In his book “Das Unbehagen in Der Kultur”, whose title was cleverly translated into English as “Civilization and Its Discontents”, Sigmund Freud offers an analysis of why, in his opinion, the human quest for happiness makes little sense in this unpredictable world. We are threatened by so many external forces that are mostly beyond our control (disease, aging, floods, earthquakes, wars, presidential elections and telemarketing) that some sort of largely ersatz happiness is achievable only if we realize that happiness can only be attained episodically, once in a while, a long while, usually.
The default is not happiness, but something else. If we can accept that, the default will not necessarily be unhappiness. If we cannot accept that, the default will necessarily be unhappiness.
Happiness can also be found in small things. Instead of looking for everlasting love, for example, a little bit of love may do the trick, the kind that was popular for a while in the sixties (“if you can’t be with the one you love, love the one you’re with”). Although, seventies would already say “watch out for herpes”, and eighties would replace herpes by AIDS. Happiness indeed is fleeting. Not really the warm gun that the Beatles were singing about in the sixties. It is more like something that may or may not be at the end of the long and winding road from their last album in 1970.
You probably did not need Sigmund Freud, or me, to tell you that. And you may be wondering what all of that has to do with what is called the translation industry. Well, the discontent with the current situation in the translation industry is palpable among so many translators these day.
All you have to do is read what they are saying in the discussions of the discontents on social media and on their blogs. Everybody is complaining that things are really pretty bad in the so called translation industry at this point.
Up to a point, I would have to agree with the translation industry’s discontents who often vent their frustration on social media.
About 20 or even 10 years ago, what was occurring in the translation industry in general and in my specialized field of patent translation in particular made good sense, at least to me.
Everybody was learning how to take full advantage of the many new capabilities of the Internet. Especially in my field of patent translation, the changes were incredibly liberating.
Instead of having to deal with illegible, second or third generation faxes of Japanese patents that were very hard to read, I was finally able to download clearly legible copies of the text for translation from the Internet.
Internet also simplified many other tasks that could be really difficult for translators just a few years ago. I am talking for example about the fact that transliteration of foreign words and foreign names into Japanese through a Japanese alphabet called katakana sometime makes the words impossible to figure out in English, especially when you cannot be even sure from which language the word or name was borrowed. All you have to do now is to type the word in katakana into a search engine to find the English equivalent, even if it is for example a Dutch name and you don’t speak any Dutch.
But the changes occurring in the so called translation industry now can hardly be called positive.
Internet messed up the current status quo to such an extent that the very existence of our profession is considered uncertain by many translators and non-translators alike. Some people believe that our profession is so precarious, unpredictable and without much in the way of job security that translators are among the many classes of professionals, who used to have a secure job, but who are now sometime called the precariat.
I for one completely disagree with the notion that educated and experienced translators, especially those of us who specialize in fields requiring specialized knowledge in addition to knowledge of languages, will ever run out of work.
But I do have to agree with the core of the complaints of the translation industry’s discontents about the current status of the so called translation industry.
It is certainly true that Internet made it possible for just about anybody with a laptop in the kitchen to start calling himself or herself “an LSP”, or “language service provider”, which is what translation agencies prefer to call themselves now.
It is also true that these “LSPs”, together with blind bidding auction sites, and not just Proz or Translator’s Cafe because just about every week I receive an invitation to join a new one, have succeeded in driving the rates paid to some translators all the way to the floor.
Yesterday, for example, I received yet another an e-mail from an “LSP”, that said:
I am sending you an email with the details of our company to see if there is any way we can become a strategic partner in translation”.
Attached to the e-mail was a list of rates for translation from and into just about any language one can think of, starting at 12 cent and topping at 18 cents per word, which means that this “LSP” must be paying very low rates to its translators. One interesting sentence in the same e-mail reads as follows:
“I can send you few names of our biggest customers, agencies that use our services: The Big Word, Translate Plus UK, MCIS Canada, RWS Group, CTS Group, Logos Group, Etc.”
The same bottom-feeding “LSP” also later called me on the phone. I did not pick up, but I know who it was because the call ID had a number that said “SKYPE USER” and they already called me from the same Skype number a few months ago. Well, you can save money when you simply use Skype instead of a telephone line, and you can move your telephone number from country to country effortlessly, for example when you are pretending that you are based in England when you are in fact based in Eastern Europe.
This is how large companies get work done through proxies these days, which is one reason why the pressure on translation rates is unrelenting and why the quality of translations is so atrocious.
Incidentally, have you noticed how, after years of trying to replace the neutral and self-explanatory term “translation agency” by the acronym “LSP”, which means “language services provider”, although nobody outside of the so called translation industry seems to know that, translation agencies are now pushing instead the term “language provider”?
I am not kidding. Instead of simply providing translations at first, followed by language services, translation agencies are now providing language to languageless people, sort of like what professor Higgins did for Eliza Doolittle. Since languagelessness is a major problem in this world, it would be difficult to think of a more noble mission than trying to cure this horrible disease.
My advice to discontents among customers with the current quality of what is produced by the so called translation industry, who happen to be customers who simply need accurate, reliable and precise translations, would be: know your translator.
By saying “know your translator”, I am obviously paraphrasing the famous inscription “Gnothi Seauton” (Know Thyself) on the Temple of Apollo in Delphi, where Pythia priestesses called oracles for a fee answered questions of visitors to guide them in their future actions. This was their job for more than a thousand years, and they were pretty good at it, although they were probably high on something while they were prophesizing (or maybe that was why they were so good at their job).
The problem was, the oracle’s response was not always perfectly clear. When one such oracle told one such visitor named Croeses, who was about to attack Persia to enlarge his empire: “If you attack Persia, you will destroy an empire”, he thought that he would destroy Persia, as he did not realize that the response of the priestess meant that he would destroy his own empire.
However, the principle of “know your translator” is completely unambiguous. If a translation goes first to a “language provider”, such as a large translation agency, it can then be easily filtered through a rock-bottom price subcontractor, only to be butchered by some poor fellow in a third world country who can still survive on what he will be paid according to this modern arrangement after all the players, much more important than the translator, have taken their cut, given how popular is currently this arrangement in the so called translation industry.
I think that the chances that the translation will be pretty bad are pretty good under these circumstances.
On the other hand, if the translation buyer in fact knows the translator and the last time around the translation from the same translator was really good, it is unlikely that the next translation, unfiltered through several parasitic layers, would be so bad that the buyer might lose his own customers as a result of the poor quality of the translation, the modern equivalent of losing an empire.