Translators and translation agencies are an interesting bunch. Sometimes we act like second or third children too eager to please our elders. Every single website promoting translation services almost invariably offers the same thing: hundreds of languages and thousands of translators and interpreters at your disposal. No subject matter is too esoteric or insignificant, no document too small or too unimportant. We aim to please.
Some of this eagerness is wholly sincere: we do care about languages and about precision in writing the best translation copy for you. But this desire to meet your demands may also betray a deep insecurity: we swim in a sea of saturated language service providers, with many bilingual amateurs and self-aggrandizing entrepreneurs looking for the next success story and fighting for customers like you, attaching to your business like remoras. We are afraid to be undervalued, underappreciated and ignored by you.
This insecurity drives us to show a little resentment towards amateur translators and Johnny-come-latelies who will snatch clients from us. It’s like a Cold War movie or a poor man’s John Le Carré novel: we want to rescue you from them as James Bond, but we end up being a copy of Johnny English instead.
The translation industry is highly fragmented, with very large language service providers (LSPs in our jargon) gobbling up the large government and corporate contracts because they have the marketing muscle and the human resources for them. In America, as well as in many other industrialized nations, the bulk of the translation services providers consists of small businesses, 5 to 50 strong, some being general-purpose agencies and some boutique translation companies. The rest is individual practitioners. Unlike milk producers in California, our industry does not have a slogan like and TV campaigns to bring awareness to the powerful resource we can be for your company.
In this sea of confusion, it’s commonplace to see providers overpromising, overreaching and sometimes underperforming, which hurts other, better prepared providers. So, if that has been your experience, your new, better qualified translation provider may have to start from scratch to rebuild your trust in our services. Hence my request to be patient with us multilingual folks.
I recently penned a comment to a colleague’s sincere plea to improve and unify our public relations efforts and remind others out there that human translation is far better than machine (or software-driven) translation. This is what I wrote:
Subscribing to the right trade and business magazines and newspapers also helps to be aware not just of what’s going on with translators and interpreters elsewhere, but also with sister professions, such as graphic designers, information designers, technical communicators and writers, and so on. Many of our struggles as a profession are not unique to us, and knowing what other trades and professions are doing in the public arena can be very informative, educational and helpful.
After reading an article by graphic designer Ilise Benun in the HOW magazine, regarding how to negotiate fees for freelancers, I contacted her for permission to use parts of her article in my blog (wordsmeet.wordpress.com). She graciously granted it, and she’s now one of my LinkedIn contacts.
We need outside speakers at our ATA chapters and annual ATA conferences to learn what others are doing to bring not just attention but honor and respectability to our profession. We are too isolated. Isolated people tend to believe too much in their own fears and paranoia. We become so hungry for solutions that anyone with a megaphone and charisma can sell us their agenda.
I don’t think we should approach PR from our fears of being undervalued or ignored as a storied profession, as any fear-based campaign can become a self-fulfilling prophecy and undo our best intentions and efforts.
So, next time a translation company or translator comes knocking, please be patient. They’re trying to be as helpful as they can in a competitive and fragmented world.