TransPerfect Translations – Not Quite Perfect After All

It’d be tough to find a mass-distributed publication in America that’s more right-wing or capitalism-friendly than Reader’s Digest, but Margaret Heffernan’s chirpy little article on Liz Elting and TransPerfect Translations (“The Leader in Global Language and Business Services”) is even more fawning than usual.

Surely it’s just because TranslatorLeaks is evil, but it strikes us that RD’s TransPerfect-love-fest-and-Liz-Elting-beatification-project article bears all the earmarks of a plant, the sort of corporate shill-work-for-pay for which Reader’s Digest has already earned itself a certain reputation.

But let’s assume I’m wrong. Let’s assume TransPerfect’s publicist didn’t write the article and pay Reader’s Digest to publish it. Let’s assume Margaret Heffernan really did interview Liz Elting and that RD really did send celebrity photographer Melanie Dunea to capture Elting in her “Sex & the City” drag, all so the magazine could name her an “inspiring person” and wax sycophantic about how “Her Company Spells Success in More Than 100 Languages.”

None of that’s really the problem.

The problem is what Liz Elting doesn’t tell you in her amazing “we invented it in our dorm room at college” rags-to-riches story. What she doesn’t tell you is that one of the main reasons that Liz Elting and Phil Shawe raked in $221 million in 2009 is that their corporate policy is (1) to pay translators as little as possible and to maintain constant downward pressure on fees and (2) to work hard to create new and inventive ways to pay translators less, including forcing them to use proprietary CAT software and translation memories (which, in turn, become the justification for imposing additional discounts on their work).

TransPerfect may be “the” leader in global language and blah blah, but it’s also a leader in perverting the client/translator relationship through its practice of imposing take-it-or-leave it fees on translators, who have little or no bargaining power in the transaction.

TranslatorLeaks is not a big fan of the ProZ Blue Board, which deserves to be renamed the Brown (Nose) Board, but it’s worth noting the number of 1s and 2s (on a “likelihood of working again” scale of 5) that TransPerfect earned from its translators between January 2009 and the present: 24%.

In other words, while Liz Elting was doing all she could to keep her clients happy in her busy, busy days as wife, baseball mom, and capitalist paragon, one-fourth of her employees were pretty disgruntled.

And that’s hardly a shock. TransPerfect is the Wal*Mart of translation: huge, omnivorous, aggressive, and worker-unfriendly. (And isn’t it always the case that workers wind up being the wrench in the wheel of corporate greed?)

Don’t think it matters? Think again. Wal*Mart has taught the entire retail industry just how much you could abuse people who needed jobs and get away with it. What do you think TransPerfect is teaching translation outsourcers about how to work with translation professionals?

Sure, Liz Elting and Phil Shawe haven’t gone quite so far as to take out “dead peasant insurance” on their “linguists” in the finest traditions of Wal*Mart. At least, I assume they haven’t. Perhaps someone should check.

But here’s a verifiable fact that I find both chilling and significant: In Heffernan’s entire 850-word grovel, including her Q&A with Elting, one important word never appears: “translator.”

Not even once.

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