A profession mired in brokers

23-03-2017

Many will be aware that the umbrella term “translation agencies” or the neologism “LSP” (language service provider – still an agency) encompasses a whole spectrum, ranging from what have come to be known as “mega-agencies” to small translation businesses. The former are usually global companies staffed by hundreds of project managers, many of whom appear to know very little about translation. Such agencies tend to manage vast volumes and their primary goal as brokers is usually to match the client’s job with the cheapest translator on their database. Next, there are small to medium-sized agencies who generally specialise in a limited number of language combinations or subject areas; those who do not, and claim to be able to handle anything are therefore indistinguishable from the mega-agencies in all but size. These agencies may have some translators among their staff, although these days much of the work will also be contracted out. Finally, we have translation companies, usually a small team of translators who have grouped together to provide a service in the few languages and areas they have specialised in. More of the work will be done in-house but translation companies can also act as brokers. I think you get the picture, as more of these businesses have taken to outsourcing, the lines between them have become quite blurred.

It is not all bad news: a reputable agency, and they do exist, will only work with high-calibre professionals and will ensure that each translation is reviewed by another linguist with expertise in the field. There is quality control and the administration justifies the fee. However, some, such as the agency (ISO-certified, an ATC and ITI member) who e-mailed me yesterday asking if I could perform a quality check in one hour on an 18,000-word contract that had evidently been machine translated, are frankly little more than charlatans.

More recently, a new form of broker has emerged: the sole trader. A few weeks ago, I was contacted by a translator whose e-mail signature indicated that he worked from French and Spanish into English. He was looking for someone to translate a highly specialised document from Portuguese into English, yet nothing in his profile suggested that he himself worked in the subject area, or indeed in that language pair. The very next day, I received a request from a French to English translator. This lady had a file that had already been translated from Portuguese into English but somehow one page had been missed out; she asked if I would be willing to translate the missing page and then certify the document as being translated correctly. There was no indication of the subject matter so I replied stating that firstly, I would need to see the text to ensure that it fell within my area of expertise; secondly, I would have to revise the rest of the file and make any changes I deemed necessary before certifying the whole translation – not to do so would be quite unethical. Neither of them acknowledged receipt of my replies and in some respects, their actions mirrored some agencies’ worst practices.

This form of outsourcing appears to have become quite widespread between translators and I confess to having misgivings, both in terms of the quality of the translations and the long-term implications for the profession. I am a little perplexed how someone can outsource, possibly review and then vouch for a translation that they could not have done themselves. Surely language (source and target) and subject expertise are the very minimum prerequisites for a quality result? We criticise some agencies for not observing these simple guidelines, so why are we as translators beginning to endorse this behaviour by indulging in the same practice ourselves? Some jobs are also being outsourced multiple times, creating chains of brokers with little to no value being added at each step, while the translator at the bottom of the chain receives a fraction of what the end client has paid. In some sectors, translators’ fees are already being eroded and this brokerage model is only exacerbating the problem. These days, the money lies in being the intermediary – think Uber or Airbnb. Is that what we want for the translation profession?

Some translators’ professional associations have a corporate membership category for agencies. It must be increasingly difficult these days to distinguish between a corporate member and a freelance translator. Curiously, outsourcing sole traders are often also the most vociferous critics of agency practices and of corporate membership of “our” professional associations. I have also noticed that they do not appreciate being called “agencies”, as if there were something dirty about the practice. As someone who does not outsource, I only see a hair’s breadth of difference between them.

In addition to concerns about quality and the impact on fees, I am uneasy about potential breaches of confidentiality and work being outsourced without the client’s knowledge, thus contravening any non-disclosure agreements. Is there complete transparency? Is the client also made aware that a review of a translation you could not have done yourself will have its limitations?

Assuming one is not contravening any confidentiality agreements, there seems less of a reason to object to outsourcing in one’s own language pairs and subject areas. If a translator is too busy to do the translation themselves and there is enough of a margin to pay a colleague a respectable fee and revise their work, AND providing your client is in full agreement with this arrangement, then everyone is happy. However, this not being the case, I wonder why translators nowadays rarely seem to use the good old-fashioned method of referrals – a system that I have been operating for over 20 years and which is commonplace in many other professions. Yes, there is a small risk in referring your valued client to a fellow professional who may let them down or even take work from you in the future, but do those risks really outweigh the chances of you yourself disappointing a client by delivering translations that you do not have the competence to be working on yourself?

This is too short a post to cover the exceptions and of course they do exist, not least the growing number of colleagues who are approaching retirement and want to keep their brains alert while receiving a small income. Some outsource for only a very slim profit margin as a way of giving back to the profession, providing valuable feedback and mentoring to less experienced translators while also doing their best to keep their long-standing clients happy for as long as possible. Notwithstanding some notable exceptions, I would like to see translators thinking carefully about the long-term prospects for a profession which has become so cannibalised that many translators now seem to view colleagues as a potential source of revenue, feeding off them in a whole host of different ways (coaching, webinars, books, courses, conferences, memberships of private groups and yes, outsourcing). The result is growing disharmony and distrust.

Let rogue agencies do what they do, for eventually they will implode. Having spent several years complaining about some of their worst practices, I fail to understand why so many translators are now adopting the “If you can't beat 'em, join 'em” attitude. I hope we can start thinking about the implications of being an intermediary and if in doubt, refer the work to a trusted colleague instead. I remain unconvinced that chains of brokers and indiscriminate outsourcing provide a sustainable template for the future of our profession.

Merchants of the Machine: A Parable of an MT Vision

03-06-2016

This brilliant parable was written three years ago by my colleague, Christina Guy, founder of the Stridonium translators’ group, where it was originally posted. I felt it was worth reviving it in view of all the arguments I’m currently reading in favour of machine translation and about ‘future-proofing’ our profession.

And so it was that a group of merchants, many of them powerful men made wealthy by the work of wordsmiths, did conceive a scheme to replace workers with a translation machine, that they might increase their power and influence and add to their already swollen coffers.

As their servants toiled night and day on its creation, the merchants did send soothsayers out into the world to proclaim the coming of the machine. So ruthlessly did their acolytes preach the MT gospel, glorifying its spew with much trumpeting in many a marketplace, that other merchants did allow their own greed to triumph and they too became devotees of the machine. Rejoicing in their boastings, they held out the promise of riches without labour to any who would follow them and purchase their wares.

But it came to pass that these disciples learned that the machine could perform only the lowliest of the humblest translator’s tasks, for it had no mind and many tongues remained foreign to it; lo, as the machine devoured more its confusion increased! Though this discovery caused consternation amongst them and they were quietly afeared lest they lose face, vanity had made the merchants so presumptuous that they did not cease their evangelizing but continued to hide behind a veil of half-truths, dissembling and exaggerating with such cunning that still many in the marketplace were duped.


Yea though the tumult of the charlatans’ voices sounded forth so loud as to deafen thought, skilled workers who were long practiced in the art of translation would not be fooled by them. The translators’ ancient art was publicly scorned and mockery poured upon them; the merchants were desirous of concealing the true worth of translators and casting them into the wilderness, for they could dispel the myth of the machine as no other. And though they were mercilessly derided as haters and naysayers, these stewards of language courageously took a stand against the Goliath, exhorting others to beware and saying unto them ‘let not these purveyors of false doctrines exploit you’.


Fellow translators who had become despondent and were distressed lest their wisdom perish and their intelligence vanish if the will of the merchants did prevail were emboldened by this strength and support. At first there were only murmurings amongst them, for some feared incurring the wrath of the powerful money-worshippers. But slowly there arose a wave of dissension as cracks appeared in the ground beneath the philistines who would have the world believe that their machine was mightier than languages that had evolved over hundreds of years.


The translators eschewed confrontation with the merchants: not because they feared the machine, for they knew full well of its weaknesses, but because they understood the lengths to which such opponents were prepared to go to protect their power. In the knowledge that they must not join in battle on a battlefield created by the merchants they saw that they must deal with them wisely and rely on their own skill and sagacity to protect their profession.


Some of them did congregate in a meeting place which they named Stridonium, after the birthplace of their patron saint. There they set out a course, that they might deliver a different message. With renewed strength born of unity they conceived of the simplest of plans to quell the voices of false prophets and create a new gateway to their own honest marketplace. Theirs shall be customers of wisdom and understanding: they shall not translate for the machine for that would be like unto casting pearls before swine. They shall not hide their light under a bushel for this they must use to illuminate their path and enlighten unknowing procurers of language.


And henceforth they and their fellow translators shall diligently apply themselves to refuting false doctrine and shall not be daunted by their task. They shall reveal the failings of the machine and shall rekindle understanding of translation in the marketplace; they shall prevent extortion of the misguided until their message spreads far and wide.


And they shall not allow their profession to be sacrificed on the altar of commerce.”

Have you read your Code of Conduct?

19-05-2016

Professional codes of conduct set the standards for our profession. They establish the rules that govern the quality of our work, our integrity, work ethics and competence. We proudly claim to abide by them and this is intended to allay the fears of any potential clients. However, how many of us who do belong to professional associations have actually read the codes of conduct and when was the last time we did so? Or do we simply treat them in the same way we do terms and conditions that we blindly tick every time we buy or sign up to something online? Have we in fact agreed to a Herod clause or do we simply assume that everything in a code of conduct is acceptable and must be there to protect the profession and our clients? A closer examination reveals some worrying undertakings.


Variously named “Codes of Professional Conduct”, “Codes of Conduct”, “Codes of Ethics”, “Codes of Ethics and Professional Practice” they are all basically the same thing. I’ll refer to them here as the “CoC” and I shan’t be naming any specific associations.

Firstly, the positives, and there are many. I think it would be safe to say that all CoCs require their members to exercise professional judgement and only accept work for which they have the language and subject competence; in other words, if they are certain that they can deliver a quality product. Professional competence is the most fundamental requirement and what separates us from fly-by-night translation businesses. CoCs contain other important information about confidentiality, collegial behaviour, honesty, conflicts of interest, objectivity and so on.

What does concern me are the terms intended exclusively to protect the associations themselves. Many of them require that one refrain from criticising the association, which seems to me to be an unreasonable request, particularly if the first port-of-call, i.e. approaching the association itself, has fallen on deaf ears. One institute, while stressing the need for impartiality, also requires its members to engage in questionable behaviour and help boost its membership numbers: “Members acting as clients shall wherever possible give preference to members of the Institute” and “encourage and assist non-members employed in any capacity…to seek membership of the Institute”. I’m not accustomed to a hard-sell on anything, least of all my professional association and while I don’t outsource, if I ever needed the services of a fellow translator or had to recommend one, I would opt for whoever I felt was the best person for the job, regardless of their membership of a particular group. To do otherwise would be tantamount to discrimination and implies all other associations aren’t quite up to scratch.

Some associations are quite specific in their demands regarding unfair competition. One international association requires that their members “not favor unfair competition by offering or accepting fees below those generally considered to be proper and fair in the market”. How is one to determine what is “proper and fair” in the age of globalisation? Moreover, in a profession where fees can often be kept under wraps owing to strict antitrust legislation, how can translators who find it difficult enough to research what fees are being charged in their own country let alone elsewhere, be accused of undercutting? As an aside, I haven’t seen anything in any CoC about not over-charging a client. Admittedly, this is not a misdemeanour translators are renowned for.

Then there are the undertakings that would be nigh on impossible to fulfil, such as: “All [association] members shall [note: no mention of “endeavour to”] keep up-to-date and well informed with regard to everything that has to do with the proper performance of their profession” – that really is a big ask; keeping abreast of “everything” pertaining to our languages, specialist areas and developments in our profession is something that I doubt any of us could claim. Another unrealistic requirement is that members competing for work should “not seek to gain unfair advantage with the client to the detriment of other competitors (particularly members) nor attempt to influence the client to show favour or bias”. What exactly is an “unfair advantage”? Would this also apply to all marketing material or websites?

Another impracticable demand is: “Report to the [association] or to any other relevant organization on any colleague whose conduct APPEARS TO BE DETRIMENTAL [my caps] to the profession and, furthermore, contribute toward the investigation into such conduct”. Now that’s an association with time on its hands! One assumes they have the wherewithal and procedures in place to handle such grievances.

One could write a dissertation on this subject and this is evidently not intended to be an exhaustive appraisal just something to get us thinking. I personally believe that if we’re to have our Ten Commandments, then our CoCs should be brief and they should guide members in the professional judgements they make concerning their competence; in other words, they should uphold standards in the profession and ultimately protect our clients. Should prescriptive rules aimed at recruiting members and policing other translators fall within the remit of a CoC? Perhaps it is time we all had a closer look at our respective CoCs and refreshed our memories on what, beyond professional good conduct and best practice, we have undertaken to adhere to.

The ongoing ITI retirement/resignation saga

25-04-2016

Having had a letter of my own banned from publication in the Institute of Translation and Interpreting’s (ITI) in-house journal, The Bulletin, I offered the authors of a letter submitted last year the opportunity to publish it on my blog so it may be freely available. The introduction and summarised update are made up of contributions over an extended period from several of the 4/2/2015 letter's signatories, including my colleague Michael Loughridge, who collated and edited them; his personal view expressed in the final paragraph reflects a consensus among many of the signatories.

“Some readers may be aware of the motion that received unanimous support at the 2014 AGM, requesting that the ITI Board introduce a category for retired members. This followed the Board's proposal that retired members could opt for 'Supporter' status if they no longer wished to pay for MITI membership. It was generally felt that this proposal was insulting to people who had earned their professional 'stripes' and who had, in many cases, offered service to the Institute and to its members.

The listed signatories to the 4.2.2015 letter reproduced immediately below tried to bring the dissatisfaction felt over the Retired category to the attention of the membership as a whole by sending the letter to the ITI Bulletin. Subsequently, several of them received letters from the management explaining that their letter would not appear, as it was felt not to be suitable copy for the ITI's official journal.

4 February 2015

Dear Editor

In a letter to the ITIB (Jul/Aug 2014), surprise was expressed that the ITI Board had abolished the 'Retired' category for members who are no longer actively engaged in translation or interpreting work or whose income falls below a certain threshold, and this without informing the members, not least those most likely to be immediately affected. It transpired that anyone seeking the reduced life membership or retired membership category would be invited to convert to Supporter status.

At the 2014 General Meeting (London, 22 November 2014), a motion proposed by Bill Chilcott received overwhelming support from those present, as a result of which the Board was required to consider the re-instatement of Bylaw 13. In an article in ITIB Jan/Feb 2015, p5 entitled ‘Your voices heard’, it was reported that the Board planned to consult ‘those best placed to advise…’.

There is not much time a) for consultation; b) for the circulation of options; c) for retired members to decide whether to stay on in a new Retired category or to resign their membership.

As a reminder, MITIs currently pay £222, Supporters pay £92. From the GM debate and correspondence between members of retirement age, it has become clear that current FITI/MITIs would not be content with relegation to ‘Supporter’ status.

By way of contrast, the Institution of Civil Engineers offers retired membership at £61.50; retired members are entitled to retain the letters after their name (once qualified/always qualified principle?) and there is a committee of retired members. Other professional bodies also offer a retired category (eg RIBA, ATL, BPS), suggesting that these bodies see the value of retaining older, retired members. The CIoL offers a concessionary rate for any member over 65 who has retired and been a member for at least 15 years.

Not a few well-established, older ITI members are considering resigning from ITI; this would be far worse for the Institute’s finances than the unlikely prospect of their opting to pay £92 to become Supporters. And, given ITI’s demographic, it is rather likely that many more members in their 60s or 70s may soon leave; this would have a serious impact on the Institute’s annual income.

But perhaps a more important consideration is that ITI would also be losing the loyalty of a large body of members and the knowledge, expertise, experience, advice and guidance that people who have carved out a career as self-employed professionals over some 30 years can offer not only to the Institute itself but also to newer, younger members at the start of their careers and to whom they might be willing to act as mentors. Experienced members can also be called upon to sit on committees, act as ambassadors, and give talks to schools and universities.

As stated in the earlier letter, we remain convinced that retired members should have their own dedicated category, that it should be publicised so that people are aware of its existence and of the benefits. The fee could be aligned with one of the other categories; as a minimum it should cover the real cost of retaining a member, ie 6 issues of ITI Bulletin, plus administrative costs.

Failure to respond positively could result in the disenchantment of a large body of older, members with a long-standing history of membership of and support for ITI and in their leaving ITI altogether; this could have a dramatic effect on ITI's finances.

We note, also, that the same General Meeting just failed to approve two further motions, one on an easy-to-use system on the website for gathering support for a member's motion and one requiring the Board to inform the membership of changes to Bylaws. We hope that the Board will soon be reporting on how it proposes to react to the expressed views of a significant body of the membership.

Yours sincerely

[29 signatories including:] Dagmar Berger-Brown MCIL MITI MIFL PGCE; Regina Buechner-Brown MA MITI; Rosemary Carter MITI; Bill Chilcott FITI; Emma Collins BA ITI Career Affiliate; Natalia Czarkowska MITI MCIL TEPIS; Herbert Eppel CEng CEnv MITI BDÜ; Gilla Evans BA MTA MITI; Margaret Ann Fryer BA(Hons)London MITI; Anna George MITI; Judith Hayward MA(Hons) FITI MTA; John Kinory MITI; Alison Layland MITI; Dr J Michael Loughridge MITI; Dr Margaret Marks, Solicitor (non-practising) MITI BDÜ; Pamela Mayorcas DipModLangs MScInfSc FITI; Nicola Pacult MA DipTrans MITI; Janine Roberts BA MCIL MITI; Dr Brigitte Scott MITI; Philip Slotkin MA(Cantab) MITI. 

APRIL 2016 RETROSPECT:

The letter above was sent and denied publication in February 2015, during twelve months in which members tried to find out how the Board intended to follow up the 2014 motion. At the 2015 AGM a new 'Retired' category was proposed, but without any details as to the terms and conditions to be applied. Further requests for information on the detail of the new category met with silence until this spring. A note was circulated on 9 March 2016, when the current year's subscriptions were falling due, announcing an annual subscription set by the Board equivalent to no more than 50% of the full MITI rate, with the stipulation that Retired members may do no revenue-generating work.

Several members have decided to resign from ITI, dissatisfied with the Board’s decision to retain the right to demand up to 50% (about £112) of the full subscription while granting Retired members zero rights to undertake remunerated work under the FITI/MITI (Retd.) label. We believe others will be resigning in the next year or two. Some have applied to / been admitted by CIoL.

The Board had it in its power - and discretion - to retain the loyalty and support of some of the most well-established members of the profession by offering a retired rate commensurate with that prevailing in many other professional associations (eg c.  £60-70). Sadly, it has chosen otherwise.”

Dr Michael Loughridge, MCIL

Leaving the ITI: a regrettable but unavoidable decision

30-03-2016

I know that I am certainly not alone in my decision to quit the ITI this year and can only hope that the organisation revises some of its policies and reviews its procedures to ensure that it adheres to higher ethical standards and demonstrates a greater willingness to support its members. As professionals running our own businesses, some of us require the support of our professional associations to help ensure industry-wide best practice and to secure new contacts and clients. I cannot say that I saw much evidence of either from the ITI.

I have decided not to renew my ITI membership and am sharing below my letter sent to the institute setting out some of my reasons for not doing so:

“I am writing to ask that you please put my membership on ice. In other words, I will not be renewing this year.

I regret to say that my membership has brought me nothing but spam, e-mails from agencies banned from posting jobs on Proz and who therefore trawl the ITI directory instead, and e-mails from ITI agency corporate members offering rates that no serious translator would consider. By and large, the directory listing has attracted nothing but contacts I would very much prefer to avoid. As for the subject/language networks, I attempted to join the Portuguese network, paid my dues, but the coordinator was unable to add me to the Google group for technical reasons, and the forum that has been created on the website is as dead as a forum can be – another waste of time and the small fee I paid to join.

As you know, I joined the ITI in 2013 and quite swiftly discovered it had an unfair and flawed policy on language variants and a loose and inconsistent definition of what it meant to be “ITI-assessed". I tried very hard to engage with the Chief Executive and Board on this matter but to no avail. A letter written on the subject for the Bulletin was banned. The variants issue could have been addressed very easily and swiftly. Apart from anything else, the current categories are an embarrassment and make the ITI look quite ignorant of language variants. Instead, I have been fobbed off with “We’re looking into it”, yet two years on there is no evidence of any change.

When I joined the Institute, I had already been a satisfied CIOL member for approximately 13 years. However, I had high hopes for membership of the ITI and was looking forward to finding out what my membership would bring. I would not otherwise have paid nearly £300 for my application and exam fee and a further £200+ for the first year of membership. All in all, quite a hefty outlay. Unfortunately, I have found the Chief Executive and the Board to be at best, unresponsive, and at worst, positively unwilling to engage in any constructive dialogue and dismissive of members’ concerns or points of view. The recent handling of the retired category is a case in point. The terms for the revised category would appear to have been drafted by an institute bent on losing its most long-standing members, which strikes me as a very baffling way to behave. I do not feel I can continue to support an institute that at present gives me every impression of holding its members’ opinions in such low regard.”

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