If I remember correctly, it was in 1995 when my friend Alan called me from New York about a nice gig he was working on involving a few weeks of on-site translation from Japanese to English. He was wondering whether I would also be interested in the job. I remember he said, “It’s a new company, but it’s a really good agency. They pay well and treat us well.”
I was interested, partly because I had never been to Manhattan, but in the end I decided not to go. I was enjoying my cozy new downtown Santa Rosa office in a restored Victorian mansion in Northern California’s wine country. Plus we had just gotten a new dog from the SPCA shelter in San Francisco, a big German shepherd-beagle or maybe something else mix, to go with our two dachshunds, and we were about to add an Australian bearded dragon lizard to our little menagerie at home. Our two small kids were so excited about the dog and the lizard, although not nearly as excited as my wife.
So I could not leave because there were just too many things going on where I was. Manhattan would have to wait.
That translation agency, brand new back then, has been in the news quite a bit recently, in particular in translator groups on social media. The mega agency is owned by a couple locked in a terrible (and somewhat hilarious) court battle, while the fate of their company and thousands of employees hangs in the balance.
Even though I did not go to New York a quarter century ago to help that translation agency, (a tiny one at that point), with the avalanche of Japanese documents for translation, eventually I started translating for it. They had quite a lot of work for me in the nineties, and as I remember, they paid good rates and on time back then. I did enjoy working for them for several years.
Once when the agency did not pay me on time, I complained about it on Compuserve, a predecessor of social media for translators in the nineties. The next day, one of the owners called me to let me know that she was sending me a check by Federal Express. I don’t remember what she said, but I do remember that I did get the check the next day. Early in the morning, by Federal Express! So I continued to work for the agency after we moved from California to Virginia at the beginning of the new millennium because they had a lot of work and they were still paying good rates.
But problems started creeping into the routine that eventually becomes established between a translator and an agency. They would usually call or email me late Friday afternoon, and the translation would be due on Monday. So basically, working for them meant not having any rest days, and not being able to go to the beach on hot humid weekends with our kids, back when they were still small and loved challenging the Atlantic Ocean with their boogie boards.
I remember that I got really angry at the people working for them when once somebody called me from their office in London to inquire (or enquire, I suppose) whether I would be available to translate a long patent (which he pronounced “paytant”). I generally like nothing better than when somebody asks me whether I would be available to translate a long patent, regardless of their accent.
But this guy called me at 3 AM on a Saturday (yes, I have a phone in the bedroom; I probably shouldn’t).
My friend Steve, who translated Chinese back when there were not many Chinese translators around, at least not good ones like he was, (I use the past tense because he passed away), hated this agency with a burning passion for the same reasons for which I eventually started taking a strong dislike to it, and for many other reasons as well.
He said that they would always call him in the evening in what he called “my bourbon hour”.
Disturbing the perfect serenity of the evenings was bad enough, but the main reason why he hated the agency so much, (he basically ordered me never, ever to work for it, and I eventually complied with his wish), was that the people working for it lied about the jobs they were sending him, in particular by underestimating, clearly on purpose, the number of words in rush jobs that he would blithely accept in the healing haze of his bourbon hour, only to find on Saturday morning that instead of mere two thousand words, he had accepted five thousand words for delivery on Monday morning.
Later, when I was no longer working for this agency, I found out from discussions on social media that just about everybody who was working or used to work for the agency hated it, and that most people who had a choice eventually dropped it, just like I did, following the example of my friend who liked to sip a bit of bourbon in the evening.
When a small company starts growing, its nature starts changing and once it reaches a certain size, it will change so much that eventually it will become a completely different kind of animal.
Instead of sending a check by Federal Express when the payment is a week or two late, the agency will make translators working for it sign “Non-Disclosure Agreements” that stipulate that payment is due 60 from the end of the month, which means that translators have to wait from 60 to as many as 90 days to get paid.
Who cares how translators will pay their bills in the meantime? It’s their problem, no need to worry about that.
I also read on social media that this agency has or had an arrangement with project managers who were encouraged to haggle with translators to lower their rates as low as they were able to, so that below a certain rate, they would be able to keep the money left over for themselves.
One of the results of the influence of the internet on the “translation industry” is that translators are no longer real human beings to many people who run translation agencies, especially the bigger ones, including in many cases the project managers.
The “translation industry” could not care less whether we will be able to pay our bills at the pitiful rates it is paying us now, after two or three months of waiting for the check.
To the modern “translation industry” we are only assets to be exploited as much as possible.
How the modern “translation industry” perceives translators is not all that different from how people working in translation agencies feel about consumable products – mere human consumables that need to be purchased for as little as possible and used until they are used up, just like the toner cartridges or paper that is loaded into printers.
These human consumables can be acquired cheaply and quite easily. All you have to do is send to a great number of translators (most of whom are listed in various databases of translators) an e-mail such as this one, which I have received several times already today, the last time about two hours ago:
Hello [no name],
My name is Rachel and I am reaching out from XYZ translation, a global medical and pharmaceutical translation company.
Due to new exciting opportunities, we are currently increasing our pool of French to English medical translators with senior experience in fields such as clinical trials, regulatory affairs, market access, or medical devices. We are also urgently searching for translators for an ongoing collaboration to translate medical cases.
If you are interested, kindly fill in our online Translator Form at your earliest convenience. This shouldn’t take more than a few minutes of your time and will enable us to contact you for projects matching your areas of specialization.
Thank you and we look forward to receiving your information.
(Reaching out sounds so dramatic, doesn’t it?)
Well, Rachel, I am not interested in being in one of the consumable items listed in your database.
I do business the fashioned way, both when I work as a translator, and when I work as a translation agency with other translators.
And my old-fashioned way of doing business, which oddly enough is very similar to the way the big, bad translation agency described above, nowadays universally hated by translators, used to do business a quarter century ago when it was a new kid on the block, for a while, anyway, before it became one of the biggest and most hated translation agencies in the world, is absolutely not compatible with the way you want to do business with me.