A profession mired in brokers


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.
Mario Chávez
Useful as it is, this is all based on anecdotal evidence and individual bias. I'm no broker, translation agency or similar entity, so I have nothing to gain by defending one party over another.

We need more fact-based research on who is who in this ocean of brokers of all sizes, translation and language agencies of diverse means. Personal bias can only go so far and will only attract those who agree with you.
Shai Navé
An anecdotal observation, much like circumstantial evidence, might offer limited insight individually, but when considered in aggregate a pattern might emerge, and then they stop being so anecdotal/circumstantial.

Today we mostly know "who's who" based on what someone tells us about themselves. There is a dire lack of any reliable signals to help guide one through the treacherous digital space that is the "translation community" and while a wider and more in-depth research is not a bad idea of course, I think it also equally impractical for that reason. What people say and what people do could be completely different things and you don't have any reliable way to verify it on an industry/community-wide scale.

There are many other issues plaguing this so-called profession, and most of them could be argued to be anecdotal. I argue that they might seem anecdotal also because translation is not truly a standalone profession and therefore lacks any robust common ground from which one can launch insight seeking investigations into motives and practices.

And I don't see a bias in pointing at what one considered an issue and offering one's perspective on the issue in attempt to get a discussion going, for informative purposes (the biggest leverage in business is 'Information Asymmetry'), or as food for thought that should all could help people make better educated decisions for themselves.
Beverly Hayes
Great post, Lisa. I still have a lot to learn about this profession, and as time goes by I seem to encounter some of the issues you very well summarized on your post. The part where you said "...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)," rang true to me. Is it almost an impossible task to become a full-time translator by simply translating? It appears as if translation alone is not enough to make ends meet, and many translators decide to engage in other money-making activities to complement their income. I never really intended to be a full-time translator, but I can see the difficultly of earning a stable income without engaging in offering other services to make up the difference. Anyway, thank you for your thought provoking post, Lisa. I really enjoyed it!
Paul Cohen
Translation is widely viewed as a commodity these days, which may explain why so many agencies of various sizes, hues and colors regularly venture into territory where they are clearly over their heads. Btw, I find it interesting that you should mention that some small agencies resent being called agencies, as if ‘agency’ were somehow a dirty word. I’ve run into the same phenomenon. “Is there a deadline for this translation?” “God, no, we’re not running an agency here!”

As machine translation continues to improve, the commoditization of translation will march on and it will become more and more difficult to distinguish a bad ‘human translation’ from a good ‘machine translation’. That, in turn, will encourage many newbies to the profession to try and pull the wool over agencies’ eyes and provide translations of, say, an 18,000-word contract done entirely with the help of MT (the example you cited, Lisa). Easy-peasy! After all, the agency won’t know the difference and they’re paying peanuts anyway.

Speaking of anecdotes, I was recently asked to review a ‘fishy’ translation of a book by an academic in Greenland. It took me five minutes to work out that he actually had used Google Translate to render the entire text from Danish into English! All the right words with there, but none of it made much sense. What was the author thinking? The answer: He wasn’t.

Until the advent of the much-heralded technological singularity, when artificial intelligence zips past human intelligence, I’m sure there will still be a comfortable niche for us Homo sapiens in the translating world. Afterwards, of course, we can just let the machines do all the work. But something tells me that teaching a computer to play chess or go, which can be reduced to mathematical problems, is far easier than teaching it to translate many of the texts that professional translators deal with on a daily basis. The computers may even end up going on strike, especially after they are asked to translate texts that have been written by other computers!
Charlie Bavington
"rarely seem to use the good old-fashioned method of referrals"
One reason (perhaps skipped for reasons of length but surely more frequent than impending retirement!) is because my clients a) have better things to do than project manage translation services, about which they know sweet Fanny Adams, and b) even if they had the time and inclination, many wouldn't know where to even start looking.
So yeah, I outsource translations, mostly out of English, into a variety of languages particularly for one direct client. I pretty much only cover an hourly rate for the time spent (more fool me, one might say!) and the way I see it, everyone wins.
The translators get some work from a source they can trust (i.e. me!). My client can get me to deal with the translation work and concentrate on their own area of expertise. I entirely accept your point about not being in a position to judge the results myself before I hand them over, but I try to mitigate that risk (I use people I know, or who are recommended by people who do know the language, etc.). It's all about which pros and cons outweigh which cons and pros, I guess.
FWIW, I do just refer people when I get approached by new leads for languages and fields I know nothing about, and people have kindly referred me under similar circumstances, so that works out well.
But I do feel it's worth pointing out that sometimes a sole trader outsourcing is striking a compromise that pleases as many people as much as possible (relative to the alternatives) and is not always just a Bad Thing :-)
Lisa Simpson
Yes, the conclusions are based on anecdotal evidence but, for what it’s worth, gleaned from 24 years in the profession. As Shai says, there is a definite pattern and very little transparency on who is working for these agencies, and whether or not they are qualified to do so – fact-based research will not get you very far.
@ Beverly – translation alone can certainly make ends meet and there are plenty of translators supporting whole families on their income while living in countries with very high costs of living. There is a lot of competition though – albeit mostly low-quality – and some of those who have decided to diversify probably weren’t up to the task in the first place. The irony of spending most of one’s time diversifying by selling the profession to others, providing training or tips on running a successful translation business, and thus very little time actually translating, seems to have escaped those who sign up to buy these books and courses.
@ Paul – the biggest mistake I see translators making at the moment is thinking they should compete with MT and raise their productivity. They’ll never win that race. “Cosmetically acceptable” translation seems to be the latest game. I believe the relevant ISO 17100 contains something about quality assurance, which is largely superficial and relates primarily to formatting. I’ve seen fancy brochures and reports that look great until you try and read them and realise they’ve been machine translated and are unintelligible or such hard work to decipher that they’re destined for the dustbin.
@ Charlie – you’re absolutely right, I skipped project management on a client’s behalf for reasons of length and because there are so many grey areas. I see less of an issue if the request is coming from a direct client a) they can’t/prefer not to project manage themselves b) you’re not simply adding another link to a chain of brokers. FWIW, when I wrote this, I had in mind sole traders who state that they outsource more than 50% of their work or who outsource primarily because, by their own admission, they like all the lovely lolly. They’re running fully-fledged agencies yet are keen on there being a distinction between agencies and freelance translators and being considered as one of the latter – it’s baffling. I would just add that for clients who know very little about translation, I still believe it would be worth any outsourcer making it crystal clear that translations into languages that neither they nor the client understand should ideally undergo a full bilingual revision.

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