In the summer of 1987 I decided to become a full time freelance translator. I sent about 20 resumes to translation agencies listed in the San Francisco Yellow Pages …. and waited. Within about a week, a large brown envelope containing a complete Japanese patent and sections of a German and a French patent mysteriously appeared in my mail. When I was done translating, I mailed my translation back to the agency. There was no Internet back then, I did not even have a hard disk on my PC. I had a WordPerfect “floppy disk” in one drive and I was saving my work in another drive. The word Internet was a brand new word back then, yet to be learned by most people in the brand new world that would be changed so profoundly by the implications of this word.
Because I had no idea more than 24 years ago about the logistics of the technical translation business, I had no choice but to work through agencies. How have the logistics of translation business changed since then?
The changes have been truly revolutionary. Internet changed not just the logistics of how one can find customers for translators and deliver the translations to customers. It obliterated or caused great damage to many professions, such as publishers of dictionaries. I have hundreds of technical dictionaries for Japanese, German and other languages, and I hardly ever use them anymore or buy new ones. It is usually faster to just search for a technical term in German or Japanese to find an equivalent in English online.
Many professions such as writers, singers, actors or hookers have been traditionally represented by an agent, mostly because the logistics of the business involved in these cases are quite complicated. In theory, Internet has made it much easier for freelance translators to work for their own clients rather than for a broker, especially considering that a typical translation agency pays translators about 50% of what the client pays for the translation. I think that the commission paid to a writer’s or actor’s agent is much lower, more like 15%. Only hookers are probably paid even less by their agents than translators (although I don’t think that they give free samples of their work [which would be tantamount to test translations] to prospective customers as willingly as translators).
So did translators take advantage of the new opportunities to find translation work directly in the era of Internet? Some did, but most did not. There are translators who have very cleverly designed websites and blogs which function so well that they basically replace clients who will be lost through inevitable client attrition with new clients who stumble upon a translator’s website or blog. But these entrepreneurial translators are in a distinct minority. It takes time and money, and you need a lot of persistence and imagination to design a website that will in the end work well for a translator. You can have a free blog, but it still takes a lot of time to generate content for your blog, especially content that will be appealing to potential clients and found by search engines.
To most translators, this is just too much work. Instead, they simply create a free page on a portal like Proz where they will be found by some customers, but mostly by customers who want to pay rock bottom prices, also known as agencies. Legions of translators then fight for work on such portals, work for which they are mostly paid exceedingly low rates. Many translators in the United States and some abroad also have a listing on the American Translators Association (ATA) directory, including this patent translator. But the thing is, only agencies seem to know about this directory. I have never been contacted by a non-agency client through this directory, and I have been an ATA member for the last 24 years.
Every now and then when I need to find a new translator for a patent or a technical article in a language that I don’t translate myself, I Google for instance the words “Korean patent translator, electronics”. Invariably, the result of the query is a bunch of websites of agencies, rather than websites or blogs of individual translators, with very few exceptions.
So I think that the business relationship in which the translator, who after all does all of the translating work, despite what an agency might be saying, is at the bottom of the pyramid, is still very much the norm after two tumultuous decades in which the Internet has done much good for some professions, as well as wrought much havoc in other professions.
The main difference now is that instead of mailing their resumes as I did a quarter century ago, translators now post them online in directories that are frequented basically only by translation agencies, or on venues where hordes of hungry translators are fighting over scraps of translation work, or e-mail them as junk mail to agencies who will mostly delete the e-mails without even opening them.
The translator → agency → customer model has not been rendered obsolete by Internet. On the contrary, Internet helped to cement and reinforce this relationship to such an extent that for most translators, it is as permanent a relationship as it has ever been, and it is very clear who is at the top and who is at the bottom.