This post is a response to a great article about the exploitation in the translation industry, written by María Scheibengraf and Sarah Presch, and if you have not read it yet, then you should do now. In their article, María and Sarah have rightly pointed out that if a change is going to happen in the language industry, then it has to come from the people within it. Therefore, in this post I will try to take part in this discussion about how can we improve things from within, by putting forward a few suggestions that focus not on end clients, but on what we, the translators, can do.

To be clear, by concentrating my attention on the translators, I am in no way absolving the clients who deal with shady agencies of their responsibility for the current situation. However, that the majority of us lives in capitalist societies, and until we develop a better alternative to capitalism (definitely not communism), we have to admit that in a capitalist economy profits always come first, not ethics. Even the businesses who seem to be ethical or benefiting the society are doing what they are doing because it generate profits. Might be a cynical view, but true nonetheless. Consequently, we have a better chance bringing about change if we directed our efforts towards what translators can do, and towards preventing the act of choosing a translation provider from being an ethical choice in the first place.

The ethical agency

For better or worse, agencies are necessary to manage complexity, and although most translators would benefit more from working directly with end clients, this is unpractical for many projects. Contrary to what Sarah claimed in the article, for many clients, it is not easy to stop working with LSP’s altogether, and adopt a model where you work with freelancers directly. If you are a game developer, for instance, looking to localize your game into
12 languages, then you will naturally follow the path of least resistance, which is to outsource the work to a single LSP, since working with 12 freelance translators from around the world is a managerial nightmare.

Nevertheless, as Sarah noted, the problem is not LSP’s/agencies in and of themselves. Instead, it is our current work model, that consists of a long chain of agencies, where each one needs to carve out a portion of the profits, and the exploitation that goes with it. So, how does the ethical (or perfect?) translation agency look like? Inspired by what María and Sarah wrote, I believe that to be considered ethical, an agency should:

  1. Pay its translators fair and high rates.
  2. Provide fixed rates across all languages, or offer its services in one language.
  3. Work directly with translators (no outsourcing to other agencies/LSP).
  4. Provide work opportunities for both inexperienced and experienced translators.
  5. Invest in translators training.
  6. Give its translators full credits.
  7. Never use MT in any way.

Most of these points are obvious, however, points 4 and 5 deserves a bit more detailed discussion.

The issue of inexperienced translators

Clearly, the issue of exploitation is not limited to the translation industry. Child labor is as old a problem as it gets, and the reason why children are exploited is simple: They have no negotiating power, and you cannot refuse a job when there is no alternative. María, in her analysis of Argentina, said that agencies “cut costs by hiring unqualified translators, or by not paying qualified translators a fair rate”, adding that she belonged to the latter group early in her career, since she could only find work with agencies that exploited her. Unfortunately, she did not elaborate further on this point, leaving some questions unanswered. In particular, why was she unable to work for high-paying agencies? Nonetheless, it is safe to assume that it was because high-paying agencies do not hire translators who are just starting out.

Even though students of Argentinian translation and interpretation programs graduates with considerable academic knowledge, according to María, they get very little practical experience in the process. Therefore, when they start looking for a job, they will only by hired by agencies willing to to ignore their lack of experience, in exchange for paying them very little, effectively exploiting them. She then goes on to say that those new recruits neither have the experience or the
portfolio necessary to approach end clients, in addition to being limited on the time they can spend learning. As a result, they keep working for the same agency, and since there are always fresh graduates looking for work, the agency has no incentive to raise rates.

So, how should our industry deal with inexperienced translators and the notorious chicken-egg problem of experience? Do not get me wrong, I am not saying that these agencies were right in paying them meager rates. Instead, I think that part of the blame should also fall on the agencies that refused to hire them. We should have an honest discussion about this issue. Are we willing to admit that many experienced translators look down on the work inexperienced ones? Are expert translators with 10 years under their belts okay with being paid the same rates as those who have zero experience or only a few years worth of it? If junior translators should be paid less than senior ones, the how much the difference in their rates should be?

Even the main page of Crisol Translation, the company co-founded by María, states that the right translator should have (among other things): documented translation experience, industry expertise, professional accreditation by credible associations (ATA, ITI, CIOL, etc.), positive online reviews and testimonials, solid online presence, and industry reputation. Of course, if you could find a translator that meets all these standards, then they are definitely going to be great, but how many fresh graduates meet them? If you don’t have experience, does this mean you are unqualified? If you need to accumulate 3 years experience to be considered qualified, was the work you did during those 3 years of horrible quality?

To be honest, I really do not have answers to these questions. However, I think that we can do something about this. This can includes:

  • Creating standardized tests in various fields, similar to the popular language tests, that can really verify whether a translator is able to handle his job well, without taking into account their experience, portfolio, or employment history. Creating such tests would not be straightforward, but it would definitely help young translators prove their abilities, besides providing them with a clear goal that they could work towards.
  • Designing mentoring programs for junior translators (free or paid). Lacking someone who takes active interest in your progression is a big barrier for career advancement, and those starting out their careers would benefit greatly from the endorsement of industry veterans.

Training translators

Unfortunately, many of the problems arising in our business are due to the freelancing aspect it. Many managers see freelancers as expendable and put little resources into retaining them. Furthermore, the remote nature of this relationship also contributes to this, since it prevents forming a close bond between managers and translators. Consequently, companies should prefer in-house translators over freelancers, in addition to providing current freelancers with a path to transform into in-house employees.

Whatever their employment status, agencies should invest in training its translators. Besides being vital to help translators progress their careers, it is also of great benefit to the company and the industry as a whole. When you provide translators with training and a pathway to advancement within the company, you will improve competitiveness in the market by keeping experienced translators and developing a more highly skilled team.

Moreover, the belief that freelancer are expandable and that they will change agencies given the chance could not be further from the truth, with reality being starkly different. When you ensure that translators are getting paid fairly, and invest in creating opportunities for them, you are going to retain them, and they in turn will become more loyal to you. In fact, one of the primary sources of constant anxiety for freelancers is the prospect of losing an agency, and most of them prefer to work with just a few agencies, as long as they provide them with enough work.

Achieving this is not going to be an easy task. A conscious effort has to be made on part of the managers in order to get to know the translators they are working with on a personal level, and keeping a database of 1000 translators that you barely know any of them definitely will not help. I truly believe, however, that the reward is worth the effort.

Focusing on both the positive and the negative

One of Sarah’s main goals behind raising awareness about the issue of exploitation is to enable translation buyers to make more ethical choices about their language service providers. Additionally, María and her team at Crisol are working on a platform that aim to expose shady businesses. These are certainly great steps, but they should also go hand in hand with making the ethical companies more known, and encouraging ethical behavior across the industry.

The good examples should get more recognition, particularly because many of them are small teams
or agencies serving a niche market. It is not enough to tell end clients that this entity is practicing bad behavior, because
their next question would be about the alternative.
Once we do this
, more work will get directed towards those who deserves it,
enabling them to hire more translators. Ultimately, it would be great if we could develop an ethical standard, similar to ISO quality standard.


Can all the above requirements be fulfilled? Will a day come when we see that all translation agencies have become ethical? My answer is a yes to both questions. We have to just remember that many translation agencies/teams are founded by translators, and that, consequently, a portion of us have the power to introduce a meaningful change in the way we work. So, instead of just asking clients to deal with the good companies, we should encourage translators, especially the veterans of our profession, to take a more active role. We need more ethical companies in our industries, and we should not wait until demand forces the unethical to adopt more fair practices.

I hope that the suggestions I made above are helpful, and I am always interested in hearing the suggestions of the others. And as Sarah has said, this is just the start of the conversation – let’s keep it going!


Featured photo by Annie Spratt on Unsplash.

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