Tolk- en Vertaalcongres 2016: Hilversum

It was nice to meet a few Dutch and Belgian agencies that I didn’t know were out there, but the real highlight of the Tolk- en Vertaalcongres 2016 (Interpretation and Translation Conference 2016) was talking with people who also do what I do, many of whom have been doing it much longer. For those of us who work mostly at our keyboards, meeting up with colleagues in the flesh comes as a great relief. “Oh your Trados crashes all the time too?” “Have you actually tried that voice recognition software?” “Do you know anything about this agency or that agency?” You realize that you are not alone in your translating solitude and that among colleagues, the conference theme really is true, “Samen kom je verder!”  

At one point, a translator took the mic and encouraged the audience not to think of each other as competition, but rather as colleagues – that we are all in this together. I really took this to heart. Not only do I find friends in the people who love languages as much as I do, but I find that I can lean on them for support. We can pass each other projects, share insight, discuss “untranslateables” and roll our eyes at all the nonsense that is bouncing around out there in the translation world.

One of the most interesting moments in the conference (shown in the photo above) was an open discussion on “Is er een toegevoegde waarde van bemiddelaars?”  (or Do middlemen offer added value?). Starting out with a mixed panel of agency reps and professionals and later bringing in translators and interpreters from the audience, the conversation quickly turned into a sort of ping-pong match. When the question was raised as to whether translators and interpreters are really ondernemers (entrepreneurs), things got a little feisty. As independent professionals who spend hours upon hours every week going after new clients, managing projects, negotiating contracts, and marketing services, it seemed ludicrous to many that this question would even be asked! Of course we are…do you have any idea what we actually do?! Yet there were some on stage who preferred to think that their bureau was playing the true “entrepreneur” role by bringing in the clients and that their freelancers merely – they all but said it out loud! – worked for them. Well, this did not sit well.

As multi-lingual professionals, we are constantly fighting the commonly held notion that we are language machines. That somehow, we can easily input a text in one language and output it in another and should therefore be happy to accept a nominal fee for this so-called service. This belief is even stronger toward people who work in minority and non-European languages, the idea that growing up speaking a faraway language makes translating / interpreting it a breeze. It’s not surprising when people outside of the language industry think this, but when an agency that depends on our services seems to think it too, it’s very disappointing. As one panel member proclaimed, “Translation needs to be valued as an intellectual service!”

If we had it our way, I think that most of us would love to work for direct clients only. From a financial point of view, who wouldn’t want to cut out the middlemen? The thing is that big brands tend to hire big brands, and when it’s just you and your computer, it can be hard to access the clients who need your services the most. So yes, we sometimes need the middlemen. But they need us too. And I think, at the heart of it all, what the audience resented most was the underlying implication that language professionals are a dime a dozen. That our skills, diplomas, experience, reliability, availability, flexibility, not to mention knowledge of random topics like watch-making, hydraulic valve systems, international tax legislation (yes, I have translated texts on all of the above) – can all be replaced by the next bilingual person for a few cents less.

Now this is not the case with all agencies. In fact, I work for several on a regular basis that are truly wonderful. My project managers know me, their rate is fair and consistent – I feel valued. I don’t resent the fact that they take a cut for my work, because they are offering me a genuine service too – bringing me clients. And for them, I truly enjoy delivering my best. As the old management saying goes, “People who feel valued will always exceed expectations.” With a good agency and a good project manager, I at least get the sense that we are in this together and I am willing to go above and beyond.

So the question, Do middlemen offer added value? If they are doing their part by bringing us steady clients and offering fair rates and fewer headaches, then I say yes. Just like I don’t mind my accountant taking a cut from my tax return, I don’t mind a few cents per word going to a project manager to handle clients for me. But when it starts coming down to quantity over quality, endless discount requests, fuzzies and half-cents, and the question of who’s working for who, you start to realize that “samen,” only some people are going farther, and those people are not you.

For more information about the wonderful Tolk- en Vertaalcongres, check out their website. If you have any comments or takeaway points from this year’s conference, I’d love to read them in the comments!