Justice CommitteeWritten evidence from Miguel Llorens

Executive summary

The Potemkin Village problem in the language services industry: It is very difficult to assess the quality of language service providers because even very large companies are fronts for databases of translators whose qualifications are dubious.

This problem means that extensive due diligence must be carried out by large clients to determine whether a potential translation provider is suited to the task at hand.

Despite this difficulty, the fact that ALS’s total revenues were far smaller than the total size of the Ministry of Justice contract should have been an indication that it was not qualified to fulfil its obligations.

1. I am a Spanish-English translator who published several posts discussing the Applied Language Solutions (ALS)-Ministry of Justice (MoJ) contract on the Financial Translation Blog.1 The blog posts I wrote on former ALS head Gavin Wheeldon achieved relatively extensive circulation via the Web and I have been urged by several colleagues to contribute to your inquiry. Not being an interpreter myself or even a British resident, I was hesitant, but ultimately I decided that a brief submission to your committee might be helpful. I feel I can provide some context regarding point two of your task (“nature and appropriateness of the procurement process”) by transmitting a couple of points on the state of the translation/interpreting industry in 2012 which partly explain the current situation of court interpreting services in England and Wales.

2. In my view, the entire ALS-MoJ problem is a rather massive instance of what I would call the Potemkin Village problem in sourcing translations. On the Internet, it is very difficult to assess the true nature of the companies that advertise translation services. This problem will be familiar to anyone who has had to source any sort of service online, from finding a nanny or a builder to hiring a reliable accountant or solicitor. In translation, almost all agencies—from the smallest to the largest—claim to specialise in every single subject matter and to possess a database of thousands of highly qualified translators.

3. Therein lies the challenge for the company or government that seeks to source translation services: even the largest companies are lying to some extent. Translation is a small and fragmented industry burdened by unappetising revenues and disappointing profit margins. The largest companies scarcely qualify as small-caps on the stock exchanges of Europe and America. They are basically winners in a tallest dwarf competition. These larger companies are relatively recent creations, the product of the needs of a handful of IT companies that have significant translation needs but also want to keep these providers on an outsourced basis. The largest translation agency in the world is an American company that claims to have a database of 25,000 professionals. However, diverse embarrassing incidents have proved this to be at best an exaggeration and at worst a fabrication, as I can personally attest. The maintenance of such a large database requires spending a lot of money to ensure that contact details are accurate and that, at a minimum, the people listed in it are not dead. The problem is that the bigger a company is, the more committed it is to providing translations as quickly and cheaply as possible. This maintenance expenditure is kept at a minimum and, as far as possible, shifted onto the database members themselves by obliging them to update their details periodically.

4. This creates a thorny problem for the larger sort of client, such as a government or a multinational: the larger your outsourced translation provider is, the poorer the quality it delivers. However, the smaller your outsourced provider is, the more you have to spend internal resources on managing a microcosm of small providers. Neither solution is satisfactory. A delicate balance must be forged, between bigness and efficiency. Computerisation has promised to bridge that gap, but that promise is far from being fulfilled. It remains to be seen whether databases will streamline that problem in the future, but, for the moment, that Utopia is still relatively far off. My suspicion is that the system that ALS replaced successfully struck that delicate balance (improvements could have been made, but a series of tweaks is a far cry from the clumsy overhaul organised by the ministry).

5. What happens when a client blunders into one of our online Potemkin Villages that specialise in everything and have thousands of professionals that speak all the languages in the world? If this unsuspecting client has wandered into one of the fake villages built by a relatively large company, the agency fires off thousands of e-mails (also known as cattle calls) to the database members—dead or alive—and within seconds the job is assigned to the translator with the itchiest trigger finger. The job will be done, more or less quickly, more or less badly. If the Potemkin Village was built by a front company that consists of a single owner with a laptop in his bedroom, the owner quickly scrambles to online databases such as ProZ.com where unemployed translators advertise their services. Using a process similar to the large company, he or she will quickly find a warm body to which the job will be assigned. Both cases are transparently far from the ideal. Translation and interpretation are not commodities that can be bought or sold in such an anonymous manner. Even if one thinks that any bilingual can do the job, anyone who has hired a builder or a nanny knows that not all builders and nannies are equally reliable, efficient or qualified.

6. Interpreting, however, is not amenable to this “cheap-as-dirt” translation model. First of all, there is the geographical constraint: any valuable database will not contain thousands of names because all the credible candidates are located in a relatively small area, which reduces the shortlist drastically, to five or six names or at most seven names. There is an added constraint: the court system needs professionals who are fluent in so-called “exotic” languages, which reduces the client’s shortlist even further, to one or two names, or at most three. As mentioned previously, ALS was not large enough to actually have a real database of thousands of interpreters (to my knowledge, ALS was not actually specialised in the provision of interpreting services). However, the company was not small enough to be just a sleazy façade that could easily be discarded by the officials doing due diligence. In other words, it was large enough to just barely pretend to be a bona fide suitor but small enough to struggle to cope with such a massive undertaking. The reality, however, was that ALS didn’t have a clue as to how it was going to meet such a daunting task, but they boldly decided to press ahead and solve problems as they cropped up. The multiple reports about the alleged theft of contact details from a publicly available database point in this direction. The reports of haphazard recruitment of inexperienced bilinguals are further confirmation of this suspicion. This is compounded by Mr Wheeldon’s description of his own modus operandi in building his company. His attitude seems to have always been to get the deal first and then, as a secondary exercise, scramble to see how to fulfil the order. Some people see this as proof of Mr Wheeldon’s entrepreneurial spirit. However, a more sober analysis would more accurately view it as a high-stakes game of brinkmanship. Eventually, as your bets get bigger and bigger, the odds grow that your bluff will be called. And that is precisely what has occurred: ALS’s bluff has finally been called by reality, and the company are now hurtling to the bottom of the canyon after tiptoeing in a vacuum for a few seconds without wings.

7. Mr Wheeldon ran a small company with total revenue of less than 8 million pounds. The opportunity arose of multiplying that revenue several times by securing a very large (and recurring) government contract. Despite the lack of a database that was large enough to assume a task as hefty as providing court interpreters for an entire country, ALS charged into the breach with all the gung-ho attitude of the modern businessman. The Potemkin Village dreamt for one golden moment of becoming a Potemkin Megalopolis. But, tragically, its flimsy façade was knocked to the ground by a slight breeze.

8. This could easily have been predicted a priori by anyone familiar with the world of translation. In the months that have elapsed since ALS reaped the current whirlwind of negative publicity, we have learned a lot about the everyday life of the court interpreter. It is a difficult job. It is far from glamorous. It is frequently unpleasant. It must be very depressing at times. To this one must add that the British judicial system has very sui generis requirements because of the diversity of the origins of the people that pass through it. The English and Welsh courts regularly require languages that are very difficult to source properly. Interpreters who can handle the languages of small African and Asian communities should be highly prized as the rare and valuable assets that they are. To think that the value stored in these professionals’ brains can be easily replaced by anyone hired off the street who claims to speak these languages is ludicrous. The delicate balance of skills, character and availability possessed by the men and women that worked for the pre-ALS system is not a resource that could simply be replaced at the drop of a hat. They belonged to a very complex ecosystem that was uprooted root and branch without proper planning. Ministers criticise the previous system’s inefficiency, to which one must ask whether it was replaced because of its shortcomings or because it was mistakenly identified as a target for easy spending cuts.

9. ALS’s lack of qualifications to fulfil the contract should also have been identified readily and early by the public sector employees carrying out the due diligence. The company should have been compelled to provide a complete database prior to the entrance into force of the MoJ contract. The ministry’s civil servants should then have proceeded to analyse a statistically representative, random sample of the database to verify its accuracy. I am relatively sure that a simple inspection of the database along such lines would have led to the conclusion that ALS were completely unprepared to provide interpreting services on a countrywide scale.

10. To conclude, I understand the pressures to find cost efficiencies in government, but these are probably not readily available in the area of court interpreting. As a former resident of the United Kingdom and as a sincere admirer of its democracy and institutions, I humbly urge you to spare no efforts to restore some version of the system that was in place before the contract was awarded to Capita-ALS. Nothing less than your country’s reputation as a beacon for human rights and as the creator of modern democracy is at stake.

August 2012

1 http://traductor-financiero.blogspot.com.es/2012/03/alss-gavin-wheeldon-case-study-in-cheap.html

Prepared 5th February 2013