Uberification of “the Translation Industry” Is Quickly Moving Forward

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As translation agencies grow bigger and become more and more aggressive, they have become a different kind of animal, similar to and in some respect worse than the Uber Corporation and very different from what a typical translation agency used to be only a few years ago.

As most people know by now, Uber is a multinational online transportation company, headquartered in San Francisco, which operates the Uber mobile app that allows consumers with smartphones to submit trip requests that are then submitted to drivers who use their own cars to provide the same service as taxi drivers. According to Wikipedia, as of May 28, 2015, the service was available in 58 countries and 300 cities worldwide. So many countries have started copying this business model that the business trend is now referred to as Uberification.

Evidence that the Uber-model is in full swing in what is now referred to as “the translation industry” can also be found in my own e-mail.

Ten years ago, I started translating patents for a translation agency in Europe, mostly Japanese patents about medical devices and pharmaceuticals. As I don’t seem to have a Confidentiality Agreement in my file for this agency, it probably did not send me such an agreement. I only received “Important Instructions” from the agency ten years ago, admonishing translators not to forget things like running a spell checker (???).

The instructions from ten years ago amount to about 400 words and fit easily on a single page if you print them out. One of these “Important Instructions” in fact says, “Have your used the spell checker on your work?” (Gee, thanks guys, where would I be without your instructions?)

I used to work for this agency, although only occasionally, between 2006 and 2010. I see that the last time I worked for it was in 2010 and that back then they paid me five weeks from the date of my invoice. I stopped working for them six years ago because the e-mails I kept receiving from them were a clear indication to me that I did not really want to work for these people.

Every few months I would receive a new e-mail from a brand new agency coordinator (the old ones kept disappearing), asking me again for my résumé, while also providing a wealth of information about a new invoicing system, new payment terms and other changes and updates. Some of these instructions were sent only to cancel the previous instructions and replace the old batch of helpful advice and directives with new ones. It would have created a confusing situation for me had I still been translating for them. But as I said, I haven’t replied to any of their missives for about six years now.

Although I have been diligently ignoring their e-mails for the last six years, within the last ten days I have received the same e-mail (three times already) from them: a zipped subdirectory with brand new instructions once again. I do not respond to e-mails from agencies that I don’t want to work for, but I usually open and read the file because I am by nature a curious and inquisitive person.

The latest zipped subdirectory informs me that since the agency is opening a new office in the United States (Yay!), I need to sign a few more forms for them, as well as a “Contract-NDA”, which unlike the helpful “Important Instructions” that were only about 400 words long ten years ago now has seven pages and a total of 3,813 words.

A separate form, titled “Payment Terms for Vendors” states that I may submit “only one invoice per month before the 10th of the next month” and that “the payment of invoices will be made by the 15th of each month 45 days after the end of the month where the invoice has been sent” (it says “where” instead of when).

So, instead of paying for each invoice in about a month (which is still a pretty long time), the corporatized and Uberized fighters in “the translation industry” now pay the poor people who work for them in two months. Or maybe in three months: since only one invoice can be submitted on the 10th of the next month, “the vendors” may even get paid for their work close to three months after the translation was delivered.

How long do Uber drivers have to wait to get paid? I don’t know, but I am sure that unlike “vendors” working for corporatized and Uberized translation agencies in “the translation industry”, it cannot possibly be two to three months. Even the Uber Corporation probably understands that unlike “vendors” who work for corporatized translation agencies, people who drive cars for them need to eat every day and have bills that will simply not wait two to three months.

Businesses like Uber, Airbnb, EasyCar Club, or Girl Meets Dress are based on the idea that a new type of economy, often called share economy, can be created to replace old business models that may no longer work very well in a world where everything is interconnected with everything else because just about everybody has a smart phone. Just about everybody can drive a car, has a house or apartment and can part with his car or her dress for a day or two in exchange for some money, so why not take advantage of it and organize things through Internet by using an app to make a lot of money for the Organizers.

The threshold for participating in this kind of business as a service provider in a shared economy is very low. You basically only need to have something that most people have – a car, an apartment, or a dress – and a pulse, to be a service provider.

The modern model of translation agencies in “the translation industry” is based on a similar concept and a similar assumption, namely that since everybody is on the Internet, many people who “know” two languages can be translators. The translation business can thus be organized along similar principles as for example the Uber transportation business.

But things are not that simple even in the Uber world. The traditional model in the old economy has a few advantages that are difficult, if not impossible, to replicate in a sharing economy. For example, while it is not that easy to drive a taxi and you generally have to be a really good driver and go through a thorough evaluation process to qualify for the job, especially in a big city, there is no telling what kind of driver is driving an Uber customer.

Because the job entry threshold for Uber drivers is so low, some drivers may be mentally ill, criminally insane, and some of them may even be psychopathic murderers. That was the case of an Uber driver who recently went on a shooting spree in Kalamazoo, Michigan, and killed six people, while continuing to pick up new Uber customers.

The question that I am asking myself is: who are these “vendors” who are able to continue working for the new type of corporatized translation agencies, which in some respects are treating their “vendors” even worse than Uber is treating its drivers?

The “vendors” who work for the new type of corporatized translation agencies may not be as dangerous to their customers as an insane or psychopathic Uber driver who happens to be a killer. But I think that it is unlikely that many of these “vendors” are professional translators who have a university degree and many years of translation experience in a specialized field.

Ten years ago when I started working for the translation agency that inspired my silly post today by sending me a new “Confidentiality Agreement” that is almost four thousand words long, while extending the payment terms from 30 days net to at least 60, possibly 90 days, depending on when “the vendor” is allowed to submit an invoice, my hope was that I was making a connection with a specialized translation agency that would come to value and appreciate the specialized translation services that I was providing as an experienced translator of patents from Japanese, German, French and other languages.

After all, the threshold for entry to the profession of a patent translator who can competently translate Japanese or German patents dealing with medical devices, pharmaceuticals, electronics and other fields is not exactly as low as the threshold for entry to the job of an Uber car driver.

But as the translation agency eventually decided to Uberify its business, I had to stop working for it years ago because the business model of this particular translation agency made it impossible for me to continue working for it. This translation agency’s business model is incompatible with my business model.

It is fairly safe to assume that most experienced translators will do the same, because what else can they do if they want to be able to pay their bills? This means that the type of agency that I am describing in my silly post today will probably then be forced to work mostly with beginners and subprime translators who are likely to be able to deliver only work of questionable quality.

Paradoxically, this also creates an opportunity for translation businesses, specialized agencies and individual translators, whose business model is not based on the Uber model of a sharing economy, but instead continues the traditions inherited from the old economy.

After all, the AirBnb model has not put traditional hotels or bed and breakfast establishments out of business yet, and regular taxis are still patronized by customers who are willing to pay a little bit more for better safety combined with convenience. I even see a generational divide here: for example, my son always uses Uber service when he needs a ride somewhere; I always use a regular taxi and probably always will. I don’t use taxis that often, and my own safety is more important to me than a lower cost.

I see a kind of split in “the translation industry” that is similar to what has already been occurring for quite a while in other industries, a split that will result in two types of translation providers, if we want to use this term:

Translation agencies who have jumped on the Uber,  AirBnb and Girl Meets Dress bandwagon and rely mostly on “vendors”, (the preferred term in “the translation industry” since the industry does not like the word “translators”), whose threshold to entry into the translation profession is very low, are on one side of the great divide.

On the other side are translation agencies and individual translators whose businesses continue to be anchored mostly in the traditions and practices of the old economy, where translation agencies and translators compete primarily on competence and expertise instead of competing mostly based on rock-bottom prices and where the threshold for entry into the profession of a specialized translator is and always will be quite high.

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