Tag Archives: translation profession
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A sad tale but true

24 Apr

IMG_3358 best cropped to 320 x 200 shortIn a recent moment of uncharacteristic whimsy, I responded to a ProZ enquiry by a private client, who needed a certified translation of various documents.
The client’s response to my offer of assistance opened follows:  Thank you for your response!  I am rather dismayed that, of the dozen or so responses that I received via proz, yours was the only one without English spelling, grammar and usage errors.  But I suppose I should look on the bright side: if I want to sign up with proz myself later, as a translator, the competition won’t be as tough as I had thought.  🙂

She is a native English speaker, and her compliment initially lifted my spirits; after all, most people are reluctant to compliment one’s professionalism, lest they be thought of as patronising.  It is a rare treat, therefore, and should be savoured.  On reflection, however, I understood that her words should not be regarded as a compliment about my skills and professionalism, however tempting that may be.

Her words should be understood for what they really are, i.e. a serious indictment of the so-called ‘translation industry’ that has sought to harness and exploit the skills of translation professionals through global sourcing mechanisms like ProZ et al.  This is sometimes erroneously, but more often than not fraudulently, referred to as an innovative expansion of the ‘free market’.  There is nothing new about this sort of opportunistic, exploitative and long-discredited c[r]apitalism, of course, and it is not going to be abandoned in favour of more ethical but less profitable alternatives any time soon.

It would be easy to dismiss it as a minor incident of little consequence, but I have come across disappointed, and sometimes despairing, clients before; so I think it is worthwhile to have a closer look at the details and what they imply:

1) The client clearly indicated that she needed Dutch translated into English and that she preferred a native speaker of the target language.  If we lived in a rational world, having to spell out the latter requirement would be regarded as redundant, but it seems we don’t.
Why then would all responses, bar mine, be from people who are either not fluent in English, or worse, who are not very articulate if they are native speakers of English?

2) She also asked for a certified translation.  Am I to assume that all the responses came from ‘accredited’ professionals?  Or did those who responded believe they would be able to ‘fake’ it; or worse, believed they could get an ‘accredited’ translator to do it for even less than what they quoted?

Are we seeing the beginning of the end of the ‘free market’ global sourcing model for translations?  Are those who are qualified to handle a translation like this no longer responding to the ‘offerings/opportunities’ on ProZ et al?  Did our professional colleagues wake up to the idea that depriving predatory language services brokers/agencies of their expertise, though perhaps counter-intuitive, is the obvious way to improve their own professional status and career?

In view of the warm feelings of appreciation the client engendered in me, I felt I owed her a warning about entering the translation profession on the basis of assumptions derived from the responses she received via a blind auction site like ProZ.  I pointed out to her that linguistics, professional competence, knowledge or expertise, are not necessarily the deciding factors for an ‘industry’ that uses ‘global sourcing’ to hire casual or freelance translators.

What really saddens me about this, is that yet another person will talk about her very ordinary experience, without clearly understanding and differentiating between the translation  ‘industry’ and the translation ‘profession’.

It is mostly our own fault.  Many among our colleagues appear unable or unwilling to decide whether they are free-lancers (casual, contract workers), run a small business (selling services for profit), or whether they are self-employed professionals (in private practice).  Until we decide among ourselves who and/or what we are, we will not convince anyone else.
As a consequence, we will have the devil of a job protecting and advancing our personal, professional interests and long-term careers.

When the current, downward spiral hits bottom and the opportunistic part of the ‘industry’ hits the wall, the ‘profession’ will both gain and lose.  We will, of course, be blamed by the very entrepreneurs/opportunists responsible for the cause the collapse; after all, they are not likely to blame themselves for the poor quality of the translations they have sold and subsequently procured from dubious sources, are they?

Hopefully though, the end clients will learn that having a close and enduring relationship with a professional translator delivers better quality at the same if not lower cost.  The critical factor in this, is whether the end client understands the difference between an intermediary sourcing the cheapest possible translation through the internet, and a well-established, accredited, professional translator.  Even more importantly, whether a client will be able to locate and identify a professional translator.  If not, the client will choose an agency to ‘find the translator’ (read: handle the translation), and we will be right back where we started.

There are a number of solutions, but until everybody agrees on what the problem is, no solution will be seriously considered or accepted.  This is where my innate optimism takes a bit of a beating.  Discussions among translators suggest that every 12 of them have 13 or more different opinions on whether translators are free-lancers (i.e. casual employees hired by agencies), self-employed professionals, or business owners/vendors of translation services.  Few of the opinions demonstrate any knowledge or understanding of the differences.  Yet, it is the thorough understanding of these differences that determines the strategies that are likely to succeed and/or fail.

 

 

07 Internal audit – Our main weaknesses

21 May

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

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

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

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

There are lots of weaknesses to choose from…

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

More in 08

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

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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