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Jul 20, 2009

Bound and gagged again!

As mentioned in a recent post, ProZ.com has now begun to act as an online translation agency. The Turnkey Translations project - referred to by others as Turncoat Translations or Turn-off Translations - matches what is presumably the "cream of the crop" at ProZ - those bearing the Scarlet P - with clients needing a quick turnaround of short texts at third-world prices. All without invoices and tax-reporting because, after all, such things don't matter in web development when you are just trying stuff out to see where it goeZ. To some of you this may sound a bit half-baked, but that is essentially the position taken by the founder of ProZ, Henry Dotterer:
As usual, it is optional
Hi all,
Thanks for the additional posts. To reiterate my position, in the event this feature begins to amount to anything, I believe it will be appropriate to get into the details raised here. In the meantime, there seems to me to be some potential here for a service of some value to some members -- and some members are agreeing -- but the fact is that it remains to be seen, and this feature could just as easily disappear as remain.
If you are not among those who has any interest in this, your position is respected. ProZ.com's mission is to provide tools and opportunities for you, but it will always be up to you which of them, if any, you use.
If you are among those who have expressed grave concerns about an experiment of this nature even being undertaken, I can understand your fears, but really, I think you can relax a bit. 15 to 20 euros of work per day -- with one translator meeting one new translation customer in the process -- is not going to bring down the industry or your livelihood any time soon. (And don't rule out the possibility that turnkey may be a useful thing even for you. Would it be the end of the world to be invited to consider completing a short job, with the potential to meet a new client in the process?)
Jason may post (or may not), but that is all I have to say for now.
And a short time later:
But how did it work for you, PRen? Would you ever consider a turnkey job?

PRen wrote:

...you've managed to "bring down" the industry quite a few notches in the last few years. This should take it down a few more.

Clearly you don't like this idea, PRen. But why are your criticisms still so general at this point? I was being serious, you are now the leading customer of turnkey translations. So if you are going to trash the idea, won't you give some specific details from your experience with it?
I mean, was the work ok? Would you consider working directly with the translator(s) who did your jobs in the future?
Putting yourself in the position of the translator, as you have seen the system work, are you saying you would never like to be notified of turnkey translation opportunities? If not, why not?
As a more general point, PRen and others, if you have specific issues with the way an idea is being pursued, it is more helpful when you express those concerns in such a way that Jason, or whoever is working on a given project, can act on them. Statements like the one above, well, they just don't get anyone anywhere.
And then:
Yes, ScottishWildCat, it could turn into that. Or not.

ScottishWildCat wrote:
As I now derive it from Henry's posts about the subject, the positive side of TK jobs would be to bring P-certified ProZians in touch with potential clients, at conditions which are not ideal but are better than doing so-called translation tests for free.

I think that is one way of looking at it, one thing that this idea could lead to. Or not. Or maybe it will lead to something else completely, or nothing at all. We really don't know right now, we have to see where the people who use it take it.
If that sort of uncertainty is unsettling to anyone, accustomed as you may be to delivering work only when it is completely done, I am sorry. I wish we had all the answers in advance, but we don't! (Maybe there are more capable sites out there who do.)
As ProZ.com staff members, we do, however, do our best to watch, listen and adapt. And we are working for you all the time -- I promise.
Thanks again, everyone! I would say you can expect to hear more back in a few weeks, either more details, or a simple "there was not enough interest." In the meantime I am closing the thread. Anyone who wants to be involved in the project is invited to contact Jason.

There was a lot of concern expressed by ProZ members regarding the information in the FAQs for service providers and for customers which were posted rather belatedly (something like a month after discussions on this topic began. Considering that a good part of my afternoon today was spent digging up data on income received over three years from two customers for years which had already been filed with tax authorities and approved after careful review of the financial data and preparation of the return by a leading tax consultant in Berlin (not good enough apparently), I think that the boyZ at ProZ are being a bit to cavalier in experimenting with what my local tax office in Oranienburg would surely view as an invitation to tax evasion. I have in fact dealt with income received without an invoice issued by me by issuing a "pro forma invoice" detailing all the VAT obligations, etc., and I have not yet gotten in trouble over this (I am very careful to document all income received in all taxable accounts in all countries), but situations differ drastically from country to country or even from county to county, so I think that the shoot-from-the hip, quick and dirty approach of ProZ to do all this without invoices is, though surely without wicked intent, a terrible, immature mistake.

This recalls very clearly a conversation I had months ago with a former ProZ moderator, a man whose business ethics and expertise I respect enormously. He told me that one of the motivations behind the moderator purge was that Henry D was simply tired of hearing about slippery slopes and potential problems and basically wanted everyone to shut up and go along while boyZ play with their IT toyZ. He characterized many of the problems at the site as deriving from a naïvety one finds sometimes among techies without much understanding of the law, business principles or social ethics. Unfortunately, I think some of that can be read clearly in the tone of the messages quoted above.

I appreciate that Henry is interested in feedback on the mechanisms of what could, under other circumstances, be a very interesting experiment. But blithely ignoring the concerns clearly and specifically expressed on issues such as legality, taxation, rates, dispute resolution
while at the same time making disingenious complaints that all concerns expressed are unhelpfully general is really not the way to go.

Despite the bad reputation of ProZ in many quarters of the translation world, I have (had) a generally positive view of the company and its platform. I have met quite a few fine colleagues and clients through it, and it has been a significant contributor to the progress of my business over the years, though the days when I actually depend on it to draw clients are probably past. For my language pair (German to English) I do not perceive it as a price dumping ground, and I have found clients paying very reasonable rates actively by responding to posted jobs and passively by being contacted via my profile or information posted there. I'm not particularly concerned with the ridiculous rate paid for ProZ "quickies" through the Turnkey system, as it simply tells me that the feature in its present form is not interesting to me. I don't have to use or benefit from everything on the site; in fact, I ignore 80% of it and get along nicely with the 20% that fits my needs. I get value for my 100 euros annual membership, and that probably won't change much if I continue as a member.

But there are legal and ethical lines that should not be crossed, and sometimes the company dances a bit to carelessly along them. My partner feels very strongly about data protection laws in Europe, and while ProZ may not be in technical violation of these, the company's conduct regarding user data and Google certainly violates their spirit. She was also very concerned about things like ads for prostitutes being displayed on ProZ pages. I hope that latter issue has been sorted out. In any case, where we formerly had two memberships in the office, we now have one. I'll be migrating my domain (currently hosted by ProZ) for the business web site and e-mail as I find time in the coming months, and then we'll see what happens after that.

In the past I have vigorously defended ProZ against criticism in places like private BDÜ forums, because much of this criticism was based on fundamental misunderstandings of how to use the platform effectively to find paying projects. I have done astoundingly well with that over the years, but I cannot be bought. There is another body of criticism having to do with business ethics, censorship and good citizenship, and I can find little ground to stand on if I want to contradict some of these critics. Among them are some of the finest, most ethical translators whom I have been blessed to make the acquaintance of in the past 9 years. I listen carefully to what they have to say, and they give me cause to consider if I am not in danger of becoming a
Mitläufer if I remain a paying member of ProZ.

Oh yes... and in the end, the discussion thread quoted above was locked, though the language used was civil and there was nothing in violation of the platform's many RuleZ.
Once again, mature discussion on ProZ has been bound and gagged.

(Apologies to all for the bad formatting - Google's Blogger software really sucks in this regard!)


25 comments:

  1. H. & Co. may sugarcoat it all they want, but it doesn't change the fact that they have turned into an agency of sorts... or worse, brokers. Anyone with half a brain can see it (I hope! Murphy might say otherwise, though...).

    Did you see Paula's post in page 7? They didn't even dignify her concerns (#2 being the most important, IMO) with an answer.

    2. Those who have used the proz.com online invoicing system have provided crucial information about their clients. If Proz were to be outsourcing, this information could constitute leads for attracting clients to itself. (...)

    Regards

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  2. Without going into full detail on your comments (most - if not all - I agree with), I see the "Turn-key" concept as an idea that was simply not sufficiently thunk through.

    As you suggest/quote, feedback from local moderators is key in international buZiness.

    When will they ever learn?

    It really would be a terrible shame to see it all crumble.

    Cheers,
    Chris

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  3. @Chris: I agree. The "turnkey" concept was not thought out properly. That happens, and it's not a mortal sin. I don't think there were any wicked intentions per se. However, the response to criticism has once again been petulant and heavy-handed and, in the end, lawbreaking is not made OK by ignorance or intent however innocent.

    I don't think that we're looking at an apocalyptic crumbling on the near horizon, but who can really know? Things move fast online and sometimes even offline, and I wouldn't use the phrase "too big to fail" for any company.

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  4. In the short time since the public thread discussing the "turnkey" concept was capped, two more discussions on ProZ regarding the matter have been squashed. These are the request for an explanation and a rather overheated thread from a Turkish colleague (who seems to have been purged entirely or who changed his name himself to all x's).

    The discussion of the commodity Turnkey Translations continues unlocked on the Certified Pro Network forum. So it looks like the Scarlet P crowd (including yours truly) are given a bit more freedom to discuss the matter than the rest of the paying ProZ membership and non-paying site users. I wonder if this is because - along with the same concerns expressed in the other threads - there are so many eager beavers uncritically jumping on the bandwagon. Henry & Co. might in the end succeed in making something worthwhile for some of the members with this half-baked concept, but I am not encouraged by what I see so far, particularly the heavy-handed gagging, which only serves to fire the furnace of mistrust and resentment.

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  5. The fact that conversation on this subject is still allowed at the private forum makes it even worse.

    Henry & Co. keep saying that there's nothing secretive going on, while accepting discussion in a closed private forum only and gagging those who wish for an open discussion of it.

    huh?

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  6. I am so confused - I didn't realize that thread got capped at all. What? Talk about shooting themselves in the foot. M. Ali Bayraktar apparently deleted his profile as a result. What is a "California corporation" anyway?

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  8. @Michele: California corporation? A corporation incorporated in CA I presume. Like Delaware corporations are incorporated in Delaware. Where did that come up?

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  9. @Kevin: Sorry, the Cali corp. thing is slightly off-topic, but since we are talking about legalities, I just wonder what kind of entity that is, *why* proz.com is specifically a California corporation (do they pay taxes at all?), where taxes (on turncoat translations) would be due in such a case, what is the legal relationship to the Ukraine/Argentine offices, etc.

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  10. @Michele: I had a CA corporation in the late 1980s & early 1990s, and I paid plenty of taxes. As for the relationship with other offices, I have no idea - each country has its own laws regarding companies owned by foreign entities, joint ventures, etc. Hard to keep track of without a lot of research I think.

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  14. You might have missed this due to time zone mischief, but the off-topic post "STOP CENSORING US" was ... censored. It's disappeared. I think it's probably being waterboarded even as we speak.

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  15. @Rod: No, I actually did see it before I decided to get some sleep. It may have been censored for the use of four-letter expletives as much as for any other content. I agreed with the basic point of the post, but not with the way in which it was expressed, and I'm not surprised that it didn't have much future. I swear a great deal myself when I am frustrated, but I try to avoid doing so in written communication.

    However, given the subject matter, the complaint could have come from Emily Post and it would still probably have been quashed.

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  16. Hi Kevin,

    Thanks for the thoughts and the coverage. I would like to point out only two things:

    First, ProZ.com is not and will never be a translation agency. This new feature no more makes ProZ.com an agency than the directory or job posting features that have been around almost since the beginning.

    Second, ProZ.com plays by the book in every place that it does business: the US, the EU, Argentina and other places get their fair share of tax money from us. What ProZ.com does not do, however, is get into your business as a user -- and I suppose you would not have it any other way. In the case of this new feature, as usual, it is left to you to meet your tax obligations. This is exactly how things work in the case of jobs postings and the directory.

    I am glad that you have found job postings and the directories useful over the years. Maybe this new "matching" system will be useful, too; please keep an open mind on that.

    Thanks again.

    Henry

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  17. @Henry: Thanks for stopping by and commenting. However, I think you miss some very important issues here as others, including Ralf Lemster, have pointed out on ProZ and elsewhere.

    (1) What you call a "matching" service in which you accept a job and advance payment, select a translator, assign the job, pay the translator and deliver the job does in fact constitute action as an agency. "If it quacks like a duck..." - you know. The fact that (from what I understand from your later statements elsewhere about the possibility of direct work with the client thereafter) things are structured for possible shorter-term relations with the client doesn't change that and it brings certain responsibilities with it.

    As far as ProZ not "getting into my business as a user", there you seem to have missed the point completely that has been made here and elsewhere. Agencies never pay anyone's taxes, but they do issue invoices to customers - as you indeed do for other functions, such as membership payments. Although translators can (in my jurisdiction at least) issue a pro forma invoice to ProZ to help keep their noses clean with their local tax authorities, translation consumers who use the system in its present form cannot do that as far as I know (based on discussions read). You must realize the importance of issuing invoices for payments.

    So in summary I would say that perhaps you need to have a peek in Websters for the definitions of words like "agent", "agency" and so on, because your company most certainly falls under those definitions now no matter what words you choose personally. That is not a bad thing per se and could even become interesting if done right. This "matchmaking" aspect is a potentially interesting element indeed, and it may help some to diversify their client bases. However, as long as you work with this ridiculous price model that you have adopted I'm afraid the system will be of little or no interest to anyone who isn't desperately idle or living in a third-world country. Bear in mind that small, quick-turnaround jobs generally bear a hefty premium, and I would factor that in accordingly for the convenience of the service. If you are interested in discussing rate ranges that might be appropriate in some combinations, you are welcome to contact me privately, or I can refer you to resources such as the BDÜ rate survey and you can examine the data in more detail. If you want to position this as a serious service, you will not succeed in doing so among really interesting translation consumers at dumping prices.

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  18. @Henry: regarding the tax reporting issues, if this is being run out of the US, I expect you would indeed be required to issue a 1099 to translators. What is the applicable court of jurisdiction for this operation? I think knowing that might settle a lot of questions that people have.

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  19. Hi Kevin!

    Thank you so much for posting this blog entry. I think you’ve really captured the main issues in most of our minds. Once again I feel Henry’s replies are quite vague and superficial. I’ve said this before on the site in the pertinent thread, I don’t know if he misses the main points because he simply doesn’t understand our concerns or because he’s trying really hard not to have to face them. Although the FAQs on this service tell us that the site is not an agency, they also state that:

    * “Qualification is determined in advance.” As we know, the site determines this.

    * There is no negotiation because prices are fixed. Again, it’s the site who fixes the prices.
    * The site guarantees payment.

    If this is not an agency, I really don’t know what is! As a paying member I’m seriously concerned about the secrecy with which this was handled and the censorship that came after. As a Law student, I’m seriously concerned about the ways in which this service breaches our User Agreement and the horrible ethics behind the indirect invitation to tax evasion and discriminatory selection criteria. No matter how I look at this, the way in which the site went about this is wrong.

    I have also benefited from this site; I have made wonderful clients through ProZ and genuinely enjoy many of its features, but I simply can’t let this site get away with violating some of my basic human rights (such as my freedom of speech), or my rights as a consumer by blatantly breaching my Service Agreement.

    I think ProZ was doing a fine job until now of providing an interesting service, but if they wish to stay in business, at some point they’re going to have to start listening to their members.

    ProZ is at a crossroads and I hope they make a turn for the better on this one.

    Best,
    Paula

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  20. Hi Kevin!

    Thank you so much for posting this blog entry. I think you’ve really captured the main issues on most of our minds. Once again I feel Henry’s replies are quite vague and superficial. I’ve said this before on the site in the pertinent thread, I don’t know if he misses the main points because he simply doesn’t understand our concerns or because he’s trying really hard not to have to face them. Although the FAQs on this service tell us that the site is not an agency, they also state that:

    * “Qualification is determined in advance.” As we know, the site determines this.
    * There is no negotiation because prices are fixed. Again, it’s the site who fixes the prices.
    * The site guarantees payment.

    If this is not an agency, I really don’t know what is! As a paying member I’m seriously concerned about the secrecy with which this was handled and the censorship that came after. As a Law student, I’m seriously concerned about the ways in which this service breaches our User Agreement and the horrible ethics behind the indirect invitation to tax evasion and discriminatory selection criteria. No matter how I look at this, the way in which the site went about this is wrong.

    I have also benefited from this site; I have made wonderful clients through ProZ and genuinely enjoy many of its features, but I simply can’t let this site get away with violating some of my basic human rights (such as my freedom of speech), or my rights as a consumer by blatantly breaching my Service Agreement.

    I think Proz was doing a fine job until now of providing an interesting service, but if they wish to stay in business, at some point they’re going to have to start listening to their members.

    ProZ is at a crossroads and I hope they make a turn for the better on this one.

    Best,
    Paula

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  21. @Paula: I can't say that the Turnkey program was cooked up in great secrecy; I simply didn't notice it for the first month of discussion, largely because I don't participate regularly in the restricted "Pro" forum. I think it's also going a bit far to speak of an invitation to tax evasion. One could look at the use of PayPal in a similar way, but as long as the service provider (translator) reports the income and is able to comply with domestic tax laws there isn't a problem... in most cases probably. For all I know there might be a 1099 issue for US-based translators (if this is done by ProZ as a US company), and there may be problems for ordering parties not receiving documentation which will satisfy their tax authorities should they wish to take a deduction. So I do indeed have serious reservations about tax matters and the Turnkey project in its present form, but I don't think of these in terms of evasion.

    I don't really care if ProZ decides to become a full-service agency and go beyond this little experiment. SDL and Star have divisions that do this and somehow they still manage to coexist with many competitors. I think the fixed price approach is one which would make the service uninteresting to me (especially at what are for me dumping prices), but again I don't have a general objection on principle to this, though I think there are much better approaches. I think what ProZ is trying for here is a quick, uncomplicated, zipless translation scheme, and I suppose we'll all have to wait for the fog to clear and see if there's anything left worth continuing with. With a different approach I might have more confidence there would be.

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  22. Thanks for your reply Kevin! I must say your reply kind of caught me by surprise, particularly the part about going too far when speaking of an invitation to tax evasion since in your own post you wrote: “I think that the boyZ at ProZ are being a bit to cavalier in experimenting with what my local tax office in Oranienburg would surely view as an invitation to tax evasion.” In your comment you also say that you don’t care if ProZ becomes an agency, yet you begin your post by stating: “As mentioned in a recent post, ProZ.com has now begun to act as an online translation agency.” Perhaps I misread or there are other posts I should read for more clarity

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  23. @Paula: My "friends" in Oranienburg consider almost anything as tax evasion or close to it. A client once incorrectly reported an invoice as being issued on 1/1/2006 instead of in July 2005, and those idiots accused me of trying to hide income that was reported and clearly documented. So yes, I do see a lot of potential for trouble here, which calls for very careful measures on the part of translators. There is, however, a difference between tax authorities and how they will see matters and a structure which in and of itself is designed to encourage evasion. A real problem that I see is the lack of knowledge that many have in these matters and the potential for important steps to be skipped. Somewhere I recall a dumb statement about "no need to issue an invoice" and all the alarm bells went off in my head. Statements like that (by ProZ or anyone) are irresponsible and in many jurisdictions probably flat wrong. The concept itself encourages evasion no more than eBay or other online buy/sell systems. It's a matter of how it's applied.

    And I don't mind ProZ becoming an agency. I do mind the hypocrisy of saying they'll "never go there" and trying to re-define the term "agency" when the company does in fact become one, albeit in a small way. Let's all call a duck a duck for God's sake, and if all it does is mess things up by crapping on the lawn give it a nice send-off in the BBQ. I'm prepared to wait and see, but given the serious flaws at the start, I have doubts that what I see will be satisfactory. But I'm always open to a pleasant surprise. The handling of the other recent problem (security, stolen data) was quite adequate in the end.

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  24. I do apologize that I decided to remove a few comments from this thread, but there was a specific matter mentioned which I feel would require more specific, verifiable information before it is restored to public view. Even on blogs, rigorous fact-checking is important in cases where personal reputations are at stake. Opinions are another matter all together.

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  25. Uldis Liepkalns has just been erradicated from Proz, after an e-mail exchange with the big man himself. :(

    I still can't believe it.

    Andy

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