Posted by: patenttranslator | March 8, 2016

A Rose by Any Other Name Is Not Necessarily Still a Rose

Freelancer, vendor, assignment, LSP …

These and other words and abbreviations are used not only by translation agencies, but also by translators on a daily basis. Few of us seem to pay much attention to what these words really mean and why they are used the way they are by translation agencies, and sometimes also by translators.

Freelancer

When people ask you, “What is it that you do?” and you say, “I am a freelance translator”, do these people see you as an intrepid, independent professional and entrepreneur, or are they mostly wondering, How does somebody who doesn’t know where their next gig is coming from going to be able to pay the bills? They probably know a kid, maybe not so young anymore, who designs websites on the side while still living in what in German is called a “Mama Hotel”, and what GoogleTranslate would more or less correctly translate as “Hotel Mama”. There are lots of these hotels also in Japan and many other countries these days for some reason. I am told that in Spanish, kids staying home forever are labeled as “having a disease called Mamitis”. When you introduce yourself as a freelancer to nosy people, do they see you as that kid, or as a mature business owner?

You could also describe what you do for a living as, “Owning a translation business”. But if you mostly work for middlemen who are running a tight ship in our beloved “translation industry” and who seem to have the power to force freelancers to sign incredibly constricting, demeaning, and outright illegal “Non-Disclosure Agreements”, are you really a business owner?

There is a simple test that can probably be used to answer this question. Most business owners, regardless of what kind of business they have, can generally sell their business, and many in fact do so when they decide to retire. One of the perks of having a business is that most business owners are creating a value that is transferable. Are you running your business in such a way that you will be able to sell it when and if you decide to retire?

If not, well, maybe you are indeed just a freelancer.

Vendor

A vendor is somebody who sells something. It can be just about anything. There are all kinds of vendors in our world: hotdog vendors, vendors at a lemonade stand (who are sometimes just little kids learning basic business rules), and vendors who sell all kinds of services to all kinds of people and businesses.

It’s one thing when an accounting department of a business that needs to purchase a number of specialized services calls me a vendor. Since I mostly work for patent law firms, people working in law firm accounting departments call me “vendor” every year, typically when it’s a new customer asking for my tax identification number. I don’t feel that there is anything wrong with that. After all, the law firm is paying for the services provided by a number of other specialized businesses, while the cost of that service is then transferred to the law firm’s client. So the law firm’s accounting department naturally needs a generic name that includes all types of services provided by specialized businesses, a generic name that fits beautifully on a tax form.

But isn’t it true that translation agencies, if we can still dare to call them that now that they’ve renamed themselves “LSPs”, make money only from the work of translators who work for these translation agencies by translating documents for them, which is something that these agencies can’t do on their own? Would it be too much to ask translation agencies to try and remember that the work that makes them money is called translating and the people who do this work that makes them money, the work that they can’t do themselves, are called translators?

If they can’t remember that we are translators and keep calling us vendors instead, aren’t they making very clear to us that as far as they are concerned, we are not really all that different from lemonade vendors, or pretzel vendors, or hotdog vendors? Is it possible that instead of calling us translators”, they prefer to call us “vendors” to “bring us to heel” as Hillary Clinton might put it?

Assignment

“Assignment” sounds so exciting! Agent 007 has been getting exciting assignments in James Bond movies since the 1960s, and dangerous as these assignments are, none of the actors who played James Bond, from Sean Connery in the ‘60s to Daniel Craig who played him last year, ever turned down a single one of them. Well, how could they have turned them down when they had so much fun on each of these assignments, including playing with super-cool guns, cars and gizmos and getting laid by all of those beautiful actresses?

Maybe that’s why translation agencies call a translation gig “an assignment” instead of “a translation”. They’re just trying to make things a little bit more exciting for us!

Or could it be that they are using generic names for everything instead of calling a translation a translation because “translation” is a concept that they don’t clearly understand? Why would I be saying such a silly thing? Well, in all the time that I have been translating patents, unless it was something that already had an English summary, translation agencies have been referring to everything that was in Japanese by the generic name “a document”.

I don’t remember ever receiving an e-mail from a translation agency that would be packed with specific information identifying what’s in it, for example something like this:

“Hi Steve, we have a new translation for you if you have the time, it’s a Japanese utility model about a medical device, namely “Ultrasonic Device for Measuring the Volume of Damaged Nerves Indicating Direct Correlation with the Amount of Received Spam”, not very complicated, right up your alley”.

Instead, the e-mails I receive these days tend to sound more like this:

“Dear Linguist:

I hope you are doing well. I am reaching out to you because we have a document for translation from Japanese to English. We need to have this document translated by 10 AM tomorrow. Do you use Trados and what would be your rate for this assignment?”

The reason why agency coordinators use the word “document” is that they have absolutely no idea what “the document” is about, unless it has an English summary, or there are some figures at the end of it, which thankfully is sometimes the case. And I would be dumbfounded if a generic agency project manager could tell the difference between a patent application, a utility model and an issued patent, let alone if a PM could tell what “the document” is about and whether it seems to be difficult or not so difficult to translate. As I have indicated, it has not happened to me yet in almost three decades. Also, have you noticed how the dramatic introduction “I am reaching out to you” has become very popular recently in mass e-mails that are sent by generic “LSPs” to dozens of unnamed “Dear Linguists”?

It’s just my theory, but I think that they do it again mostly to jazz up our boring lives and make things a little bit more exciting for Dear Linguists.

LSP

This is a relatively recent abbreviation invented by “the translation industry” as another generic term, in this case an abbreviation that only translation agencies and translators are familiar with, aimed at replacing the term “translation agency”, which is a perfectly understandable and neutral term that had been in use for many decades prior to the invention of this abbreviation, an abbreviation that is all but completely incomprehensible to outsiders.

LSP is a very good replacement for the term “translation agency” for a number of reasons. First of all, most people outside of “the translation industry” have absolutely no idea that “LSP” stands for “Language Services Provider“. Thus it is a perfect way to get rid of the misleading term “translation agency”, which indicates, or at least strongly suggests, that an “LSP” is just a broker rather than an actual provider of translations.

If the customer does not realize that the “LSP” is just a broker using far-flung “freelancers” who may be located somewhere in low-wage countries, (and we have a lot of those on our blue planet, don’t we?), that is clearly a good thing for the translation agency, I mean for the “LSP”.

Secondly, the fact that so many translators have started using the term “LSP” on their own, even in passionate discussions on social media, is proof positive that whoever came up with the clever idea to replace the term translation agency by an abbreviation that is incomprehensible to outsiders was a translation industry genius.

Once the general public starts using the abbreviation “LSP”, and maybe even eventually learns what it stands for, the tenuous connection between the word translator, as in the person who does the translating work, and the client, as in the person who needs translations and pays for them, will be successfully and completely severed and the concept of an “LSP” will replace the concept of “a translator” not only in the minds of clients, but also in the minds of translators.

In spite of what Shakespeare’s Juliet expressed so beautifully in the balcony scene,

“What’s in a name? that which we call a rose
By any other name would smell as sweet;”

the words that we use for the multi-faceted reality surrounding us are really important. So important that one way to interpret Shakespeare’s play would be to come to the conclusion that the main reason why Romeo and Juliet tragically die in the end was that they did not realize how important words are in the real world.

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Responses

  1. Why “just” a freelancer?
    Pejorative undertones notwithstanding, my freelance career has been considerably more satisfying and remunerative than most of the full-time employments that I’ve seen around. Inability to sell the business without my brain inside it does not make it less of a business venture – any more than it would for an attorney or doctor or accountant or any other specialist whose individual expertise is being rented out.

    I do agree, of course, that words have meaning and that the meanings are important. But that ‘s pretty much necessary for someone in our profession.

    Liked by 2 people

  2. I hear what you are saying.

    But my accountant Bob, who has been working as a sole proprietor and whose services I have been using for 25 years, did sell his business when he retired and I will try to do the same when the time comes.

    I do believe that the ability to sell one’s business is one way to distinguish a freelancer from a business owner.

    Liked by 1 person

    • And I hear what you are saying, but conceive of myself as running a business as a freelance translator (well, as a team, organized as a small corporation, a wee bit more complex than just one translator – but even when I was just-one-translator… …it was a business, organized and run as such.)

      Could it be sold? Hmm. I’ll have to think about that. My instinct is to say that it could not, but perhaps I’m wrong.

      Like

  3. The way I see it, if you work mostly for direct clients, the business can be probably sold, depending on the price and how much a typical buyer would be able to pay. You would be selling mostly direct access to your clients and your knowledge about your business. The clients are free to leave, of course, if they don’t like the new business owner.

    In my case, I would be selling also a very valuable domain name. My blog probably has no monetary value, although it does support the ranking of my website for search engines.

    If you work mostly for translation agencies, there is probably nothing to sell there.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Although the work is identical…

      …hmm. Thank you, that is (as usual with you) interesting food for thought.

      Liked by 1 person

  4. Exactly, although the work is completely identical.

    Like

  5. As for confidentiality agreements, they can make me sign until they are blue in the fact, these agreements are not worth the paper they are written on, and especially if they are being forced on translators who are not in the same country. They are just there to frighten naive translators.

    Like

    • And to show translators that they are nothing, basically just slaves. But the agency can sue you if you sign one of those and then for example say something that the agency does not like about it on your blog. So they have several purposes. Once you sing them, you lose your freedom.

      Like

      • Really? And how are they going to sue you if you are, say, in the USA and they are in the UK? Can you imagine what such a law suit would cost them? Absolutely not worth the money and the adverse publicity would just about kill their business because once a law suit is filed it becomes public knowledge.

        Like

      • Dear Josephine:

        Are you saying that we don’t have to worry about what we are signing because they can’t do anything to us anyway?

        It seems to me that this is what you are in fact saying, and I really don’t agree with that.

        Many agencies are run by very, very nasty people, and I think that it makes sense not to have anything to do with people like that.

        The NDA tells me right away which agencies I want to stay away with.

        Like

      • As indicated by Steve, the issue about contracts of adhesion disguised as confidentiality agreements is not about legal consequences attached to breaches of same, but that signing them reinforces the subordination of the profession to the industry for the purpose of reducing costs (at our expense) and increasing profitability.

        Any reasonable and objective analysis of the relationship between a professional and a client or intermediary suggests that it is up to us to stipulate the terms of service delivery and the level of our fees. Our failure as a profession to do so as a matter of course may be one of the major reason for the the vacuum that has been filled by the agencies.

        Agencies, like many businesses today, want obedient employees, available 24/7, without the responsibilities and costs associated with employing them; i.e. casual hires (like fruit pickers) disguised as ‘independent contractors’ or ‘vendors’ or ‘free-lancers’.

        It is one of the reasons why I believe that even using free-lancer to describe an independent professional translator, tends to reinforce the strategic objective of the intermediaries: total control to minimise cost and eliminate any responsibility.

        Crapitalism at its best.

        Liked by 1 person

  6. Interesting post, as usual Steve.

    Have ‘translator’ and ‘translation’ become dirty words?
    Some people seem to want to conceal the reality of translation.

    Charles

    Like

  7. Thanks for your comment, Charles.

    Yes, translator is pretty much a dirty word now for a big part of “the translation industry”. You will be looking mostly in vain for this word on the websites of translation agencies.

    If we are mentioned there at all, we are usually presented as thousand upon thousands of unimportant, easily replaceable slaves:

    Here is how Louis put it on his website while citing propaganda from Transperfect’s website:

    As Transperfect puts it: “a network of over 5,000 certified linguists and subject-area specialists”, which appears to be the only reference to the people who actually provide the services they sell.

    Liked by 1 person

  8. Good points; I haven’t thought of this in terms of lack of understanding by the party using these words, but now it makes sense. I have previously suggested that maybe some of these vague job titles are used to make the person look more important.

    Like

  9. “Attempts to resist popular usage are usually futile, so I do not believe we can reverse this trend in US business communication.”

    You may be right, but I will keep trying. It’s worth a shot. The usage of ambiguous terms that are in fact put-downs disguised as superordinates is not really popular, it’s relatively new and it was invented by “the translation industry” for a purpose. We should not be using those terms ourselves.

    I do think that one reason why “the translation industry” insists on using incorrect and vague terms, such as “vendor” instead of translator, is to reduce and lower translators to the level of lemonade, pretzel and hot dog vendors in order to try to make the entire concept of our profession simply disappear if possible.

    Liked by 2 people

    • Actually, I think using the term “vendor” suggests that we are just commercial cogs in an impersonal supply chain. You can squeeze a vendor’s profit margin, and the vendor will then pass on the reduced cost to the previous cog in the machine.
      However, we are not vendors, we are actually the creative minds that make the “product” possible. Without people like us, there is no product. If we are good at what we do, this gives us the power to veto the deal.
      I, too, regard terms such as “Dear vendor” or “Dear linguist” as red flags which help me to identify which waters to avoid (i.e. which agency e-mails to ditch). Similar to the ubiquitous request for a CV or a “best price”.
      If agencies want my services, they need to give me a reason to be interested in what they offer (i.e. more than merely hot air and marketing verbiage). Most agencies, especially those who trawl the Proz database, do not even try to do this.

      Liked by 1 person

      • “they need to give me a reason to be interested in what they offer”.

        It’s not the agency that should make an offer, after all, the are an arranging a translation for the client. They are therefore, nominally, acting as the client’s agent, even if they don’t always act in their client’s interest.

        In an ideal world, Victor, they should be ASKING you whether you are prepared to undertake a translation for them and for you to advise them of your willingness to do so, and what your terms and fees will be.

        You don’t make your doctor, lawyer or accountant an offer when you need their services, do you?

        Like

  10. I wonder whether they know or care that translators are looking for code-words like vendor and linguist to determine which agencies are best to stay away from. Most probably don’t give a damn.

    Like


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