Golden goose becomes a lame duck

To a translator’s conference at the weekend, at least one day of it. The agenda was probably attractive for those new or relatively new to the professions of translator and interpreter but of less interest to me approaching the end of my career. I’d hoped to meet some of the translator acquaintances I’ve made over the past 30 years but there were very few familiar faces. I’m not sure why – the translation organisation is recovering now from a turbulent period, which I believe has caused some people to leave or at least become more passive. And, of course, I’m over a decade beyond the formal retirement age so that many of the people I knew are now doing other things  (perhaps a message I should listen to…).

I did go to the session organised by a trade union, not with any intention of joining but out of curiosity to see how aware they were of conditions in the industry and what kind of response they received. It’s undoubtedly the case that conditions for the independent translator have deteriorated over the past 20 years. There has been a pronounced downward pressure on prices; unlike many of my colleagues, I haven’t lowered my prices but I’ve not raised them either for a very long time so in real terms I’m charging less than I used to. And I have largely priced myself out of the agency market. Working conditions have deteriorated too with translation agencies attempting to compete with very short deadlines (without express surcharges). Prices are at times very low bearing in mind that independent translators often work through their own firms and pay their own social security contributions. The additional premium once made to independent translators to cover the risk of running a company has in many cases become thin. Some translators are in or perilously close to a gig economy situation, where agencies collar the premium but shoulder little of the risk, having no commitment to the translators they use beyond the current project they are engaged in. If the benefits of being an independent contractor become too thin, posts as employed translators could become more attractive.  And perhaps some agencies will experience pressure to employ more translators. We’re still a long way from that situation, however.

And recently there has been a further rather dramatic deterioration where the volume of translation work on offer has decreased markedly, which must affect the translation agencies as well as independent translators, and make them more risk averse. The bulk of the work on offer has been low paid post-editing, reviewing translations created by various kinds of translation software/machine translation, checking and bringing them up to usable standard. The spread of knowledge about how good translation software has become, combined with a sharper focus on costs has had pronounced effects.

I see that one German translation agency is now in administration and I wouldn’t be surprised if we see a major shake-out with a number of bankruptcies of organisations whose reserves are too thin to weather the storm if indeed the storm can be weathered, and individuals who leave the industry.

The trade union representatives presented what they had to offer to independent contractors – legal advice and various kinds of insurance, among other things. I’m not aware of the details but it didn’t seem superior to the customised insurance that many independent translators already have  (also with legal advice available). They also talked of being able to do more if they recruited more people in the industry. This seemed vague to me as traditional trade union activities such as wage negotiation and collective agreements don’t sit at all easily (or at all) with an industry where many of the weaker participants run their own small companies (and collective agreements would presumably  conflict with legislation on competition and risk accusations of collusion to hold up prices). It could be that their offering makes more sense for interpreters than translators.

In economic history, producers have not managed to retain all of the benefits of productivity improvements over long periods. They have had to share these benefits with customers and the same will apply/already applies to translators where the use of translation software has speeded up our work. And talk about the weaknesses of machine translation and the need for human checks, while true is fighting a losing battle against rapidly improving software and AI.

If translators are to survive, they have to find a commercial model which integrates these productivity improvements and offers the customer something more, otherwise we will go the way of the hand loom weavers, digital cameras and the yellow pages.

We have to offer an attractive level of expertise that integrates the new, to become, for example, lawyer-linguists or other specialists,  offering post-editing by legally qualified translators or specialists in particular branches (medicine, financial etc.), hoping to create a niche market with higher prices than the bulk mass market product offered by the bigger agencies.

But for me, way beyond retirement age, the time for empire building is over. Translation has served me well, rescuing me from the (for me, at least) dubious pleasures of school classrooms, and giving me over thirty years when I haven’t needed to worry much about liquidity. But now the party is over.

I’m already doing a fraction of the work I used to and have no shortage of occupations, quirky and serious, to fill my time.

But without wanting to be callous towards my younger colleagues, who are facing a tough period, I am more than a little relieved that I didn’t have to make the decision myself to kill the golden goose which has of its own volition become thin, worn and anaemic, almost a lame duck in fact.

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