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To define oneself or to be defined by others

1 Jul

IMG_3358 best cropped to 320 x 200 shortIt seems to me that the way we are perceived will calibrate a future client’s expectations of what we will be able to do for them, and by extension, what we should be paid for doing it if ‘hired’.

I used the term ‘hired’ in the last sentence, because it is a word most often used by translation ‘industry’ intermediaries (agencies, LSPs, brokers, entrepreneurs, hucksters, etc.) to define the process of engaging the services of an independent translator.  They also use terms like vendor, free-lance/r, member of ‘their’ team, etc., in a deliberate attempt to lower the perception of a translator’s importance in their scheme of things, i.e. the product chain they have created and control.

As part of their overall strategy, intermediaries will also insist that translators fill in ‘application forms’ even though their profiles are readily available on the internet sites where they advertised the project.  They often demand that the translator sign a contract disguised as a confidentiality agreement, and they insist that the translator accept the intermediary’s ‘terms and conditions’ and agrees to a piecework rate of pay in advance of being considered for any (potential) engagement.

These terms and conditions usually include very generous payment terms (funded by the translator for the benefit of the intermediary), yet the intermediaries generally offer little or nothing in return apart from a promise of ‘potential’ work provided the ‘price’ is right.  This is clearly where a free-lance translator will be offering his or her lance in return for whatever wage is offered (ProZ, Translation Directory, etc.)

The terms used leave little doubt that most intermediaries see independent and free-lance translators as casual employees or day labourers at best, and they expect them to work at their direction and for piecework rates that reflect this perception.  Yet, when viewing the often spectacular internet sites of the same intermediaries, they claim to have ‘as part of their team’ a selection of the best qualified professionals that the world has to offer. As Transperfect puts it: “a network of over 5,000 certified linguists and subject-area specialists”, which appears to be the only reference to the people who actually provide the services they sell.

So why this apparent contradiction in the way they present the resources they claim to have available and the way they treat the very same ‘certified linguists and specialists’.  Well, the principle is a well-established one and simple enough.  To succeed as an intermediary/trader/business, you must sell high and buy low (the bigger the difference, the more money you make), so intermediaries do battle on two fronts:

(1) they sell their services in a very competitive market of their own making, i.e. the market for translation services or the ‘industry’.  Supply (the number of intermediaries) in this market is plentiful because anybody can hang out a shingle; and as a result, demand (for translation work) is limited by being spread among the many competitors.  This makes it tough to sell translation services, and pricing is often the blunt instrument used by those with little else to offer.

(2) once an intermediary secures a ‘sale’, they need to find a ‘supplier’ for the service they have just offered to provide, i.e. a competent, professional translator, and at the best possible price/cost (you can see how having a long list of translators with fixed rates per word can be very useful in the context).  Thanks to the internet, free entry into the translation ‘profession’ and the market power of the intermediaries facilitated by various blind auction sites like ProZ, supply in this case is also plentiful whereas demand is limited by the number of projects available.  This makes it easy (and cheap) to ‘purchase’ what is needed, and allows the intermediaries to set and control conditions and prices, almost at will.  In other words, a failed market.

If you are a little confused after reading the last paragraph, just remember that for an intermediary, getting the business is tough, but finding a suck.. (oops), I mean a translator to do the work is easy.  It’s the same reason why many famous brands of expensive clothing and footwear spend a fortune on sales and marketing, and pay the poor sods that make the clothes and the runners from the loose change in their petty cash tin.  Hurray for for good old unfettered crapitalism, corruption and modern slavery.

So, from from the intermediaries’ perspective, they have adopted the correct business strategies.  From a professional translator’s point of view, however, the situation is clearly undesirable if not disastrous.  I am not telling you anything new here, however, the question begs to be asked why so many recognise that there is a major problem, and yet so few appear do anything about it.

Whilst changing the world is not the easiest of tasks, there are strategies that will, even if only incrementally, change things for the better if there are enough people tilting at this windmill.  The first and foremost of the things we can do is what we are supposed to be expert at: getting the nomenclature right.  We must make up our own mind about who and what we are, what we do, and how we do it, and we must express it in a language of our own, instead of allowing intermediaries to label us in the self-serving way they do.

Even more importantly, we must stop using the labels they have assigned to us to serve their own objectives, and start using our own.  I cringe every time I hear a colleague referring to himself or herself a being a free-lancer instead of a self-employed professional; being part of an ‘industry’ instead of a ‘profession’; being a ‘vendor’, a ‘supplier’, or having ‘a business like any other’.

Notwithstanding some ill-informed comments made by some contributors to various translator forums, including a few professional colleagues who are unable or unwilling to understand the distinction, being a professional translator is NOT a business.  We are not businessmen any more than your doctor, dentist or lawyer would regard themselves as businessmen (trust me, I have been a businessman for a large part of my career).  We do not buy and sell products or services.  We practise a professional skill based on knowledge, training and experience acquired through education, work experience and professional development, and we abide by ethical standards and codes of conduct that would be regarded as extremely onerous by most businesses.

Our incomes are not made up of gross sales – cost of sales = gross margin.  We do not generate a gross profit after deducting operating expenses from our gross margin.  Our incomes are made up of fees charged for highly specialised, professional services and advice, most of which make up our direct personal income (around 80%+ in my case, and I venture in the case of most of my professional colleagues).
So, if you accept the reasoning outlined above, we can move on to some of the things we can do to begin with.

As I have indicated in previous posts, we first-of-all need to differentiate ourselves as (certified) professional translators, as opposed to para-professionals or free-lancers.  In my view, a professional translator is university educated and is experienced enough to independently deliver a quality translation project or specialised advice in the language pair and field of specialisation.  He or she will have kept abreast of the latest technology used to improve the processes, consistency and accuracy of translations, and will take pride in their professional skill and conduct.

We (should) refer to ourselves as independent, (certified) professional translators rather than free-lancers, we (should) quote a fee or estimate for a project after careful examination of the source documents and the client’s requirements, rather than a rate per word (in advance of knowing what is required).  We (should) set our own terms and conditions, quality and ethical standards rather than accepting those stipulated by an intermediary who is not a qualified professional.

In other words, we must start acting as professionals if we have any hope of ever being regarded as professionals, and we must resist the pressures of the translation ‘industry’ who want to dominate their relationship with translators in order to control (reduce) their costs.  There is much more we can do, but this would be a good start.  Anything we do without getting these basics right, is probably going to be a waste of time and effort.

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