Make yourselves sheep and the wolves will eat you

Well armed sheepIn a letter to Thomas Cushing in Memoirs of the life and writings of Benjamin Franklin, by Franklin’s grandson, William Temple Franklin, Benjamin Franklin wrote: “there is much truth in the Italian saying, make yourselves sheep, and the wolves will eat you.” It means that people will treat you the way you expect them to.

On his blog, recently, Kevin Lossner reported that when discussing the problems of a European LSP working with customers in the US, a friend of his remarked that “alles, was sich außerhalb ihrer Landesgrenzen abspielt, existiert für Amerikaner nicht… sie sind einfach zu dämlich.” (Everything that happens outside their borders, does not exist for Americans… they are just too stupid.)

In his post, Lossner complained that doing business with his fellow countrymen is not that easy, due to the excess of terms and conditions. Italians too are generally unwilling to work with their fellow countrymen, in their case because of the absence of terms and conditions or the failure to comply with them, not to mention  too low rates. Maybe, this is just a confirmation that the world is a village, or that you can´t have your cake and eat it too.

Lossner also complained about Common Sense Advisory and its surveys about machine translation – and this is actually no surprise, even for a self-defined translation technology expert – and the wild bunch that tries to convince translation industry players to get on the machine translation boat or drown.

Kevin Lossner resembles the Italian poet and satirist who invented modern literary pornography, Pietro Aretino, whose epitaph recites: “Qui giace l’Aretin, poeta Tosco che d’ognun disse mal, fuorché di Cristo, scusandosi col dir: “Non lo conosco!” (Here lies the Aretine, the Tuscan poet who spoke ill of everyone, except of Christ, and apologized by saying: “I don’t know him!”)

This is exactly the right wording for being popular in certain circles, which still constitute the majority. Who knows how long.

In fact, CSA’s analyses look more and more like brass checks. It is not unlikely that Lionbridge’s decision was  based on cost considerations and for having Microsoft among its major customers – if not as its main client – rather than for quality and flexibility.

However, for the time being, we must be satisfied, as CSA is going to be the only research body in the industry, and the industry players are not planning to fund any other of their own, possibly through their trade associations, and make it truly independent.

In another one of its indicted analyses, CSA reported that the demand for language services continued to grow while the price for most translation and localization fell. This is nothing new for the translation industry. Price compression can be due to several factors, none of which is listed in CSA’s conclusions. Machine translation is not and cannot be one of the aforementioned factors, although it is frequently blamed, together with technology.

Price compression’s parents are overhead and fragmentation. It’s that simple. LSPs cannot keep up with their customers, as far as size and turnover goes, as well as in terms of financial, technological, and business capacity. Therefore, LSPs cannot be taken seriously. The mother of price compression is overhead, with the associated OpEx, due to an outdated and inefficient business model. The father is fragmentation, causing a sterile lengthening of the production and supply chains, with a consequent profit margin squeeze. While customers are restructuring to be more agile, maximize efficiency, cut costs and improve competitiveness, LSPs cannot do better than transferring the effects of price competition on the workforce.

Here comes the effects of the Gresham’s law applied to business management: when LSPs cannot afford to pay for fully qualified workforce, bad resources drive out good.

In accordance with prof. Melby, many believe that a quality (professional) translator should be:

  • Proficient in the language of origin;
  • Skilled in writing;
  • A subject matter expert;
  • Skilled in at building glossaries and mining any terminological resources;
  • Capable of solving (linguistic) problems;
  • Punctual;
  • Available and reliable;
  • Able to take on workloads according to the customer’s needs;
  • Able to follow instructions;
  • Able to select and use the necessary tools of the trade;
  • Creative;
  • Fast;
  • Steady;
  • Responsive;
  • Skilled in communication and negotiation;
  • And more…

It should come as no surprise, then, that many newcomers do not fully comply with such a profile, especially on ProZ: translation has always been a good second-choice option for people with little or no specific education or training; this is no news. And, in reading such (again) ProZ threads, one cannot but shake his or her head.

Translation professionals should definitely receive a basic terminography training, as nowadays translation education should be quite different, if not of a higher level, than the one teachers once received.

This also explains why most LSPs keep resorting to the very same freelancers and are always reluctant to hire a new one, even for a virtual team, following the typical, although inefficient, business model.

If LSPs will keep competing on price to win all the clients they can just to feed their OpEx and sustain overhead, sooner or later they will have to incur in double costs for “repairs” or, alternatively, lose their clients. Price competition can be sustained only with highly efficient processes and cutting edge technologies.

A quality standard certification can be useless if compliance is not sought after purposely, but possibly only as a marketing strategy or in response to customer pressures.

Paul Sulzberger is not mistaken in believing that the translation business is still emerging from an age when it was something of a “cottage industry”. In fact, it is not yet emerging: most LSPs are still run by people who typically don’t have a lot of smarts about how to run a business. When they have, they grow their business as a venture. One clear example is Applied Language Solutions founder Gavin Wheeldon who sold his company to Capita, left it, and now plans to invest in and take on the role of CEO at a Greater Manchester IT company. He has also taken a stake in a Manchester-based cookery class provider IntaFood: translation is business, like cooking, and, possibly, education.

LSPs are generally reluctant to take on small jobs, even though most of them are too tiny to compete with bigger players for big customers and big projects. Above all, most LSP are not financially structured and with the necessary financial leverage.

As Paul Sulzberger points out, accepting work from a customer in a foreign country is a risky business: the customer might not pay and there’s a good chance that he might escape any efforts at collecting the debt, while paying freelancers is expensive, fiddly and time-consuming.

In fact, assembling a virtual team of appropriately qualified freelancers and keeping up-to-date records of as many freelancers as possible are daunting tasks. This is what LSPs call “vendor management”, and is the primary – and often major – task of all of them. It could be harder according to business size, where size varies by the number of employees, business plan, financial capacity, turnover, and even self-perception of the provider.

Small jobs require proportionally as much management as do large ones and thus produce less profit, even though lesser projects often serve as gateways to new clients and markets.

In fact, the shift in information production is making micro-jobs the main line of work, with the consequent shift from drops to drips, which is actually far from new, as it was born with the emergence of CMSs.

To solve the financial problems related to micro-projects, trade associations (of translators and of LSPs) could finally fulfill their role and negotiate credit conditions and micro-transaction arrangements for their members. On the other hand, LSPs should run some of the typical business risks, maybe more than freelancers.

The only alternative to hiring permanent staff is signing SLAs with a number of reliable freelancers, without imposing them those Byzantine terms and condition that Kevin Lossner rightly abhors, while offering them the opportunity to use a collaborative platform for free.

The translation industry is the spearhead of globalization, but, in a global market where product innovation is hard, if not impossible, and customers are reluctant to buy something they don’t see as strategic for their business, selling ability could not be enough, while the sales process must be supported by a big, strong, and sound organization. Is the translation industry projecting the right image?

If its players are eager to keep wandering for wine and cigar tasting, golf tournaments, and regattas, they must resolve to selling something better.