Tag Archives: Translation
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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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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: 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