Most people know that if they want something done really well, they’ll need to hire the best people available at the price those people want to pay and then let these people work their magic. But for some reason, this simple truth is not exactly what “the translation industry” is saying in marketing propaganda on websites of translation agencies who nowadays prefer to call themselves “LSPs” (Language Services Providers, but often are called Lame Service Providers by translators), as if “agency” were a dirty word, or possibly because it already is a dirty word.
If you take a look at a few translation agency websites, large and small (although typically large), just about everything else is more important judging from their marketing propaganda than whether the best person is hired for the job and whether this person will be given enough freedom and sufficient time to do the job well.
We Have the Best Translators in the World: 5,000 to 12,000 of Them
In passing, usually in a single sentence, translation agencies say on their websites that they “have the best translators”. But almost none of them will let you see who these excellent translators are and what kind of education and experience they have.
A law firm would let potential customers browse a database of lawyers specializing in different fields on its website and would include a description of their education and experience and enable potential customers to view their e-mail address and telephone number. How else can clients make up their minds about the qualifications and suitability of the person who is to be entrusted with an important legal case or an important legal translation? Potential clients want to know who they are hiring.
Unlike clients who hire lawyers and who usually know something about the service they are buying, clients who are hiring a translator through the intermediary of a translation agency are usually hiring a pig in a poke.
Translation agencies don’t really “have any translators”, let alone 5,000 of them. They only have databases of freelance translators. But they love to brag so much about the number of translators they “have” these days that they now seem to somewhat immodestly claim on their websites that they “have thousands of translators”, generally 5,000 to 12,000 translators when the numbers are specified.
Are there in fact 5,000 really good translators in this world? I think the number is probably much, much smaller for just about any given field and language combination.
And if a translation agency in fact does have for example 5,000 translators in its database, what does it really mean? How can anybody in that agency possibly know which of those 5,000 translators are really good in a given field and language combination? A project manager probably knows and understands the strengths and weaknesses of maybe a few dozen old hands, but is it even possible to know something like that about such enormous numbers of translators?
If I were a customer, a large number of translators that “a translation agency has” would be for me a disincentive to hire this agency because to me, it would mean that the agency is simply creating or purchasing databases (they go for about a hundred bucks) with the highest number of warm bodies in them so that the cheapest warm body could be matched with a job to generate maximum profit for the agency.
The truth is that translation agencies absolutely do not want potential customers to be able to contact translators directly because if they did, they might realize that many agencies, although by no means all of them, are really only middlemen who, instead of adding value to the translation, mostly just add significantly to the cost.
And All of Our Excellent, 5,000 Translators Are Now Our Slaves Based on The Contracts They Signed
I have many contracts in my files with translation agencies that I signed without hesitation some 20 or even 30 years ago. They were usually one to two pages long, 300 to 500 words, and the emphasis was put mostly on the duty to maintain confidentiality of documents. Many translation agencies never asked me to sign anything unless their client insisted on a confidentiality agreement to be signed by all translators. Those were usually among my best agency clients with whom I built friendships lasting many years, often until the death of the translation agency owner.
But I would rather cut off my right hand, the one I use for signing, than sign the contracts that many translation agencies are forcing translators to sign these days.
Yesterday, a translator published a contract on Facebook with an agency that was 19 pages and almost 11,000 words long. There probably is a good reason for this: if you really do have 5,000 translators in your files, you are likely to have no idea which ones are good and which ones are horrible. So you need a contract with many slippery clauses and more than 10,000 words in it so that you can refuse to pay the translator should the end-client refuse to pay you as the middleman, especially if you have no way to determine whether a translation is good or bad since you don’t speak the language and don’t know much about translation.
Instead of trying to find the best possible person for the job at hand and cultivating a lasting relationship with the best translators, many translation agencies now seem to go out of their way to make sure that the most insecure and least experienced translators will be hired by listing so many demeaning and dangerous terms and conditions described in contracts (that they are forcing translators to sign) that only newbie translators who are just starting out and thus may understandingly be extremely fearful about where their next job is coming from are likely to sign these incredibly demeaning and usually also illegal contracts.
The Difference Between Employees Three Decades Ago and “Independent Contractors” Today
The fact that these long contracts turning workers, who are ostensibly “independent translators”, are nowadays turned into virtual slaves may also lead to other nasty, unintended or unanticipated consequences.
Contracts of employees usually spell out the benefits that employees are afforded, while contracts with freelance slaves describe in great detail mostly just the duties of translators who are ostensibly “independent contracts” and thus in a normal world should have few duties, other than do their work well and on time.
The Internal Revenue Service lists on its website 20 conditions distinguishing independent contractors from employees, the most important one being the degree of independence that contractors have, in contrast to employees who must obey all the rules and regulations of their employer lest they be fired.
I also have an employment contract in my files with my first employer in the United States. The contract mostly lists benefits afforded to loyal employees, benefits such as health insurance, life insurance, dental insurance, vision insurance, vacation days, sick leave days, and things like that. The employee contract did not specify pay raises, but every year my manager notified me in writing about a small, but significant raise, which all good employees were given automatically in those good old days more than 30 years ago.
I signed the contract in 1982 and stayed on the job for three mostly enjoyable years, until I decided that I needed something more challenging and moved to Japan. (My manager wrote me a glowing final evaluation, which, unfortunately none of my prospective employers in Japan was able to read because it was in English).
What a difference there is between contracts that were signed between employees more than 30 years ago in America, and contracts that translation agencies are trying to force translators to sign these days, and not only in America.
On the one hand, since translators are officially called independent contractors, they have no benefits such as those that I had automatically as an employee.
The only benefit that an independent contractor has is that, usually after a long time, from one to three months these days, the independent contractor is entitled to a payment – although the payment may be reduced by factors such as “full matches” and “fuzzy matches”, i.e. non-payment or partial payment for repeated words, which is a scheme that can best be described as illegal wage theft.
The remainder of the contract between a translator and a translation agency generally specifies a great number of duties for the translator, some of them quite onerous. For example, the translator, although she is supposed to be an independent contractor, may be forced to submit invoices by using a labyrinthine interface of an agency’s byzantine accounting system. Depending on the agency, she may be prevented from using machine translation in any way, shape or form (because something like that may be deemed too dangerous), or on the contrary, forced to use machine translation under the rules set in stone by another translation agency, if this leads to a greater profit for the agency. The translator may also be forced to use a specific CAT (Computer Assisted Translation) tool which is particularly conducive to extracting maximum profit from translators by way of a highly lucrative wage theft scheme.
Many of the clauses in these contracts, including the “non-competition clause”, would be illegal in most jurisdictions on this planet (with the possible exception of North Korea, as I like to add), and they strip any semblance of independence from nominally “independent contractors”.
I wonder whether the lawyers writing these contracts ever ask themselves the following question:
If more than 50% of the clauses in a contract with a worker who is nominally “an independent contractor” is in violation of IRS rules and regulations that define employees and contractors, how is an agency going to defend itself in court against the claim that it has 50,000 employees, instead of only four claimed employees?
At the very least, all the translators who signed such a contract and worked for the agency, even on a single translation, would likely appear to the tax authorities as employees from whom taxes should have been collected and sent to the country’s treasury department, and failure to do so could result in stiff penalties.
I am not aware of any case like that at the moment, but I would not be surprised to find out that this already has happened or will start happening, sooner rather than later.