Translator’s Favorite Sport?

Qui sine peccato est vestrum primus lapidem mittat

He that is without sin among you, let him first cast a stone at her. […]
And they which heard it, being convicted by their own conscience,
went out one by one, beginning at the eldest, even unto the last
John 7:53-8:11

Turkish Airlines Ad - Muscat, OmanTo many outsiders and observers, debates inside the translation industry could resemble a screwball comedy.

The translator’s favorite sport seems to be denigration: of laymen, journalists, customers, and even colleagues who dare venture to penetrate their realm, even with the most naive and harmless approach.

But while paying attention to the constant complaints, about the rates and the fees, the lack of respect, and the attention given to the profession only when something goes blatantly wrong, one should wonder why so many people are struggling every day to stay in this industry, even, if not especially, when they could find a better occupation by exploiting their academic qualifications, which could seem wasted on their current job.

Some of these professionals are so ingenuous to forget that, besides being foolish, silly, stupid and useless, indulging in denigration, defamation, libel, and insults on the Internet depicts a very bad image.

Obviously, these professionals believe that generously playing these games will earn them respect, admiration, veneration, and even envy of their colleagues. It is not uncommon, in fact, that as soon as the first gag is launched, many queue up in the vain effort to look equally and supposedly salacious, sagacious, humorous, and witty. The competition is often unequal, as most of them could not rank even in a foolishness contest.

In the end, the resulting picture is disheartening: most players in the translation industry seem averse to any opinion other than a trivial re-statement of outdated stereotypes, the same that have been leading to the lack of consideration mentioned above.

Insulting anyone simply for not sharing your opinions is as useless as dumb. Insults won’t make your arguments stronger and, indeed, they show you are short of any, and that you are dull, simple-minded, and intolerant rather than curious and open-minded as your job would require.

Targeting and blaming a seeming contrarian for his opinions as if he were the culprit for everything bad occurring in the industry is easier than trying to understand the economics (and the mechanics) of the industry and openly discuss to find a response to events apparently beyond control.

Quality and Commodification

Hearing the same mantra over and over again definitely tells why real innovation is so rare in the translation industry and most often it comes from the so deprecated outsiders.

Marketing quality is unworthy of any serious effort, not only in translation. However, as William Edwards Deming would say, “It is not necessary to change. Survival is not mandatory.”

Virtually all real quality gurus have been saying for decades that marketing or advertising ratings and awards can have a significant impact on the customer’s perception, but not necessarily on preference: while everyone theoretically believes in the importance of quality, most often the customer’s demands cause the focus to shift to speed and price. And the word quality is often synonymous with words like expensive, ancillary, quirky, etc.

Quality should be a lagging symptom of things done right, possibly every time, which is something customers are interested in.

Quality is defined by compliance with requirements, and it is ultimately perceived and judged by customers, who do not care about the vendor’s experiences, viewpoint, practices, and costs, and who attribute value to and are willing to pay for solutions. Customers are not willing to pay for the vendor’s waste and process inefficiencies or other non-value-added tasks.

Besides being the unique selling proposition of the whole translation industry, quality is supposed to be a magical word to instantly explain everything and forbid further questioning. But it is definitely not a creative solution.

Bergmann & Sohn Funeral Services - Berlin SubwayBergmann & Sohn’s campaign (see the image on the right) will certainly get people’s attention and will invoke a response, which is the final goal of marketing.

Bergmann & Sohn should be given credit for appealing to the sense of (black) humor of the target customers instead of settling for morbidity and somber content. They could possibly have written the text in a very small font to invite readers to “come a little closer” to become actual customers.

Most translators still think of quality in terms of tasks associated with compliance, reviewing, inspection, rather than root-cause analysis and corrective action. Most translators are far from incorporating such concepts as serving the customer, protecting his business, delivering their promises, improving operational excellence, strengthening organizational performance, and increasing customer satisfaction.

In fact, a typical attitude of the common translator is to offer gold for iron while complaining for being paid for iron.

On the other hand, how can you expect to have a discussion with someone who ostensibly does not even follow a link to know that ‘signaling’ is a part of the model that won the Nobel Memorial Prize in Economic Sciences to one of the most celebrated economists of the world?

And how can you expect to have a discussion with someone who pretends to blame you for commodification while referencing to a questionable classification of translation quality with “raw”[*] as the entry level leaving wide space for the devil itself, the beast, machine translation?

Commodification is an effect of some typical attitudes of the common translator and LSP, the one that makes them scramble on any job, that makes LSPs act as simple middlemen relying on their vendors (possibly freelancers) to take charge of a service that they should provide their customer with.

Commodification comes also from reverse auctions, which exist and can exist just for those who are willing to join them. Reverse auctions are competitions to the lowest bidding, but are not to blame. For most clients, price is the number one factor. Time is number two. And service is number three. Quality may be number four. And it is still to be defined. As usual.

We live and work in a world where it takes money to pay for things and where saving money can be a virtue, a requirement, or both. Like it or not, translation too is a commodity now, and we have to learn to deal with it.

On the other hand, how many people can really taste the same dish and distinguish between ingredients of the finest choice from those coming from the local supermarket? And how many people can really appreciate the sophistication of civet coffee?


Making assumptions on someone else’s life, especially when you barely know him does not bode well in your favor, but this is a common trait among most translators. Maybe it is an effect of the typical self-referencing ouroboros attitude, a sort of professional bias.

Assuming all customers should be of one kind is rendering a very bad service to colleagues. And what are good/bad clients? Are they all good/bad for everyone? Another mantra of the industry claims there is no one market. On the other hand, if it were just one, all translators would be competing for the very same (good) customers, and some mouthpieces thundering from their privileged positions would most probably be forced to fight with their teeth and nails to defend their advantageous position.

Dismissing someone’s opinions as “reasoning and crazy sweeping statements” just because you don’t agree is hopelessly rude. “The bottom of the bulk end of the market” certainly exists and is crowded, but a different opinion does not necessarily mean “having been trapped” in it, or claiming that it is “the only market segment that exists” either. It is no offense, it is just stupid. And sadly disappointing.

[*]“Raw translation means a translation which conveys the central meaning of the original text. There may be grammatical errors and misspellings, but the text has to be understandable.”