Weathering the storm in university

The new academic year is well and truly underway in pretty much every university everywhere and for most of us, academics and students alike, it’s a very hectic and, in some ways, exciting time as we meet our new students eager (hopefully) to learn new skills, put the finishing touches and generally come to grips with the new timetable and the bizarre room allocations which see us trekking to the most far flung outposts of the campus.

There are easier ways of weathering the storm

There are easier ways of weathering the storm

This year, however, I’ve noticed that we have a lot more students than we had last year and it’s gotten me wondering why. Last year, I don’t think anyone was surprised at the lower numbers because it came in the midst of the hysteria about the global recession and nobody was certain about anything. In such a climate, you can understand the reluctance of people to commit to the expense of higher education. Why would you leave a job to go back to university when there’s a chance you might not find another one for a while?

But while this explains what happened last year, it doesn’t explain this year. Now, we’ve all come to terms with the recession and most of the feelings of shock, horror and panic have gone, giving way instead to a grim acceptance that the economy will be in tatters for years to come and employment prospects are going to be quite dismal unless you do something beef up your arsenal with some new qualifications.

Are people realising that the best place to sit out a recession is in university? After all, providing you have the money set aside or can get a big enough loan, going back to university full-time means you have at least one full year where you don’t have to worry about whether you’re going to be made redundant. From my own experience here in Sheffield (which is purely speculative and by no means conclusive) this seems to be borne out in part by the make-up of students. We are seeing fewer international students but a lot more European students, particularly UK students. This would seem to suggest that the scarcity of money is causing people to reconsider the expensive business of foreign study; international students pay much higher fees than UK or EU students. But it does suggest that UK students are doing the sensible thing during a recession and waiting it out in the relative calm of university. I’d also wager that the same thing is happening in many other countries. By the time they’re ready to go back to the real world, they’ve survived another year of doom and gloom with their sanity relatively intact and they’ve acquired some new skills which will give them the chance to either change career direction or rejoin the workplace with a competitive advantage. It’s really not a bad idea at all!


Translation agencies turning the screw on freelancers

Getting blood from a stone

Should translators be at the mercy of agencies? (Image: Colin Anderson/

When I teach translation technologies to my students, I always make the point that we are not just concerned with the nuts and bolts of how the technology works but also with the sociological, commercial and financial effects the technology has on the profession. Acquiring skills in translation technologies, so the literature goes, helps translators improve themselves by adding new skills to their repertoire and this helps raise their self-image and raises the status of the profession. Tools like translation memories eliminate the mundane, repetitive tasks which are the less palatable part of a translator’s lot and allow us to concentrate on the creative, challenging and ultimately more satisfying aspects of translation. All true to a certain extent although from a translation and linguistic point of view, I’m still somewhat sceptical about the merits.

One of the key effects translation memories have had on the industry is that they have brought about a re-evaluation of payment practices and translation rates. This is well documented (for example, here, here and here). Although it is rather unfair that we lose money if we use translation memory tools, most of us have come to terms with this, but I recently received an email from a relatively new client informing me that “given the current economic climate”, many of their customers are “demanding even bigger discounts for fuzzy matches” and as a result, they would be imposing a new pricing structure. This new structure involved even bigger discounts for customers and even less money for translators. What made the email so interesting and to be honest, more annoying was that it was a diktat; there was no question of negotiation or compromise. This was the agency’s decision and as a translator, I would have no choice but to comply. That’s what they think because I am going to exercise my right to choose never to accept work from them again. Or, to refuse to use Trados on any of their translations. See how they like that!

I’ve seen on other forums and blogs that this isn’t the only agency to chance their arm at squeezing a few more drops of blood from translators using the global economic downturn as a convenient, yet cynical, smokescreen. We shouldn’t be surprised because there is a long and ignoble tradition of translators being penalised for investing in the latest technology, which rarely comes cheap incidentally. I can’t be the only person who thinks that the price you pay for a service should reflect the quality of the service. So if you choose a service that uses the latest technologies, you should expect to pay more for it. It’s simple market economics really: the service provider invests in new technology and then factors this into their fees to reflect the improved service and ultimately to recoup the cost of the investment.

Of course you could always argue that by investing in technology, the service provider gains more business and, depending on the technology, will have a higher work rate and this will offset the investment. This is most likely the case with translation. But with these increasingly grasping discount systems, translators are seeing any commercial benefits being eroded. The discounts are effectively negating the whole point in getting the technology. Can you imagine paying a doctor less for using a shiny new scalpel than if the doctor used a rusty old hacksaw? Or would you expect to pay less for a meal cooked in a modern, clean kitchen than you would for something cooked on a hot stone at the side of a busy road? Unlikely.

The more altruistic among us would say “Ah, but greater cost efficiency and less effort is only part of the story. The real benefit is an improved product for the client”. Such improvements might include greater consistency in translations, better safeguards of accuracy and fewer formatting errors. But the other benefits for the client and in particular, agencies, include the reduced costs as a result of discount schemes imposed for repetitions and fuzzy matches, faster turnaround times and, more worryingly, less dependence on a particular translator. You see, once upon a time a translator who worked regularly on projects for a particular client became, over time, an invaluable repository of useful information, expertise and know-how relating to that customer and their documentation. A regular translator would accumulate the kind of knowledge you simply couldn’t get elsewhere. And with all of this information safely stored in the translator’s head, agencies and clients had to keep using the same translator if they wanted to ensure the same level of quality, consistency and expertise. With translation memories the translator is no longer the guardian of this expertise – it is segmented, formatted and stored in translation memories which can be sent to any number of other translators if the original translator is unavailable or ceases to be economically viable. So by using translation memories, the translator not only loses money but also loses job security.

You’d almost be tempted to stop using translation memories altogether and start using a typewriter.

Discounts for a fuzzy what? Pish!

The only fuzzy thing around here is me...