Do Translators compete against Translation Agencies?

I recently came across a thoughtful, impassioned article* written and presented at the 1st NYU Translation Day Symposium by Kenneth Kronenberg, a long-time German-English translator. I don’t know Mr. Kronenberg, but after reading his piece, it became clear to me that he truly cares about translation and translators. His words reveal a genuine concern for the “average” translator and for the industry being creating for the next generation of language professionals.

His discussion – Translation in the 21st Century – includes remarks on a well-known translation agency and the prescriptions for success given by an ATA board member, which he feels are limited in their application to “top” translators. He also touches on the role of technology and technological change, disruption, and our modern electronic reality. He even, perhaps inadvertently, co-opts a theological term (Prosperity Gospel) used to describe a belief among a certain set of Christians in which one’s fervor and dedication to a belief are intricately tied to one’s material well-being. It is a very well-written piece, and one I highly recommend reading.

I’m going to focus now on just one of his points, regarding the role of translation agencies in the language services business, and in an ancillary way, why individual translators don’t fill it. This latter point, in particular, brings to mind the classic struggle between labor and capital, debated and discussed for centuries in economic and political circles. In discussing the current language services market, he mentions a “once-inspiring vision” in which translators and interpreters viewed themselves as independent contractors, with control over their professional lives and future. Now, in his view, because of a combination of predatory agencies, technological change, and disorganization among freelancers, translators have been beaten into submission, forced to accept a pittance for their services, and fearful that computers will soon replace them altogether. These arguments are not without merit, and Mr. Kronenberg makes a good case.

Yet, as I read his words, I found myself imagining King Canute sitting in his throne on the sea shore, helplessly watching the waves lap up at his feet. More to the point, I found myself thinking that we do need to worry about technology and corporate influence, and the ways in which they are changing and shaping our industry; but that starts with understanding them more fully and recognizing that, like everyone else, we language professionals have to be able to adapt to certain things that are beyond our control.

Backing up a bit, though, I would begin by positing that agencies and individuals don’t directly compete with one another in the language services business. They provide complementary services. Individuals translate and/or interpret, as well as proofread, edit, transcribe, etc. Whereas, agencies offer project management and administrative services.

No individual translator or interpreter is able to work in dozens of languages, at dozens of locations, or deliver hundreds of thousands of words on a weekly basis. Agencies exist because there is a demand for these specific types of management services that individuals are incapable of supplying. Corporations, governments, international law firms, and other major sources of demand, face opportunity costs and transactions costs with respect to language services. Those that operate in multiple countries, in multiple languages, would have to interact with hundreds of translators and interpreters to meet their demands. Thus, they examine these costs and make a decision as to whether it is more effective to do this work in house or to outsource it. When they outsource it, they inevitably prefer agencies to individuals, because the agencies can more efficiently and cost-effectively supply these mass services. In the most simplistic terms, this is why agencies exist.

Agencies, for their part, have increasingly recognized that their business is project management and administrative services. Therefore, they have focused on ways to provide these services more efficiently, which involves computer-assisted and online technologies. As uncaring as it may sound, translators and interpreters are just one input – albeit an essential one – in an agency’s project management and administrative services. And as technologies improve to automate translation and interpreting services, forward-thinking agencies are going to adopt them. This does not make them evil or heartless, although some are clearly capable of acting that way. It just makes them businesses, seeking to provide a service in a more cost-effective manner, in the same way that pretty much every other business in every other industry operates. Innovate, or stagnate and wither.

We can rail against the injustices and decry the hollowing out of our profession. But that will not change our reality. Our industry, like every other, is subject to technological change. And technological change is difficult. It is painful. It results in winners and losers. And this change requires adaptation. Moreover, technological change as an existential threat is not just limited to individual translators and interpreters.

In fact, there are new technologies coming online right now that threaten the translation-agency model described above. There is even a startup currently working on automating this model, which, if it comes to fruition, could put translators and interpreters directly in touch with major sources of demand. It is seeking to automate project management and administrative services online, so that people at a corporation or the government could type in the language combination they need and end up working directly with a translator or interpreter at the other end, while the website automatically manages the project and its administration. Thus, agencies aren’t immune to technology either.

Translators and interpreters provide one type of service. Agencies provide another. There is demand for both types of services, but agencies are going to continue to try to automate translation and interpreting in order to remain competitive. New technologies make this automation possible. The upshot for individual translators and interpreters is that we need to recognize and understand this reality and begin focusing on those segments of the market where our talents enable us to outshine the machines. They are out there, but it isn’t going to be easy. I’ll examine this issue in greater detail in a future post.

* (viewed on 10/24/2016)