If you don’t have a plan, you become a part of somebody else’s plan.
I don’t know what the translation business was like before computers, back when translators could use only typewriters, snail mail, and Federal Express.
I am pretty old, but not that old.
But I do remember what the translation business was like before the Internet, because Internet is only about 25 years old now, although most people did not really start using it until about the year 2000.
And I have been doing what I am doing for more than a quarter century now.
I remember cheap IBM clone PCs (“cheap” at 1,000 dollars for a CPU with two floppy drives, a 20 MB hard disk was 200 dollars extra), dot matrix printers that worked only with a heavy box of a special, perforated paper, and most of all, the wonder of new translation jobs from Japan, when they started falling like falling stars in slow motion out of my noisy and slow fax machine on curly thermal paper.
I remember how modem-to-modem connections with translation agencies, each of which seemed to be using an incompatible “handshaking protocol” with funny names like Kermit, were gradually replaced by something called BBS (Bulletin Board Systems), which existed somewhere in this strange space that I kept reading about in the newspaper called “the Internet”.
When I finally figured out what the Internet was really about, and it took me a while, I remember that I was expecting big changes coming soon down the road, although like most people, I could not imagine how many and how big these changes would be. I could not have imagined that whole industries would be so quickly wiped out, or pushed toward the edge of extinction.
I do remember that I did come to a startling realization about the Internet back around the end of the last century relating directly to my own job. I realized that what I needed to do was to try to use the Internet to replace translation agencies by direct clients.
I had a few direct clients already because since about 1991, I started offering my services directly to patent law firms instead of only to translation agencies.
But at the beginning of this century, I realized that I too can use the power of Internet to create a direct link with new clients through my website. And eventually, it worked, although it took several years before I started seeing concrete results as I wrote in this post.
I thought that the new medium of Internet would be “a game changer”, something that would make it possible for many translators to start working mostly directly for the real clients instead of for translation agencies.
It is true that many people are using the Internet now to sell translation services to direct clients. But most of them are not translators. Most of them are still translation agencies. But unlike in the old days when a translation agency was typically run by a translator who had an entrepreneurial streak and understood translation because he or she often knew several languages, the new breed of translation agency entrepreneurs is proudly monolingual and blissfully ignorant about anything that has something to do with a foreign language.
New “managers”, who came from part-time employment agencies and other types of backgrounds that have nothing to do with languages or translation, have now fearlessly joined the translation agency game. If you don’t need to know anything about foreign languages or translation, what is to stop even the most ignorant person from starting a translation agency based on the innovative and incredibly clever business method of “buy low and sell high”?
These new, along with some of the old “translation business specialists”, keep pushing the rates at which they are buying translations from people who actually produce them lower and lower. They keep creating new cool buzzwords for “translation technologies” that they are selling to their clients, although these fabulous buzzwords have absolutely nothing to do with actual translations.
It is not the translator who is now in the center of the translation process in the new model for “translation business”. In fact, the translators seem to have completely disappeared from the picture as they have been replaced by something that is called “technology”.
Instead of using real humans called translators who create real translations, this technology “provides integrated solutions, and “delivers tangible business benefits” by using “a crowd of more than 100,000 crowd workers”, who have suddenly appeared out of nowhere to establish residence in a big cloud in the sky in order to replace humans who used to study for many years languages and dozens of complicated and arcane subjects to be able to finally call themselves translators after a couple of decades of mere apprenticeship.
In one part of the so called translation industry, these formerly human translators of old times are now being replaced by almost-human “MT post-processors”, namely human worker bees who diligently go over the detritus of machine translation to try to make sense out of it, and by crowd-workers.
These almost-human worker bees and unknowable crowd-workers are supposedly creating translations, although they are not translators. Nobody really knows who these crowd-workers are, where they live, whether they have something to eat, or whether they in fact need to eat all, given that they are paid either nothing or next to nothing for whatever it is that they do. But why should anybody care about them? They just shadows, lost in a crowd of other anonymous shadows, like unimportant, cheap extras in a big budget Hollywood movie.
Thanks to the miracle of Internet, the role of the crowd-workers will be, in the great scheme of things, to eventually completely replace people who used to call themselves translators, for the greater glory and sky-high profits of monolingual translation industry entrepreneurs, reaching all the way to the cloud where the shadow crowd-workers reside.
So it turned out that although the Internet was a game changer, it was not exactly the kind of the game changer for translators that I was contemplating at the end of the last century.
Some translators were able to use Internet to establish and cultivate a relationship with direct clients, and for the most part replace translation agencies by these direct clients. It has been working for me quite well. I received 15 tax forms (1099s) for 2013: 2 of them were from translation agencies, the rest was from direct clients, mostly patent law firms.
I am not sure, but I think that relatively few translators are using the Internet to liberate themselves from ignorant bottom feeders who have infected a large portion of what is now called the translation business – although absolutely nothing is stopping them from doing just that, except perhaps for laziness and lack of imagination.
Instead of using the Internet to offer their services directly to their clients, they keep complaining on Internet about perfidious “platforms for translators” such as Proz and TranslatorsCafé, “platforms” that work very well for the people who own them and make a nice profit from them, but not for translators, because the main effect of these blind auction sites where too many people are fighting for a few jobs is that they will keep pushing the rates paid to translators lower, and lower, and still lower, no matter how much noise translators are making on social media.
“When will somebody finally create a platform for translators that is fair to us?”, translators are asking, in vain, on their beloved social media.
They don’t seem to realize that although nobody is interested in creating “a fair platform for translators”, the platform that is equally fair to anybody, including translators, is already there.
The platform is called the Internet. But if you can’t figure out how to use this platform so that it works for you, it is only natural that somebody will figure out how to use it against you.