The American Translators Association Translation Company Division held its 9th annual conference in Denver this past weekend. This was a high-quality conference, even for those of us who are technically freelancers and not translation companies; the presentations were very well done and it was a good chance to get an agency’s-eye view of the industry.
I attended sessions on machine translation, international payments, creating a motivating workplace, online communication tools, workflow management software, organizational constraints, and the current state of the TenT (translation environment tool) market.
I came away from this conference with a few (admittedly unscientific) observations:
- Agencies are frustrated with the current state of the translation software market and are ready (and I mean ready) for some alternatives to the major players. During Jost Zetzsche’s presentation “The Technological Vice Grip: Is it No Way or the Giant’s Way,” audience hostility toward the market leader translation software companies was a major topic. A few agency owners in the audience had invested heavily in Idiom WorldServer just months before Idiom was acquired by SDL, and one even commented that agencies “…are concerned that some of the independent companies may not be viable, but that if they become more viable, they’ll be bought up.” In his presentation, Jost stressed that open source and open standards are the most reliable form of protection against investing in software that either becomes orphaned or is acquired by a competitor. For example at present, none of the market leader TenT companies has signed on to the XLIFF standard that allows the exchange of bilingual files between tools.It seems that agency owners are in a bind when it comes to translation software. The biggest agencies either develop their own tools in-house or purchase a software company and the smallest agencies don’t use translation software at the enterprise level at all, which leaves the medium-sized agencies out in the cold, feeling that they have to choose between having their technological trajectory dictated by a large software company or gambling on a smaller independent company that may or may not still be independent/in business next year. It will be interesting to see if any of these medium-sized agencies invest in their own open source or open standards tools, coming up with funding either individually or as a group.
- The market is going better for freelancers than for agencies. Again, this is just my gut feeling, but nearly every freelancer I talk to says “I’ve never been busier…I keep raising my rates and I still have more work than I want.” In contrast, I got the feeling that many of the agency owners at the conference are concerned not so much about work volume but about profits, and that agencies maybe cannot make pricing decisions as impulsively as a freelancer can. In addition, I think that many U.S.-based agencies that have traditionally depended on translators in other countries are being hit hard by the falling dollar. Here again, many U.S.-based freelancers are benefiting from the exchange rate situation by seeking new clients abroad, which is a more difficult proposition for agencies.
- Agencies seem to be taking a new look at the possibility of employing in-house translators. I talked to several agency owners who feel that in language combinations where the agency has large volumes of work, in-house translators can improve customer satisfaction, translation quality and the agency’s bottom line. Some reasons for this? In-house translators can turn around small rush projects very quickly; in-house translators save project management time because they’re right there in the agency’s office; in-house translators allow agencies to respond more quickly to requests for pricing and turnaround time; a preferred client can be given access to their preferred translator again and again, and because in-house translators are on salary, the agency can more easily forecast its costs. Clearly there are downsides too: agencies are under ongoing obligations to in-house translators in a way that they aren’t to freelancers, and unless the in-house translators are highly experienced in a variety of fields (which might price them out of an agency’s salary range), they might not cover all of the specializations that an agency needs. This is another interesting phenomenon that is worth following throughout the second half of the year!