Diversity in the Cesspool of the Translation Industry

I am not talking about our profession having a mix of tribal affiliations among its practitioners. but rather about a different type of diversity.

Imagine a professional field that requires practitioners to invest years of study and hard work to become even marginally capable, and further imagine that the quality of the work produced by professionals in that field can greatly affect the fortunes and even the health and wellbeing of a broad range of the population.

Imagine also the following translator diversity, in which the field is populated by:

  • both highly capable practitioners and extremely poor practitioners;
  • both translators who have a steady stream of work from regular customers and those (some highly capable) who are eternal members of the translation precariat, without a clue as to the source of their next work;
  • both translators who can and do actively sell their services and those who think that people will come buy their services if they just make themselves available;
  • both translators who justifiably trust that they will be paid and those who need to rely on rumors about the ethics (laughingly referred to as “payment practices”) of unknown and unknowable clients; and
  • both translators who work for identifiable entities and those willing to work for an entity without even knowing its physical location or who manages it.

The above diversity of strengths and security is something you will find in very few fields, not in medicine, not in law, and not in plumbing. I seriously doubt that plumbers interact—or feel they need to interact—to ask colleagues (some of whom they do not know) whether a particular client can be trusted to pay.

Why do translators who are worried about not being paid by a translation agency/broker pretend they are asking about the entity’s “payment practices?” What they are talking about is the business ethics and character of the prospective client. But perhaps they would rather not discuss or admit (even to themselves) the reality that they are contemplating doing business with someone they worry about trusting. If that were not the case, of course, they would not be asking colleagues whether the questionable entity pays on time (or at all).

Another manifestation of this enduring nature of the translation business is that a for-profit company that brings together bottomfeeding translators and bottomfeeding clients has a mechanism purporting to allow its translator customers to rate and view the ethics (sorry, payment practices) of translation brokers they deal with. What is more disconcerting is that relying on that mechanism has become normal behavior for many translators who cannot or will not find clients they can trust or who simply choose to deal with suspicious entities.

I suppose that this all could be thought irrelevant by translators who provide value to clients that understand and are willing to pay for value, and who do not need to worry about payment because they know who their client is.

Ultimately, I suppose, the above-noted diversity is simply a diversity between winners and losers. But perhaps the cesspool of the translation business is not something you might want to brag about being at the top of as a winner.

It is likely that translators, particularly translators who have resigned themselves to staying in the precariat, will continue to dance around and rationalize these problems, and that translation organizations will continue to miss the mark in recognizing the mess that is the translation business. Rationalization and platitudes will most likely prevail over hard truths.

Author: William Lise

A long-time resident in japan, I have been chiefly involved with Japanese-to-English translation and litigation interpreting for decades. I was an electrical engineer in my previous life.