Something a-Changin’?

Common access to professional translators databases

Find-a-Translator, sooner or later (a new database project)
For those (probably few, but you never know) who are wondering about the obvious misprint in the title of this blog post, it’s an allusion to a song “The Times They Are a-Changin’”, released exactly 49 years ago, in January 1964. Steve Vitek, author of one of my favourites, the PatentTranslator’s blog, might have started his post with a YouTube video, but I’ll confine myself to the original cover photo and cut to the chase.

The keyword is “change”
There has been much talk about change in the last months. To quote from Jost Zetzsche’s Toolbox Newsletter, received by many of us on New Year’s eve, “machine translation has found its way into translation environment tools and the production process of many professional translators… while not everyone is happy with these changes…  they are changes nevertheless, and we are free to take them up or leave them aside”.

I am not sure if our “freedom” is anything more than a mere figure of speech. The fundamental changes in translation technology bring about corresponding changes in the translation process, but is there something more a-changin’? Is the whole landscape of the translation industry undergoing change?

The Big Players and their tales of “Big Data”
In “The End of the World of Translation as We Knew It”, Rob Vanderberg of Lingotek (“a company that is looking to change the future of translation”) gets to the heart of the first change.

His “Big Data” is no less than a paradigm change, a shift from the conventional landscape centred around freelance translators and small translation companies (because “they won’t scale”), to a Brave New World dominated by the Big Players. It is a welcome change for the big translation agencies.

No longer would they be looked upon as mere resellers which generate little or no added value for the customer. No, “Big Data” will grant them the right to embrace the global challenge of localisation, taking care of bulk translations and cloud-driven translation processes (“companies used to translate content one document at a time, and now the cloud will enable bulk translations and easy scalability”).

On the Facebook forum of the Russian Translators Union, where a link to the article by Mr Vanderberg was posted, someone commented: “I read it twice and didn’t grasp a thing. Many fancy words, little sense. My increasing feeling is that many of these experts don’t understand what they write or don’t want to understand”. Assuming you, dear reader, are a freelance translator, these words sure make sense. They describe your – our – future, dawning now.

In the grand scheme of things, I’m afraid, your – our – place in the new world of translation is to be but a droplet in this nebulous cloud.

Clouds on the horizon
That brings us to the second change: the formation of the cloud.

One big cloud goes by the name of ProZ. Assuming you, dear reader, are a freelance translator, you will already know what ProZ is. Among job sites for everybody and his uncle, ProZ is probably the largest “marketplace” for translators of all sorts. Without going into the specifics of this particular job site, let me just state that all of them – from ProZ to Fiverr (“the world’s largest marketplace for small services, starting at $5″) – have already shaped the cloud, the heavenly skies for the Big Players in their Brave New World of translation.

ProZ and other job sites are the counterpart to the bulk translation providers which they effectively cater for. It makes sense and is pretty straightforward. ProZ caters for the large-scale and wannabe Big Data Processors, who in turn cater to Big Business with their global brands.

Is there something a-missin’? Well yes: us. In contrast to other major freelance industries, we, i.e. serious, quality-driven, highly skilled, experienced, high-value translators, have more difficulty upholding our own status and our market place (not to be confused with a marketplace like ProZ or other job sites).

An increase in professional awareness
The third change has been less marked than the other two, but the signs are there: there is a growing professional awareness among  translator communities.

National professional associations are becoming distinctly more active in asserting their role in the changing landscape. Last year, the BDÜ definitely gained ground with its euphorically received conference (“Übersetzen in die Zukunft”) and its first (albeit still timid) efforts to open up for social media.

There is nothing wrong with Big Players and their services for the bulk translation market. It is virtually impossible for professionals to compete on price with machine translation, crowdsourced translation or semi-professional translators of all kinds. But this already severely commoditized, mainly price-driven market is not necessarily the market in which we have to compete.

Our “freedom” can become more than a mere figure  of speech: in regards to the bulk translation market or post-editing for the Big Players, we “are free to take them up or leave them aside”. The more pressing problems to solve relate to the high-quality, premium market. You can buy all your groceries at a discount supermarket, but if you are looking for a nice bottle of wine, you are likely to receive far better service in a specialist wine shop. Often at no higher price.

The problem: finding the right translator
However, the problem with high-value, premium translators (as compared to premium wine shops, and please don’t tell me I cannot tell one from the other, that is B2C from B2B) is that really good translators who also specialize in the subject in question are hard to find.

Our professional associations, many of them with tough vetting procedures for their members, offer search functions for anyone looking for a specialised, high-quality, premium translator. But I doubt that many potential corporate, direct clients ever use or are even aware of them. Unfortunately, many of my German SME clients have never heard of the BDÜ or ADÜ Nord.

In fact, combing the public directories of various professional translation associations to find the right specialists, and, in turn, setting up their own databases, has been one of the key tasks of professional translation agencies (bottomfeeders will stick to ProZ). One man’s joy is another man’s sorrow, and the void left by professional associations as non-profit organisations is filled by the matchmaking activities of commercial entities of all kinds.

I am absolutely not interested in getting hauled into a verbal war on this. I don’t see anything wrong with the Big Players or translation agencies, and I don’t blame our professional associations either.
(Recently, when looking for a specialised architect in Hamburg, I made the acquaintance of the official Chamber of German Architects and wished there were some private company like a translation agency to help find the right architect for me. But the fees for services of architects and engineers in Germany are regulated by a standard scale, so the market is different.)

The solution: search and you shall find
Could there be an easy way to tap into the information and expertise held by our professional associations?
Well, if there was, it would probably not bring about the “end of the world of translation as we know it”. But I am sure it could be a major game changer, if not a breakthrough for many of us, überqualifiziert, like the Germans say, for the bulk market, the Big Players or ProZ.

The concept of a shared access to the publicly available databases of professional translators and interpreters associations was recently put forward on one of the many Facebook groups for translators. The option of a single point of access will promote the high quality standards of professional associations and make it possible for anyone – be it a member of the public or the localisation manager at a large multinational – to search and find the right translator or interpreter among any of the associations’ records, either by selecting a single association, a particular combination, or all of them.

A new, improved ProZ? No, because ProZ is not targeted to the premium translation market of direct, high-value customers. At the moment, there is no single, central international platform to fill the gap between professional, quality-driven translators and clients who require more than what the bulk translation companies have to offer. Instead, there are various local or national professional databases (which were started long before ProZ). The idea is to make these databases more widely searchable and better known to the target group. The change – and challenge – talked of here lies in making this resource more accessible to customers.

We are still to look into technical feasibility of the new approach. But, aside from the technicalities to be discussed elsewhere soon, the success of the new “Find-A-Translator”* engine will largely depend on it being widely known. If you’re looking for a book, chances are you’ll go to Amazon. If you’re looking for a specialist translator or interpreter, you’d go to …?

In an ideal situation, which is far, far removed from the Brave New World of translation envisioned by the author of “The End of the World…”, I would envisage a go-to search platform for quality translators, one which is immediately recognisable to potential customers and the industry alike.

Is the end of translation (as we know it) on the horizon? Or is there something a-changin’?

*name most definitely subject to change. This story started out with DYLAN, which could stand for Dying Language Association Network or Do You Love A Nerd. I don’t think Dylan is the right name for this project. But, sooner or later, we will learn more about a new database initiative and perhaps find a better name.

And thanks to Rose Newell (@lingocode) and Jayne Fox (@jaynefox) for proofreading this text!!!

  1. Diana Coada’s avatar

    1. Stop reading these b*** s*** articles. It’s all lies. They are designed to scare us into lowering our rates. As simple as that.
    2. Our associations have to wake up and realise that they are not doing enough for us, their members. To give you an example: I was at a conference and a speaker there said that when they bid on a government contract here in the UK and mentioned the IOL in their pitch, the response from the government was: ”What is the IOL?”??
    3. Stop depending on ProZ. It’s good to have a profile for SEO reasons, but that’s it. Go for your own private clients.


    1. ValerijTomarenko’s avatar

      “Stop reading these b*** s*** articles.” – Never did, it just came in very handy. 2 & 3 – agree. Absolutely.


    2. Christina’s avatar

      All very true, Valerij. Any initiative that offers some hope of offering a counterbalance to ProZ – and promoting the idea that there are serious professionals out there – should be supported.


      1. Rose - German to English Translator (proofreader)’s avatar

        🙂 I knew you’d love the idea, Aurora!
        Best wishes from Hamburg, Rose.


      2. Stefan Gentz’s avatar

        Exactly, Valerij. See also my comment on Rob Vanderberg’s article:


      3. Sebastian’s avatar

        i think a lot will change here, as more freelancers improve their selfmarketing skills on the one side and on the other there will be more specialization. the internet is great at cutting out the middle men, and if some platforms do it right, if supply and demand can come together better, then translators as well as their clients can improve enormously. at lingohub weLre contributing to that we hope, youLll hear more from us soon


      4. Roman Mironov’s avatar

        Good article Valerij. Very thorough. I have a “conflict of interest” about the changes. From the productivity standpoint, I’m excited about them. But I don’t like the side effect: the new technology may make it easier for hobby translators to pretend they’re as good as pros, and prices may go down as a result.

        Best wishes,


        1. Rose - German to English Translator (proofreader)’s avatar

          What do you mean, Roman? This proposed new system would only be linking into the records of professional organisations – so it would actually make it harder for “hobby translators” to find clients. Currently, on systems like ProZ, hobby translators and those that are members of professional organisations are listed as equals – the only exception being the Certified PROs, who are favoured in search results*. This would hopefully make the “main” database as strict as the entry criteria of the organisations themselves. Thus, professionals would then be somewhat forced to join an association, however they would see significant results from such membership that they may not have seen to such a degree in the past due to the “I can translates” job/translator prostitution platforms.

          *which are of course NOT members of a professional association, but paying members who have passed not especially strict entry criteria to enter the Certified PRO network, entitled to stay at the liberty of the ProZ administrators.


          1. ValerijTomarenko’s avatar

            Good points, Rose, in both cases: 1. placing emphasis on the pro character/background of the new unified search database to come and 2. once again, reminding of the pseudo-meritocratic arbitrariness of ProZ.


          2. Paula Tizzano Fernandez’s avatar

            I fully agree with the concept.

            As our work is transnational/transcultural/translinguistic by definition and nature, the main difficulty in the way of a DYLAN 😉 association is, as I guess, the creation of an encompassing ruling-vetting system which meets the standards of many different professionals with different criteria on what is unacceptable, what is questionable and what is a minimum standard.

            A simple discussion on “unacceptable” rates between translators from different countries shows that there is not a uniform reality. Cultures of union-based work differ not only from country to country, but also among hemispheres. Of course, differences are not entirely due to nationality or culture but they are inherent to individuals, and they have to be transcended if we are to attain the goal cherished by all.

            So I think laying the foundations will take a considerable effort in dialogue, representation, democratization and listening to the voice of all interested parties, and not only through established institutions but in a direct outreach. Many excellent translators are not registered in any national association, and in some countries there is not even such an umbrella organization.

            So there is a lot to be done in the preparation stage, spreading of the initiative, collective participation and drafting of an agenda before we can even talk of a solid platform, in a position to provide solutions to our own community and the market.

            Even so, the idea sounds inspiring, challenging and necessary at the same time. But not unsurmountable. One step at a time, we should start to do it.

            Maybe organizing regional online brainstorming or discussion sessions with a similar basic programme and later a joint all-regional online meeting to discuss the contributions of each panel?

            Cheers for the idea!



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