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Confidentiality in the translation industry February 9, 2010

Posted by Jill (@bonnjill) in Business practices, Translation.

There is an interesting discussion right now on the ATA’s Business Practices listserv about confidentiality. The discussion originally started out as a discussion about payment issues and ethics and how some agencies should bear the risk of non-payment by choosing their translators carefully, employing editors and setting money aside to cover any problems that may arise.Interestingly enough, the subject soon turned to ethics and confidentiality.

Confidentiality is definitely something everyone in the translation industry (both translators and agencies) should think about. Riccardo at About Translation wrote a blog post just yesterday about an agency that sent a blanket e-mail to numerous translators and attached highly confidential and sensitive documents. He had never worked with the agency before and had therefore never signed a Non-Disclosure Agreement. If their client knew about this clear breach of confidentiality they would most assuredly not be pleased. Unfortunately this is often common practice in our industry. Agencies should really be more careful when sending out confidential documents to lots of translators.

Translators can be just as guilty of this when they agree to translate a job and then subcontract it out to a colleague either in whole or in part. I very rarely subcontract work, but when I do I always let the client know I am doing so. I recently had a large job just before Christmas that I split with a colleague because the volume was quite large and I wouldn’t have made the deadline on my own. I let the client know I was doing it and told them the name of the other translator. We agreed to just submit one bill to the client. The client was so thrilled with our quick turnaround that the project manager sent us cloth bags with the translation agency’s name on it and a very nice thank you note. I sent my colleague the bag along with my check for her half.

Behavior like this is a clear breach of ethics. We in the translation industry need to be more cognizant of the ethics involved in our field. Project managers, take a deep breath and really think about the documents you are sending out to a pool of translators. If they contain confidential information, it would be better to just send out a brief description of the text. Translators, the next time you consider accepting a job you can’t handle on your own, please think twice or at least let the client know you will be working with someone else. And you’d best make sure your colleague has signed a confidentiality agreement and keep it on file.

If anyone else wants to bring up confidentiality issues in our industry that bug them, feel free to comment. I look forward to the dialog!



1. Corinne McKay - February 9, 2010

Great post! Although I work with (and enjoy working with) both agencies and direct clients, I use the confidentiality issue as a major selling point with direct clients. Agencies can offer lots of confidentiality guarantees, but in reality they don’t really know if their translators are sub-subcontracting work, or if their translators are working on their laptops out in cafes where people can read over their shoulders. Not to get all indignant about it, but my husband works in IT security and is consistently horrified by our industry’s standard practice (also see Michael Wahlster’s blog post “Secrets on a Postcard”!) of sending highly confidential documents by unencrypted e-mail. Interesting topic!!

2. Kevin Lossner - February 9, 2010

That’s a very interesting point, Corinne. I’ll remember it in my negotiations.

I’m currently implementing a new project management and delivery system (OTM from lsp.net – in an early pilot phase at the moment) which uses secure servers and offers a bit more security than the usual e-mail deliveries as well as other useful features. But no technical systems can substitute for basic ethical awareness and PRACTICE.

3. Luke Spear - February 10, 2010

Thumbs up for the post. And Corinne, that’s a very well reasoned idea for using confidentiality as a selling point. I am trying to recruit new direct clients at the moment and could really do with more tips like that.

Many thanks to you both,


4. Judy Jenner - February 10, 2010

I couldn’t agree more. Disclosure is key, and when in doubt, assume that the project is confidential. Whenever we work with third parties, we are sure to let our clients know — just as a professional courtesy and as a safety net for us. We usually include a blurb about that on the actual price quote that the client signs off on and give them the option of vetoing the involvement of a third party (which no one has ever actually done).

5. Translation Agency - March 5, 2010

I definitely agree! As a person who is working in a translation agency i knew what are the conditions we have to face from our client side with regards to the NDA. We usually apply the same to our translators also to avoid any problems in the future. However we do get NDA for the clients who ask us to provide the same.

6. Radovan Pletka - September 20, 2011

All this is very nice, but there are Agencies and agencies. When you are talking about agencies willing to pay only pennies per word, they can’t expect Mercedes quality and confidentiality at Yugo prices. Buying translation is like buying a car. You usually get what you pay for.

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