The translation industry, for lack of a better term because there is really no such thing as a translation industry, only many different ways to handle translation projects, has undergone quite a transformation in the last decade or so.
I will now attempt to describe the ingenious strategy employed by this mad patent translator to bravely launch his translating career in the spring of 1987 in an apartment on 7th Avenue between California and Clement streets in San Francisco:
1. I bravely opened up San Francisco Yellow Pages under the heading “Translators-Interpreters”.
2. I mailed my résumé to about 20 translation agencies listed in the San Francisco Yellow Pages.
3. I went for a walk with our dachshund Muffin to a nearby park, which we called “Muffin’s Park” to distinguish it from Golden Gate Park, and waited.
Within less than a week, a large, yellow manila envelope appeared in my mail. It contained my first “big” job from a translation agency, namely an entire Japanese patent, which turned out to be about two thousand words, plus one page from a French patent, and one page from a German patent. The Japanese patent was about a new tire sealing technique, the French patent dealt with mechanical engineering (that one was really hard for me) …. and I forgot what was the subject of the German patent.
Back then I must have been a pretty unimpressive translator. I had no experience, almost no dictionaries, and there was no Internet. But the person who sent me the documents for translation and later paid for my work, although at a very low rate, saw that I had potential, especially in view of my combination of languages.
And she was right, although I stopped working for this agency very quickly due to the miserable rates that they were paying. Within a couple of years, I was a much less unimpressive translator, after 10 years I was a pretty good beginner, and after 20 years or so, I was pretty impressive in my chosen field of patent translation: I commit a major translation blunder no more than about once or twice a month, three times if it is a really bad month.
Things are certainly not as simple in the translation business at the beginning of the 21st century. To believe the repetitious, ubiquitous and really quite silly propaganda on the websites of translation agencies who prefer to call themselves LSPs (as in Language Services Providers) these days, the way a translation agency manages translations is all important, and every translation agency uses an original, incredibly ingenious method guaranteeing best quality and optimal results, while the role a translator plays in the process is barely mentioned.
However, this ingenious method is really quite simple. It can be described in four (4) short, monosyllabic English words: buy low, sell high – a total of 14 letters, not including one comma and two spaces.
The seductive marketing propaganda on these websites usually consists mostly of half truths and blatant lies, which are clearly often conceived by marketing specialists who know a lot about selling and marketing, but very little if anything about translation.
The buy low, sell high method is centuries old, of course, if not millennia old. But the way this method is now being implemented by what is called the translation industry is in fact quite ingenious and even innovative.
1. Translation agencies no longer simply accept and read résumés from translators looking for work. That would be so twentieth century!
In the twenty first century, translators are directed to fill out detailed information about their language combinations, experience, and most importantly their rates in the “For Translators” section on agency’s website, which is something like a back door in a restaurant to be used by busboys and cooks, next to the garbage cans. The agency can thus create its own database of translators who are automatically competing against each other, based on the rates that they charge with other translators listed in the same database, with a click of a mouse.
2. Information about CATs (Computer Assisted Translation tools) must be also included. Many translation agencies, especially those paying the lowest rates to translators, will only work with translators who use a specific CAT, usually Trados, and who agree to provide substantial discounts to the agency for repeated words or sections which are known in the parlance of the “translation industry” as “full and fuzzy matches”. These discounts may or may not be passed on to the customer. My guess is that the customer will usually not get much of a discount.
3. In addition to proprietary databases of translators owned by translation agencies, there are also “translation marketplaces”, also called “online blind auction sites”, where translators who are located on different continents pay a yearly fee for the privilege of being able to aggressively compete among themselves on who will submit the lowest bid for a translation project.
4. Some translation agencies located in Western countries now routinely subcontract their translation projects to translation agencies that sprung up relatively recently in low-cost countries. Based on what I read on social media, especially on LinkedIn, translation bids are often won based on résumés of highly qualified and experienced translators. These résumés are submitted to clients and prospective clients, but the actual work is instead done by people who cannot translate very competently somewhere in Asia or Africa, then proofread by an inexpensive native English speaker to make the gibberish look more like English, and sent to a translation agency in a Western country which will sell this translation at a hefty profit to its client.
5. Many translation agencies, especially large ones, ask translators who have dutifully entered all the required data in the agency’s database to sign a long “Confidentiality Agreement” which has little to do with confidentiality. The agreement specifies, for example, that all intellectual property created by a freelance translator working on an assignment for a translation agency is the property of the agency, that the translator is to be paid only if the agency deems in its wisdom that the quality of the translation was satisfactory, that the translator agrees to pay “reasonable attorney’s fees” (as if there were such a thing) should the agency decide in its infinite wisdom to sue a hapless translator, and other demeaning and dangerous clauses in a “Confidentiality Agreement” that often has three thousand words.
According to the old “translation business” model in the twentieth century, the translator and his or her skills were very important for the old model to function well. Translation agencies organized the work by finding translation work and matching it with suitable translators for a certain type of work. Many translators were quite happy with this arrangement because they were simply unable to find direct clients for themselves, and most preferred simply to translate anyway.
According to this old model, a relationship of trust was created between a translator and an agency and when both the agency and the translator were meant for each other, the relationship would last for many years, sometime for decades. This relationship of trust has been severely disrupted by the new translation agency model which is based on a temporary relationship with translators who are currently charging the lowest rates.
Many agencies, especially small, specialized agencies, often run by old timers, still believe in the old model in which the translator is valued, appreciated and paid accordingly for his or her contribution to the success of the entire enterprise.
But basically all large agencies, and many small ones, subscribe to the new model, which can be very profitable for the agency, apparently for a long time, although based on the sacred buy low, sell high method, it inevitably generates … crap.
Unfortunately for translators – and fortunately for the modern type of translation agency, it is quite possible that in the age of crapitalism (this word is often used on left-leaning and libertarian blogs to describe our present wonderful economic and political system), poor quality is not such a big deal since most customers got used to crap a long time ago.