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Is ours a particularly dysfunctional industry?
Thread poster: Preston Decker

Preston Decker  Identity Verified
United States
Local time: 05:26
Member (2013)
Chinese to English
Aug 7, 2015

I've been thinking of starting this thread for a while, and it just so happened that I received a project offer today that epitomizes what I've been thinking.

A couple of nights ago, my father and I were watching TV, and saw a special on a translation agency offering a certain new innovation to its customers (you know the deal-- faster service, 'fair prices', translators available around the world.) The company's owners are youngish guys/girls who are not translators themselves. My father was quite impressed by this new service, but I was skeptical for all of the normal reasons.

Today, I received an email from this agency. I've worked with them once before, but the rate they were offering today was far below our rate from the previous project, and was by any standard a bottom rung rate. The PM was very nice, but our correspondence essentially was a series of emails in which I stated my minimum rate, the PM wrote back with a counteroffer, and I then again stated the same minimum rate. In the end I did not take the project, which was oh-by-the-way one of the most difficult documents to translate that I've seen this year.

I know we've all encountered countless situations like this, and it's quite frightening to think about what becomes of these documents and the clients they belong to. I only worked in education prior to translation, and so I'm curious if our industry really is more dysfunctional than most (it certainly feels that way to me.) As translators, we hand back products to our end clients that are usually extremely important, and yet are also indecipherable to them. In eight out of ten translations, a translator can do quite a mediocre job, or even a poor job, without the client ever discovering the problem, and yet a single translation mistake could cost a company tens of thousands. There is little governmental oversight over translation in most of the world, nor is there a single international body to ensure quality.

For those of you who have worked in other fields, I'm wondering if I'm right in thinking that translation is a bit of an anomaly, especially in terms of quality assurance? Or is it simply that I have an idealized view of other industries, and they are in fact just as rife with problems as ours?

[Edited at 2015-08-07 21:19 GMT]


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The Misha
Local time: 05:26
Russian to English
+ ...
We do not have an industry Aug 7, 2015

What we have instead is a myriad of (mostly independent) service providers selling totally different products to totally different clients in distinctly different (well, for the most part) geographical markets. The requirements, approaches, competencies, rates, etc. vary accordingly - both across different language pairs and within the very same language pair or direction (which is very much the story in my case, if you want an example). The only thing that kind of brings us together is that we all work with some kind of words (even though, as I have discovered, what folks in technical areas and software localization are doing has precious little to do with words). Well, that and maybe the fact that we tend to spend most of our time staring at computer monitors rather than living, breathing people. Making any generalizations based on that is very much like trying to find a common denominator for statisticians, accountants and theoretical physicists. After all, they all deal in some kind of numbers, right?

Yet another thing that has always puzzled me is that so many people here and elsewhere seem to assume that ProZ is THE translation marketplace, that penny pinching twenty-something "linguistic entrepreneurs" are THE clients and that most end clients or users couldn't care less about quality. None of this is true, but I am sure you know this just about as well as I do. Why the gloom then?

And finally, when you, or anyone else begins saying that

Preston Decker wrote:

There is little governmental oversight over translation in most of the world, nor is there a single international body to ensure quality.
,

I begin seeing red. Please don't. The last thing I want is that eight hundred pound gorilla in the room telling me how to live my life - any more than it already does. The best body to ensure quality is you. If you, me and everyone else does that job right, there won't be a problem to discuss any more. If we don't, then no amount of nanny state supervision is going to help (trust me on that, I've had plenty of first hand experience) - just like it won't help "feed the hungry" until and unless the hungry get off their butts and try doing something about it. But I'd better shut up before the you know who shoots me down for you know what.


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Robin Levey
Chile
Local time: 07:26
Spanish to English
+ ...
We are not alone - unfortunately :( Aug 7, 2015

Preston Decker wrote:
I only worked in education prior to translation ...
As translators, we hand back products to our end clients that are usually extremely important, and yet are also indecipherable to them. In eight out of ten translations, a translator can do quite a mediocre job, or even a poor job, without the client ever discovering the problem, and yet a single translation mistake could cost a company tens of thousands. There is little governmental oversight over translation in most of the world, nor is there a single international body to ensure quality.


Much of that paragraph would no doubt apply, with suitable substitution of terms, to any unregulated ‘liberal profession’. I know for a fact, for example, that in many countries it applies to the legal profession (I refer in particular to ‘freelance’ lawyers, taking on cases for private individuals).

On the basis of my personal experience of such lawyers in my current country of residence, and in at least two of the European countries I lived in previously, I might paraphrase the above quote, thus:

I only worked in engineering prior to becoming a regular, and always unwilling, client of legal services ...
Lawyers process cases for their clients that are usually extremely important to them, and yet are also indecipherable to them. In 99 out of 100 cases, a lawyer can do quite a mediocre job, or even a poor job, without the client ever discovering the problem, and yet a single procedural error could cost that client his/her entire livelihood - or, indeed, his/her life. There is little or no governmental oversight over the legal profession in most of the world, nor is there a single international body to ensure quality.


I rest my case, m’lud.
RL


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Preston Decker  Identity Verified
United States
Local time: 05:26
Member (2013)
Chinese to English
TOPIC STARTER
... Aug 7, 2015

The Misha wrote:

What we have instead is a myriad of (mostly independent) service providers selling totally different products to totally different clients in distinctly different (well, for the most part) geographical markets. The requirements, approaches, competencies, rates, etc. vary accordingly - both across different language pairs and within the very same language pair or direction (which is very much the story in my case, if you want an example). The only thing that kind of brings us together is that we all work with some kind of words (even though, as I have discovered, what folks in technical areas and software localization are doing has precious little to do with words). Well, that and maybe the fact that we tend to spend most of our time staring at computer monitors rather than living, breathing people. Making any generalizations based on that is very much like trying to find a common denominator for statisticians, accountants and theoretical physicists. After all, they all deal in some kind of numbers, right?

Yet another thing that has always puzzled me is that so many people here and elsewhere seem to assume that ProZ is THE translation marketplace, that penny pinching twenty-something "linguistic entrepreneurs" are THE clients and that most end clients or users couldn't care less about quality. None of this is true, but I am sure you know this just about as well as I do. Why the gloom then?


That's a very good point. I wonder though if this kind of market segmentation isn't a result of dysfunction at the lower/middle ends of the translation industry (or whatever you want to call it). I feel reasonably confident that if I walk into a small local bank and tell them that I need a 1 billion dollar loan, that bank is either going to tell me they can't help me, or network with larger banks until they have the resources to get the deal done. I wouldn't feel as confident about a translation provider refusing a translation that they can't handle, and this is one reason why there is such separation between the 'ProZ' market and the upscale market.

And finally, when you, or anyone else begins saying that

Preston Decker wrote:

There is little governmental oversight over translation in most of the world, nor is there a single international body to ensure quality.
,

I begin seeing red. Please don't. The last thing I want is that eight hundred pound gorilla in the room telling me how to live my life - any more than it already does. The best body to ensure quality is you. If you, me and everyone else does that job right, there won't be a problem to discuss any more. If we don't, then no amount of nanny state supervision is going to help (trust me on that, I've had plenty of first hand experience) - just like it won't help "feed the hungry" until and unless the hungry get off their butts and try doing something about it. But I'd better shut up before the you know who shoots me down for you know what.


I was actually just making a statement of fact here--there is little governmental oversight over translation in most of the world.

In an ideal world, I think governmental oversight would be a great thing. In this bureaucratic, inefficient world that we live in, I'm more or less with you.


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Gerard de Noord  Identity Verified
France
Local time: 11:26
Member (2003)
German to Dutch
+ ...
Dysfunctional like expected Aug 7, 2015

Dear Preston,

I\\\'m with The Misha who states that we don\\\'t form an industry because we are a bunch of totally different people selling totally different products to totally different clients. We deliver a product that isn\\\'t necessarily a commodity but there is enormous extraneous pressure to make it one.

A Dutch study showed (I can\\\'t find it anymore) that rates tend to be low in any profession where women are predominant, like translation is in the Netherlands. Dutch midwives, who “hand back products to our end clients that are usually extremely important”, earn meagre wages.

We\\\'re not alone, but the pressure on us to commodify is immense. I have commodified my offer to my clients by stating a single source word rate for all my translations. I can either do the job at that rate or not do it. The people behind the dashboards will of course try to tweak their settings to get the best deal for their translations, and I hope I will still be part of their results.

Clients are smart. They know the market for translation is dysfunctional. But once you have a proven track record in translation you\\\'ll get better jobs, better rates, better deadlines etc. And you\\\'ll get all the jobs the others don\\\'t get, with new job descriptions like QA and transcreation, that haven\\\'t been commodified yet.

I have worked in other fields and your last question triggered me: translation is a bit of an anomaly.

When print shops don\\\'t deliver exactly what was ordered, they don\\\'t get paid. Everyone can compare the printed colours and fonts with the material that was delivered. When it comes to languages and translations it becomes harder to say if we have delivered exactly what was ordered. That\\\'s the sweat spot in our \\\'industry\\\'.

Cheers,
Gerard

P.S. And to make things worse we have a dysfunctional platform to communicate, but I\'ll be damned before I edit out the backslashes above.

[Edited at 2015-08-07 23:17 GMT]


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Soonthon LUPKITARO(Ph.D.)  Identity Verified
Thailand
Local time: 17:26
Member (2004)
English to Thai
+ ...
Goodness to communication technology Aug 8, 2015

Gerard de Noord wrote:

I have worked in other fields and your last question triggered me: translation is a bit of an anomaly.

When print shops don\\\\\\\'t deliver exactly what was ordered, they don\\\\\\\'t get paid. Everyone can compare the printed colours and fonts with the material that was delivered. When it comes to languages and translations it becomes harder to say if we have delivered exactly what was ordered. That\\\\\\\'s the sweat spot in our \\\\\\\'industry\\\\\\\'.
P.S. And to make things worse we have a dysfunctional platform to communicate, but I\\\'ll be damned before I edit out the backslashes above.

[Edited at 2015-08-07 23:17 GMT]


I started the translation job in 1970s. I explain myself that the lowering rate trends are due to advancement in communication technology. That is, client have more access to translation providers (with or without good quality). Competitiveness of price for translators is automatically destroyed by both suppliers and demand sides. This price lowering trend is also at a accelerating speed.

I recall of how to have collective bargain mechanism to maintain a proper price range.

Soonthon L.


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Tomás Cano Binder, BA, CT  Identity Verified
Spain
Local time: 11:26
Member (2005)
English to Spanish
+ ...
Isn\'t the same in every human activity? Aug 8, 2015

In my opinion, the situation described about customers having to learn that cutting corners and costs sometimes has bad consequences is what happens in every industry, and in fact to every person.

Haven\'t we all learned the same lesson at some stage in our lives? Haven\'t we hired a cheaper, unknown building contractor, lawyer, dentist, carpenter... or any other professional, to learn the hard way that they were not that professional and only had nice advertising?

Obviously, if we speak about translation, seeing customers make wrong decisions becomes personal in our case!


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Jenny Forbes  Identity Verified
Local time: 10:26
Member (2006)
French to English
+ ...
I\'d call it a business, not an industry ... Aug 8, 2015

but whatever it\'s called, is it more dysfunctional than others?
It\'s probably true that many end clients can\'t tell whether the translation they\'ve bought is good or not because they don\'t know the language(s) concerned.
Is the same not true of other businesses/industries?
For example, if a gas technician tells you your boiler needs new widget-gadgets or it will soon explode or expire and you aren\'t a gas technician yourself, you\'ll probably agree to have new widget-gadgets fitted.
If a motor mechanic tells you your brakes are badly worn and you need new disks all round, and you\'re not a motor mechanic yourself, you\'ll probably agree to have new disks fitted, won\'t you?
The same applies to lawyers, dentists, doctors ... we go to someone we hope and assume is an expert in the field when we have a problem we can\'t fix ourselves.
Then, of course, there are a few clients (sometimes non-native speakers!!) who think they know better and pick holes in every other word of a translation they\'ve ordered and you wonder why they didn\'t do it themselves.
Maybe it\'s the same for doctors whose patients have done their own on-line research and tell the doctor what to prescribe for them.
I guess most businesses/industries are somewhat dysfunctional in that way.


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Tomás Cano Binder, BA, CT  Identity Verified
Spain
Local time: 11:26
Member (2005)
English to Spanish
+ ...
Governments interfere in our lives quite enough already Aug 8, 2015

Preston Decker wrote:
There is little governmental oversight over translation in most of the world, nor is there a single international body to ensure quality.

To support their choices, intelligent customers examine our education, qualification, years of experience, specializations, and even publicly available feedback from other customers. Additionally, every discerning person can also see a link between prices/rates and end quality and gets ample opportunity in life to learn that cheap is not necessarily good.

In my opinion, customers are well capable of choosing the right professional for their work, and if they choose poorly, a conscious professional should inform them and recommend that they try other options. It is when customers choose poorly and the translator makes a poor judgement of his/her ability to deliver that things go wrong.

I would not like any government interfering with the way I run my business other than working under the law: governments already interfere in our private lives and they seem to have a taste for it. Do not give them ideas!


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Phil Hand  Identity Verified
China
Local time: 18:26
Chinese to English
A little bit Aug 8, 2015

I haven\'t worked in other industries in any significant way, so I\'m not your target answerer, but my sense is that we are a little bit anomalous.

There are always young Silicon Valley hopefuls trying to disrupt your industry - they\'ve done in book retail, video rentals, dry cleaning, etc., etc. That doesn\'t make us unusual. What is a bit different about translation, I think, is two things:

1) What we deliver is a weird mix of technical and artistic product.

2) Because of our necessary geographical spread, the lack of interaction between people working in different pairs, and our freelance-dominated workforce, there are very few big, solid translation firms or organizations to which you can point and say, that is the standard. It\'s weird that the UN and EU have never been willing to take on that role, but they haven\'t.

These two factors combined do leave us a bit suspended. The problem isn\'t so much that we get \"disrupted\" more than anyone else. The problem is that no-one knows exactly what is being disrupted.

So, when you\'re on the inside, it\'s reasonably easy to laugh off the techno-visionaries who think they can get 10,000 words per day done through sheer force of Linux. But when those on the outside see it, and we want to say, \"No, that\'s never going to work, because translation isn\'t like that,\" they\'re going to ask, OK, so what is translation like? And it\'s hard to give a good answer.


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Joakim Braun  Identity Verified
Sweden
Local time: 11:26
German to Swedish
+ ...
Weird Aug 8, 2015

Only industry I know where suppliers that don\'t get paid write Blueboard notices instead of getting a payment order.

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LilianNekipelov  Identity Verified
United States
Local time: 05:26
Russian to English
+ ...
Nothing to worry about. Aug 8, 2015

Such companies go out of business usually within six months. Some stay longer, but no—they usually do not improve. (even some big and famous) Translation companies, if any, should be run by very experienced translators only. Of course they may employ other people to help them as well, some receptionists, accountants or even advertising people, but they have to be run by translators. Just like law offices are run by lawyers only, and medical offices are run by doctors.

[Edited at 2015-08-08 10:52 GMT]


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José Henrique Lamensdorf  Identity Verified
Brazil
Local time: 08:26
English to Portuguese
+ ...
YESSSS!!!! Aug 8, 2015

Translation is indeed a dysfunctional industry.

It IS an industry, because press media often says it\'s growing in a specific geographic area, sometimes worldwide, and showing figures for the \'industry\' as a whole. Compare with \"handymanship\", where NO figures are available anywhere, not even at neighborhood level.

Causes (IMHO) for disfunctionality:

1. Like photography (my pet analogy), it is mostly deregulated worldwide, which allows for occasional amateurs doing first-class work as well as professionals (practitioners who earn a living from doing it) making crap consistently, of course, leaving room for all other possible combinations within the 2x2 grid.

2. Ubiquity thanks to the Internet. Most of it is independent of customer, middlemen, and translator locations, as long as a fast and reliable Internet connection is available to all of them.

3. Personal uniqueness in terms of each translator being unique. Even if two translators had the same education/training, classmates since forever, each one will have had a different professional experience. And even if they worked together all this time sharing the same projects, each one will have their own personal style and talent.

4. Specialties vary immensely in terms of language pair(s), uni- or bi-directionality in their pair(s), language variants, subject areas specialization or lack thereof, media (text, video, web, etc.), styles (technical, literary, business, legal, etc.), and so on.

5. Lack of objective standards, meaning that the final deliverable can only be judged subjectively. Opinions will always vary, like one would get different opinions from people who are, so to speak, respectively fans of Beethoven, the Beatles, Mozart, ABBA, Chopin, Led Zeppelin, and so on.

The list goes on an on. The number of variables in an equation attempting to determine the universal \"worth\" of a translation for a specific market, and the very nature of it would make it unsolvable.

#2 above creates a whole array of issues derived from money crossing borders and different taxes, purchasing powers, inflation rates, interest rates, transfer & banking fees, etc.

This drives the \"worth\" of a translation to be completely random-ish.

Keep in mind that this worth could be zero. What would be the worth of a translation from Papiamento into Uzbek... in Brazil? Who would use it here?

Based on that, an overwhelming proportion of middlemen in our industry feel justified in attempting to impose what they think - based on their intended profits - that should be the cost and payment terms for the undetermined \"worth\" they\'ll be buying... from people located anywhere on our planet!

No industry can be functional, if the numbers that should keep it thriving are aleatory by nature. Making it work is like making the impossible dream come true. That\'s what we\'ve been doing, guys!


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Inga Petkelyte  Identity Verified
Portugal
Local time: 10:26
Lithuanian to Portuguese
+ ...
Still Aug 8, 2015

Soonthon LUPKITARO(Ph.D.) wrote:

I explain myself that the lowering rate trends are due to advancement in communication technology.


Does thi smake possible to translate 7.000 words in 48 hours that INCLUDE quoting and selection time?
Just saw this job posting right now, translation of professional machinery documentation.

And yes, it is a somehow deteriorating industry...


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LegalTransform  Identity Verified
United States
Local time: 05:26
Member (2002)
Spanish to English
+ ...
I too sometimes wonder... Aug 8, 2015

..whatever happened to certain projects like that 100-page document copied from an extremely complicated legal textbook (that took ten years for five legal scholars and professors to write) that they wanted translated in 4 days for .06 a word (that very few people on this entire planet would be qualified to translate even if they were given two months).

The problem is how to educate clients that by asking for 100,000 words to be delivered in five days for .05 a word, they are placing a huge bet on the roulette wheel or NASCAR race-to-the finish system used by many LSPs to pick translators, that their project will be split up into multiple pieces, each done by translators of varying levels of expertise (many who may still be in high school) and that only the most desperate and least experienced translators will work under those conditions. In most cases, the client would be better off to just create a document containing random scribbles, or go to the bank, withdraw $5,000, and just flush it down the toilet.

There needs to be a way for the excellent agencies to stand out and differentiate themselves from the automated translation portal we-translate-anything in lightning speed for less than the cost of a cup of coffee start-ups (at least 10 of which magically appear every day - https://angel.co/translation

Dear investor: I have a great idea. Let us start a company that automates the translation process by dividing up projects in little pieces and thousands of these people called \\\\\\\"translators\\\\\\\" will gleefully scramble and race to do the work instantly and for an unsustainable wage. Investor: Wow, what a original and unique idea - here is 3 million dollars...

To the unsuspecting and uneducated client, they all look the same. After all, a translation is a translation. What is the difference? Something is either translated or it is not. Too bad we do not have a professional organization for translators in the United States that could help get the message out to consumers about choosing the right kind of service provider and the shady (or blissfully ignorant) practices of some of them.

[Edited at 2015-08-08 20:30 GMT]


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