Is Reintegration of Translators in the Translation Process Still Possible Despite the Methods Used Now by the “Translation Industry?”

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Reprinted with gracious permission of the author, Steve Vitek, from his blog

I recently read a blog post of a translator who parted ways with a translation agency that used to be one of her clients for many years. This happened after the translation agency she used to work for was acquired by a much bigger agency which started using practices that are very common in what is now called “translation industry,” practices that are intolerable to most self-respecting freelance translators.

For example, the new company introduced a translation portal through which translators had to interact with the agency to accept a job, submit invoices and keep updating their availability, so that project managers eventually stopped communicating in person with the translators working for them. The portal instead issued automated emails in which work is offered at any time of day or night to a hungry pack of an unknown number of translators who are expected to fight over available jobs as dogs would fight over bones with a few scraps of meat on them that are thrown to them.

Dogs are wonderful people, but most dogs have no self-respect when it comes to begging for food. As far as the “translation industry” is concerned, to treat translators as hungry dogs is simply an efficient method to match available warm bodies with available work.

This is the new, extremely efficient method of “placing” translation jobs with translators that the “translation industry” came up with at the beginning of this millennium. It happened to me as well many times over after about the year 2000, which is how I date the start of the era of the new “translation industry.” As a result, I gradually stopped working for most translation agencies, even though I may have been working for some of them for many years, first only for large ones, and then also for smaller agencies as they started adopting the efficient management model that treats translators as easily replaceable, virtually identical tiny cogs in a big and ruthless machinery.

From the viewpoint of the “translation industry”, the method works very well because it saves so much time to project managers, who then can take on many more projects than they would be otherwise able to do if they had to contact every translator individually, even if only by mail, rather than by telephone as used to be the case not so long ago.

But the side effect of this extremely efficient method is that most translators who consider themselves highly educated and highly experienced professionals will eventually sever all ties with translation agencies who treat them in this manner as I and the writer of the blog post mentioned above did, and the only people who will continue to jump through the ingenious hoops created by a faceless portal will be translators who for some reason can’t find work from other translation agencies (or from direct clients) who would not treat them in such a demeaning manner.

Generally speaking, the reason why people would probably not mind too much putting up with this kind of behavior is that these are translators who know that they have no other choice but working even for the worst agencies out there … because they themselves know that they are not very good.

The portals thus function as a software device that finds available translators very quickly and with the minimum effort on the part of the translation agency. But at the same time, the portal over time separates the best and most experienced translators from such an agency, while bringing in mostly new translators who lack experience, or old translators who lack self esteem, usually because they know that they are not very good.
In other words, the portal method, with numerous missives of emails launched at any time of day or night to many translators, also very efficiently destroys relationships that may have been built between translation agencies and the best translators over many years or decades.
Do the translation agencies realize that this is what is happening? I think that most of them probably do realize that, at least to some extent. But they simply don’t give a damn because efficiency is everything and the new methods are in fact very good at quickly pairing available cheap translators with available translation work.

And that is all that the “translation industry” cares about.

The methods used by modern “translation industry” clearly show that the industry does not value translators as experts providing a complicated and highly labor-intensive service that, depending on the field and the language, can be usually provided only by very few people. What the industry now values above all is the speed at which the transaction can occur, and of course, at what cost.
This why the resulting translations delivered to industry’s clients are now so often pure crap and the chances are that the resulting quality will be even much worse than it is now if the industry has its way and “post-processing of machine translation” by pitiful human beings who are no longer translators will become a new standard and a legitimate way for delivering the bulk of translations.

Is it possible for translators to regain the central role in the translation process that some of us have become accustomed to in the years and decades before the advent of the extremely efficient methods of the new “translation industry”, when translators were still used to interact on personal basis with knowledgeable and intelligent project managers in translation agencies, instead of having to try to satisfy a piece of managerial software written by people who know a lot about efficient management of easily replaceable cogs in a huge machinery, but nothing about translation, software that keeps coming at them with more demands and new requiremens designed to keep the little human cogs making the wonderful machinery of a translation agency working at maximum speed and minimum expense for greater and greater profits of the industry?

I for one believe that based on these new methods, it is not possible for translation agencies to even pick the best person for the job, or for the translators to function as specialized experts within the context of the system that has been relatively recently created by the “translation industry.”

I do think that reintegration of translators in the translation process is still possible, even in the age of disintegration of the role of translators brought to us by the management methods used by faceless “translation industry,” but only for translators who work outside of the automated system created by this industry.
And to me, working outside of the system means working mostly for direct clients, and partly also for translation agencies of the traditional type, namely those that are able to work with translators on a personal level, treat them with respect, and realize that the role played by an experienced translator is the most important element in the translation process.

The ruthless efficiency of translation portals is extremely harmful not only to the quality of translation, but ultimately also to the viability of the entire “translation industry.”

Clients are not idiots, and after a while they are likely to recognize the inferior quality resulting from these extremely efficient managerial methods and vote with their feet.

Which would then mean that these seemingly very efficient methods are in fact very inefficient because it is much harder to find new clients than to keep old ones, and clients will stay with a business only when they are happy with the results that they are paying for.

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