Posted by: patenttranslator | March 15, 2016

Uberification of “the Translation Industry” Is Quickly Moving Forward

As translation agencies grow bigger and become more and more aggressive, they have become a different kind of animal, similar to and in some respect worse than the Uber Corporation and very different from what a typical translation agency used to be only a few years ago.

As most people know by now, Uber is a multinational online transportation company, headquartered in San Francisco, which operates the Uber mobile app that allows consumers with smartphones to submit trip requests that are then submitted to drivers who use their own cars to provide the same service as taxi drivers. According to Wikipedia, as of May 28, 2015, the service was available in 58 countries and 300 cities worldwide. So many countries have started copying this business model that the business trend is now referred to as Uberification.

Evidence that the Uber-model is in full swing in what is now referred to as “the translation industry” can also be found in my own e-mail.

Ten years ago, I started translating patents for a translation agency in Europe, mostly Japanese patents about medical devices and pharmaceuticals. As I don’t seem to have a Confidentiality Agreement in my file for this agency, it probably did not send me such an agreement. I only received “Important Instructions” from the agency ten years ago, admonishing translators not to forget things like running a spell checker (???).

The instructions from ten years ago amount to about 400 words and fit easily on a single page if you print them out. One of these “Important Instructions” in fact says, “Have your used the spell checker on your work?” (Gee, thanks guys, where would I be without your instructions?)

I used to work for this agency, although only occasionally, between 2006 and 2010. I see that the last time I worked for it was in 2010 and that back then they paid me five weeks from the date of my invoice. I stopped working for them six years ago because the e-mails I kept receiving from them were a clear indication to me that I did not really want to work for these people.

Every few months I would receive a new e-mail from a brand new agency coordinator (the old ones kept disappearing), asking me again for my résumé, while also providing a wealth of information about a new invoicing system, new payment terms and other changes and updates. Some of these instructions were sent only to cancel the previous instructions and replace the old batch of helpful advice and directives with new ones. It would have created a confusing situation for me had I still been translating for them. But as I said, I haven’t replied to any of their missives for about six years now.

Although I have been diligently ignoring their e-mails for the last six years, within the last ten days I have received the same e-mail (three times already) from them: a zipped subdirectory with brand new instructions once again. I do not respond to e-mails from agencies that I don’t want to work for, but I usually open and read the file because I am by nature a curious and inquisitive person.

The latest zipped subdirectory informs me that since the agency is opening a new office in the United States (Yay!), I need to sign a few more forms for them, as well as a “Contract-NDA”, which unlike the helpful “Important Instructions” that were only about 400 words long ten years ago now has seven pages and a total of 3,813 words.

A separate form, titled “Payment Terms for Vendors” states that I may submit “only one invoice per month before the 10th of the next month” and that “the payment of invoices will be made by the 15th of each month 45 days after the end of the month where the invoice has been sent” (it says “where” instead of when).

So, instead of paying for each invoice in about a month (which is still a pretty long time), the corporatized and Uberized fighters in “the translation industry” now pay the poor people who work for them in two months. Or maybe in three months: since only one invoice can be submitted on the 10th of the next month, “the vendors” may even get paid for their work close to three months after the translation was delivered.

How long do Uber drivers have to wait to get paid? I don’t know, but I am sure that unlike “vendors” working for corporatized and Uberized translation agencies in “the translation industry”, it cannot possibly be two to three months. Even the Uber Corporation probably understands that unlike “vendors” who work for corporatized translation agencies, people who drive cars for them need to eat every day and have bills that will simply not wait two to three months.

Businesses like Uber, Airbnb, EasyCar Club, or Girl Meets Dress are based on the idea that a new type of economy, often called share economy, can be created to replace old business models that may no longer work very well in a world where everything is interconnected with everything else because just about everybody has a smart phone. Just about everybody can drive a car, has a house or apartment and can part with his car or her dress for a day or two in exchange for some money, so why not take advantage of it and organize things through Internet by using an app to make a lot of money for the Organizers.

The threshold for participating in this kind of business as a service provider in a shared economy is very low. You basically only need to have something that most people have – a car, an apartment, or a dress – and a pulse, to be a service provider.

The modern model of translation agencies in “the translation industry” is based on a similar concept and a similar assumption, namely that since everybody is on the Internet, many people who “know” two languages can be translators. The translation business can thus be organized along similar principles as for example the Uber transportation business.

But things are not that simple even in the Uber world. The traditional model in the old economy has a few advantages that are difficult, if not impossible, to replicate in a sharing economy. For example, while it is not that easy to drive a taxi and you generally have to be a really good driver and go through a thorough evaluation process to qualify for the job, especially in a big city, there is no telling what kind of driver is driving an Uber customer.

Because the job entry threshold for Uber drivers is so low, some drivers may be mentally ill, criminally insane, and some of them may even be psychopathic murderers. That was the case of an Uber driver who recently went on a shooting spree in Kalamazoo, Michigan, and killed six people, while continuing to pick up new Uber customers.

The question that I am asking myself is: who are these “vendors” who are able to continue working for the new type of corporatized translation agencies, which in some respects are treating their “vendors” even worse than Uber is treating its drivers?

The “vendors” who work for the new type of corporatized translation agencies may not be as dangerous to their customers as an insane or psychopathic Uber driver who happens to be a killer. But I think that it is unlikely that many of these “vendors” are professional translators who have a university degree and many years of translation experience in a specialized field.

Ten years ago when I started working for the translation agency that inspired my silly post today by sending me a new “Confidentiality Agreement” that is almost four thousand words long, while extending the payment terms from 30 days net to at least 60, possibly 90 days, depending on when “the vendor” is allowed to submit an invoice, my hope was that I was making a connection with a specialized translation agency that would come to value and appreciate the specialized translation services that I was providing as an experienced translator of patents from Japanese, German, French and other languages.

After all, the threshold for entry to the profession of a patent translator who can competently translate Japanese or German patents dealing with medical devices, pharmaceuticals, electronics and other fields is not exactly as low as the threshold for entry to the job of an Uber car driver.

But as the translation agency eventually decided to Uberify its business, I had to stop working for it years ago because the business model of this particular translation agency made it impossible for me to continue working for it. This translation agency’s business model is incompatible with my business model.

It is fairly safe to assume that most experienced translators will do the same, because what else can they do if they want to be able to pay their bills? This means that the type of agency that I am describing in my silly post today will probably then be forced to work mostly with beginners and subprime translators who are likely to be able to deliver only work of questionable quality.

Paradoxically, this also creates an opportunity for translation businesses, specialized agencies and individual translators, whose business model is not based on the Uber model of a sharing economy, but instead continues the traditions inherited from the old economy.

After all, the AirBnb model has not put traditional hotels or bed and breakfast establishments out of business yet, and regular taxis are still patronized by customers who are willing to pay a little bit more for better safety combined with convenience. I even see a generational divide here: for example, my son always uses Uber service when he needs a ride somewhere; I always use a regular taxi and probably always will. I don’t use taxis that often, and my own safety is more important to me than a lower cost.

I see a kind of split in “the translation industry” that is similar to what has already been occurring for quite a while in other industries, a split that will result in two types of translation providers, if we want to use this term:

Translation agencies who have jumped on the Uber,  AirBnb and Girl Meets Dress bandwagon and rely mostly on “vendors”, (the preferred term in “the translation industry” since the industry does not like the word “translators”), whose threshold to entry into the translation profession is very low, are on one side of the great divide.

On the other side are translation agencies and individual translators whose businesses continue to be anchored mostly in the traditions and practices of the old economy, where translation agencies and translators compete primarily on competence and expertise instead of competing mostly based on rock-bottom prices and where the threshold for entry into the profession of a specialized translator is and always will be quite high.

 

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Responses

  1. It’s the ‘gig’ economy. (http://www.alternet.org/economy/robert-reich-new-economy-workers-take-all-risk).
    Workers do the work, carry the risk, provide the working capital, and agree to be available whenever the occasional ’employer’ needs him or her, and at the (increasingly ‘competitive’) terms offered (the gig).

    i.e. ‘Seasonal fruit picker’ terms for professionals.

    I still prefer to describe the difference as the translation ‘industry’ on the one hand and and the translation profession on the other.
    The former is made up of business entities requiring no particular specialised skills to operate, the latter is made up of professionals requiring a high level of personal and very specialised skills; and whereas ethics and morals can be a distinct handicap on the part of people operating a business, it is an absolute and fundamental requirement for a professional (some lawyers excepted, of course :-).

    I can’t help feeling, Steve, that we are slowly coming full circle and are almost back to a modern form of feudalism. I believe a large part of the credit goes to Friedman and the Chicago boys for developing the ‘robber baron’ crapitalism they have promoted during the past 35 years or so. Perhaps Bernie Sanders is your/our last hope.

    Liked by 3 people

    • “I still prefer to describe the difference as the translation ‘industry’ on the one hand and and the translation profession on the other.” :

      I love this ! 🙂

      Let’s talk about the translation profession and forget definitively about the translation industry, whose business model cannot survive.

      Indeed, by practicing very low rates, they only get unprofessional translators.

      So customers get burnt once, but never return.

      With no or little returning customers, LSPs and platforms have to invest massively in marketing and sales, further preventing them from paying a professional rate in order to attract professional translators.

      I don’t think this business model can survive, as it is trapped in a vicious circle.

      So let’s talk about the serious people here: small, specialized agencies that know their job, and let’s forget about platforms and supergiants who know absolutely nothing about translation and will burn their wings sooner or later. Bon débarras.

      Like

      • “So let’s talk about the serious people here: small, specialized agencies that know their job, and let’s forget about platforms and supergiants who know absolutely nothing about translation and will burn their wings sooner or later. Bon débarras.”

        Good riddance (bon débarras) would be a good result, but that is not necessarily going to happen in my opinion. Some clients don’t really care even if the translation are atrocious, as long as they save money, although the short-term savings may cost them dearly in the long term.

        So there is a place in the translation market for garbage that is inevitably produced by “people-driven translation platforms” like Smartling, Duolingo and other companies that use machine translation, crowdsourcing, editing by cheap slaves, and other new revolutionary concept of “the translation industry”.

        These companies spend tons of money on advertising and I am sure they do get business in this manner, probably a lot of business. It may take years for their clients before they realize what kind of translations they are getting for their money, if they ever do. Especially if the translation is into a foreign language, the client may have no idea about what is really contained in the translation that was quite inexpensive and quite fast.

        That is why I am talking about split in the translation market, and why I am not holding my breath waiting for the translation model that is based on MT and unqualified, cheap human slaves to die any time soon.

        I also think that experienced translators should not be working for this segment of the translation market if they want the profession to survive.

        Like

      • Let’s get it right and start calling “small, specialized agencies”, ‘professional practices’ owned and operated by one or more professional translators.

        The ‘agency’ term has been thoroughly corrupted by the industry (who did not act as an agent for either the clients or the translators – they only represent their own interests, i.e. making money). Perhaps their sensitive conscience moved them to change their description to LSP 🙂

        Liked by 1 person

      • Ha, ha, ha, ha …. it was either their delicate and sensitive conscience, or the fact that lying is a second nature to so many of them. But seriously, professional practice is a much better term, especially since most translation agencies would be disqualified.

        Like

      • precisely my point…..Z
        The goal is differentiation, the tool is distinct nomenclature.

        Liked by 1 person

  2. The plutocrats don’t get it – Bernie is their last hope, and he wants to save their skin because he is talking about “a peaceful revolution”. Bernie thinks that the present system can be still saved through the democratic process, just like Gorbachev thought the communist system could be reformed through a tiny bit of democracy. He called it “perestroika”. But he was wrong, the system was not reformable and it collapsed.

    If a peaceful revolution through normal democratic process is no longer possible (because democracy has been corrupted by money to such an extent that it no longer works), the revolution will not be so peaceful.

    Donald may only be the first sign of what is happening.

    Liked by 3 people

    • I fear you may be right, and I also fear that we, together with many others, will become collateral damage.

      Like

  3. Really interesting comparison! Good on you for not working with such agencies (although as you say I suppose it’s more out of necessity than choice, because who can afford to wait so long to be paid and spend the time keeping up with their constantly changing policies?)

    In terms of Uber, I actually have very conflicting feelings. Living in London and just starting out in my career, regular taxi services would cripple me financially if I used them every week when I went out, but Uber gives an affordable way of getting home which is probably a lot safer than stumbling about trying to find a night bus. Then again, I do feel for the traditional taxi drivers who have had the rug pulled out underneath them on their industry. There’s definitely a quality difference in service, too.

    Big props on the song choice in this post too by the way!

    Liked by 3 people

  4. Thanks so much for liking the music videos!

    Liked by 2 people

  5. Maybe this split in “translation industry” as well as in other industries is a consequence of the law of evolution. I think it has happened many times in our history. Everything needs to survive. By the way, your posts are great.

    Liked by 3 people

    • I agree, it is evolution driven by technology. I also think that translators need to make up their mind whether they want to work for the Uber-like “translation industry”, or instead concentrate on traditional translation agencies and direct clients.

      Liked by 1 person

  6. Another issue with the uberization of translation is – Independent contractor vs. employee

    There is currently a huge independent contractor vs. employee law suit in the United States that may have an impact on the translation industry. The more agencies set rates, set payment terms, track hours, dictate software requirements, etc, the more they start to look like an employer: http://www.mercurynews.com/business/ci_29607310/uber-driver-wins-unemployment-benefits

    Back in the 1990s, several translators sued agencies for employee benefits because agencies were unilaterally dictating rates, payment terms, etc. For a long time after that, you had to send each agency business cards and proof of a separate business telephone line to prove your independent contractor status. Agencies were then cautious to always request your rates and terms. Twenty-five years later, all of this seems to have been forgotten (especially by a lot of the new “translation start-ups”).

    Liked by 2 people

    • “The more agencies set rates, set payment terms, track hours, dictate software requirements, etc, the more they start to look like an employer” :

      I love this too ! And you forgot about dictating their owns terms and conditions (which you do mention further on) !

      This piece of information has GOT to get widespread among translators, in order to STOP agencies from keeping doing that.

      I personally will be more vigilant in the future.

      Indeed some of those agencies think they are employers.

      I remember scolding a British agency for literally considering their translators as employers, black on white on their website, a couple of years ago.

      And you know what ? The guy insisted that they considered their freelance translators as employees and that they were fine with this…

      I believe the guy would swiftly change his mind if he knew he risks paying employee’s indemnities to his freelancers ! 😉

      I am tweeting you sentence, completed with the “terms and conditions” if I have room, now ! 🙂

      Like

    • I tweeted:

      Professional translators belong to the translation profession. Amateurs belong to the translation industry (LSPs & platforms). #xl8 #t9n

      Let’s talk about “the #t9n profession” as opposed to “the #xl8 industry”, LSPs &platforms trapped in vicious circle of non-returning clients

      Uber driver wins unemployment benefits http://www.mercurynews.com/business/ci_29607310/uber-driver-wins-unemployment-benefits Cf #uberisation of ‘the #t9n industry’ (LSPs, platforms,…). #xl8

      #xl8 The + #t9n agencies set rates/payment terms, track hours, dictate software requirements, etc, the + they start to look like an employer

      By the way, if the translation profession could have only one hashtag, either #t9n or #xl8, but not both : it would save us 5 characters + 1 space…

      Could this not so unimportant issue be brought up at a coming conference ? I mean, rather than talking about so-called “CAT” tools (extortion tools that only people like a well-known brainless bilingual nurse turned “medical translator” overnight still promote…).

      That would give us more space to write the full “translation” word, which is the only one that our direct customers know…

      In short, we have to be more “direct customer” and “small, specialized agency”-minded (and forget about the rest, which does NOT belong to the translation profession – nor even the “translation-anything” by the way…).

      Liked by 1 person

  7. The problem with waiting so long to be paid is not only cash flow problems, but when you are not paid for two or three months, you have to extend the agency more and more interest-free credit and you put your business at extreme risk should something go wrong.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Thanks for the link to Mercury News, I was not aware of this.

      and you put your business at extreme risk should something go wrong.

      “but when you are not paid for two or three months, you have to extend the agency more and more interest-free credit and you put your business at extreme risk should something go wrong.”

      Exactly. New translators often don’t understand the extent of the danger when they agree to such incredible, immoral and illegal (in most countries) terms.

      And things sometime do go wrong.

      Liked by 1 person

      • Uber has admitted that its ultimate goal is to replace all of its drivers with automated cars (although I have my doubts about automated cars working in the real world – at least while there are still “human” drivers on the roads) and all of these people who think Uber cares about them as “vendors” will suddenly find themselves out of work. I think the average driver only works for Uber for six months and they quit after they find out that they have to pay social security taxes (14%), income tax, that there is considerable depreciation on their vehicle, gas, etc., and that they actually make below minimum wage. There is a push to increase the minimum wage in the U.S. to $15.00 an hour. Once that happens, a lot of “jobs” will become automated. As a patent translator, I am sure you must have translated some patent about RFID chip technology that can automatically ring up store purchases as the customer walks out the door, eliminating the needs for grocery store and department store cashiers…

        Liked by 1 person

  8. How robots will kill the ‘gig economy’ http://www.cnbc.com/2016/03/09/how-robots-will-kill-the-gig-economy.html

    Liked by 1 person

    • Well, one sure thing about the translation profession, translating human thoughts, is that we will never be (fully) replaced by robots.

      The proof by the complete failure of machine translation trying to replace us.

      And the now certainty of all investors in the translation industry and all customers that machine translation is improving every year, thus helping translators, but will never ever replace a human translator.

      There is online literature of this too… I gave a like to Steve a few days ago. Tips to future investors in the translation industry: forget about MT, translation is a “very human-intensive” business, as the author put it. “Labour-intensive” is a more common expression.

      Some people thought (hoped) that translation could just be a “capital-intensive” business, which further proves they do not understand ANYTHING about translation.

      Now they finally realise that translation is, and always will be, “labour-intensive”.

      Let’s stop worrying needlessly, thus! 🙂

      Liked by 1 person

      • Errata (sorry):

        “the *now* certainty” -> “the *present* certainty”

        “I gave a *like* to Steve a few days ago.” -> “I gave a *link* to Steve a few days ago.”

        Like

  9. “Earlier this month, hundreds of Uber drivers gathered outside the company’s office in Queens, New York, to protest a 15% reduction in fares.” Why don’t we see lines of angry translators outside the offices of perfectfelinebridgelations? http://qz.com/614218/the-scariest-thing-about-the-gig-economy-is-how-little-we-actually-know-about-it/

    Liked by 1 person

    • This is precisely why, in France, they (trade unions, etc) are presently fighting so hard against the reform of the code of labour laws.

      Like

  10. Translation industry is a misnomer. Translators belong to the Service Industry, aka the Tertiary Sector of the economy. Translators and interpreters are professionals who sell their language access services directly or through intermediaries (language companies). Accordingly, translators are vendors (they sell their professional services) who mostly (about 70%) do it as Individual [Service] Providers (IPs) aka freelancers aka independent contractors per SCOTUS decision in Harris v Quinn. Yes, we belong to the Service Industry and, from the US Dept of Labor point of view, we fall under Professional Services: Language Services. The real discussion to be had is whether we are being paid proportionately to our expertise.

    Like

  11. The problem of the gig economy/uberised economy is that a large part of it is undeclared (black market), which compensates for low rates, which are too low for professionals to live on…

    This is all because we let a pervert psychopath, George W. Bush, become, twice, the president of the first economic & military world power – who caused this gigantic world-wide financial and economic crisis, leading to the uberisation of economies.

    It’s more than high time brain research focuses on curing perverts and psychopaths.

    ISIS is led/made of pervert psychopaths too.

    And the Earth has become a small village, with easier communication and transportation.

    I am not even sure that our so well-paid and so bright leaders are fully aware of this emergency.

    The less money we can invest in ecology, environment and climate, the more we dig our own grave.

    Our leaders are heavily trying to face this gigantic financial and economic crisis, it’s going to take a while, and then a new generation will take the lead and forget about how it all happened.

    A bit like after World War II. Our leaders condemned dozens of psychopaths, the Jews pursued those kinds of mentally ill people all the way to the Latino American jungles. We created the “usine à gaz” that the European Union has become, out of fear of “Germany” (?). But we missed the essential point:

    psychopaths are very numerous in the whole world

    they are mentally ill and they were born like this

    these people are allowed to live, marry, have children, have a job, vote, go on vacation, etc as long as they do not land in prison but they are so manipulative that only a few land in jail and very late in their lifetime

    and everybody acts as if nothing had to be done about it.

    The “translation industry” is surely plagued with psychopaths and pervert psychopaths trying to make a buck out of enslaving translators (and would-be translators) and nobody seems to be aware of this.

    Quite to the contrary, organisations that sell translation membership, translation surveys, translation software, etc all seem to continue to respect those mentally ill intermediaries and to unroll the red carpet for them.

    Customers are at a total loss in front of such intermediaries who manipulate them into trusting and spending… for low-quality pseudo-translations…

    Like

    • You may be interested in reading ‘The Psychopath Test: A Journey Through the Madness Industry’, Isabelle.

      Like

  12. […] I don’t work for this type of agency anymore, so I may be exaggerating the problem to some extent, but from what I read in translator discussion groups, especially on LinkedIn, the clause stating that, “the payment of invoices will be made by the 15th of each month 45 days after the end of the month” is becoming a standard part of contracts that corporate translation agencies are now asking translators to sign, as I wrote in my previous post. […]

    Like

  13. People keep complaining about newcomers and their low-quality work. Everyone who is now a prominent translator was once a “newcomer” to this profession. I have graduated from university last summer, I received a BA in Translation. I am aware I am not that good to be a good translator yet. But I need to start somewhere. The problem is that everyone is looking for either a bottom-feeder or someone with at least 2-year experience in translation; or both. Nobody cares that you need experience and some guidance. I don’t want to be one of those bottom-feeders. I want to have a respectable career. It has been about 9 months since my graduation. I have applied to dozens of places. I agree my CV doesn’t look good enough, obviously, there are not many things I can write. But no one ever turns back and you cannot measure one’s translation competency from their CV. One of two jobs I remember I got was from a friend, the other was a half-finished translation. It is not that there weren’t any other jobs. But as I said, I wouldn’t be doing any good to myself and to other translators by accepting those atrocious offers. That’s all for 9 months. Maybe I should call it quits already.

    Like


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