The spoiled interpreter's dilemma

In the recent years I have mainly done conference interpreting for the EU institutions; or as I call it, the interpreter’s paradise. You don’t have to fight for your working conditions, basic stuff, such as a working console per interpreter and at least two interpreters in a booth, working hours, including breaks or working documents.
All I ever complain about is the air-conditioned (recycled) air in the booths, artificial lighting or insufficient legroom, as I happen to be a bit taller. Even as a member of a remote interpreting team, I had little to complain about.
In general, the conditions could hardly be better. Long forgotten are the days back in my home country, when we sat in booths far away from the conference room, with no view of what was going on there, sometimes, two interpreters sharing one console (and one volume level in the earphones), sometimes only separated by a plexiglass desk cover from the conference room, interpreting during breaks and the like...
Well, last week, I was interpreting at a workshop held far away from Brussels or even Slovakia’s affluent capital.
When I walked into the “booth” I realised, it’s going to be a big dilemma for me.
To start with, the booth was probably meant for two teams (or maybe even just two “one-man-teams”), as there was a wooden partition on the desk, separating what appeared to be two working spaces. The booth was definitely not big enough for four people, and “one-man-conference-interpreting” seems to be quite common over here, so I assumed, the architect never bothered to actually ask someone, who has an idea of how an interpreting booth needs to look like.
Another funny fact: we didn’t have interpreting consoles. Instead, we had mixing consoles, assumingly for DJs. The technicians, who installed the equipment, informed us we would both have the same input volume in our headsets. After we protested, they sighed but agreed to try and split the input into our earphones. They succeeded, but in order to adjust my volume, I had to lean over to my colleague’s mixing console and remember, which one of the dozens of controls would turn the volume up or down. And of course, we had no “cough” button on the mike.
And there was my dilemma: of course you want to be professional and nice to people, not presenting any “diva” requirements. On the other hand, as a professional you should be able to point out, that a booth has to be for two people at least and that two teams need to be separated by more than a wooden partition. The possibility to adjust your own volume in the headset should be the lowest minimum working standard for any interpreter.
I didn’t say much to the technicians, as they were clearly specialised in providing equipment for other types of events and not for interpreting. As a matter of fact, one of them muttered something about six people working in the same room into different languages at some other event, suggesting, my colleague and I already had luxurious conditions as there were two of us who could take turns.
Can a professional association change things, in a situation where clients consider you ineligible, if you ask for two people in the booth? Can a professional association change things, if colleagues are willing to work alone in the booth, just to get the job? Would some “awareness raising” change their attitude, if they get maybe 10 conference days in a year?
Can I, as a “rich” interpreter come and “preach” to the “poor” ones that they have to observe some standards? At a time when interpreters are being sneered at, as “everybody speaks English anyway”, how do I convince clients that it is in their interest to hire two people?
I’m trying hard to get our professional association back on track and actually raise awareness among colleagues and clients. Yet, I feel a little bit like a spoiled diva, for not just accepting the reality as it is. And the reality, my colleagues tell me, is that there is no future for interpreting and translation in Slovakia.


Anybody can do anything. Right?!

A couple of months ago I had a high-level interpreting assignment. Everything went smoothly and the head of delegation told me he was very happy with my services. Nothing really special about that, just another day in the life of an interpreter.
A couple of days ago they contacted me again, because there will be another important meeting, requiring the services of an interpreter. I was very pleased to have another returning customer - until the contact person asked me to teach her interpreting in private lessons. Her boss, who was the head of delegation, thought it would be a good idea to have a "multi-purpose" employee who could step in as an interpreter. At first I was appaled - I thought it showed a lack of respect for the interpreting profession. As if anyone could become an interpreter in no time. Who cares that interpreting is something people study at university level for years. Who cares that a good interpreter has to work on a regular basis, to keep up with the demands of the job.
But then, I calmed down and realised there was no bad intention on the part of the client.
For, if you're doing a good job as an interpreter everything seems easy as if no effort went into the task at hand. You take your notes, you can easily read them, you look at your client, don't hesitate and speak with a clear confident voice. Easy - anybody can do that, what could possibly be difficult in this job. All it takes is to speak two languages and have a notepad.
Or, you're not doing a good job, you don't know how to take notes, you have a hard time remembering what was said if the intervention was longer than one or two sentences, you make grammar and content mistakes and mumble instead of speaking clearly. Well, anybody CAN do that. It's easy to be a lousy interpreter.
It seems interpreters can't win. Either we're too good for our own good, or we have to suffer because of all those who aren't good enough and damage the reputation of the entire profession.
What makes a good interpreter anyway?


Off-shoring Translations?

When I started as a freelance translator and interpreter, the business was almost always strictly local. Even though working with languages obviously has an international dimension, back then in the early 1990’s we had no emails to receive files to be translated. We had to personally pick up the hard copy of the text and deliver a floppy disk and a printout afterwards.

However, times are changing and nowadays, our clients could be anywhere in the world. And some clients do search for their language service providers virtually anywhere, price apparently being the only criterion they consider.

Or would you search for a service provider on a web portal, where anybody can claim anything in their resume and the only reliable information is the price they charge?

I think I wouldn’t. I wouldn’t if what I needed to have done mattered. And if it didn’t matter, I probably wouldn’t have it done in the first place.

So yes, I checked out Proz.com and TranslatorsCafe and what have you. I even registered but never really felt comfortable to compete on lowest rates.

And then, one fine day, I received an email that a job for my language combination has just been published. I was of course curious, so I immediately logged in to check it out. I was not prepared for what I found however.

Obviously, I’m familiar with the idea of off-shoring or outsourcing manufacturing jobs to cheaper countries. I guess this is a trend we cannot stop let alone reverse. However, I’ve been under the impression that some jobs cannot be off-shored due to the fact that they are very closely tied with a particular market. I thought that for a translator with Slovak as a mother tongue, there would be no cheaper market than our own, so I would only have to compete with my fellow Slovak linguists living in cheaper parts of my country.

How wrong I was! The job posted for my language combination was by an Indian agency, asking for “best rates”. And this is something I find rather intriguing. I fully understand that clients want the cheapest possible price and that they think India is a country full with cheap service providers. So far, so good. However, I have serious doubts that there are many translators with Slovak as a mother tongue living in India, thus able to accept lower prices, due to lower costs of living. Consequently, any agency in India would have to find Slovaks living elsewhere in the world, Slovakia probably being the cheapest option anyway. So why would a potential client not contact a Slovak agency instead?

I cannot possibly imagine a scenario, where an Indian company can provide a better service and quality at a lower price than a local agency in Slovakia that has many translators in their database to start with.

I guess, I’ll never find out.


Does it matter?

I guess most people have come across funny signs in English or other foreign languages. Some people collect them and then sites like Engrish.com become popular.
I like this site too, yet it makes me think: does it really matter that there are grammar mistakes or funny expressions in (let's say) English, when most people who will read these signs don't know English well enough to spot the mistakes or get the "jokes".
OK, this is certainly not worth an academic argument, but let's develop it a bit further:
Imagine this: a company, e.g. in Slovakia, publishes its "yearly report" in English, yet with grammar mistakes, because they didn't want to pay a native proofreader, or used a "cheaper" translator. However, the report is still comprehensible, so do the grammar mistakes really matter? After all, the foreign shareholders of this company aren't native speakers of English either and probably won't recognise the mistakes.
Why should this company pay extra money, just to make a perfectly sounding document that nobody actually appreciates? I do feel sorry for the English language that is tortured, abused and paying dearly for being the lingua franca of modern times. But what can I tell a potential customer, who has every right to argue that the quality of English in their document doesn't really matter, because their audience won't know the difference anyway?
This scenario may seem strange to all the lucky translators out there, who only work into their mother tongue. This is all very nice, however there are very few (if any) translators working from Slovak into their native English and I imagine there may be other small languages with the same fate. Hence, if the companies wanted to use native speakers only, they'd probably have to pay exorbitant prices because the supply of translators is very limited.
As a result, native speakers of smaller languages end up translating into English or German or other "bigger" languages a lot. We do our best, but we'll never be able to match native speakers. We could rely on proofreaders, but that adds to the bill which nobody is willing to foot.
Especially when the customers cannot judge the quality of the result or even if they can and they still say it doesn't matter because no native speaker will ever read it.
What's your opinion?


Human translation telephone

A couple of months ago, I read an article about the "translation telephone" powered by Google Translate. You have probably read about it too, just as about the "Bad translator" that I came across this morning.
I had my fun with that, tried out a few sentences and mostly, when I started with a Slovak sentence, the resulting sentence was utter nonsense, sometimes ridiculous.
It's too easy to make fun of computer "translators", they have no possibility to defend themselves. And they can only give us what they have been "taught"by humans.
But let's test the "human translation telephone".
My idea is that I'd start with a sentence in Slovak and ask someone to translate that into his or her mother tongue and forward this translated sentence to the next person with passive knowledge of the new source language. I'd like to have my original sentence translated at least 19 times, to imitate what the "translation telephone" does. The 19th translation should be into either English or German or French so that I could have it translated by someone into Slovak ... someone who doesn't know my original.
I think it would be quite interesting to see, how much of the original gets through or gets lost in this "translation Chinese whispers". So I'm calling my fellow linguists, if you want to help me with this little experiment, send me an email. Let me know your active and passive languages. It would be fun to include someone with non-European languages or languages not written in the Latin Alphabet. I'm looking forward to hearing from you!


Do clients recognize quality?

In her article Ewa Erdman correctly pointed out that low cost translation equals poor quality and it can be seen across the market.
It is of course true and logical. When we buy cheaper products or services, we know they'll be of lower quality. However, when I buy cheap shoes or have a cheap manicure I see the difference in quality even without knowing how shoes are made or how artificial nails are put on. In order to be able to judge the quality of a translation or an interpreter you really need to have a profound knowledge of the foreign language in question. Otherwise, you won't be able to tell whether you're getting the best service for your money. Thus, it is safe to say that in most cases clients can't judge the quality they paid for.
There are so many providers on the market I imagine it must be extremely hard to choose one. They all claim they offer top quality at low prices. Of course they do, have you ever seen someone claiming they're not offering top quality? Well, I haven't.
But what makes clients think that if they choose the cheapest option, the quality won't suffer? I think it may simply be the lack of feedback. Unless you're a law firm and a poor translation loses you money, how do you actually find out whether the translation is any good or whether your interpreter is truly and adequately interpreting your words?
How many times have you come across a poorly translated user's manual? I think I lost count. But have I ever complained to the seller that there are mistakes in the translated version? Of course not. Well, then how is the manufacturer to know that their manuals are funny? And if they're only funny, that's the least of all evils. Imagine someone getting hurt due to a poor translation.
As a hotel guest have you ever pointed out to the receptionist that their website is nowhere near perfect? If so, what was their reaction?
And the list of examples could go on ...
Without having real background knowledge to judge what you're getting you might as well think that the cheaper option is just as good as any other.
It's funny how we associate "low cost" with either lower quality or hidden costs, when we see advertisements for airlines or cheap imported products from Asia or anything "manufactured", but in translations and interpreting everybody seems to assume that quality is constant and so they make their buying decisions solely on the basis of price.


The importance of a good contract

I was supposed to be in Athens yesterday and today - interpreting at a European employee forum. Unfortunately, due to the general strike announced for Greece, the meeting was cancelled.
My first thought was, oh good, I won't get stuck at some airport AGAIN, but then I got nervous - what are the cancellation terms on my contract?
For too many years I was very naive when it came to dealing with clients. Maybe it's just the case in Slovakia, but here it's not usual to actually get a binding contract to confirm an interpreting assignment. So it did happen that my assignment was cancelled two days before the meeting were to take place and I was left with nothing.
Maybe it does happen to other linguists too that they don't regard themselves as business entities and are way too willing to accept any terms whatsoever just to get some work. And then we complain that clients have no respect for our profession. However, respect doesn't come out of nowhere. We have to earn it not only by providing a top-notch service but also by communicating professionally.
When I decide to buy a product or service, I know that I have to sign a binding order or even pay a deposit. Sometimes this deposit is as much as 50% of the total amount. Yet when someone calls me and asks me whether I'm free to interpret on a given date, I just accept it and never ask for a written confirmation. This has to change.
The next time a client inquires about my services, I'll have my standard terms and conditions ready and I will ask him or her to sign a binding contract. If I want to be treated like a professional, I have to act like one. It may put off some clients who would not accept paying the full price for a meeting that gets cancelled. But then again, when we buy an airline ticket, a holiday and such, we accept that there is no refund.
It is not acceptable that only the interpreter bears the financial risk. We are small businesses and we need to protect our interests.
Luckily, my contract for the employee forum was a good one and I should get the full fees despite the cancellation.