Article published by Gianni Davico on the American Translators Association website

Ahi ahi, ma conosciuto il mondo
Non cresce, anzi si scema
(Leopardi, Ad Angelo Mai)

Introduction

I recently visited, in May 2003, the United States as I was keen on learning more about American agencies, considering that they are the instigators of change in the world. This article is an account of my impressions of the translation industry in the United States, as shaped by the views of my American colleagues. I had several conversations with them, and this article is structured around the issues which emerged from those exchanges. The people I contacted were all owners of translation agencies, both small and medium sized, and (with one exception) not specialised. Some have preferred to remain anonymous. They are not a wide sample, nor are they representative, insofar as they only reflect my personal experience.

A Preliminary Consideration

Strictly speaking, we cannot talk about a single American translation market. From an Italian point of view, the United States seem a homogenous market, but at a closer look it is clear that its very vastness impedes homogeneity. I myself encountered very different organisations: from agencies working in sublet premises, to large structured and globalized organisations, to the various levels in-between. Perhaps we can speak about, for example, the New York market for legal translations, but even then, we would have to distinguish at least two segments, regarding quality and price.

The Most Satisfying Aspects for Entrepreneurs in the Sector

This aspect goes to the very heart of the American Dream, both in its positive and negative sense. “As an entrepreneur”, claims Steve Kahaner, director of Juriscribe, “I have gotten the most satisfaction from creating the business from scratch. There is no boss to account to, I make my own hours, and my creative efforts (when successful) are rewarded in a direct manner”. We are in fact at the very roots of entrepreneurship; but Kahaner himself admits that these positive characteristics have their negative side: “There is no boss to tell me what to do when I don’t know what I’m doing, I work 18 hours a day, and my creative efforts (when unsuccessful) are penalized in a direct manner”.

I see the second of these three points as one of the ills and worst failings of Corporate America: namely, working hours which are too long, at the sacrifice of life outside the office. It was in New York, in fact, that I was told that to live decently – not be rich, but just live decently – long working hours are necessary, otherwise, if you do not keep up with the pace, you will become marginalized on the job market. Fair enough, I understand. However, I hope I will not have to follow suit, as I believe that this is one of the advantages of the European idea of work. And what about holidays? Many studies (1) have brought to light how a prolonged break from work – and I do not mean three days, but three weeks – has dual benefits, both for the person, who will be rested and ready to confront new challenges, and, as a result, for his/her work (and this is especially true for the self-employed). Yet this line of reasoning just does not convince Americans. I remember encouraging a colleague to take longer breaks and to look for hobbies and interests outside work, only to receive a bewildered, dazed, almost incredulous stare back. At any rate, this is an aspect of working life which we Europeans are beginning to import from the United States through globalization – and I, personally, feel threatened.

It is also worthwhile looking at a comment on entrepreneurship made by Denise Russell (2), founder of Language Masters: “As an entrepreneur, what gives me satisfaction is to add value to a client’s product and to make a profit while doing so. It is a win-win situation”. This to me seems the right approach to have towards one’s customers and towards one’s business, whereby the profit made by an agency is simply the mirror image of the benefits obtained by the customer. A vicious circle of value, in short.

Cathy Bokor, vice-president of Accurapid, stresses team work, another cardinal point for work in agencies. In fact, it must be made clear that translation agencies would not exist if not for their translators, so only effective and efficient team work can produce translations worthy of this name. In fact for Cathy the greatest satisfaction comes from “projects I can work on with my employees as a team that I know will make a difference for my customers”.

There is also another colleague, who would prefer to remain anonymous, who claims that the most important aspect is cultural: the greatest satisfaction comes from meeting interesting people, contributing to intercultural understanding, travelling to see worlds different from your own, and so on. Here lies, in my opinion, one of the greatest benefits – a privilege, to be honest – for those who work in the translation business, namely the possibility of being in contact with realities that are different from your own, and which definitely broadens the way you see the world.

Future Challenges for Agencies

Extending the discussion to embrace the future, I generally received responses which underlined the importance of quality and added-value for clients. “The biggest challenge for our business”, says Steve Kahaner, “is to change the perception of the clients, so that they understand that they are buying a service, not a commodity, and that if they expect a quality work product, they must pay for it.” In fact, this is the crucial point of the translation industry as a whole. In Italy – to talk about the situation I know, although I am well aware that a similar situation exists in many countries – the issue of “rates” is an age-old, tiresome and never-ending concern. These days, I tend to see it as a lost battle, that is, my battle to talk about “professional fees” rather than “rates” for translators. Nonetheless, many a time I have asked myself, “why is the translation profession so poorly considered?” There are certainly many reasons, and all of them may even be valid. But I also think that the answer lies in translators themselves, and not only in external causes – in this case, in those translators who do not understand how to properly value their profession.
Having said this however, I do not believe that this argument is particularly relevant to the United States, where – at least until now – the issue of prices has never been central. But things are changing: an American colleague, with years of experience in the sector, told me how the only thing clients want these days are translations that are “cheap, cheap, cheap!”

For the record, this same person told me that in five years’ time he hoped to no longer be working in the translation business. Dear me. Anyway, even Steve Kahaner wonders whether it would not be better to be a “simple” translator, given that he is pretty good at translating legal documents. This is another point to think about: considering that many agencies are founded by translators who have sought to increase their work flow, once work flow has been sufficiently increased, there inevitably comes the time when everyone begins to ask themselves: has it really been worth it? Once you have demonstrated to yourself and the world that you have been able to create a successful business, is there still enough stimulus to move on to a higher level?

Another pessimistic point of view comes from Cathy Bokor, who talks about the threat posed by automatic translations, and how clients need to be educated on the difference between that kind of translation and “real” translations. As a result, she suspects that in five years’ time, her agency will be doing much more editing than actual translations. Here lies another danger – for the translator more than the agency, to tell the truth. In fact, automatic translation programmes render the translator a simple pen-pusher or, to use a more colourful expression, mere ‘computer fodder. Will we all become mere automata at the service of the big corporations?

An anonymous voice speaks out against the current though, and claims that “the biggest challenge will be not growing too fast!” In my opinion, this brings us back to the essential conflict at the back of the mind of all entrepreneurs during their waking hours: on the one hand, there is the possibility of creating a big and important company, bringing you money, respect, power and the lot; on the other hand, there is “prison” which is created along with it, namely, the fear that such activity impedes relaxation and well-being. Ultimately, it is a question of choice. Our anonymous voice has chosen the middle ground of controlled growth which allows him to keep control of his business, and not be controlled by it.

The Competition

I do not, of course, mean direct competition. Instead, I sought to understand what my American colleagues thought about competition from translators residing in America, as well as competition from foreign agencies. Their answers present a difficult and intricate picture. “Some professionals in the translation industry”, says Denise Russell, “believe that it will mirror the phenomenon that occurred in the accounting industry in the USA, such that there will be 5 or 6 major big players”. (This also mirrors what is happening in the localization sector, where a big chunk of the market is in the hands of three big players – SDL, Lionbridge and Bowne –, even if no one in fact has a market share greater than 10% (3) – which is of some relief to the industry!) “Well, this has been happening for quite a while and it is not something unique to both these industries”. Nevertheless, her conclusion is that businesses generally have more specific needs than “simple” translation, and it is in understanding and satisfying these needs that American agencies can have the leading edge.

Steve Kahaner holds a similar view: “Most freelancers, unless they are extremely specialized, cannot compete with the quality that a properly run agency should be providing”, while “foreign agencies are often not prepared to meet the demands of a US client, which tend to be much higher than equivalent clients in their home country”.

An anonymous thinker, on the other hand, splits the issue into two, depending on whether the translations are into English, or into another language. In the first case, competition poses no threat, due to the tendency to lose the freshness of your language when living abroad – as a result, despite low prices, American businesses will continue, in his opinion, to rely upon American agencies, also due to their closeness to the market. In the second case, it is just the opposite, and the search for native-speaking translators living in the country for destination will be forever greater.

In my opinion, here the issue becomes quite complex and multifaceted, due to the sheer number of players involved. Simplifying greatly, there seem to be six categories: American agencies and foreign agencies, native-speaking English translators and native-speaking other language translators, United States residents and foreign residents.
I believe that competition between American agencies and foreign agencies will continue to become tighter. The former have the advantage of position, which is strengthened by the ease with which they can draw on native-speaking non-English translators in their countries of residence – and on better conditions than those obtained in the United States. The latter, on the other hand, can count on prices which are generally lower. And then there is another phenomenon to consider, and which is beginning to be significant, what we might call “inverse colonization”: namely, European agencies, such as Wordbank (4) of late, which open branches in the United States. As concerns translators, I think that non-American residents in the United States have a difficult future ahead of them, whilst, on the contrary, great prospects await translators living in countries with a lower cost of living. What about native-speaking English translators? I do not foresee any great changes in the future, for two different reasons: one, for those living in the United States, because of the sheer size and growth tendencies of the market; and two, for those living abroad, because they serve different (local) markets, and the “protection” afforded them by lower prices. Naturally, I am marking out only the large scale tendencies. Obviously, successful agencies and professionals will continue to have success, regardless of what they do.

At any rate, at the second annual conference of the TCD (Translation Company Division, the ATA division dedicated to translation agencies), held in Colorado Springs in June 2001, some members expressed their fears of losing orders to foreign agencies (5). In spite of official declarations, the issue is, if nothing else, controversial. On the international level, the Internet has opened the way for a proliferation of offers from abroad, which are almost always lower. From my point of view, the fall of American prices seems inevitable, although I do agree with Kahaner in doubting the quality which agencies not present on American territory can offer.

Finally, the apocalyptic forecasts of another person in the industry who would prefer to remain anonymous: “I believe about 40% of agencies will go out of business. The remaining agencies will get bought out and/or consolidate with stronger ones”. Hence, it is not clear who will be left standing. The overall picture seems to be one of radical change. And even Cathy Bokor predicts “small translation bureaus disappearing”.

The Price Battle

Although treading on thorny ground, I was pleasantly surprised to hear answers which all pointed in the direction of value, rather than price. An almost annoyed Denise Russell responded: “The price battle… The key is: Where does the value lie? How can I positively affect my client’s bottom line? If you lower your prices endlessly in order to compete, the perceived value of your services will slide accordingly”. An anonymous voice adds, very simply, that although price is always a worrying factor for the client, the key factor will always be quality. Cathy Bokor foresees a polarization of the market, favouring the larger and better organised agencies which have work loads sufficient to cover high fixed costs, and to the detriment of smaller agencies, which for the same reason, will find it difficult to survive in the market. Finally, Steve Kahaner talks of the need to educate clients so they better understand the kind of service they are receiving, and hence become less focused on prices and more focused on value for money.

I generally think that prices will tend to fall, whilst quality and expertise will nonetheless be rewarded (I believe this is always true regardless of the context, exceptional circumstances excepted). Generally speaking, it seems that quality is taken for granted, leaving price as the grounds for choice. This is probably a dangerous tendency, though in my opinion the inevitable albeit undesired outcome of globalisation. At any rate, that prices will fall seems to me both the inevitable and logical outcome of foreign competition.

However, according to a discordant anonymous speaker, professional fees for translators will fall only slightly, due to foreign competition, whilst the profit margins of agencies will rise.
I do agree with the first part of this statement, for reasons outlined above, but I think we have to wait and see on the second part. There are definitely several factors at play. I think we need to have a clearer idea on the definitions. What is, after all, an ‘agency’? If we mean paper shufflers, then I think they will be quickly out of the game, or at most destined to serve the local market without any real prospects of development. If we mean a professionally managed agency – whether it be a medium sized office or a large international agency – then I think the argument is sustainable.

The Usefulness of Professional Associations

To begin with, “association” in the United States generally means ATA, which is the most representative and full of history, although there are other emerging associations, including those dedicated specifically to agencies, for example ALC (6). Steve Kahaner, whose agency is a member, claims that these associations are based on the fact that agencies have different goals, needs and (at times) interests, compared to those of the individual translator. This seems correct and logical to me – as the market grows and matures, it will become increasingly clear that although agencies and translators are all in the same boat (7), they are also quite obviously different bodies. A positive opinion, of associations in general and ATA in particular, is unanimously held, for various reasons, including: they provide the names of reliable translators (Denise Russell) and guarantee visibility and respect for the sector (this was said by all those interviewed). Cathy Bokor adds another two advantages: they help educate clients (and translators) and provide criteria for ethicalness for the sector.

Conclusions

Although it is impossible to sum up the general tendencies, I will now try and bring together the different threads of the discussion, highlighting some of the issues which I will elaborate in a book I am writing on the work of agencies, which will be published in 2005.

The first issue is quite general, and concerns the relationship between work and private life. Walking down the streets of Manhattan, what surprised me most was that the words I overheard most often from conversations on the street were “money” and “dollars”. Of course this is not especially significant in itself, but I was overwhelmed by what seemed a mad wild goose chase.

The second issue regards the real or presumed crisis. Although it is undeniable that we are still in recession and that the Twin Towers attack, apart from the human tragedy, has contributed to deepening already diffuse problems, it is also true that all too often talk about crisis is really about a pseudo-problem, an excuse, which needs to be overcome as soon as possible.

The third issue concerns the “war” between agencies. Competition is clearly exasperated – and considering in particular the current situation whereby all over the world, nothing can be squandered, it could not really be any other way. But to be honest, I have to say that from the outside not much of this is seen. Here and there were signs of squabbles between agencies, but there seemed also to be many positive examples of collaboration, and I mean collaboration between colleagues, which in a field where competition is deadlocked, represents great intelligence and maturity.

The fourth issue concerns associations. I found the presence and work of ATA incredibly effective, especially when compared to the results obtained by Italian associations. An excellent impression is held, by me as an external observer and by those directly involved. It is clearly an association of great utility for its members.

The fifth and final issue concerns the future of translators. The translating profession is changing, and translators need to adapt to the new and changing aspects of the market if they do not want to be excluded, without hope of re-entering.

Gianni Davico

—————

1 I will not cite specific studies, considering that the argument is now quite common. I would rather quote, as an example, the words of Joe Robinson, author of Work to Live: The Guide to Getting a Life, New York, Perigee, 2003: “Business owners are the most overworked people in America. They need to see that it’s not a badge of courage, but a problem. And they should realize that free time is an engine for innovation and creativity.” (Rory Evans, Getting Away and Meaning It, “Inc”, July 2003, p. 64; or see the online version.

2 See also a lovely article dedicated to Russell in the magazine “Inc”, in the January 2003 issue (published also online).

3 See Hedley Rees-Evans, marketing director of SDL International, in an interview (Vendor Size: The Gap is Getting Bigger) conceded to “Clientside News”, July 2003, p. 13, Available also online.

4 The headline appeared in “Multilingual” in the June 2003 issue, p. 12.

5 The Europeans are Coming, in www.ata-divisions.org, p. 3.

6 Association of Language Companies, www.alcus.org.

7 See also, for a deeper discussion of the issue, my article in the November 2002 issue of “Tradurre”; the English version can be found on this website.