Eleven years ago I received a letter from a fellow translator who lives in Florida. I checked on Google, he still lives there, although I’m not sure whether he is still a translator.
Many readers of my silly blog may not remember it, but before the invention of Twitter, the greatest invention since slice bread (… wait, that would be Facebook … let’s make it the second greatest invention since slice bread), people used to write whole letters to each other, usually on several pages that were covered with whole sentences, without a single emoticon!
All they had in those ancient, backward times was bolding, italics, CAPS and exclamation points!
I kept the letter, which contained at least eight pages, though I have only seven of them; it looks like I lost the last page. The letter, that was sent to me along with a number of other America Translators Association members, was titled by the translator in Florida: “Split the ATA in Two.”
The gist of the letter was that ATA is unable to represent translators because it has a major conflict of interest. Here’s a quote from that old letter:
“I began a dialog with some of my colleagues, and in the process I came to an important realization: the ATA has no way to warn its members about fly-by-night and other marginal agencies that could take advantage of our good faith when we extend them credit. Then, as I began to think about why we couldn’t protect ourselves, it dawned on me: ATA groups not only language professionals, but also their principle employers – agencies – which is tantamount to an organization like the American Medical Association (AMA) including both doctors and insurance companies, whose interest, I’m sure everyone agrees, are diametrically opposed.
I did some research: the American Bar Association (ABA) doesn’t allow law firms to be members, only individual lawyers. The AMA doesn’t allow insurance companies or hospitals or private medical practices to be members, just doctors. The American Institute of Certified Public Accountants (AICPA) doesn’t allow accounting firms to be members, just accountants. The Writers Guild of America (WGA) doesn’t allow movie producers to be members, just writers. (Unless, of course, the producers are also writers!) The National Writers Union, which represents freelance writers, doesn’t allow newspaper and magazine publishers to be members, just freelance writers. Ditto the Authors Guild.
And on the other side of the coin, the American Bankers Association doesn’t allow bankers to be members, just banks. And the American Insurance Association doesn’t allow insurance brokers to be members, just insurance companies.
I could go on, but in this respect, ATA is alone: it is the only group that is both a professional association and a trade association at the same time – the only “hybrid” of the two. Are we so different from the rest of the world that we shouldn’t follow their lead and separate out the profession from the trade? I think not. And isn’t our name the “American Translators Association,” not the “American Translation Company Association”? What company do you know translates? None: they hire the services of people who do.”
I obviously kept the letter (sans the last, lost page,) because I agreed with it. But I remember that I thought at the time that the letter would have no impact on ATA leadership. The content of the ATA Chronicle clearly indicated to me that the structure of the association is designed to protect for the most part the interests of translation agencies, which are indeed often diametrically opposed to the legitimate interests of those of us who are translators.
A few things have changed in more than a decade since the letter was written and then received by a number of ATA members, although it was never mentioned in the ATA Chronicle. Since I leaf through every single issue of the ATA Chronicle, (although only rarely do I find something worth reading in it,) I would remember if the letter was discussed in the Chronicle.
It is obvious to anybody who has eyes to see that the status of independent translators is much worse compared to the situation at the time when the letter was written. In comparison to a decade ago, translation agencies have become much more powerful.
They don’t even call themselves translation agencies, that perfectly legitimate name. (Temporary employment agencies still dare to call themselves temporary employment agencies, don’t they?) A few years ago they started calling themselves LSPs (as in Language Services Providers, as if translations were provided by translation brokers and not translators.)
The power that translation agencies (I don’t call them Language Services Providers because they are not that) would like to usurp over mere translators, i.e. people who translate for a living, or are trying to do so in so-called translation industry, has increased dramatically.
This power is evidenced by extremely demeaning and hostile “Non-Disclosure Agreements” that translation agencies try to force down the throats of hungry translators. These contracts, which nowadays don’t really have much to do with non-disclosure of confidential information of the agencies’ clients as was their original purpose, have expanded in the last decade from a couple of double spaced pages to somewhere between three to seven thousand words.
Some of these contracts include clauses that are simply incredible – to me, anyway.
One of these clauses stipulates that all intellectual property created while a translator is working on a project for a translation agency (usually called “Company” in these contracts) does not belong to the translator, or to the client who is paying for the translation. It belongs to the “Company.”
According to another clause, very popular these days in these fake “Non-Disclosures Agreements,” the translator must agree to pay “all reasonable attorney fees” should the translation agency decide in its wisdom to sue a hapless translator for any reason whatsoever.
More recent clauses in such contracts stipulate that representatives of the translation agency have the right to carry out unannounced “audits” of translator’s premises and business practices. (A warrant signed by a judge is presumably not needed for such a raid of a private residence of a translator as it is not specified in these contracts.)
According to yet another galling and equally illegal clause, translation agencies openly declare that they have the right to spy on translators’ computers through the Internet, ostensibly to “verify proper installation of security software.”
The advent of computer-assistant translation tools (CATs) is being misused by some translation agencies to deny translators payment for what are called in “translation industry” newspeak, “fuzzy matches” and “full matches.”
Some translation agencies are trying to make translators jump through more and more hoops cleverly designed to put as much power in the hands of these translation agencies as possible.
If the translators want to have work from such agencies, they have to use an automated accounting system designed by the agency to delay payment of translators’ invoices and to shift the substantial amount of work required for managing translation projects and accounting procedures from the agency onto the translator. That is why some agencies no longer accept invoices from translators. Instead, online invoice forms must be filled in by translators, and they’re generally accepted only during a narrow time window toward the end of the month.
I could continue for quite a while describing the demands that translators who work in the so-called translation industry have been confronted with during the last decades or so since I received the letter that inspired me to write today’s post.
Fortunately, not all translation agencies subscribe to the feudalistic concept of the so called-translation industry, a concept in which the agency is Lord and Master and translators are serfs whose sacred duty is to work from darkness to darkness, without a single complaint, for the greater glory and much greater profit of the translation agency (otherwise they will be sued by agency’s lawyers and made to pay “reasonable attorney fees”.)
Many small translation agencies, I called them agencies with a human face, still value translators as professionals (often highly-educated and talented professionals) and treat them accordingly.
They understand that without these highly educated and talented professional individuals they’re nothing, because they simply don’t make money unless translators agree to work for them.
But even the good translation agencies have interests that are opposed to the interests of translators. Translators want to be paid as much as possible. Even agencies with a human face want to pay as little as possible to maximize their profit. Should they coexist in the same “association of translators” with translators who clearly have different interests?
The issues and questions that were asked in the letter that I received from a translator in Florida 11 years ago are now more pressing than ever. Eleven years ago, it was possible to suppress them by refusing their publication in a newsletter that is ostensible published for and by translators, not for and by translation agencies.
But as these questions continue to be asked daily by translators on social media, it will be much more difficult to leave them unanswered by ATA in the age of Facebook, Twitter and countless translators’ blogs.
Even if the 56th annual Conference of the American Translators Association, which will be held between November 4-7, 2015 in Miami, Florida, continues to ignore these fundamental problems and concentrates again mostly on “newbies and buddies” as the last conference did to help create a new generation of young, obedient translators, perfect for the so-called translation industry as old timers are quitting ATA membership in droves, the mounting anger of independent translators who are no longer willing to put up with the contemptuous and degrading treatment received at the hands of so-called translation industry will not go away.
This anger will not go away just because it continues to be ignored by the American Translators Association. On the contrary, the more ATA ignores legitimate problems of translators in the brave new world of so-called translation industry, the more it will be considered irrelevant by the same translators.