts became seriously overdue, the warning lights started blinking.  This behaviour is fairly typical of such circumstances; use someone else until you can pay, and then switch back and let the other guy carry the can for a while (I have owned a collection agency in the distant past, so I have seen it all before).

When things went from bad to worse early this year, he told me that he was setting up additional (small) and unrelated businesses to diversify his income stream and that he ‘hoped to be able to pay me soon’.

When I pointed out that he was using my money to set up other businesses, the response became a little terse, focusing on his ‘loyalty to me’ over the years and how “he had advanced payment to me and his other translators over the years before he got paid himself”.  This argument has been used by other intermediaries, and the sheer chutzpah needed to use it, is breathtaking.  I made an attempt at pointing out that he was not an agent acting on my behalf and in my interest, and that my contract was with him only, not his client….. It was a waste of time, and I was accused of refusing to see his point of view.  Also not uncommon in these situations.

I am sure you understand that my willingness to be flexible, evaporated at this point, so I examined the realities, separate from our personal and business relationship, and here they are:

The commercial realities are relatively simple: the capital that a business enterprise requires, is usually made up of 3 main components:

(1) the capital (often in the form of a loan) that the owner puts into the business and on which he must earn a return to cover inflation, opportunity cost and risk (I would think at least 15% in the current settings for this type of ‘enterprise’).  In small businesses, this loan is often extracted again as soon as cash-flow becomes available, rendering the financial foundation of such small privately-owned businesses rather weak, to say the least;

(2) borrowings like overdrafts, secured loans, etc., on which the business has to pay the bank interest (say around 12 – 15% when including fees and penalties)

(3) working capital made up of the positive difference between assets and liabilities.  In this type of business, this is primarily the difference between the money that the business is owed by clients, and the money it owes the translators (debtors and creditors respectively).

The latter, (3), is essentially free money, of course. The sooner you can get your clients to pay, and the longer you delay payment of your translators, the more working capital you have, and the less you need of the two former modes of (costly) financing.

Unfortunately, the reverse is also true, and this poses a considerable risk for the translators working for such agencies. Many fly-by-night, and even well-established agencies, with little or no capital or borrowings of their own, will try to make ends meet by carefully managing (manipulating) this equation. However, they fall over rather rapidly when things get tough and their own clients delay payment.  When this happens, it is the unfortunate translator who foots the bill.

If my observations are anything to go by in this business of rapid global interchange of services and payments, the translators generally know little or nothing about the agency or its owner(s) that would either warn them about the risks of extending credit to them, or to help them collect their money when the proverbial hits the fan.

It seems that in this respect too, the freelance translator is the proverbial ‘hindmost’ in this predominantly Anglo-American model of a largely free-for-all, market-driven economy where it is ‘every man for himself and the devil take the hindmost’.
There is a need for freelance translators to first request some basic information do some ‘due diligence’ before agreeing to extend credit to an agency, e.g. owner(‘s) name and private address, business registration, years in business, etc.

Oops, I just got interrupted by a pig flying past my window 🙂

For more details about my professional profile, go to:

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:


06 External audit – Opportunities

19 May

IMG_3358 best cropped to 320 x 200 short(Always) remember the mission, i.e. the mission for the translation ‘profession’, not for a commercial group, or a professional practice, or individual translator.  That will come later, based on the general principles, framework and strategic plan developed for the ‘profession’ as a whole.

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, providing reliable, high-quality language translation services and associated professional advice.

OK, it is easier to identify problems than opportunities, because the former tend to get our attention when they cause difficulties, annoyance and frustration, whereas opportunities are not always obvious to everyone.

There is, and always will be, a role for competent, professional agencies to manage large translation projects of a basic nature, i.e. a project management role.  However, there will be a number of obvious advantages in cutting out intermediaries who do not add value, particularly for a translation between two particular languages or within a related group of languages handled by a professional translation practice specializing in these languages.

The rising number of intermediaries entering the market obviously includes opportunists that have little or no professional, language or translation skills, and are competing for business only on price, and the promise of almost instantaneous delivery.  Their claims are often misleading, and rely on the ignorance of potential clients and aspiring or unqualified free-lancers, to capture part of the rapidly expanding demand for translation services.

Any translator who has been approached  by such ‘LSPs’ will be aware of the increasingly ridiculous delivery time-lines that are specified, and paradoxically, the sharply declining rates that are offered to meet these deadlines.  They will also be aware of the effect this is having on the ability of well-established and experienced professional agencies and qualified translators, to compete with them.

I have frequently listened, at first sceptically I admit, to what is clearly the genuine lament of very professional agency clients who were formerly happy to pay my very reasonable rates, when they told me that they can no longer afford to do so because of the ‘competitive situation’ in the ‘market’.

These developments inevitably lead to the hiring of often inexperienced or unqualified translators, and as a consequence, to failures in terms of delivery and quality.  I hope and expect that this will result in a growing realization on the part of potential clients, that using intermediaries other than professional agencies to handle professional services, is increasingly fraught with considerable risk.  The situation is not helped by well-qualified colleagues lowering their rates to unsustainable levels, thus prolonging and exacerbating the problem.
I know you have to eat, but not just today.  What about next year?

Some of the main external opportunities for differentiating ourselves from the industry, therefore, are:

  1. to make potential clients aware that these risks can be reduced if not eliminated altogether, by using the advice and the skills of a properly qualified, accredited and experienced ‘professional’ translator for a specific task;
  2. to point out the advantages that can be derived from direct contact between the client and the professional handling the translation, which is likely to ensure a much better understanding of the client’s needs, leading to better outcomes;
  3. to demonstrate the potential for a substantial reduction in immediate costs by eliminating the intermediary, who has overheads, sales and marketing expenses, as well as the need to make a profit;
  4. to point to an improvement in delivery time-lines by eliminating double-handling, as well as the opportunity to deliver files as they are completed, rather than waiting until the entire project has been completed (and reassembled when using multiple translators to meet an irrational promise of an almost impossible delivery deadline).
    I rarely find that a direct client is in a great hurry, other then lawyers, of course :-);
  5. to provide a client with a direct, professional warranty in respect of quality and reliability;
  6. to get to know the client’s business and therefore to provide a style of writing that is closely aligned to the client’s corporate image; and,
  7. to develop a relationship with a professional translator who is able to assist with advice, recommendations for languages and material he or she is not qualified to handle.
    After all, entry into a foreign market is rarely a one-off event.  It takes time and effort to succeed in a foreign market, and having a professional language expert on your side is an enormous help with advice on both language and cultural issues.

Given a good bottle of red (for inspirational purposes only you understand), I am sure that I and a few close colleagues could come up with more opportunities to market the advantages of using translation professionals rather than intermediaries, and I hope some of you will contribute to the above list by responding to this post.

We need to collect and assemble these advantages in a well-prepared document, on a/our websites, and promote them at every opportunity.

However, none of this is going to be of any use whatsoever to our cause, if a potential client cannot distinguish between a properly qualified, accredited and experienced translator, and anyone else out there making a series of dubious if not downright fraudulent claims in this regard.  Particularly also, if some of our professional colleagues keep accepting work at a pauper’s wage instead of offering their services at a fee that properly reflects their education, training and experience.  It is also clear that professional translators must collaborate with colleagues or establish professional practices to handle larger projects and different languages.

Ergo, for qualified, accredited and experienced translators to succeed in this rapidly failing market, we must differentiate ourselves from the rest (i.e. when it hits the fan, we must make sure that we are in a different room :-).  Before we work on how best to do this (short-term and long-term objectives and the strategies for achieving them) we must complete our SWOT/TOWS analysis, i.e. the identification of our own (internal) weaknesses and strengths.

To be successful, we must exploit our strengths and work to reduce, if not eliminate, our weaknesses.

In my next blog, I will try and list what I regard as our greatest weaknesses (get the bad news out of the way first!).  (07)

For more details about my professional profile, go to:

05 Internal and external audit (SWOT/TOWS)

12 May

IMG_3358 best cropped to 320 x 200 shortBefore we go on, remember the mission, i.e. the mission for the translation ‘profession’, not for a commercial group, or a professional practice, or an individual translator.  That will come later, based on the general principles, framework and strategic plan developed for the ‘profession’ as a whole.

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, providing reliable, high-quality language translation services and associated professional advice.

The development of a strategic plan must be based on a foundation of knowledge about ourselves and our commercial environment.  The less knowledge we have, the less reliable will be the strategies.  Indeed, one of the factors that is having a negative impact on the fortunes of translators (particularly new graduate entrants), is a lack of knowledge about how to build a ‘successful professional practice’, their ‘market’ and their ‘clients’, because the intermediaries have been very successful in inserting themselves between the translator and the end client. Some will argue that they filled the vacuum left by translators as demand exploded.

This problem has been  exacerbated by the rise of the Internet and blind auction sites like ProZ, where the translator does not get any market feedback or a feel for  the prices offered by his or her ‘competitors’ (known as valued colleagues in the profession), whereas the intermediaries do.

In short, the intermediaries have successfully established a product chain they tightly control with a structure they have put in place for exactly that purpose.  In other words, a structure that serves their purposes at the expense of the translators.  Look at any tightly controlled product chain you like, and then look at the prosperity of the party at the end of the chain who supplies the product, or does the work (in the case of a service).  It is rarely a pretty picture, which is why independent professionals (other than most translators it seems), will do anything they can to avoid getting locked into such a supply chain.

I obviously don’t have the time or the resources to conduct an in-depth audit and analysis of both the market for translation services and its players, or the strength and weaknesses of the ‘profession’ and its members, but I think we know enough to draw the conclusions we need to develop a strategic plan.

Internal and external audits (SWOT or TOWS) are the technical steps in the process of developing a strategic plan, and they are generally followed by weighting the results of this process.  These are then put into a matrix to identify the most serious risks and the best opportunities, together with some complicated mathematics to define the level of confidence for a course of action.  However, in the absence of a structured, comprehensive and detailed analysis, this is clearly beyond the scope of this exercise for the time being.  So let’s try and do the best we can for the moment, and perhaps tighten things up as we go along.

Let’s start with the external audit, i.e. the Threats and Opportunities in our external environment such as the market for language services, the competition from intermediaries and para-professionals, regulations and technical constraints, etc., before we deal with the Weaknesses and Strengths of our profession as a whole.  I’ll start with the external Threats that I am aware of (please let me know if I have missed any threats that are crucial to this dissertation):

External threats:

  • Surely the most serious threat to the translation ‘profession’, is the increasing dominance of the market for translation services by agencies, brokers and assorted middlemen, carpetbaggers and opportunists (i.e. intermediaries);
  • The dominance in the market by the intermediaries has resulted in a significant imbalance of market power in their favour, which is exploited to erode the position and power of the profession to force down the fees paid to the translators who are doing the work (the primary cost factor of an intermediary).  They would be silly if they didn’t!;
  • Largely as a consequence of the overwhelming market power of the intermediaries and the way they operate to secure and maintain their market dominance, they are able to manipulate the supply-side of the equation and encourage entry into the ‘profession’ of para-professional translators, fraudsters, etc., thus further encouraging the perception on the part of potential clients that translators are a minor cog in their big wheel;
  • Also as a consequence of this proliferation of LSPs and para-professionals, the end clients are finding it more-and-more difficult to distinguish the ‘profession’ from the rest, and will (often) mistakenly assume that relying on an ‘agency’ to sort the grain from the chaff, is the only way to manage their requirements and associated risks.
    The intermediaries, of course, have no interest in correcting this assumption on the part of a potential client, indeed they will no doubt actively promote it, warning the potential client about the risks of contracting (the wrong) translators directly, or seeking a second opinion from other, ‘less professional’ agencies;
  • The longer this situation is allowed to exist, the more pervasive it will become; and even though there is likely to be a shake-out at some stage; the more entrenched the system will become;
  • The perception, and to some extent the reality, of MT, and the impact it is having on translation services in a broad sense.  The most pernicious effect is the implicit and often explicit suggestion that the role of translators is rapidly diminishing and may ultimately become redundant.  More about this under ‘opportunities; and last but not least,
  • The duplicitous role played by governments, to whom some of my more naive colleagues sometimes turn for help.  Governments are often the main beneficiaries of the declining fortunes of our profession!  In Australia, the government long ago set up a company (owned by both the Commonwealth and the state governments) ‘to set minimum standards for persons wishing to enter the profession’ (a requirement for doing government-related work).  A barrier to entry into the profession that should be welcomed by everyone, but for the real, underlying objective.  The real objective is manipulation the supply-side of the equation for a positive outcome for the owners of the company, to wit, the various governments mentioned.  The predictable outcome has been to provide a large (and a cheap) pool of translators and interpreters for the government agencies to draw on when needed (many with very rudimentary training, education or skills).  This, in addition to channelling the hiring of particularly interpreters for government-related services through agencies using a tendering process, has resulted in a remuneration structure for the persons providing the services, that is little better than that of the lollipop lady at the school crossing.I note that the British government has enthusiastically copied the system last year, resulting in predictable chaos in the provision of interpreting services to courts and other government agencies in that country.  I have little or no doubt that they received pertinent advice from Australia.  Anyone acting in this manner in the private sector, would, of course, be subjected to severe penalties if not jail time.

So much for the at least the major threats that I can think of at the moment.  No doubt there are others, and I will be happy to add any that are relevant.
Next week I will deal with the opportunities for the profession, and after that the Weaknesses and Strengths that we have and must reduce and exploit respectively, if we want to improve our lot.

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04 The mission of the translation ‘profession’

2 May

IMG_3358 best cropped to 320 x 200 shortYou will remember from my previous blog: that “my personal vision is for professional translators to achieve the recognition and rewards that a CPA enjoys today (i.e. CPT – Certified Practising or Professional Translator).
I imagine having a small professional practice with possibly one, two or three highly motivated, well-educated and experienced partners and one or two support people, together with a new entrant into the profession being mentored in a professional environment (and perhaps a few professional, free-lance associates).”

If this is a generally acceptable vision of a basic professional practice among translators, as I believe it is from what I hear from colleagues, then what does the profession as a whole need to do to enable the realisation of this vision?  In other words, what will be the mission we have to accomplish together to achieve this outcome or something resembling it, and arrest the decline of the profession.

Perhaps I can put it as follows (improvements welcomed):

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

If successful, I would expect that some governments will eventually move to protect their citizens from unqualified language services providers by officially recognising their national chapter of CPTs as the only professionals permitted to certify translations.

Differentiation from the ‘industry’ means that we must establish ourselves as a proper, recognisable profession and start acting and performing as professionals.  Where the opportunity presents itself, we must make it clear to potential clients and the public generally, that language services provided by anyone other than a CPT, or a practice owned and controlled by CPTs may be inaccurate, unreliable and/or lacking in linguistic/cultural finesse.

In practical terms, it means that we will have to do things like:

  • setting up an international professional institute/association with a certification system controlled by peers.  This is a technical issue for a later stage.  This can initially be just be a confidential database of qualified translators interested in becoming members, using some basic but very strict criteria;
  • establishing and accepting a strict code of ethics, that we make public and promote world-wide.  A code of ethics that the client can confidently rely upon because we strictly enforce it by disciplining members who breach the code;
  • establishing basic operational practices (a code of conduct) including such rules as not offering our services in blind auctions like ProZ, by bidding against each other, but instead offering our services on the basis of requesting the documents for (confidential) analysis, and only then providing a fee estimate and a delivery time-line. (rates are only used for internal costing and are never publicised)
  • not ‘applying’ for free-lance/casual worker status with non-professional agencies by filling out their ‘application forms and singing their contracts of adhesion.  Those who do not wish to establish a professional practice can establish a free-lance professional relationship with a professional practice or several practices as a free-lance associate;
  • Having a website with our own URL, compliant with agreed professional standards set by the institute/association;
  • providing a (standardised) list of our terms and conditions of service;
  • creating a standardised NDA of our own and rejecting any NDA from clients or agencies in their stead;

There is a lot more we can and must do to clearly identify and differentiate our professional status and our independence from the ‘industry’ and paraprofessional translators, but the details are for the time when we start dealing with policy.
However, it is useful to give a general indication of what is required to present a professional profile, so that those who may have difficulty meeting them, will not waste their time and ours in trying to join a profession that does not suit them.

There will be those (usually unqualified), who will loudly proclaim that this is all nonsense and will never work (the easy cop-out).  That we are just running a business like any other and that we “should get out of the kitchen of we can’t stand the heat”, etc.
To them I say this: I have been a CEO for more than 25 years of 4 different companies and organisations (including an producer association), and I know the difference between a business and a professional practice.  They are very different, and failing to understand this is part of the problem.

I also happen to have an MBA and my graduation dissertation dealt with the strategic issues faced by the above-mentioned producer association who faced a dilemma that was different, but not dissimilar to ours, i.e. being part of a product chain dominated by a few large companies who controlled the producers with a contract of adhesion.

The basic framework I am using for discussing the various steps involved in achieving our aims, is a proven strategic planning tool developed by Professor Michael Porter from the Harvard Business School.  So I’m not just stumbling around in the dark 🙂

The steps follow a specific and logical order to ensure a successful outcome:

  1. articulating a vision;
  2. formulating a mission statement of how we plan to realise the vision;
  3. a SWOT analysis (internal and external audit);
  4. establishing long term objectives (longer than one year);
  5. establishing policies and annual objectives (shorter than one year);
  6. allocating resources such as budgets and people;
  7. measuring and evaluating performance/outcomes.
  8. Review and adjustment

In my experience, a lot of strategic planning fails because those doing the planning (particularly committees) do not have the skills or training they need; they leave out some of the steps, or start in the wrong place.  As a result, they keep going around in circles or wind up in a dead end.  Indeed, not having a clear (articulated and agreed) vision of what is to be achieved, is often the primary cause of a plan failing in its early stages.
If you don’t know where you are going…………

The SWOT will be the hard part, involving a lot of guesswork in the absence of reliable information.  Any help in this respect would be welcome.

More in 05

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03 The vision for the translation profession

29 Apr

IMG_3358 best cropped to 320 x 200 shortIt takes only a cursory reading of the postings by members of the various translators’ groups to realise that the outlook reflected by the more thoughtful of our colleagues, is a grim one indeed.  The universal complaints speak of powerlessness in the face of exploitation and abuse by agencies, brokers and assorted intermediaries posing as language services providers.

What I find most discouraging about these posts (apart from some of the unprofessional comments among them), is the prevailing despondency and the lack of effort made to bring about change.  Regrettably, this is not a new experience.  When attending meetings of our institute or running workshops dealing with the commercial aspects of being a translator/interpreter, I always find a willingness to complain and a reluctance to take action.  I know a good moan among colleagues can make you feel better for a little while, but in the end, the best cure is fixing the problem, or at least improving the situation.

True, it’s easier said than done, but even a failed attempt is better than doing nothing at all, which is what has probably led to the current situation in the first place.  Between us, we have a lot of knowledge, talent and expertise, so why not put it to good use?

Fixing a problem is a bit like taking a journey.  You already know, or should at least determine where you are now, and then you have to decide where you would like to be.  Like planning a holiday: we are tired of our daily routine and have a vague idea of what we would like instead, i.e. sunshine, beaches, cold drinks, sleep-ins, etc.  However, we still have to decide exactly where to go before we can start planning and organising the trip, book tickets, hotels, etc. Just dreaming about it is not going to do much good 🙂

The same is true for what we need to achieve for our profession.  We need to decide what we want our future to be, before we decide how to get there.  A wise man (or perhaps a woman, the name escapes me) once said: “If you don’t know where you are going, you will probably wind up in a place you do not want to be”.

I cannot help thinking that the translation ‘profession’ has very much arrived in the place we do not want to be, and by all accounts, we are not happy about it.  We have allowed others to decide where we should be, and here we are, in a place where the others want us to be 😦
The ‘industry’ has been growing exponentially, whilst the profession has been sidelined with nowhere to go but down.  Yes, I am generalising, but that’s the only way we can avoid clouding our judgement with technicalities and irrelevant details.  We’ll attend to the details later.

So, where do we want to be instead of where we are now.  Some of us are there already, of course, or at least nearly so, but from what I can see, even they feel the cold draft of an uncertain and less prosperous future.  There will also be differences of opinion about what the vision for the profession should be, but since nobody is putting forward any alternatives, I’ll venture out there and put forward my own vision for a successful professional future.  I’ll be happy to hear any others, but don’t just criticise!

As it happens, we are rather fortunate in a one sense.  There are a number of professions out there that have gone through the long process of building a commanding respect, and with it, very much improved their incomes.  Let’s not forget that doctors started out as barbers doing a bit of doctoring on the side, and dentists were once blacksmiths who discovered that people with a tooth ache are willing to pay more than people who want new shoes for their horses.  Both their journeys into a highly regarded and highly remunerated profession was a long and arduous one, but in our case, we can take the shorter route.  After all, since this wheel has been invented already by various professions, all we need to do is modify it to suit our purposes.

In my own lifetime, I have seen accountants rise from obscurity to the highly regarded status of CPA, and in my view, their basic system would suit us quite well.  Now, you know that there are doctors and there are nurses, there are dentists and dental technicians, and there are accountants and bookkeepers.  In going forward, it must be understood that there are professional translators (university educated) and there are para-professional translators (those with some language skills but little or no formal education at tertiary level.  There will be some overlap here and there, but we cannot develop a vision to suit both, a common failure among translator associations with a focus on increasing membership rather than protecting and advancing the interests of the members.  In this case I will proceed on the basis of establishing a vision for the professional translator only.

I do not necessarily mean that a professional translator has to have a degree in translation studies.  Indeed, a translator with a degree in any discipline together with a good knowledge of another language and some translation studies, as is the case for many of us, will be well-equipped to translate material related to his or her discipline from a second language into his or her first language.  I have no doubt that we will need to specialise in the long run if we are to survive as a profession.

So what is my vision for the future of professional translators like myself?  My personal vision is for professional translators to achieve the recognition and rewards that a CPA enjoys today (i.e. CPT – Certified Practising or Professional Translator).

I imagine having a small professional practice with one, two or three highly motivated, well-educated and experienced partners and one or two support personnel, together with a new entrant into the profession being mentored in a professional environment.  Such small practices may also be able to act as an agent for a number of properly vetted free-lance translators who prefer to continue working in that capacity rather than invest in a practice of their own.

You will note that I said ‘act as an agent for freelancers’ rather than as an agent for clients/governments.  Think about that for a moment……………………………………..….., if it’s good enough for a film star, it is surely good enough for a professional translator!

This is more than a just a dream of course, because such professional practices (bureaus/agencies) already exist, and many of my colleagues do, in one way or another, act and perform as professionals already.  However………………………, the world at large does not understand the difference between a professional translator, a para-professional translator, an agency/broker/intermediary or the bi-lingual tea lady for that matter.  Part of this is general ignorance, and part of it is the dominance of the sector today by large agencies who have a vested interest in minimising the importance of translators.

The greater responsibility, however, must rest with ourselves.  I constantly hear colleagues talk about rates instead of fees, working for agencies instead of providing services to agencies, not getting paid enough instead of not charging enough, etc. etc. ad infinitum.  This is what has to change among other things; i.e. we must start thinking of ourselves as independent, self-employed professionals instead of casual workers (like fruit pickers), waiting in a parking lot (ProZ) for a gang boss (agency) to hire us at a minimum wage.

The next step will be to define what it is that we have to do to achieve the vision of ourselves as successful, self-employed professionals, i.e. our mission.  Till next time (04)

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