A code of ethics for the Russian translation industry

What is the greatest business accelerator in localization? What is the most necessary business enzyme to allow two economic agents to enter into a reaction?

It’s not cloud computing, Big Data or any other technology. Nope. It’s the same catalyst that was gluing together deals for centuries and still is an underlying fabric of business, especially service business. This factor has existed longer than people have traded goods and money.

It’s trust.

Think about it — when you buy goods or services, you are giving away your money in the belief that the item purchased will perform its function, or that the service provider does indeed possess the required qualifications. But at the time of purchase you don’t know it for a fact. You are parting with your money for a promise. A promise that the car will drive and won’t break, the trip will be great, the service provider will do the job well.

But that will be tomorrow. Today, you are paying money in exchange for an expectation. If you are in the translation business, you may be doing work without pay, because the payment will only come 30 days upon job acceptance by the client. But you trust that your client will pay.

That kind of trust is not something huge; it is simply an understanding that you are on the same page with another party. If you know this, you don’t even need to formulate everything — or in fact anything — in writing. And as it happens, if the other party is not trustworthy, no written agreement will help.

But when it comes to our industry, how do you instantly establish trust with a new economic counterpart, one often located remotely and whom you’ve never met or even heard of? Is it economical to sign a 20-page or even one page contract with a party for a deal worth perhaps $400? Not to mention that a $400 contract with someone who is a three-hour flight away from you is not legally enforceable.

Adherence to the same professional ethics may resolve this problem. If you know that the translator or LSP has adopted a specific professional code of ethics, you are already on the same page with that potential client or supplier.One may say “we don’t need codes; we have a standard nondisclosure agreement and standard contract they have to sign and follow.” Sounds solid, but standard law enforcement procedures cannot be engaged for singular deals under $1,000, not to mention the time that you will spend on negotiating the particular legalese. It’s simply not economical for such transactions. And did you ever wonder to what degree the US-drafted agreement is enforceable in Russia or China?

However, when such transactions fail it’s no small deal for the translator. Forums are full of angry messages such as “they did not pay me, saying I delivered the job an hour late,” “their legal terms are way beyond reason,” “they did not provide a glossary yet base their rejection on terminology,” “they fined me, which I cannot accept,” and so on. Here come blacklists, angry birds of the translation industry, animosity and the standoff between freelance translators and “file movers who do not add value.”

In Russia we’ve seen a great disparity in the understanding of what is acceptable and not acceptable between the client and translator (be it LSP or freelancer). The usual well-known clash between freelance translators and language companies is exacerbated by the difference in legislation. For example, in Russia it is legally impossible to include or enforce a noncompete clause; Russian civil (commercial) law explicitly states that any such clause would violate free trade. Period. It is a gap in Russian business law of epic proportions; I wonder if any of the foreign clients entering legal agreements with Russian freelancers realize that any contract of that sort signed with a Russian resident is worth nothing? And of course some of the Russian freelancers maintain that this loophole gives them the right to “defend their rights” and ignore the simplest rules of business ethics against “the evil LSPs.”

But we all know that not everything that is lawful is ethical. This and other issues have to be resolved by professional ethics.

The solution that some of the most prominent Russian freelancers and heads of translation agencies tried to put forward seemed to be trivial: let’s get together, freelancers and LSPs, and develop a common professional code of ethics for the Russian translation industry, so that the entire industry will know what is good and what is bad, and on the one hand stop inventing legal clauses that are not acceptable for the service providers. On the other hand, let’s close the gaps between the law and best practices. Let’s put everybody on a common ground and thus get the industry more civilized. The initiative was not sponsored by any legal entity or organization and was entirely grassroots, driven by the enthusiasm of several people offering their knowledge to improve the industry. It was born at one of the Translation Forum Russia events in Kazan and in 2012 we formed a volunteer group with three prominent freelancers and four representatives of LSPs, and embarked on a journey together. It took us two years to create a document 2,000 words long that can currently be found at http://translation-ethics.ru.

Tatiana Yaroshenko, a freelance translator with 20 years of experience in the translation industry, was the group administrator. The other project participants grew into a group of 16 seasoned experts. We formed the group using Google docs and set forth on our journey. We thought the goals were straightforward, but the endeavor proved to be much easier to say than to do.

First, we discovered that some freelancers have totally different understandings of their mission. There’s a strong faction of freelance translators who believe that LSPs are “evil” by their very nature, being as mentioned “useless file shifters” rendering no added value. They believed a goal of the code of ethics should be to protect the freelance translator. It took us quite a while to establish that what we wanted was to create something to serve all industry agents, freelance translators and LSPs alike. The gap between freelance translators and LSPs is wider and deeper than one may think, and thus it is even more rewarding that we crossed that chasm and moved forward. Please take note that our project is among the very few developed by representatives of both the freelance and LSP world, which is no small victory. Even now some former members of the initial group of experts argue that the ethics of freelancers is different from those of LSPs. Yet we completed the project, the group of experts signed off on the document and it has been published and accepted by many freelance translators and LSPs. However, there are  still some people who deny that professional ethics even exist in our field. This emphasizes the need for similar projects to be adopted and developed worldwide.

The code of ethics delved into any number of “hot” (meaning controversial) issues, such as how to regulate head-hunting between LSPs. Is it OK to cold-call employees of your competitor and lure them to your team, thus saving time and money on training? The group clearly stated in one of the clauses of the code that it is unethical to mass-cold-call employees if they have not already published their résumés on public job boards. I’m aware of a recent situation where this clause helped resolve a conflict that had arisen.

Or take the noncompete issue mentioned earlier. The group decided and formulated in the code that even though going to your client’s clients may be legal, it is unethical. As a consequence, if you deal with a freelancer or an agency that has adopted the code of ethics, you have a better chance of your interests not being compromised under the pretext of abuse of client information being “lawful” in Russia.

As we went through the code clauses, we uncovered many issues and tried to find the honest middle ground. Legislation and local practice problems are in fact huge. Adding to the grief on the noncompete issue, Russian business and copyright law is quite different from US law, and actual practices are even more different. In Russia, for example, all the rights to translation by default belong to the translator, and if you don’t legally sign the document that transfers the right to the customer, then even as a paying client, the Russian text is not yours. So how do you manage to create a set of rules that would be compatible with both local and international business law, and would be practically useful? The group engaged lawyers to get answers to some questions and address the most acute pain points, such as noncompete, nonsolicitation and other difficult subjects.

As if those objective problems were not enough, of course there was a communication problem. You mean one thing, but someone else reads your comment differently. It took quite some time of intermittent communication within the group to first agree on the project plan and the outline, then to create a draft and then discuss each and every one of the clauses in all their varieties, meeting positions of LSPs and freelancers. Different tempers and personalities of group members did not help much, and sometimes were very difficult to handle.

I’ve been a member,  a driver and a participant of many volunteer initiatives, in GALA, in LT-Innovate, in W3C and also some local ones. But to tell you the truth, at the end of the day, even given all the huge problems conspiring against the project, I have never seen the kind of unselfish determination and drive so persistent as in this group. They were moved solely by the desire to create some common middle ground for the industry, in an attempt to improve the situation and atmosphere in the market, to borrow all the best and take into account all the concerns. Special kudos to the group administrator and driver Yaroshenko, who literally saved the project several times by standing above the factional interests of LSPs and freelancers.

On the whole, the entire volunteer group of experts demonstrated amazing dedication and commitment to create a common good — guidance for industry agents that will help industry practitioners avoid problems in the future and civilize the industry.

As of today, many companies and freelancers have joined the initiative and are using the logo to manifest their support of the code of ethics in their everyday work. The code is already working — only very recently it was referred to in an internal industry dispute. I would advocate for creating similar frameworks for the entire industry that would facilitate business interactions globally in our very small vertical trade.