The most common way people give up their freedom is by thinking they don’t have any.
Last week, a translation agency in the UK asked me whether I would be able to accept a rush translation of a legal document from German to English. They said in their first e-mail that they found my information in the ATA directory, that the document was about 500 words and that they needed it the same day by 5 PM. Greenwich mean time, probably, which would mean that I would have just a few hours for the translation.
Ten or twenty years ago, it would be a very simple negotiation. I would tell them my payment terms, and they would either send me the translation, or not if my terms were not acceptable. Since it was a rush translation, I might have asked for a couple of cents more than usual. Ten or 20 years ago, that was it, and I almost always ended up accepting the translation.
But times have changed.
I said, yes, I could fit it in, but could I see the document first? No, you can’t, they said. We hope you understand that we can’t show you the document unless you sign our NDA (Non-Disclosure Agreement) first. I did understand and I was pleasantly surprised that although the NDA was more than 1,500 words long, unnecessarily so because it was full of ridiculously pompous and redundant legalese, the NDA in fact did only described in detail non-disclosure of confidential information.
I was pleasantly surprised that the NDA, despite the ridiculous and stilted formulations, was in fact an NDA because what “the translation industry” is now calling NDAs are often contracts dealing with a whole range of conditions severely restricting the freedom of translators with respect to just about everything, from payment terms to illegal non-competition clauses so as to allow translators a space no bigger than the space available to caged hens who are made to work just as hard for the poultry industry in tiny cages barely bigger than the poor bird’s body (0.46 square feet per caged bird).
In these tiny wire cages, hens are laying eggs as fast as they can, just as translators working for the “translation industry” must work as fast as they can in the tiny cages created for them by the paperwork they are made to sign before they can even see the text for an urgent translation.
So I signed the NDA, scanned the document and sent it back to the agency. I also attached my résumé as requested and told them in my second e-mail how much I charge for European languages and how much for Japanese translations. I offered them a pretty good rate, without a rush surcharge as I would have in the past. The rate I offered was in fact lower than what I used to routinely charge translation agencies 10 or 20 years ago, because realistically, that’s where the rates paid to translators in the current version of “the translation industry” are today, even after 20 years of inflation.
The third e-mail from the agency finally contained the document for translation. I saw right away that it would be a very simple, routine translation, although I doubt that the agency knew that because it was in German. But I also saw that the document had 773 words in German, which probably meant that the English word count would be closer to a thousand words, and not 500 words as the agency falsely stated in its first e-mail. At that point I already knew that I would not work for this agency because it would most likely demand discounts for “full and fuzzy matches”, which was probably how they arrived at their own word count.
Within a few minutes I received a third e-mail from them with more four more documents to sign, attached in addition to the 1,500 words of the NDA, titled as follows:
- Supplier Terms and Conditions (3,093 words)
The terms and conditions included a condition, fairly common now in typical “translation industry” contracts: The company may refuse to pay or reduce any Fees payable to Supplier for Services by such amount as the Company may in its reasonable discretion determine.
- Supplier Rate Card (305 words)
The Supplier Rate Card included in addition to questions about my rates, the interesting item of my “CPDs”, evidence of which I was requested to submit to the agency:
Evidence of Continuing Professional Development (CPD) is now required for most professions and is a benchmark of professionalism [Ha, Ha, Ha, Ha]. It is now a requirement of ISO 17100 that translators maintain and update their competencies. Do you carry out CPD activities and if so, would you be willing to give us details of CPD undertaken if requested from time to time?
Had I answered this question, my answer would be: Hell, no, I do not carry out CPD activities, I am too old for this stupid nonsense. I do have a degree in translation, more than 30 years of experience translating in-house and as a freelancer on three continents, and during those 30 years I was fortunate to be able to provide quite well as the sole breadwinner for a family of four, which is probably much more difficult for translators to achieve these days in the current version of the “translation industry”.
A helpful explanation of CPDs was also included, probably for “newbie translators”.
What counts as CPD?
Lots of activities you probably already undertake. For example; webinars, learning new info, learning a new tool, learning about a new type of translation task or text type, joining in with industry discussions online or offline, going to a new country and learning about a new culture etc.
(OMG, I must join in an industry discussion rant online or offline, or go to a new country and learn about a new culture! Gosh, I completely forgot about that!)
But wait … does eating sushi count as a CPD unit of continued education in Japanese culture? And what about kimchee, can I get a CPD point for Korean culture if I eat a lot of stinky kimchee, does eating pizza regularly count for CPDs awarded for Italian culture, and would eating burritos at least once a week get me a point or two for Mexican culture?
- Payment Terms (507 words)
The Payment Terms included also this pearl, which I understand is also a very popular clause in “translation industry” contracts these days because you can’t actually pin down exactly how long it will take for you to get paid:
“The payment shall be made 30 days from the end of the month, e.g. any invoice dated January will be paid around the end of February.”
Since they asked me to translate about a thousand words within a few hours on the fifth of August, and the agency said that it accepts invoices after the end of the month, I think these payment terms mean that I would be expected to submit my invoice by the end of August, and then I would be paid, should I be so lucky, around the end of September.
- Registration Database (295 words)
The Registration Database is a handy tool for the agency, handy mostly for checking up on the rates different people may be charging. Its main purpose is to make it possible to determine within a split second who charges less than you once you are registered in the database. I expect more and more agencies in the ” translation industry” will be using this handy tool.
So in order to translate 773 words from German to English (or about 500 words according to the agency), I would have to sign four different documents with a total of 5,700 words, and I would have to agree to each of the conditions according to the formulation in each of the documents, remember what they are, and try not to piss off the agency, for example by forgetting to visit a new country every now and then and trying to learn its culture, or by submitting my invoice on the 6th instead of on the 7th of each month.
Why is it that translation agencies that are trying to put translators into tiny wired cages created in contracts with many thousands of words that translators, who are supposedly “independent contractors” are being forced to sign, are even allowed to display the official logo of translators associations as “corporate members” of the American Translators Association, or of the Institute of Translation and Interpreting in UK? I did see the logos of both organizations prominently displayed on the websites of agencies in the ” translation industry” which has been trying for many years to treat translators the same as chickens in tiny cages.
Are these translator associations doing anything about the contracts that their “corporate members” are making translators to sign? And if they are not doing anything about them, who are these associations purporting to represent translators really representing?
How is it possible that both the ATA and ITI, organizations allegedly of, by and for translators, accept corporate members, when so many of these corporate members treat translators worse than the poultry industry is treating caged birds?
Other associations of translators in other countries do not accept corporate members, such as the BDŰ (Bundesverband der Dolmetscher und Űbersetzer, the Federal Association of Translators and Interpreters in Germany, which is not far behind the ATA in number of members), or the IAPTI (International Association of Translators and Interpreters, founded a few years ago in Argentina, (an international organization of translators, which I think has less than a thousand members at this point, but is quickly growing in many countries and on every continent), presumably because these associations of translators understand that the interest of translators and corporate members, primarily translation agencies, are often diametrically opposed, and one cannot serve two masters, sit on two chairs, etc.
Although nobody seemed to care about pitiful, caged birds only about 10 years ago, one reason why there was such an outcry about the welfare of chickens and hens was that as the article linked above puts it, “A small, millennial-led group that boasts of creating databases on egg-buying companies [was] lobbying investors and methodically testing the palatability of its public messaging”.
Where is the group of concerned millennials in our associations of translators? Nobody seems to care about the welfare of pitiful translators who are put in tiny wired cages where they don’t even have enough space to turn around, figuratively speaking.
That would change if the interests of translators were represented by associations of translators that ostensibly were there precisely for this reason. While it may be possible for different people to disagree as to whether non-translating persons and institutions, such as translation agencies or the FBI, or the NSA should be permitted to become members of an association of translators, most reasonable people would have to agree that translation agencies have already acquired too much power over translators in the last couple of decades. Our associations are supposed to promote the interests of translators, rather than the interests of translation brokers, or of the government. Unfortunately, they just pretend not to even see the problems. In any case, they are not doing much, if anything, about this particular problem.
Instead, the ATA has invented a system of infantile “continued educational points” that are now used also by translation brokers to enforce obedience in translators, mostly newbie translators.
Established, experienced translators can hardly be expected to take this system seriously, and I understand the Institute of Interpreting and Translating in UK has a similar policy of demanding that translators continually participate in acquiring silly “educational points” that make experienced translators either laugh or cringe.
If a poor translator must sign five different documents totaling almost six thousand words even before being offered any work at all, that is an abuse of the system for production of translations, (or for production of linguistic sausage as one blogger puts it), that has been created over the last two decades by a certain type of translation agency that preys on newbie translators.
Supermarket customers have noticed that there is clearly a big difference between the quality of the cheapest eggs produced by caged birds and eggs produced by “free range” hens. The former have whitish yolks and are almost tasteless, the latter have yellow yolks and taste the way eggs are supposed to taste.
Have customers noticed the difference in the quality of translations produced by newbie translators who become imprisoned in little cages created for them by the “translation industry” in contracts that they have to sign even before any work is assigned to them?
I don’t know the answer to this question. Many probably have noticed, some probably have not.
I do know that some associations of translators admit into their ranks translation brokers and powerful governmental bodies as non-translating members called “stakeholders”. If these associations really are associations of translators, they should at the very least try to regulate the size of the stick with which poor little translators cowering in fear in their tiny cages are beaten, the big stick that stakeholders use to beat poor little translators over their heads, and to increase the square footage available to these pitiful translators in the tiny translator cages.