1) Supply vs. Demand
It takes a lot of money and time to become a doctor. Anyone who speaks another language, can postulate themselves as a translator. Whether they can actually perform as such is a whole other matter. For now, let’s just agree that anyone can claim to be a translator while only those who have endured extensive training and accreditation can claim to be a doctor.
Over 40% of the world speaks more than one language, while according to the World Bank in 2013, there were only 1.489 Physicians for every 1000 people in the world. Supply and demand. The overabundance of language specialists makes it trivial and less special than other more noble and rare professions.
2) Accreditation and regulation
Unlike physicians who are regulated by federal and state medical boards, there is no de facto entity that regulates the work done by translators. Coupled with the fact that there are so many of us who can claim to be translators, creates a massively unregulated industry where it’s fair game for any one. Sure, there are translator associations and a few entities that try to assert their leadership, but it’s all tentative when compared to government enforced accreditation and regulation. Not that by itself more regulation and accreditation would solve anything but the added formality would add a more official nature to the job and thus make it more noble.
In addition, serious accreditation could help separate real professional translators from those who believe to be translators but in fact do not come even close.
3) Discourse and barriers to entry
The medical field has a highly complex discourse. Thousands of canonical books, and practices that must be rigorously studied and memorized only to get through medical school. While the translation industry also has its own discourse, it is no where near as elaborate and sophisticated, thereby making it possible for anyone who wants to be become a part of it to join. Just research a bit, take advantage of a bi-cultural background, study some more and you are in. There are not sufficient elements in place to create a moat between translation and other activities. The simplicity of the discourse makes it easy prey for commoditization.
4) Supply-chain steam roller
The industry has been hijacked by the need to scale. Rather than scale from the ground up, with more emphasis on professionalization, courses, academic and regulatory rigor, the industry scale from the need that companies had on keeping up with the race towards globalization. This resulted in large companies hiring other large companies, who would then hire smaller companies who would then hire smaller local companies or individuals to do the work. This value chain monstrosity made it so local translators performing the work will typically see anywhere from 10 to 20% of what the companies being hired are making. Due to the value lost through the supply chain hoops, you now have hundreds of thousands of translators across the world who are trying to output as much as possible in order to cover basic expenses. The industry that already suffered from insufficient specific discourse and differentiation was steam-rolled by the supply-chain paradigm.
As the companies who were outsourced the translation work had to deliver at all costs they began pushing that pressure downstream, encouraging translators to produce more for less, and faster. So rather than focusing on nurturing talent, the localization industry developed a pervasion for crushing it. Rates should be built from the ground up. What does a translator need to live a modest but comfortable life in Thailand or in Brazil? These are the questions that should inform what translators get paid. Yet, it’s done the other way around. Translation companies get squeezed by each other during the competitive bidding process for accounts. They then shift this pressure down to the translators who do not have a voice, are far away from the client and typically in less economically developed countries than where the work itself is being outsourced.
5) Industry wide myopia
So now you have an industry with hundreds of thousands of talented people who are working outside their comfort level. They are making less than they should. They have to produce more than they would like and at speeds which does not allow them to really carefully think about things. Furthermore, translators have to compete against others who are far less skilled or accomplished but all work under the same title. The result is the deliverables produced by this industry typically do not achieve the stunning results that the client companies require. It’s not surprising. In fact, how could it be any other way given the overall context in which this industry evolved over the past 40 years.
This is what is surprising to me: Rather than adjust the fundamentals of the industry, the industry just continues to charge forward, thinking of ways to make translations faster, cheaper and perhaps better, but not thinking of ways in which to re-architect the process so that it actually works. So now, because you work with a talent pool in which there are incredible professionals mixed with not so incredible professionals, because the race to cover costs makes even those incredible professionals into less incredible professionals, you now need more emphasis on review and correction. LQA, QA, Scorecards, Error typology, In-house linguists. Now you need an entire apparatus to fix what could have been gotten near perfect on the very first run. Give it a try. Hire a translator who truly an expert in their field and pay them what they need to be paid. You will need no review, no LQA or error typology. An in-context review by the very same person is all that would be necessary. You could add a review step just to cover for liability and best practices, but it would be a mere formality, not the place where a crappy job gets fixed.
So we have it all backwards. No news there. The news is that we are trying to upend this paradigm through technology at Bureau Works. By cutting out the supply chain mentality and connecting clients with linguists, Bureau Works allows linguists to make what they believe they should be making. The technology also allows jobs to be placed with those who actually perform the best, not with those with biggest CVs or reputation necessarily. This is our vision: we can re-engineer this broken landscape. But we cannot do it alone. That is why we believe Bureau Works is a movement to defy the structures that have held this industry lousily in place over the past few decades. it’s time to build things right, from the ground up.
Written by Gabriel Fairman
Gabriel is the founder and CEO of Bureau Works. He loves change—and eating grass.