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...


An easy target for cash-strapped universities

A recent article by Melanie Newman in The Times Higher Education makes for grim reading about the state of higher education in the UK. The article reveals a raft of job losses, voluntary redundancies and recruitment freezes at four more institutions which is causing alarm among staff. Nothing new you might say. Indeed this is pretty much par for the course across the university sector but one particular example, if it is true, is especially worrying. Newman writes that the Centre for Translational and Comparative Studies at the University of Warwick is set to close following an internal university review. With Susan Bassnett, who heads up the centre, approaching retirement and the failure to find a replacement for her, it looks quite certain that the centre will be shut down, although no final decision will be made until July of this year. The article quotes an unnamed academic who says that student recruitment for MA programmes hosted by the centre has been halted.

Unions are blaming this development on the university’s preoccupation with money from research funding, or in the case of the centre, the lack of it. It seems that the way in which universities’, with their current business model, evaluate the usefulness or, regrettably, the profitability of various disciplines whereby huge value is placed on external research funding is not only inequitable but downright inappropriate. Sure, a department offering translation and languages , for example, may not capture massive research grants but it will attract students to the university and this brings in money. Possibly a lot more than any research grant. By offering translation programmes we create additional demand for languages at an institution and this serves to reinforce the system.

All of this begs the question of whether Translation Studies (and languages in general) is seen as financial deadwood by universities. Is it an easy target for university bean counters looking to shave a few zeroes off university expenditure? The move to close the translation section at Warwick could be regarded as a opportunistic cost-cutting exercise but more cynical souls could be forgiven for wondering whether universities see translation and languages as nice to have, but not, strictly speaking, necessary; an expense that doesn’t return on the investment. The argument that researchers need to pull in external funding is one with which all academics are familiar but we all know that the humanities and languages in particular are never likely to attract the same level of funding that the biosciences and engineering disciplines seem to do so effortlessly. There simply isn’t the same pool of money to drawn from so when you look at funding revenue you’re not comparing like with like.

Money matters aside, it is unthinkable that a university could conceive of jettisoning languages and translation. Don’t get me wrong, I’m not trying to propose some form of soft-minded, woolly, right-on, touchy-feely model of education where we defend and indulge useless academics who can’t get a job in the real world and allow them to research and teach ridiculously obscure and – let’s be honest here – pointless topics like the effects of wallpaper on the linguistic and cultural identities of bilingual Russian hedgehogs between 18-27 August 1892 (incidentally, if this is your research area, shame on you, wasting all of that precious research funding!). It’s just that some subjects which need to be taught have an intrinsic value for a country and an economy which is less obvious and which cannot be measured solely in terms of grant capture. Translation Studies is one of these subject areas but the lack of high levels of visible revenue in comparison with other disciplines shouldn’t be seen as evidence of a discipline which isn’t pulling its weight and it certainly shouldn’t be used as an excuse for questioning its continued existence. Let’s just hope that the Warwick case is just an isolated case of financial opportunism.