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Trendspotting - Conflict of interests

Abstract

This document aims to investigate some cases of conflicting interests between freelance translators and middlemen, and demonstrate that such conflicts may become irreconcilable. As a prime example, the Framework Agreement between the UK Ministry of Justice and Applied Language Solutions is discussed in detail. Further thought is devoted to terms and conditions and technology. Finally, a number of suggested discussion points are listed.

The examples presented below served as the backbone of the "Trendspotting round table" of the 2013 ProZ conference in Porto, Portugal. Many thanks to Marta Stelmaszak for her outstanding participation in the round table, as well as to the many other colleagues who made the discussion lively beyond expectation.

1- How ALS destroyed a profession: court interpreting in the UK

Until 2011, interpreting in the justice sector in the UK was ensured primarily by registered public service interpreters (typically self-employed freelancers), who were contacted directly by courts, police forces, and other agencies of criminal justice. Becoming a member of the National Register of Public Service Interpreters required, among others, a diploma in public service interpreting and adherence to a code of professional conduct. A national fee structure was applied, with local payments. The total cost of this service was about 60 million pounds per year.

The system received some criticism for inconsistent screening of the interpreters, inefficient and untimely handling of complaints, and the time-consuming character of bookings and payment. Subsequent parliamentary investigation showed that, despite the clear administrative inefficiencies, there were no fundamental problems with the quality of the services. Nonetheless, the criticism opened the way to a procurement process, aimed at streamlining bookings and reducing costs.

The last man standing after the final round of the procurement process was Applied Language Solutions (ALS), promising savings of approximately 30%. Consultation with various stakeholders took place only after all other candidates have been eliminated, which incited severe criticism from organizations representing professional interpreters. Serious problems were identified in ALS's application but this did not prevent the Ministry of Justice to sign, after some minor adjustment, a 4-year Framework Agreement worth almost 50 million pounds per year with ALS, a company whose previous annual turnover had been less than one-tenth of this amount. Moreover, instead of the estimated 1200 required interpreters, ALS reportedly had only about 280 interpreters ready when the contract came into force. Finally, the initially planned regional roll-out was replaced in the last moment by a national roll-out, clearly showing that the Ministry of Justice grossly underestimated the associated risks.

The key factor in ALS's promised savings was the reform of the payment system. Prior to the Framework Agreement, interpreters were paid GBP 85 for up to three hours, including travel time, plus GBP 7.50 per 15 minutes. (According to a survey by the ITI, the average annual income of a public service interpreter was a rather modest GBP 15,000, while in some rarer language pairs it could be up to GBP 35,000 -- still a very long way from the six-figure earnings cited by Crispin Blunt MP, who made a highly questionable case against the previous high rates of pay of public service interpreters.) In the new system, ALS offered GBP 22 per hour for top-tier interpreters, excluding travel time. The reimbursement of travel costs was also seriously cut (e.g., ALS would not pay for the first 20 miles of travel). Thus, an interpreter traveling 30 miles for a one-hour interpreting assignment would earn GBP 13.5 in about three hours, i.e., GBP 4.5 gross per hour. Calculations showed that the new payment system led to reductions in pay of 28-73% for court work and 33-43% for tribunal work.

The conflict of financial interest between the single middleman and the freelance public service interpreters led to an exemplary mass response by the latter. Over 85% of the interpreters in the National Register boycotted the new system, causing a very serious shortage of competent professionals. Initially, about one-third of court hearings requiring an interpreter had to be postponed due to ALS's inability to provide a suitable interpreter. With the very high expenses of lost court time, ALS's promised savings were quickly set off by the extra costs entailed by the unprecedented disruption of interpretation services.

To fill up its books, ALS continued to recruit new interpreters. However, it soon turned out that there was no proper screening process: a case of an interpreter registering her pet rabbit highlighted that all those who registered on the supplier database were invited to accept work. The websitehttp://www.linguistlounge.org/ contains lots of described cases that unveil the inadmissibly serious flaws in the recruitment process.

While the initial failure rate of 1/3 decreased somewhat with time, it remained well above any tolerable level. To protest against the destruction of a profession (both in terms of working conditions and public image) and the harm done to the justice system, interpreters and the supporters of their boycott organized demonstrations with hundreds of participants. A parliamentary committee was set up to investigate the case. The committee concluded that ALS's performance left a lot to be desired, and had to be closely monitored.

In December 2011, outsourcing and recruitment giant Capita acquired ALS for GBP 7.5 million. Some months later Gavin Wheeldon, the founder of ALS, left the company and the whole translation and interpretation sector. Still, Capita?s performance has never reached an acceptable level, but the contract has not been withdrawn. A comprehensive parliamentary report from early 2013 (http://www.publications.parliament.uk/pa/cm201213/cmselect/cmjust/645/645.pdf) gives a fascinating overview of the case --which is likely to remain a textbook example of mismanaged outsourcing in the T&I sector.

For the present article, the ALS/Capita-MoJ case shows in quintessential form that the conflict of interest between freelance interpreters (and translators) and a middleman can become irreconcilable. During the past two years, hundreds of committed and competent professionals simply left the interpreting sector, looking for work elsewhere. They simply did not have a choice.

This is certainly not the first case where promised savings on public spending led to outsourcing of public services to private entities that turned out to overpromise and underdeliver -- but can the Framework Agreement set a trend? It seems so.

In Ireland, the Courts Service Interpreting Tender process awarded the contracts to three companies, Translation.ie, Context and Lionbridge. As described in the 2013 April issue of the ITIA Bulletin, the remuneration '... is not viable for anyone. Why is the system like this? Why is it designed so that interpreters cannot possibly make a living? The answer to these questions lies in the tender documents which assume that anyone who speaks two languages can be a court interpreter.'

In the US, the use of simultaneous interpreting in immigration court hearings was put forward by Lionbridge, the contracted agency of the US Executive Office for Immigration Review, as a solution to cut costs. Due to negative responses from interpreters and their professional organizations throughout the country, the changes had been indefinitely postponed. However, it was recently confirmed that they will indeed be going ahead despite everything.

2 - Terms and Conditions

WANTED: stellar linguists and cutting edge thinkers to change the face of advertising!

Those who have seen a dozen translation project descriptions from the thebigword may recognize them from far away. The company, ranked #13 on Common Sense Advisory's 2013 list of top language service providers, has a long way to go before its terms and conditions look just as juicy. The limit of liability set for freelance translators is a maximum ten times the value of the contract ? which is precisely ten times as high as recommended by ATA and other professional associations.

In its "home based translator site survey", Capita requires a detailed description of the security measures in place at the freelance translator's home, including a sketch of the different floors. With no explanation on why this would be necessary, most translators refuse flat out completing the form. What's the point then?

A clue is given in the article "Why do Nigerian Scammers Say They are from Nigeria?". Scammers sometimes waste their time on "false positive" replies: people who do not understand at the very beginning that they are about to be hooked by scammers, but as more information becomes available, the penny finally drops, and they run away. So, scammers may operate more efficiently if they give more information upfront; those who do not run away upon reading that their prospective multimillion-dollar business partner is located in the very country of Nigerian scams are more likely to be sufficiently underinformed and gullible to go through the whole scam.

Likewise, those translators who are ready to sign terms and conditions that are far more disadvantageous than the recommendations of professional associations, or those who are ready to comply with highly unusual information requests, are more likely to be desperate and buckle under some price pressure exerted by the vendor manager. How terms and conditions are signed is a good indication of the compliance of the prospective work force.

But is there any trend here? There have been frequent reports on large translation companies trying to impose unreasonable terms. The past few years' lists of top language companies shows that their market share is on the rise, making it plausible that more and more translators are faced with such practices.

3 - Technology

As formulated very clearly by Rose Newell, "We should use technology to assist us. We should not allow technology to assist others in using us." It is highly important to assess who else can benefit from the technology we use -- and how.

It has often been said that machine translation will create more work opportunities for translators. Yet, in its Management Plan 2013, the Directorate-General for Translation -- generally considered to offer particularly high-profile career options for translators -- mentions that "In July 2013 DGT will deploy a new machine translation service (MT@EC) for use by other Commission departments, offering two way machine translation between English and all other official languages." In the same document, it is also made clear that "In 2013, we will start seeing the first effects of staff cuts." The cause-and-effect relationship between the two parts of the announcement is clear.

Obviously, MT can assist freelance translators. Individual translators who train their own MT engines and remain in full possession of their linguistic data can decide how they combine their skills and their technology. MT will then be another useful tool in their arsenal, along with their dictionaries, CAT tools, speech recognition software, etc. A piece of technology that can empower them.

However, the same technology can easily empower others instead. In a "you have the skills, we have the technology" setup, translators may easily become dependent on external technology. Not being able to provide a comprehensive service alone, they are effectively forced to outsource their marketing services to the company that owns the technology. If, in addition, the individual translator becomes easily interchangeable because the task to be completed does not require a high-key skill set, the emphasis of business will shift from creation of value by people to extraction of value by the owners of the technology.

One of the current utilizations of machine translation follows this pattern closely: large corporate entities developing huge MT systems (sometimes with state grants) and outsourcing post-editing tasks to freelancers or employing in-house staff (or even recruiting volunteers, like Translators without Borders for the ACCEPT project).

Add skyrocketing productivity expectations, put a cap on the hourly earnings for the sake of fair compensation, and these blue-collar language technicians will generate a good profit -- see the margins in Hunnect's case study, presented at the 2013 April TAUS conference.

4 - Suggested further discussion points

"We envision translation as a standard feature, a ubiquitous service. Like the Internet, electricity, and water, translation is one of the basic needs of human civilization."

What companies are behind the Translation Automation User Society (TAUS)? What are TAUS's objectives? What means have been implemented to achieve them?

Is the above mission statement of TAUS aligned/compatible/in conflict with the interest of professional translators?

Read some of TAUS's articles. Why is TAUS's communication efficient?

What blogs, forums, websites, etc. would you recommend as sources of information particularly well aligned with freelancers' interest? 

Attila PirĂ³th
PhD, ATA-certified English to Hungarian translator
Vice President of IAPTI's Ethics Committee
translation@pirothattila.com

Illustrated by Juan Manuel Tavella www.hombreilustrando.com.ar