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.
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.
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” 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:
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.
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.