Posted by: patenttranslator | July 11, 2012

How Many Outstanding and Trusted Leaders Does The Translation Industry Have?

North Korea has only one Leader, and when he dies, the son takes over immediately to preside over a long period of incredibly realistic mourning. The title of the father of the present chubby leader, whose official title is now “Dear Leader”, was “Great Leader”. Nobody knows yet what the official title of the grandkid of the “Great Leader” will be when he grows up. Probably “Brave Leader” or something like that. That is, if there still is a North Korea by then in need of a new Leader.

Things are simple in North Korea. But when I look at the websites of translation agencies, what confuses me is that they all call themselves “translation industry leaders” in the self-serving, moronic propaganda “About Us” paragraph strategically placed under fake photoshopped images of enthusiastic young people representing different racial groups who, I guess, are supposed to represent translators. There are thousands of leaders in the translation industry, and each of them is leading their translation agency and the whole industry to bright new future thanks to a completely different and unique vision for the industry, which is always described, basically with the same words, in a paragraph that is titled “How We Are Different”.

“Happy families are all alike; every unhappy family is unhappy in its own way”, says Leo Tolstoy in Anna Karenina. Since all translation industry leaders are all alike too, while they also somehow manage to be different at the same time, they too must be like one big, happy family.

These translation industry leaders must be also incredibly bright because they invariably “specialize” in translations in every imaginable field, from medical and legal translations to patents and financial translations in 170 languages in both directions, while they also handle interpreting, including telephone interpreting if that is what you need, as well as machine translation, website localization, and many other “specialties”.

In fact there is no specialty that they do not specialize in. You name it, they got it! The big, happy family of translation leaders can handle just about anything, that is how brilliant they are! Can they also supply geishas to entertain CEOs over a bite of sushi and a cup of o-sake? In Japan, they probably can. I am not sure about how they do it here in the United States now that Heidi Fleiss is out of business, but it is not really that different from supplying interpreters, is it?

There was a time, not that long ago, when many translation agencies really did specialize in a relatively narrow field, back when translation agency owners who did not call themselves leaders still had some specialized knowledge. For example, when I was starting out as a translator in mid eighties in San Francisco, and even later up until the nineties, I used to receive Japanese chemical patents from an agency that was run by a Russian guy who had a PhD in chemistry, and German patents about mechanical engineering from a German guy who was an engineer, etc.

Twenty years ago, people who were running translation agencies mostly knew the subjects and the languages that they were dealing with, because they did in fact specialize only in some languages and some subjects.

But then the new breed of incredibly gifted and brilliant new translation agency operators who can handle any subject and language because they know everything about everything was born, probably at about the same time when Wall Street started designing new securitized (which is a synonym for fraudulent these days) financial instruments and derivatives that would eventually ruin the world economy.

At about the same time when they started referring to themselves as “translation industry leaders”, translation agencies stopped referring to themselves as mere agencies, and instead started calling themselves LSPs (as in Language Service Providers).

Of course, since translation agencies buy translations from translators and then sell them to people who need them, they are not really the providers. The providers are the translators, and the agencies are brokers. There is nothing wrong with being a broker, but they sure hate it when you put it like that. I still dare to call them translation agencies, but that is because I have no manners. Everybody else seems to be calling them LSPs these days, including translators who obediently conform to the new lingo on their blogs and in discussion groups, although nobody outside the translation industry knows what this abbreviation means as I write in this post.

Call me naive, but I think that it would be a better world if translation agencies were mostly run by people who specialize in a certain field because they are experts in that field. That is how things used to be twenty some years ago when I was just starting out as a translator, and people who were sending me work from translation agencies actually knew something about the subjects that they were handling, and sometime even the language, before they were replaced by omniscient and omnipotent Leaders who claim that their translation agency can translate any subject, any language, in any direction.


  1. I get the impression that various kinds of “providers” don’t provide what they claim to, and I don’t trust any organisation that offers “solutions” either: this usually means solving their problem of how to get money out of you.


  2. You are such a cynic.

    Do you trust anything?


  3. I dare to call them translation agencies too. We are all “language service providers.”


  4. Good for you.

    But you still need to find the courage (or inspiration?) to start posting regularly real posts again (insert smiley face).


  5. Steve, I remember your wrote “How Do You Know That You Are Not A Fake?” A translator would ask himself/herself such a question from time to time, while some agencies call themselves “translation industry leaders” without asking a similar question. What they mean with “translation industry leaders” is something like “leading sources of jobs for translators” and/or “leading sources of (cheap) translations for buyers.”

    Although we know that they are not, in deed and in fact, it doesn’t matter to them, for if a certain percentage of the population, who either needs translation services or who needs translation jobs, believes in them for a certain period of time, their business goes on with words like “leaders” or “leading sources.” They are powers in the industry, as some of my colleagues would say and concede.

    “Call me naive, but I think that it would be a better world if translation agencies were mostly run by people who specialize in a certain field because they are experts in that field. That is how things used to be twenty some years ago…” Well, Steve, some agencies twenty some years ago were almost the same as they are at the present moment.

    As a matter of fact, it is not at all about good translators vs. bad agencies. We know that there are such and such agencies and other ones as well as there are such and such translators and other ones. So, agencies shall make sure that they are no fakes in the same way as we translators do.


  6. Dear Wenjer:

    One translator suggested in a private e-mail sent to me yesterday that I am unfairly demonizing agencies.

    And here I thought that I was just making fun of the self-aggrandizing, ridiculous propaganda on the websites of some (not all) translation agencies, which was in the case of the last post illustrated by the overuse of the word “leader” as it reminds me of the “Dear Leader” of North Korea and the words Il Duce in Italian and Der Führer in German.

    In Japanese I think I would have to go for 天皇陛下.

    What do you think?


    • You see, Steve, both of us act sometimes as agency and we know something about being a translator and being an agency. Don’t worry about misunderstandings.

      Il Duce, Der Führer, 天皇陛下 or 領袖 is just like the Beloved Leader, the Great Leader, the Dear Leader or the Brave Leader later – “Im Leben geht alles vorüber,” so sang people half a generation earlier than ours.

      “Yesterday’s over. This is bad news for market leaders, incumbents and those in favor of the status quo, and great news for everyone else. And it happens again, fresh, every day.” – Seth Godin

      All leaders – professional ones – Benito, Adolf, Hirohito, Kai-shek, Il-sung, Jong-il (Yuri Irsenovich) or whatever they were named, are gone. Agencies come and go, like translators come and go. The aggrandizement of each “leader” lasts “ein Bruchteil der Sekunde” in the story of mankind. Folly passes on from generation to generation. You are not demonizing agencies at all. You’ve just written something the like of “In Praise of More.”


  7. “mit 60 nur den Wein” was a little bit too harsh. Whoever wrote that song must have been quite young.

    60 is the new 40!

    Anyway, since most people will have to work until they drop dead, it better be!


  8. Steve, in fact, “nicht nur, nicht ganz” for us! We are happy to know it’s great that “alles vorüber geht” and not that “alles (an uns) vorbei geht”!

    Do you remember the blog of a French translation colleague I recommended you and you find it a French thing? I should have been more specific with my recommendation. This post titled “Cher client” is just fantastic, a must read:

    It’s not a French thing at all. It’s human.


  9. You hit the nail on the head with wry wit; very enjoyable.


  10. ROTFL
    this post is wonderful as it describes exactly what I always thought, and I always wanted to write, but I never wrote as if I’m not able to write in English so well, unluckily (forgive my tongue-twister 😉

    anyway, here in Italy, we call this matter “fuffa”


  11. Thank you so much, Claudio.

    I really love your comment.

    Fuffa forever!


  12. Leaders in the sense of the blind leading the blind? Perhaps.

    Then we have the Pied Piper sorts leading so many tunefully down the sterile post-edited path of MT. So much leadership in our profession, really. I even read comments by an incoherent Italian Thought Leader in the latest MT propaganda organ which pointed to that twit founder of ALS in the UK as a shining example of business leadership to follow in translation.

    Other Leaders offer learnéd explanations of the magical reality in which rising demand for our services is accompanied by falling rates, these lower rates somehow being missed completely or contradicted by large sample surveys by our professional associations (ITI/IoL and the German BDÜ among them).

    I think we could do with a bit less leadership and a little more competence and honesty.


    • Ah, nice to see you both here commenting, you and Claudio.

      MT and post-editing are no threat for us at all. We have other problems in our industry.

      “The secret of life is honesty and fair dealing. If you can fake that, you’ve got it made.” – Groucho Marx


      • “The secret of success is sincerity – if you can fake that, you’ve got it made” I believe is the correct quote attributed to Groucho Marx.

        American politicians are so of such a low quality now that they can’t even fake sincerity, which is the first requirement for this profession. People don’t believe them anymore. The last one who could fake sincerity really well was Bill Clinton. When he said “I feel your pain” he was so believable that I voted for him twice.


      • Well, I don’t know much about Grouch Marx, but there are a lot of quotes attributed to him, maybe a bit fewer than those attributed to Confucious.

        Believe me, Steve, I would’ve voted for Bill Clinton twice, for sure. I felt his pain, when Ken Starr was harrassing him.


  13. As far I can tell, what they call leadership is nothing but a whole lot of fuffa as Claudio put it, or fluff in English.

    And the beautiful balloon of puffed up “leadership” will in the end burst with a nasty popping sound when the customers realize that fuffa is a poor substitute for competence and real knowledge.


    • well, I’m not so drastic, as indeed there are brokers or LSPs ( 😉 ) that are very professional and reliable IMHO


  14. BTW, into eMpTy Pages I just found the term LSP, so you cannot say that there wasn’t a soul that use this word


  15. Empty Pages is part of the translation industry.

    What I am saying is that people outside the industry have no idea what LSP means even though the industry has been trying to replace the term “translation agency” with the abbreviation “LSP” for about 20 years now.

    I am also saying that the term is a misnomer because translation agency are language service brokers (LSBs), not language service providers (LSPs) since the services are provided by translators.

    And of course, many agencies do provide valuable services. But the “Leaders” usually specialize in overpriced garbage.


  16. By your same logic, I will now start calling all translators “Dictionary brokers” since they just pass along words and terms for a markup fee and don’t offer any skills or expertise of their own.


  17. A more logical term would be “meaning providers”. Most translators don’t use dictionaries very much – their job is to find the meaning by using the Internet, dictionaries and various other resources, based on knowledge and skills that are more or less safely contained in their heads after years or decades of translating if they follow what is going on in their field of translation.

    But evidently not in your head.


    • Well since this post believes that translation companies (a likely majority of which were started by freelance translators) add no expertise or additional service of their own, the same could be said of tranlsators. I was simply illustrating a point (I know that translators are not mere dictionary brokers – that’s insulting). But to think that translation companies are the same as individual translators, or that translation companies don’t provide services to end-clients that go beyond actual translation, or that translation companies don’t provide services that translators are not capable of providing is just naive.


  18. The things that you are saying here and falsely attributing to me have nothing to do with the subject of my post.

    If you keep posting falsehoods on my blog, I’m afraid I will have to unapprove your comments.


  19. I meant no falsehood. I agree with you about the lack of true specialization. I agree with you that translation agencies claim to do everything, when they clearly can’t Even end-clients can see through that marketing bloviation. I also am tired of seeing every translation agency refer to themselves as a “leader” or “leading” this that and the other. I was responsind to some of the commenters to this post and to one part of your blog. “Of course, since translation agencies buy translations from translators and then sell them to people who need them, they are not really the providers. The providers are the translators, and the agencies are brokers.” I disagree that agencies are not providers. Translators provide the translation. Agencies provide additional services on top of brokering the translations. Agencies can’t exist without transltors. But clients ask for more than just translations. It is my stance that both are providers, just of different things. Translators are language providers. Agencies provide service (not translations per se) and are therefore language(-related) ‘service’ providers. I know that this post was about the use of the term leader. But it also mentions your disapproval of the term LSP. And some commenters expanded on that belief. I was adding to the group conversation with my own disagreement. Further, while I stand by my own beliefs, if I offended you or anyone at all, that was not my intention and I apologize.


  20. Apology accepted. I too was a bit harsh in my comments.

    Just one thing: As far as I can tell, no translators call themselves LSPs, unless they also function as an agency, and many of course do, including this one. LSP is thus a synonym for “translation agency”, but nobody outside the translation industry understands what this abbreviation means.


  21. […] How Many Outstanding and Trusted Leaders Does The Translation Industry Have? ( […]


  22. […] How Many Outstanding and Trusted Leaders Does The Translation Industry Have? ( […]


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