Posted by: patenttranslator | September 5, 2013

A Few Thoughts on Various Types of “Interfaces” Between Translators and Their Customers

Americans who travel abroad for the first time are often shocked to discover that, despite all the progress that has been made in the last 30 years, many foreign people still speak in foreign languages.

Dave Barry

I have written several posts on this blog about my dislike of the relatively recent and so far moderately successful attempts to replace the term “translation agency” by the abbreviation “translation services provider” (LSP). As a result of my tedious but passionate posts, several readers supplied their own interesting acronyms, possibly more appropriate than LSP (my main problem with “LSP” is that translation agencies do not provide translations – it is the translator who provides a translation):

LSD (Language Services Dealer)

LSB (Language Services Broker)

LSI (Language Services Intermediary)

LSA (Language Services Agent)

LSR (Languages Services Reseller)

You can see the results of my informal poll of translators and agencies on this subject here.

Another proposal was to adopt a different, more fitting interpretation of the existing abbreviation LSP, namely the theory that LSP in fact stands for “Linguistic Sausage Producer”. This proposal was clearly greeted by overwhelming enthusiasm on the part of many translators.

Yet another possible alternative would be the acronym LSI (Language Services Interface) which I would like to propose for consideration in this blog post.

One disadvantage here is that many technical translators will automatically understand the abbreviation LSI to mean “Large System Integration”.

But the advantage of this concept of a new, possibly more accurate abbreviation, would be the removal of the ending “-er”, which indicates “the doer of an action” in English, German and a number of other languages (because an intermediary is just a medium through which something is done, rather than the doer of an action), as it would be replaced by the neutral word “interface”, a noun that is used mostly as technical term.

Interface is something that can be interposed for example between a human being and a CPU, for instance a keyboard, to enable what Japanese patent agents like to call the “man-machine interface”. Without a keyboard (or a mouse), I would have no way to talk to my computer’s CPU, (other than shouting at it, which I do every now and then), as I am too cheap to spend money on a computer with a touch screen.

Although some people (mostly translation agencies) would want us to believe that the only possible interface between a translator and a translation user, also known as a direct customer, is a translation agency, nothing could be farther from the truth.

It so happens that there are many other types of interfaces in this world between the person who does the translating (translator) and the person who uses the translation (customer).

Because I mostly work as a patent translator, the person who usually does the interfacing with me is a paralegal, often a patent law firm’s secretary who just discovered my website by running a search on the Internet. But sometime it is a law office librarian, and sometime it can be even the person who actually needs my translation, for example an investor, or an inventor, and sometime a patent lawyer contacts me directly, without a secretary.

Of course, I am also sometime contacted by project coordinators calling or e-mailing me from a translation agency – but they represent just another interface in a whole universe of various types of interfaces. Sometime the interface contacting me is another translator who needs me to translate something, and sometime I am the interface when I need the help of another translator.

If you are now somehow suspecting that I seem to have developed an unhealthy fascination (almost a fetish?) with the word “interface, you are right. But as a mad patent translator, I have every right to do so as it is an interesting word, and not just in English. In English it evokes (in me, anyway) something that is inserted between two faces, presumably so that these two faces could communicate with each other.

The most common translation of the  word “interface” into German is the word “Schnittstelle”, which is also a very interesting word. There are no words indicating “face” or “inter” in German because the German language approaches the concept of an interface from a different direction, resulting in a word in a different dimension. Since “Schnitt” means “cut”, and “Stelle” means “place”, a literal (and of course incorrect) translation of the German word “Schnittstelle” would be “a place where some kind of a cut is made”.

When the “Schnittstelle” is a translation agency, the agency of course always “takes its cut”, a big cut, usually 50%. And since this “cut” is in fact the reason for the agency’s existence, it would make sense if native German speakers replaced the word “Agentur” (Agency) by the German word “Schnittstelle” in this case, although I doubt that they will listen to me.

***************

What I really wanted emphasize in this post is that translators should take the utmost care when choosing their interface in the universe of different interfaces for translators and translations.

A paralegal secretary is a good interface for me because she is just doing her job without taking a cut. The English word “interface” would thus be more appropriate than the German “Schnitttstelle” in this case.

Another translator is also a good interface for me because although he takes a cut, the cut is usually smaller, and it is usually much easier to deal with another translator than with many other types of interfaces whose greed is often surpassed only by their ignorance.

The best interface is usually no interface, while a small translation agency can often be a very good interface, providing that the people in the agency know what they are doing.

A big translation agency is invariably the worst possible kind of interface because a large translation agency is the kind of interface that the Germans so fittingly translated as a “Schnittstelle”, i.e. “a place where a cut is taken”, invariably a big one, so that after this big cut, very little will be left for the translator.

I decided not to tackle the topic of relatively recent interfaces, such as Proz, or TranslatorsCafe or GoTranslators, often called “blind auction sites” by translators, because this blog post is already long enough, and also because this type of interface gets plenty of coverage by translators on social media.

But I do think that instead of endlessly complaining about this or that type of an uncomfortable interface, which is what I read about on social media all the time, it would make more sense for translators to concentrate on finding an interface that would be a better fit for them, as we live in a world that is full of different types of interfaces.

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Responses

  1. I think I’ll just keep calling them translation agencies.

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  2. I feel like Michael – translation agency does the job fine, and acronyms are overused to the point where they become redundant and ridiculous. Which doesn’t mean I don’t enjoy your rants, and often find them inspiring as well.

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  3. Steve, I would submit that in this context where you speak of a Schnittstelle, a more appropriate term might be Schnitzelstelle: the point at which the translation and/or the translator are cut and beaten flat into submission, sprinkled with bread crumbs and fried into a dish suited to the palate of a ravenous end customer. It’s an alternative dish to the linguistic sausage which LSPs usually provide.

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  4. @Michael and Elisabeth

    I agree, that’s why I am trying so hard to destroy the stupid LSP acronym that so many translators are using now, without thinking about what it means.

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  5. @Kevin

    But I love a good Schnitzel. It would spoil my favorite meal for me.

    When I was 18 I was working one summer in a “chantier” up in Alpes Maritimes in Southern France and when the French people asked the Czech girls among the students working there to prepare a traditional Czech meal – they made Schnitzel with potato salad, of course.

    It was a nice change after the lamb with fried olives that they were feeding us just about every day. And Schnitzel goes with red wine, a traditional ingredient of every French lunch, at least back then, just fine.

    So I don’t really want to associate Schnitzel with being beaten into submission, although I appreciate the suggestion.

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  6. […] As a result of my tedious but passionate posts, several readers supplied their own interesting acronyms, possibly more appropriate than LSP (my main problem with “LSP” is that translation agencies do not provide translations …  […]

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  7. Schnittstelle is a great word, I programmed one once.

    I like the idea of an interface. As a project manager who works with translators on a regular basis, I am very aware of being the interface between the translator (the doer of the action) and my customer in terms of the product: briefing, quality assurance, paperwork, planning, etc..

    But in terms of customer relationship, there is no interface between the translators I work with and their customer, since I am their customer. I don’t see my customer as the translator’s customer. Nor does my customer see the translator as their supplier. My customer sees *me* as their supplier/contractor.

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  8. “But in terms of customer relationship, there is no interface between the translators I work with and their customer, since I am their customer. I don’t see my customer as the translator’s customer. Nor does my customer see the translator as their supplier. My customer sees *me* as their supplier/contractor.”

    Of course. You described a principle feature of what is called “the translation industry”.

    If the actual translators are invisible to the actual customer, the customer is not tempted (or able) without doing a lot of legwork to get rid of this particular interface, namely you.

    In some cases, the interface is really beneficial to the customer, for example with very complicated translation projects, and this can very well be your case.

    In other cases, the only function of the interface is to siphon off a lot of money. This is a typical case of what I call “Schnittstelle” (a place where a cut is taken).

    Once a law firm finds a suitable translator (usually, the translator has to find the law firm), the interface of a translation agency between a patent translator and a patent lawyer serves no other function that would be useful to the patent lawyer or to the translator.

    That is why most of my customers are patent law firms who prefer to deal directly with a translator without an expensive and useless interface.

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  9. Your discussion on ‘Schnittstelle’ made me think of the term ‘cut-out’, used by spies in particular. Cynical, I admit, but the effort on the part of intermediaries to keep their clients from ever discovering who actually provided the translation, would suggest the appropriateness of its use, at least in a pejorative sense; however, it is not likely to catch on.

    I must admit that I do not share your enthusiasm for the term ‘interface’. My first and intuitive understanding of the meaning relates to computer equipment. I think ‘intermediary’ is still an option more likely to succeed in the difficult task of re-educating the public about the difference between the ‘profession’ and the ‘industry’.

    Agent or agency implies a person or entity entrusted with representing the interests of another, for a fee or a percentage of the cost of an assignment. Translation intermediaries certainly do not represent the interests of the translator; and unless they charge their client a clearly defined percentage or fee for finding and engaging the best translator on their behalf, they are not likely to be acting as an agent or in the interests for their client either.

    Rather the opposite. They more often then not pretend to be the provider of the translation themselves (their translation team) by charging a price for pretending to do so. They then put it our to tender among the translators in their database to get the work done at at the lowest possible cost (which, if know to their client, would obviously raise questions about quality).

    These are just intermediaries/arbitrageurs, or in many cases opportunists and even fraudsters.

    There are good, professional intermediaries (owned and managed by translation professionals themselves), who handle their main requirements in-house, but also have strategic relationships with independent professional translators/colleagues (let’s call them associates). I prefer to call them (professional) translation practices, like (professional) accounting practices. The Dutch are lucky enough to have a more neutral term, i.e. translation ‘bureau’.

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  10. “There are good, professional intermediaries (owned and managed by translation professionals themselves), who handle their main requirements in-house, but also have strategic relationships with independent professional translators/colleagues (let’s call them associates). I prefer to call them (professional) translation practices, like (professional) accounting practices.”

    This is the type of interface that is the best fit for an interface for translators (although the best interface is no interface), and translators should think twice before accepting work on an ongoing basis from the other type of interface, namely the greedy money machine interface, because this is the kind of agency that will turn their life into hell.

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  11. […] Interface is something that can be interposed for example between a human being and a CPU, for instance a keyboard, to enable what Japanese patent agents like to call the “man-machine interface”. Without a keyboard (or a mouse), …  […]

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  12. We are not human if we will not complaint about something we are not satisfied, right? Abnd yes, instead of constatntly complaining about it, we can always move on and search for another. http://www.communicaidinc.com/

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  13. A stupid question since I am not a native speaker: translators (and not translations) are provided for, so how about “TSP” = Translators’ Service Provider?

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