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Crisis in the Translation Industry

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A landmark verdict has just been handed down at Leeds County Court that will strike fear into the hearts of all sub-contractors in the translation industry - translators, interpreters, translation editors and proofreaders, maybe even language teachers - anyone who subcontracts language services to private companies.

Since the end of World War II, the need for language professionals has become immense. There are many reasons for this: the EEC and then the European Union, computing with its hardware, software and manuals, globalisation, and many other reasons. Although translator and interpreter training is much more commonplace, good translators and interpreters, especially in rare language combinations, are hard to find, even in the "common" combinations. Translation and interpreting are badly paid in the West, when compared to other skilled jobs. Now even what translators are owed is not being paid.

One of my colleagues decided to stop translating because it was so badly paid in his own country, and start a list of translation providers who were "bad payers". I downloaded his list and added a few names of which I had personal knowledge; my personal list now runs to more than 150 names, worldwide. These are companies who set themselves up as translation agencies and either pay only after considerable pressure has been applied to them, or not at all, EVER. Although there are companies like this all over the world, I am sorry to say that a veteran, non-British, colleague of mine noted recently that "the major proportion of names on the list comes from the UK".

This is very bad news and is the result of several loopholes in the laws of England and Wales (and probably Scotland too).

1) The UK is the only country in the western world that has no form of registration whatsoever for business names. The former Registration of Business Names Act, which merely required registration at Companies House, was abolished by the Thatcher government almost as soon as it came to power in 1979. Every other country has some sort of procedure for registering a trading name; the United States, for instance, requires publication in a local newspaper and registration with the State Board of Equalization to ensure that state tax is paid on sales. Other countries have similar practices, but over here, you can call yourself anything you like (as long as it doesn't have "royal" in it) and set up your stall tomorrow. What is so crazy is that this would be a good way for the government to earn revenue which it sorely needs.

2) It is easy to go into liquidation, just to avoid paying debts. A three-times-bankrupt boasted about it recently in "The Daily Telegraph". In fact, it is easier to do so than to tough it out and pay off debts when money is tight. I am still owed more than 2000 Pounds by a translation agency owner who deliberately put his company into liquidation (even the liquidators expressed their suspicions to me) because, as he told a colleague of mine, he had been made "an offer he couldn't refuse" by a would-be partner who had set up a new translation company on millions of borrowed venture capital money.

3) It is similarly easy to escape creditors, writ-servers, etc., by trading from a secret address. In most countries, your headquarters are where you trade from. This is not so in the UK, which uses the "registered office" as the official trading address. It is perfectly legitimate to have a registered office in a place other than the principal place of business; accountants, and occasionally solicitors, act as the registered office for many of their clients. This is done for administrative convenience in some cases, especially for companies who are afraid important mail will go astray if they move their offices frequently. However, it is also a very convenient way of escaping confrontations as more than one "rogue trader" has discovered to his immense satisfaction.

The net result is that British companies are acquiring a bad reputation worldwide, at least in the translation business, and probably elsewhere as well. Non-translators should be aware that the trading conditions for dishonest translation and interpreting companies are optimum, in other words, the translation business itself can be a crook's charter. The main reason for this is that client and sub-contractor never meet. There never was a business such as the translation business for pulling the wool over a customer's eyes. A slick, smooth-talker in an expensive suit visits a client and promises superb service etc. backed up with colourful literature all of which, when analysed, is meaningless. Having won the contract (which often amounts to many thousands of pounds in value) the work is turned over to the PMs (project managers) whose job it is to farm it out to the cheapest translator they can find. Sometimes the work is checked, sometimes it isn't. The nett profit that a medium-sized agency (10-20 in-house employees) is required to make on a job is at least 100%. If a Translation Memory program is used, the translators are paid little or nothing for words and phrases in the translation that occur more than once, known as "matches". Needless to say, this saving is rarely passed on to the customer.

Another problem in the translation business is that when official tenders are issued by local authorities, government departments and even international organisations, there is no contractual requirement to pay translators. In fact, several companies with an appalling reputation for payment have a clientele consisting almost exclusively of official bodies, including the European Union, through tenders they have won which are renewed indefinitely without any form of quality control, price is everything. It's easy to offer the lowest bid when you know you have no intention of paying the translators who worked on it!

The standard of translation for several EU institutions has deteriorated to such an extent that they have been forced to hold competitive examinations for translators. Some freelance translators are sent to sit the exam by agencies they work for, but there is no guarantee that if the translator passes the exam that he/she will actually be given the work. The same applies in the case of private clients, incidentally. There are translation agency owners who actually admit to a translator who did a lot of work for free that when the job was won, they sent the translation assignment to a different translator!

So what happened in Leeds? Basically, a judge ruled that it's all right to contract for a translation and not pay for it. A well-meaning Frenchman contracted with a British agency to supply specialist technical translations on a regular basis, the account to be settled annually. When the debt reached 30,000 Pounds, and there was no sign of payment, the Frenchman began to get nervous. When he finally realised he wasn't going to be paid, he appointed a British solicitor. By now the recalcitrant agency had tried to put itself into liquidation to escape from this and other creditors. The Frenchman's solicitors opposed liquidation, but this did not stop the agency owners from setting up another company and even sneering at other translator creditors they had, telling them they wouldn't get a penny. Incidentally, the local Trading Standards Office was informed and did nothing.

Yet to add insult to injury, the county court judge ruled that the invoices from the Frenchman were invalid, since they were not addressed to the company in question, but to a trading name that the company had used on its own letterhead!

Apparently the petitioner's barrister did not even point out that the judge's ruling was not exclusively in favour of the petitioner and agreed to accept the award of costs against the Frenchman! Even the costs had been jacked up unreasonably by the defendant, so the judge did, in fact, agree to a reduction, though not a very substantial one.

Translators and interpreters will draw their own conclusions from this example of British justice and the general reputation for dishonesty that British translation agencies have acquired. Translation agencies have their own professional bodies but unless they put their house in order pretty quickly (and until the Department of Trade and Industry stops making things easy for rogue traders) translators and interpreters will be leaving the profession in droves.

© Josephine Bacon, 2004

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