The “translation industry” (hereinafter “the Industry”) has been in tumult and turmoil for more than a decade now. When one compares the situation today to what was “normal and expected” 20 or 25 years ago, the difference is breathtaking.
Breathtaking, sad, and discouraging.
Translators are definitely living in interesting times, as per a purported Chinese curse (“May you live in interesting times”), which is in fact an English proverb rather than an evil curse from the Orient since according to Wikipedia, the closest Chinese saying would be:”宁为太平犬，莫作乱离人” (níng wéi tàipíng quǎn, mò zuòluàn lí rén) which means “better to live as a dog in an era of peace than a man in times of trouble.”
Nobody is really talking about what is happening in the Industry, at least not officially, if you discount a few mad bloggers such as myself and heated discussions on discussion groups of translators. And translators are reaping the harvest of a decade of official silence and indifference. As one commenter on my blog (Shai) put it, ” …. many professional translation practitioners are now paying the cost of a decade of silence and indifference as a result of the activity of many charlatans/opportunists who established a narrative that many buyers were exposed to.”
If you read the ATA (American Translators Association) Chronicle, nothing untoward is happening in the Industry. In a typical ATA article, translators will receive for example copious advice from a translation agency operator on how to prepare a perfect invoice that meets with her approval, or on how to “better integrate” machine translation (MT) and computer assisted tools (CATs) into our daily work. The rest of the magazine is filled with advertisements from the NSA and companies selling indispensable tools such as Trados.
Oh, and we are often also told, in the ATA Chronicle, but also on blogs of translators, that “customers have come to expect discounts for fuzzy matches”.
Which is a lie. I have been working mostly for direct clients since the early nineties and not once was I asked by a customer for a discount based on advanced level mathematics courtesy of a CAT. Some customers may in fact do that, but most only know about four-legged CATs called Blackie, Fluffy, and Tiger. But translators definitely are asked all the time for discounts based on a weird concept of what is known in the Industry as “fuzzy matches” and “full matches”. As another commenter (Peter) on my blog put it, “so-called CAT tools are the biggest hoax ever perpetrated on the translation community.”
Although you could also say that wage theft is not such an outlandish concept, depending on your perspective. It has certainly been practiced for centuries and it is now more popular then ever.
What has been happening in the industry for at least the last decade is a concentrated effort to harness and leverage technology and combine it with modern business management methods to maximize the profits of translation agencies at the expense of translators.
While a decade or two ago, most translation agencies were trying to identify highly educated and experienced translators and keep them busy working on their team by paying them handsome rates because the good reputation and loyalty of the customers of the agency depended on the skills of its translators, the new management method sees translators more as easily replaceable, low skill workers, comparable to burger flippers at McDonalds who are invariably paid minimum wage.
The hunt is on for the cheapest translator who can in theory do the work of an experienced and highly qualified translator, but for a fraction of what such a translator would be charging. This is again a sincere and flattering imitation of the corporate business model.
Large corporations found out a long time ago that the cheapest workers can be found in third world countries. That is why they first moved their factories back in the eighties and nineties to Mexico, then more recently from Mexico to China, and now, as the Chinese giant is rising and demanding better pay, they are looking for a new territory where labor is plentiful and where it could be even cheaper.
Where will they go next? Vietnam and the People’s Republic of North Korea look good at this point.
Translation agencies, large and small, but especially large, are thus imitating the corporate model that is based on squeezing as much work for as little money as possible from workers who in this case are sometime called translators.
I used the word “sometime” because one of the new promising technologies is “crowd sourcing”, also called “clown sourcing” by translators, an innovative technique and technology that renders translators completely unnecessary. Why use expensive translators who have completely unnecessarily studied for years or decades languages and various complicated subjects such as chemistry, medicine or law when you can instead send in the clowns who are much cheaper?
Based on the concept of “crowdsourced translation”, anybody who has some knowledge of a second language can be a translator, and translating can be done easily even by a dude sitting on his throne in the bathroom, pecking away on his cell phone. People like that would deliver even higher profits than the cheapest translators anywhere in the world since they could be probably talked into working for free.
Or if not for free, than at least as cheaply as possible. Here is how one commenter (Shai again) describes the business structure in the brave new world of modern translation agencies:
“Contrary to common belief, not all agencies are working with end clients; there are a lot of hand-downs and some agencies mainly serve bigger agencies. Those at the top funnel the work in, pass it down to a regional agency, who in turn pass it down to a local/”single-language” agency, who might even pass it down to another agency before it reaches the “translator” who will actually to the translation part of the work.
These are the broker types of agencies who have taken over large parts of the low bulk market. in the last decade or so. While anyone can easily declare themselves to be a translator, it is even easier to declare oneself an “agency”. At least when one is calling oneself a translator, one should be able to produce something that looks like a translation (and I’m not even talking about pure frauds who don’t know any second language and just use Google Translate for that), whereas to become an agency, one doesn’t need anything more than a cheap laptop. One can then use free services, or setup a cheap website and the agency is good to go. This gave rise to the bedroom/dorm room/kitchen table brokers who use the Internet and bidding platforms to directly compete with the independent translators for work coming through agencies (while exploiting the fact that so many translators prefer to hide).
The result of this inefficient structure is that even if the end client has paid $0.30, $0.40, and even $0.50 per word, after the chain of brokers has taken their cut, the client gets a $0.05 worth of core service. The rest goes to fund the brokers’ overhead and bonuses, apartments with a view, and business litigation.
When working with an intermediate, it is not about how much one is willing to pay and the quality of service one seeks, ultimately it is all about how much the intermediates pay and what quality of service they are structured to offer.”
The logical result of this tumult and turmoil is a constant pressure on rates that many translation agencies are willing to pay to translators, especially agencies following to corporate business model, which would probably include all large translation agencies.
The market segment that I was just describing in my post is also referred to by some translators as the bulk translation market. This is where most beginning translators start, and some will stay there forever.
But there is also a premium translation market, which is where translators and translation agencies who want to survive these tumultuous times, translators and translation agencies who strive to offer quality that is based on education, experience, expertise and dedication to the best possible level of service, need to be.
It does not take a genius to see that economic survival in the bulk translation market will be increasingly more and more difficult, if not impossible. And if that is where you still are, you too may soon be roadkill.