Raising the Bar

Martin Boyd

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAOne of the most thought-provoking presentations I attended at last year’s ATA conference in Chicago was the talk titled “Why Raising the Bar on Your Own Translation Quality is about to Get Deadly Serious”, delivered by Chris Durban, Kevin Hendzel and David Jemielity. The session was something of a wake-up call to freelance translators, alerting them to the increasing stratification in the industry between what they call the “bulk sector” of high-volume, medium-quality translations and the “premium sector” of high-quality work by genuine subject-matter experts. As rates continue to decrease in the bulk sector, the presenters argued, translators are faced with a perilous professional future unless they can distinguish themselves as masters of their craft, specialists in their chosen subject-fields and exceptional writers.

The credentials of these three presenters can leave no doubt that they are eminently qualified to speak on the topic of premium translation. Chris Durban is a Paris-based French-English translator specializing in finance and business fields and is also on the ATA’s board of directors. Her many contributions to the translation industry include probably the best-known guide for translation clients in the industry, Translation: Getting It Right, and a book compiling tips for translators entitled The Prosperous Translator. Kevin Hendzel is an award-winning Russian-English translator specializing in the fields of nuclear safety and threat reduction. His published translations include a dizzying list of books and articles on quantum mechanics and laser optics, and he is also a recognized translation industry expert with a high profile as a media consultant for our sector. David Jemielity is a French-English translator specializing in finance who is Head of Translations at the Swiss banking firm BCV and a tenured professor in financial translation at the University of Geneva. Clearly, all three have carved themselves a niche in the premium sector of the translation industry and are living proof that translation can in fact be a well-remunerated profession

Average Annual WageSuch proof is to be welcomed in light of the doom and gloom we are accustomed to hear in the industry of downward pressures on translation rates in recent years, a bleak perspective that appears to be borne out by the statistics on our sector. According to the U.S. Department of Labor, for example, the average annual wage for people working in translation and interpretation services has been fluctuating around the US$50,000 mark for the past five years, well below the average for the professional and technical services industry as a whole (which hovers closer to the US$80,000 mark); moreover, after spiking at US$57,653 in 2011, average annual income for translators and interpreters has taken a nose-dive in recent years, falling to $49,734 in 2013. Recent research conducted on translators’ income in Europe is also less than encouraging (see, for example, the statistics examined in European Commission report The Status of the Translation Profession in the European Union).

Apart from the general instability that has afflicted the global economy in recent years, numerous factors could be attributed to this negative picture for translator incomes; perhaps most notable among these factors are the globalization of the sector brought by the communications revolution of the past decade and the increasingly popular cost-cutting trend in recent years of abandoning human translation in favour of machine translation followed by human post-editing. The globalization of the industry has certainly put language professionals based in regions with a lower cost of living at a distinct advantage, as they may potentially be able to offer the same level of quality at a lower rate thanks to their lower overheads. Often, however, the cost savings expected from contracting a language service provider in a remote location end up being offset by the subsequent need to localize the product of their services due to their lack of knowledge of the target location, not to mention the risks associated with hiring providers whose distant geographical location can hinder verification of their qualifications and immediate contact when needed. As for the increasing popularity of the machine translation + human post-editing combination, the clunky textual constructions produced by MT frequently require not so much “post-editing” as complete rewriting, unless the client is not really concerned with questions of textual coherence and fluid writing style.

The point made by Durban, Hendzel and Jemielity in their presentation was precisely that many translation clients are not concerned with the quality issues mentioned above; their primordial concern is keeping translation costs to a minimum, and thus they turn to the bulk sector to purchase the “good enough” translation solution they’re after. However, there are also many translation clients who understand the significant negative impact that such “good enough” solutions can have on their profitability, particularly those working in specialist fields where technical accuracy and quality writing are of paramount importance. It is these premium sector clients that translators need to look for in order to escape the downward spiralling vortex of the bulk sector.

One of the most important aspects of what Durban, Hendzel and Jemielity refer to as the “premium sector” is that it requires proficiency in a specialized field. Many translators, particularly when starting out, opt to market themselves as “generalists”, usually based on the assumption that accepting any kind of work for translation is the best way of maximizing their possibilities for work. The trouble with this approach is that “generalist” translators ultimately become jacks of all trades and masters of none, and thus disqualify themselves from the kind of specialized translation work that could give them access to the premium sector.

Of course, it is undeniable that some specialist fields are more “premium” than others. Kevin Hendzel’s work in the highly sensitive field of nuclear safety is a good example; premium translation obviously becomes an absolute necessity when the risk entailed in low quality translation includes the possibility of a nuclear meltdown. This is where the paradigm of two increasingly divergent sectors within the translation industry falls apart to some extent, as the “premium sector” is clearly far from homogeneous; rather, it is made up of a diverse range of niche markets, with an equally diverse range of potential profitability. The “bulk sector” is similarly diverse, ranging from large-volume general text translation for which cost-cutting is the overriding concern to translation that may in fact be quite highly specialized, but where budget constraints make it impossible to offer the kind of rates that would qualify it as part of the “premium sector” (small-press literary translation, for example).

Given the above, can we really speak of two increasingly diverging sectors in the translation industry? Probably not, but there is certainly one very long continuum of profitability, with generalist, budget-driven bulk translation at the bottom end, and highly specialist fields demanding technical accuracy and quality writing at the top. If the statistics on declining incomes in the translation industry are anything to go by, the lower extreme of this continuum is expanding, a trend that should concern all of us, wherever we may be on the continuum, as it implies further erosion of translator standards and client expectations of translation quality. As translators, it is in our best interests to make a strong commitment to professionalism, quality writing and expertise in our chosen fields of specialization, not only to be prosperous translators, but to raise the bar in our industry, and the perception of translation as a profession. Because ensuring respect for the important role we play as translators is indeed deadly serious.

5 thoughts on “Raising the Bar

  1. Thanks for your thoughts on this, Martin.
    Just this morning I received official feedback via the ATA evaluation forms, and it appears that a large majority of those attending enjoyed the presentation and learned a lot (always gratifying :-)).
    Here are a couple of points that I think are worth emphasizing: as noted, there is no good guys/bad guys, black/white breakdown here. The three speakers have all emphasized this many times in many venues.
    Rather there’s a spectrum ranging from what we’ve termed “bulk” (large volume, often high churn, low bar for quality, low perceived risk, low prices, poor working conditions (unless you happen to be a computer program :-))… to market segments where clients are savvier, more demanding (for both subject-matter knowledge and writing style), more available for questions & assistance, and infinitely more grateful, as far as that goes. Oh, and where budgets are also far higher, even though turnarounds may still be tight.
    In between there are lots of shades of grey.
    Our aim with the panel was to draw attention to this situation (with some specific examples) and encourage translators with the right skillset — and attitude, because that counts, too — to up their own game. To challenge themselves. To invest the personal effort to move up the scale — because there is strong demand at the top of the market.
    Aside from that, it is striking to see how many would-be analyses of the translation industry have simply failed to address the high end.
    The EU report you mention, for example, bypassed it altogether. The academics producing that particular study apparently had no idea there was a high end, so based their “analysis” on translation as a commodity. More’s the pity since various EU bodies went on to assume that it was accurate and complete, and have based some very iffy decisions on that. David Jemielity and I will be discussing this further at an event in Maastricht later this spring.
    At any rate, I enjoyed reading your comments. Thanks.

  2. Hi Chris, thanks very much for taking the time to read my article. I was among the attendees at your presentation that submitted the very positive feedback; it really was a very stimulating session, so allow me to take this opportunity to thank you personally (well, ok, virtually) for participating, and, while I’m at it, for all the work you’ve done over the years to give back to the profession.
    You’re quite right, of course, that in the session you all presented a rather more nuanced picture of the bulk/premium divide than is probably suggested in my article. My conclusion of the “continuum” is something I took away from your talk, and I know both you and Kevin have proposed this idea as opposed to a dualistic “premium vs. bulk” paradigm on many occasions. One nuance I do point out in my comments above that I think was probably missing from the discussion in Chicago is the reality that not all fields of specialization are created equal, as profitability levels vary widely from field to field; conversely, it’s also worth noting that there are highly skilled generalists out there who manage to carve as profitable a niche for themselves as many specialists. The composition of the industry is extraordinarily complex, stratified and heterogeneous; nevertheless, I do feel that the bulk-to-premium spectrum does allow for a useful way of mapping the territory, both for the benefit of novice translators still trying to carve out their own niche, and for more experienced translators who are reassessing their place in it. And as you point out, it could also help to correct the rather flat, two-dimensional picture that existing research on the translation industry tends to present. Thanks again to you, Kevin and David for sharing your experience and expertise with us, and for launching a discussion that all professional translators would do well to consider and to participate in. Best regards, Martin.

  3. Thank you, Martin, for this great article and Chris for chiming in.

    I think a factor that is also affecting these trends, and which we rarely talk about, is education. I’m not an expert in Economics, but I did take several courses on Economic Theory in Law School and every time I read comments or forums on the subject of rates and marketing, I am under the impression that many translators have false beliefs about market economies that ultimately affect the way they market themselves and price their work. I think if more people understood what markets are, how they work, how demand and supply affects price, etc., then we’d all be doing a better job at pricing our services.

    Another essential factor that sometimes gets overlooked is lack of knowledge about the law and rights. Translators often agree to very abusive contractual terms (that contribute directly to the downward spiral), because they are under the false impression that contractual freedom means literally anything can go into a contract and the weaker party must always oblige.

    I think we need more of two things: information (especially the kind of market information mentioned by Chris on premium markets) and education (for translators and clients alike).

  4. This echoes my own thoughts and my own experience that the bulk translation sector has become progressively more competitive and poorly paid in recent years, especially after around 2010. The problem is that it is very difficult to acquire specialist knowledge later, the time required required for study to a specialist level in just about any field is more than most of us can afford. The reverse case is that a specialist acquires the target language, also a long drawn out process, but definitely the better route.

    As to the matter of customers wanting more quality and good writers, I have tried to make companies aware (here in Germany) of the often parlous quality of the English on their Websites, but in most cases there has been no response. The reference materials I get from customers are often equally patchy. To make matters worse, there seems to be a sense among agencies and end customers that good translators can be had cheaply, and that makes it hard to campaign for higher prices.

  5. Pingback: Posts of the Day – February 2015 | Tranix Translation & Proof-Editing Services

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