Posted by: patenttranslator | October 18, 2014

Please Don’t Shoot The Translator, She Is Doing Her Best

 

“Please don’t shoot the piano player, he is doing his best” was a sign that was frequently encountered in western saloons and later made famous by Oscar Wilde when he saw the sign somewhere on a saloon in Colorado in the late 19th century.

This is how people were expressing their displeasure with piano players back then, and maybe that was why piano players were eventually replaced by music-playing machines. People will generally not shoot at machines, not even when they are playing pretty awful honky-tonk music, and not even in the Wild West, because people are much more fun to shoot at.

Shooting the translator, figuratively speaking, has been a popular sport in the “translation industry” for quite some time now. If something goes wrong with a translation, or even if nothing is wrong with it but the client does not like it for one reason or another, it’s always the translator’s and nobody else’s fault.

The fact is that a translation, and thus also a translator, even a really good one, can be shot down for a number of reasons that may or may not be related to the quality of the translation. This danger is inherent in the method that generic translation agencies who specialize in every subject known to man, (which would be a great majority of them), use to “ensure” what in agency lingo is called QC (quality control).

Because most of the time the people handling translation projectg at translation agencies cannot even read the documents in foreign languages that they are assigning to translators who may not be very well known to them, they often use a proofreader who in theory, or at least according to what the agencies are advertising on their websites, is an equally qualified translator.

I already blogged about the unreliability of this method, also referred to as “The Four-Eyes Principle”, in this post.

In practice, however, the second translator is often not much of a translator because payment for proofreading of this kind is usually based on a low hourly fee (and the number of hours allotted for proofreading is fixed ahead of time), or no more than 3 cents per word, which means that the “second translator” cannot afford to waste a lot of time on the proofreading job.

Due mostly to the low rates, I have not accepted a proofreading job of this kind in something like a quarter century, although I used to do that as a beginner if there was nothing else to do.

Translation agencies like to boast that their method ensures a high quality of translations, but nothing could be further from the truth. Knowing who the best translators are in a given field and paying them good rates and on time is the best method to ensure good quality, but this method is probably used by relatively few agencies. Most of them try to spend as little as possible on translators and proofreaders because they can then spend more money on much, much more important things such as online advertising, money for sales people, owner’s salary, etc.

So if there really is a problem with a translation, an inexperienced proofer (“2nd translator”) may or may not even notice what the problem is, and when the client finally notices that something is wrong with the translation – it will be obviously the translator’s fault.

It is the translation agency’s coordinator who hired the wrong translator for the job, for example because the project manager (PM) assigned a highly technical translation to a translator who mostly translates non-technical texts and who really needed money to pay the bills that month. But if a client complains that the translation makes no sense, everything will be blamed on the translator – the PM, who may not even be able to read the original document, let alone understand the technical concepts involved, is completely blameless.

The translator will simply not be paid for her work, which to me is the equivalent of being shot on the spot. Because these situations occur frequently, some translation agencies even put in their contracts a clause stipulating that the translator will be paid only if the agency finds in its infinite wisdom that the translation was of good quality, and some translators do sign such a contract, ensuring that they will not be paid if somebody does not like their translation.

However, translators can be also shot on the spot when a very good translation is proofread by a dishonest proofreader who happens to be a translator who at the moment does not have enough work.

It’s very easy for a proofreader to spill a lot of red ink on a good translation in order to pronounce the first translator incompetent. The temptation is always there because if you do that, the chances are that the translation agency will start sending new translations to you instead, especially since the PM is in no position to evaluate independently whether the changes recommended by the proofreader are warranted as she does not understand the source document and/or the field in question.

A very good translation, and thus also the translator, can be also shot on the spot when it is reviewed by an ambitious and somewhat vicious bilingual specialist who knows the company’s preferred terms for words used in the translation because he works at the end client’s company.

The translator is supposed to know all the preferred terms in advance without being told by the client what the company’s preferences are. If she does not know that, it is her fault and thus deserves to be shot on the spot.

Some translation agencies understand that every translation involves a relatively long learning process during which every translator, who always starts from zero with a new client, gets better and better with every new job, but many don’t even understand this simple fact.

A good translation agency will try to mediate between the client in order to let the translator simply replace the terms that the client does not like by terms preferred by the client. But many will instead use the old method that was so popular in the saloons of the Wild West when somebody did not like the piano player’s music – they will shoot the translator who may not be paid for many days of hard work because “she used the wrong terms” (i.e. she was not a perfect mind reader).

The poor translator will be simply shot the way a poor piano player was shot by drunk cowboys in the Wild West if he was playing the wrong tune as far as they were concerned.

It is unlikely that the translator will complain in such a situation. And if she does, for example in a discussion online, all you have to do is call the translation unsatisfactory, poor, shoddy, pedestrian, whatever comes to mind, and the translator incompetent and shoot her down a second time.

Works like magic, every time.

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Responses

  1. You make some good points. But
    1. If translator accepts a job she knows she’s not qualified for, she deserves to be shot.
    2. In my experience it’s a myth/fantasy that if you tear up someone else’s translation they’ll start sending you the work instead. (a) I have torn up some translations that really deserved to be torn up, and continued to get that same translator’s terrible work to “edit.” This can make sense to an agency for a number of reasons. They may not even look at the edits and the final quality is acceptable, so what do they care? They may be happy to pay an incompetent translator $.04 a word and pay me $.04 to edit, and on the back end they think they’re getting a bargain because they’re paying $.08 for the translation and charging the end client $.25. (c) They don’t give a damn. They’re just pushing paper. [Just to prove the point, I edited out the horror of “you’all” many times for the same company and kept getting it back in subsequent translations. It wasn’t until I sent a polite but pointed e-mail to the PM saying that such language was not worthy of their company that anything was done. The PM did not look at the edits until I made a fuss.]
    3. No translator should accept a “judgment” of incompetency. Ask to see the original, ask to see the edits, ask to see what was submitted to the end client, ask to see the end client’s comments, and tell them what they’re doing wrong. It costs you a lot of time, and you may very well decide not to work with that client again, but you may find out that they are making a big deal out of nothing, or blaming you for the editor’s mistakes, in order to get you to accept a reduced fee. None of us should fall for that one. Corollary: keep a copy of everything you send out. An unscrupulous agency could change your work and attribute the changes to you – and yes, this has happened to me.

    And thanks, I love reading your blog.

    Like

    • “I have torn up some translations that really deserved to be torn up, and continued to get that same translator’s terrible work to “edit.”

      Most probably they have sent you MT. Always ask the agency for the translator’s contact details. A refusal is a sure indication of MT.

      Like

  2. “1. If translator accepts a job she knows she’s not qualified for, she deserves to be shot.”

    Yes, and so does the agency that sent her the job. But usually only the translator ends up dead.

    2. “They may be happy to pay an incompetent translator $.04 a word and pay me $.04 to edit, and on the back end they think they’re getting a bargain because they’re paying $.08 for the translation and charging the end client $.25.”

    That’s why I no longer accept this kind of proofreading work: 1. I disagree with this business model, 2. I don’t want to support it, 3. it doesn’t pay enough, anyway.

    Liked by 1 person

  3. Hi, Steve, a nice article again, well done!

    Just a few remarks. You disagree with this business model. Pls, do try to distinguish between a business model and fraudulent practice. It’s not so difficult.

    “they often use a proofreader”

    Use? On what legal grounds? Is USING the services of highly qualified professionals the same as USING the services of gas or water supply companies?

    “the PM, who may not even be able to read the original document, let alone understand the technical concepts involved, is completely blameless.”

    Why are PMs always blameless, do you know? Because they can’t be held responsible for the quality of a translation into or from a language they don’t understand. The contrary would be considered perjury at a court of justice. Similarly, when a PM assures a client that a translation is high-quality, while not understanding the foreign languge, it is perjury too. Or simply fraud. To give a practical example, if I praised or criticized a Japanese translation of yours, what would you say to me?

    “ensuring that they will not be paid if somebody does not like their translation.”

    The relationship between a translator and an agency is a relationship between two independent, equal parties who signed a mutually beneficial agreement (who screwed who is another question). In case of voluntary agreement between two independent, equal parties, all disputes shall be settled at a court of justice 🙂 An agency has its payment obligations to the trslator, and it justify any delays in payment with the dissatisfaction of a third party (the client). This is also fraud. The agency invites you to sign a contract that the agency will steal your prospect clients for indefinite period of time and that if you want to work for you your clients (oops, they are now called clients of the agency!) you have to obey and accept the racketeering or blackmailing practices of the agency.

    “every translation involves a relatively long learning process…”
    … which is taken into accout only by the court. The court translator has the right to claim so and so many hours of preparation before each court session and get paid for the preparation. And, above all, get trusted he or she will not abuse this all natural right. (This information is from an official Regulation on Court Interpters recently published in the State Gazette of my home country, but I believe it is a universal principle in court interpreting)

    Liked by 1 person

  4. @ Rennie

    1. “Similarly, when a PM assures a client that a translation is high-quality, while not understanding the foreign languge, it is perjury too.”

    No, it’s not, at least not here in United States.

    I checked with a client of mine, partner in a patent law firm, and he said that as long as the certification statement includes the words “to the best of my knowledge”, it’s just fine. He also said that they don’t really care whether the person issuing the certification is qualified to make such a statement, they just need a statement for court purposes, that’s all.

    2. “The agency invites you to sign a contract that the agency will steal your prospect clients for indefinite period of time”

    How can an agency steal clients that you never had?

    What is stopping you from finding your own clients and never working for another agency (who would just be stealing your prospective clients anyway) again?

    Like

  5. Notes
    1. “voluntary agreement between two independent, equal parties”
    Here I mean translators who are independent contractors (duly registered freelancers or owners of a firm), and not employees working on a contract of employment for the trsls agency.
    2. “An agency has its payment obligations to the trslator, and it justify any delays in payment with the dissatisfaction of a third party (the client)”
    I wanted to say, “An agency has its CONTRACTUAL payment obligations to the trslator WHO IS INDEPENDENT CONTRACTOR , and THE AGENCY CANNOT justify any delays in payment with the dissatisfaction of a third party (the client)”

    Like

  6. “to the best of my knowledge”
    Before this phrase is a statement “I have suffient knowledge of both languages” It’s nonsense to claim responsibility “to the best of my knowledge” if you have none of knowledge. By the way, do you really believe that a PM has the right to certify a translation?

    “How can an agency steal clients that you never had?”
    The question is how can an agency win a client for a translation project when it doesn’t have its own human resources (employees)? My answer is: by lying to the client that it has the required human resources.

    “What is stopping you from finding your own clients and never working for another agency (who would just be stealing your prospective clients anyway) again?”

    It’s very hard to get access to your own clients when you are surrounded by “vacuum cleaners” sucking my clients in by lying to them they have a translator like me. For example, 70 agencies in my town offer Serbian and Croatian tsrl services. In fact, there is only one Serbian & Croation translator here, and he has his own trsl company.When a client contacts any one of those 70, they all claim they HAVE a Serbian & Croation translator (they all consider that the owner of the trsl company for Serbian & Croation translations IS THEIRS). This has been going on for years. Until quite recently we were unaware of how wrong these practices are. So, when the agency secures a contract with the client, based on a wrong premise, they send our company a trsl project and then charge the client 50% more, sometimes even more (we know, because once the translator found the client’s contact details on the I-net, and they talked; actiually, the client was very happy to get to know his translator personally).
    So, this kind of “business model” is theft because the client is robbed, in the 1st place. This is also unfair competition. How can our company compete with so many agencies around that all make false claims they offer the same services as our company? Each company should be clearly recognizable by its name and services. This one offers, say, French, German and Spanish, that – Japanese, German, French, etc, etc. What competition can we be talking of when everybody is allowed to claim they do all and any kind of services? It’s like all individual medical practices or small private clinics claiming they are huge university hospitals with any and all possible facilities and a great number of medical staff providing medical expertise in any and all medical fields.

    Like

    • ПОЛУЧИХТЕ ПИСМОТО НАДЯВАМ СЕ, КОПИЕТО НА ПИСМОТО ДО ФБР, ДАНС И ПУБЛИКУВАНОТО В УИКИПЕДИЯ? ПРИЯТЕН И УСМИХНАТ ДЕН.

      Like

  7. “So, this kind of “business model” is theft because the client is robbed, in the 1st place. This is also unfair competition.”

    You are talking to a thief, Rennie.

    I too buy and resell translations from other translators and my profit margin is 50%.

    My advice to you: Join the unfair competition club. You know what they say, if you can’t beat them, join them.

    Like

    • “You are talking to a thief, Rennie.”

      I know, Steve. That’s why all of your articles are just beating around the bush 🙂

      “if you can’t beat them, join them”

      I would, if I were as pesimistic as you are. I wonder, btw, why you recommend that I endorse fraudulent practices?

      Like

  8. Update
    Now that my boss, the Serbian $ Croation translator, does not work for any agency, some of them started referring clints directly to him 🙂

    Like

  9. “I wonder, btw, why you recommend that I endorse fraudulent practices?”

    Common, Rennie, you’re better than that.

    Ad hominem attacks, especially with false accusations, should be below you.

    Like

  10. When it comes to providing intellectual, personal services, close consultation between the professional and the client is an essential part of ensuring quality outcomes.

    It follows that in the absence of such close consultation, quality of outcomes is likely to be affected in a negative sense. I cannot think of an intellectual, personal service other than in translation, where for commercial reasons, an intermediary ensures that such consultation does not occur.

    Is it any wonder then, that intermediaries, other than professional practices like yours, Steve, are seen as the problem rather than the solution to the profession’s problems (especially in respect of quality). Surely, one of the defining characteristics of a ‘professional’, is that he or she takes PERSONAL responsibility for the quality of the service or advice provided.

    Agencies do not (and obviously cannot).

    Liked by 1 person

    • ” I cannot think of an intellectual, personal service other than in translation, where for commercial reasons, an intermediary ensures that such consultation does not occur. Surely, one of the defining characteristics of a ‘professional’, is that he or she takes PERSONAL responsibility for the quality of the service or advice provided.
      Agencies do not (and obviously cannot).”

      A perfect hit right into the bull’s eye! Well done!

      Like

  11. It’s a jolly good thing we translators have so many lives. 😉

    Wonderful article and astute observations as always.

    Liked by 1 person

  12. Great article :-). A translator has also the “duty” to stay abreast of changes and be always informed about everything related with this field. Translation plays an essential par in the localization industry, so if you want to find out the latest news from localization, I can recommend this website http://l10nhub.com/

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  13. […] of course, it will be the translator and only the translator who will have to bear all of the blame if an irate customer protests that that translation is […]

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  14. https://www.facebook.com/KRECHI77

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  15. […] 23/10/2014 Please Don’t Shoot The Translator, She Is Doing Her Best by Steve Vitek (Diary of a Mad Patent Translator) […]

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  16. […] terminology. Suffix, prefix, and root words. Symposium: On Becoming a Legal Translator, London, UK Please Don’t Shoot The Translator, She Is Doing Her Best Is a good translator automatically a successful translator? Multilingual websites with and without […]

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