Moving further from the agency fold
I had another one of those messages last week. It came in e-mail form from an agency I’ve worked with for some years; an agency I’ve always respected and admired as one that paid reasonable rates without making unreasonable demands. I had, said the agency, expressed an interest in post-editing machine translation. Did I, they wanted to know. want to join in with their sparkling new machine translation programme and sign up for some post-editing work? It took me five minutes to ask them where they had got the idea that I’d ever been interested in machine translation and to inform them, politely but firmly, that it didn’t interest me in the least. But it doesn’t end there, of course. It’s one more step in my gradual estrangement from the world of translation agencies, which I began to describe just over a year ago.
Now, I’m not against agencies as such. I’ve worked with them for all my translation career and I still work for some. I am fully aware that many translators want to continue working with them, mostly because they simply don’t want to have to do their own sales and marketing work. I am also fully aware, because they have told me so, that some translators don’t mind doing post-editing work and have found ways of making money out of it.
Nor does the fact that an agency starts using MT necessarily mean that they will stop using human translators, or at least not for the moment. I am still working for some, although not all, of those which have sent me “that message” over the last two or three years ago. In those cases, being the person those agencies call on when they really need a human translator, have the budget to pay one, and a machine simply won’t do, isn’t a bad role to be cast in.
And yet, as I’ve suggested before, I firmly believe that machine translation means lower quality. Not necessarily because the translations are bad and full of mistakes, although despite improved technology and post-editing many of them still are, but also because they are flat and dull and lifeless. Last year, at METM18 in Girona Michael Farrell gave a presentation showing how, even with post-editing, MT impoverishes language. It’s actually programmed to because its word choices are based on what is most used, reducing options and eliminating alternatives. In fact, it is the logical culmination of an approach to translation that stresses consistency to such an extent that only one possible translation is allowed for each word, forgetting that there are usually several possibilities. So, as far as I’m concerned, when an agency aligns itself with machine translation, it’s putting itself in the low-cost, low-quality camp. In fact, of course, many of them have been there for a long time, employing cheap, inexperienced translators to maximise profits from clients who don’t realise they’re being taken for a ride. But when a previously decent agency goes down this route it is particularly sad.
I was far from last week, though. I’ve had a great start to the year and I still have plenty of work. Last Tuesday I did a job for the highest rate I’ve ever had a client agree to pay me. And another day I was approached by another direct client I have spent months and a great deal of patience trying to land with the first job I’m going to do for them, which I’m due to receive in April. I certainly wasn’t sorry not to be at the ELIA Together conference in Barcelona, which I did attend three years ago but which I now see more than ever as a means of finding willing cannon-fodder for the kind of agency with which I now have little in common. That’s simply not where I’m looking for new clients any more.
I also have other things to do at the moment. As part of improving my knowledge of wine so I can do a better job for my wine customers, I am spending every Monday on a wine course leading to the WSET Level 3 examination. It’s a subject I enjoy studying, but as very often happens, I’m also learning a great deal from my fellow students, several of whom work in the wine industry. Listening to one of them – a wine buyer for a big international airline – I wondered whether he was talking about his business or mine.
“The wine business in the UK is sick, absolutely sick,” he told me. “You sometimes get as many as three intermediaries between the producer and the final buyer, all taking their cut. It’s ridiculous!” We’ve all, of course, either experienced or heard stories of the multiple subcontracting that sometimes takes place in translation, pushing up prices for buyers and limiting income for those of us who actually do the work.
The really interesting part, though, was that my fellow student had taken it upon himself to do something about it. “We now try to buy direct from the producers. It’s the only way you can get good value for money.” Now I wouldn’t necessarily want to take the parallel between wine and translation too far, but my wine-buyer friend is young and the firm he works for is a subsidiary of a large, important company. To me, his story suggests that, the younger generation now coming into the world of procurement are questioning and sometimes overturning the old cosy arrangements they find have been operating for many years, which only seem to produce poor quality at inflated prices. This surely should be an opportunity for translators wanting to work with direct clients, just as it should be writing on the wall for the kind of agency that takes a cut without adding value.
There are some things we should bear in mind if we want to work with this new world of direct procurement, though. “I don’t want complications,” says my friend. “I want suppliers who make things easy for me.” It’s a new version of the old “Give me solutions not problems” but I think it’s something we should remember. Clients want a professional job done with a minimum of fuss. They don’t want us to make extra work for them. After all, if they do choose to buy our services direct from us it’s not out of charity, it’s with one eye on the bottom line. “I suppose you can pay your suppliers a little bit more than they were getting before if you go direct to them,” I suggested. The wine buyer looked at me. “Or not,” he said. That extra money was there, he conceded, for suppliers who knew how to negotiate. Opportunities may be there then, but it’s up to us to seize them with both hands.