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.

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

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

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

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)

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

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