Thursday, August 6, 2009

Why Translators Aren't Respected

Google “respect” and the first five hits you’ll find are for Aretha Franklin. I must admit, each time I sat down to write this article, I heard that alto voice rolling “Re, re, re, respect” over and over again in my mind. When it comes to respect, I think we all have to admit Aretha’s got the market cornered. As a matter of fact, when it comes to talking about respect in a positive light, you just don’t get any better.

But when you move from Motown to Downtown, respect starts to change. The song goes away and conversations about the subject start to shift toward the negative. The beat is gone and no matter how loudly you wail, you still might not get what you ask for.

From one convention to the next, if you have a group of freelance translators gathering, odds are, somewhere, someone is talking about respect: Companies don’t respect freelancers. Clients don’t respect any of us. Unilingual people think our job is easy. In the translation world, respect is spoken of more often than theory and this year, it seems to be making its way out of everyday conversation and into the news. In March, it all started with an article from Gianni Davico (“Respect versus money in the translation business”) published in Multilingual. Respect here is part of the old freelancer versus LSP debate. To Davico, the debate breaks down to what he thinks contractors and companies crave most: respect versus money respectively.

Lately, though, both contractor and company have found themselves on the same side of our industry’s battleground for respect, with Twitter users from either camp Tweeting furiously against summer crowdsourcing efforts by LinkedIn. While most of these Tweets seem to come from freelancers, many LSP owners and employees have also written Tweets speaking out against or raising awareness of LinkedIn’s request for users to translate its site for free. And it’s not just my company and similarly-sized businesses either. Big names like Lionbridge are joining in the Twitter storm. The uniting point behind this sudden burst of micro-blogging? Money and respect.

In this case, it’s working, or at least it seems to be. June 29th, the New York Times ran an article entitled “Translators Wanted at LinkedIn. The Pay? $0 an Hour” by Andrew Adam Newman. Business Week wasn’t far behind with its July 1st article, “Mozilla's Crowdsourcing Mystique” by Douglas MacMillan, which again mentions what is now called “LinkedInFail.” This comes after the June 30th press release that the ATA itself issued.

For those of you unfamiliar with the controversy, to quote the ATA release, LinkedInFail is a “controversy [that] came to light after a ‘survey’ was circulated by LinkedIn to its members who identified themselves as translators. The survey turned out to be an attempt to find the lure that would identify translators willing to translate LinkedIn materials for free.”

Neither of the articles nor the release itself addressed respect. But I guarantee that somewhere in this world, where two or more translators were gathered, respect was the topic and they weren’t singing along to Aretha.

In fact, you can say that companies want more money and that contractors want more respect, but the truth is, the two are intricately linked. LinkedInFail has proven that, if nothing else.

If you listen to industry guru Renato Beninatto, crowdsourcing, the official term for the group translation technique LinkedIn wanted to employ, is the wave of the future. I, for one, agree with him. But crowdsourcing is not the issue. Respect is. Listing reasons why LinkedInFail generated such an uproar, Common Sense Advisory researcher Nataly Kelly pegs it in the blog Global Watchtower when she writes, “Most people don’t value what translators do.”

Kelly continues to write, “Freelancers are guarded, and understandably so. As individuals who are in business for themselves, freelancers have to watch out for their best interests, as they can be a particularly vulnerable group. Stories of freelancers who were not paid for their work – either by end clients or language service providers are common in the industry. So, any organization that approaches these once-bitten-twice-shy professionals is likely to raise suspicion if there is any implication that work will be carried out without pay.”

To sum, as an industry, we feel underappreciated, misunderstood, and used. Three different feelings with one central issue, the pain is like a prism: one polygon twisted to show different lights from different angles. The problem itself is every human’s need for respect and the angles are created when an impertinent world illuminates the core issues of money, fear, and self-worth.

My solution to this problem may not go over well. My opinion will most likely not be popular. I’m willing to bet you’ve never heard it spoken at a conference or circulated on Twitter. The lack of respect shown to our industry by those outside of our industry is our own fault. No one can fix it but us.

As a child, I was taught that everyone warranted respect. But like Aretha’s, this song was sung before the shift to post-modernism was complete, before Presidents slept with interns--or at least before they got caught. A jaded adult would say I was a gullible child, to think that certain people or certain positions were above error, but as a child, I simply believed what I was taught. In fact, we can learn a lot from what a culture teaches its children.

In Search of Character, published by Live Wire Media, does exactly that: teaches middle-schoolers about respect. A lesson plan series, it covers ten virtues designed to mold children into better adults. The respect lesson provides the self-evaluation quiz below which encourages young people to act respectfully as individuals:

True False
? ? I treat other people the way I want to be treated.
? ? I am considerate of other people.
? ? I treat people with civility, courtesy, and dignity.
? ? I never intentionally ridicule, embarrass, or hurt other people.

If our industry were to take this test, how well do you think it would fair? Poorly, at times, I fear. In case you can’t tell, this is where we get to the unpopular opinion in my article. Remember when I said that the lack of respect shown to our industry by those on the outside is our own fault? Well, I meant it. In order to be treated with respect, translators must first act respectfully.

While there are exceptions, Kelly had the US, freelance pool pegged when she wrote that many translators were “once-bitten-twice-shy.” Having been paid less than we’re worth (and sometimes nothing at all) has understandably made freelance translators weary. The pain of being disrespected is not nearly as deep as the pain of having been wronged. Perhaps this pain has hardened our industry’s heart. Perhaps we strike out not at those who actually have wounded us, but at those who are simply unfortunate enough to be next in line. Instead of allowing our cumulative hearts to heal, we have created that prism of pain.
Do we as a profession treat others the way we want to be treated? When we joke about clients being cheap or stupid, is that acting in a respectful manner? Would we want them to say the same of us? When we make fun of or speak poorly of clients who know less about our industry than we do, aren’t we “intentionally [ridiculing, embarrassing], or [hurting] other people?”

A well-meaning PM I know once posted an open call for translators on ProZ, asking particular language pairs to submit resumes with rates. As a result, one translator sent her hate e-mail full of words we teach our children not to use. He accused her of being disrespectful by asking for rates sight unseen. When she asked my advice, I asked her who had sent the email. Turns out it was anonymous. A man who had just accused her of being disrespectful wasn’t even respectful enough to give his name. Clearly, he is not the cream of the translation crop. But had she been a client trying to find a translator for the first time, how much respect would she then have had for our industry? True or false statement number two from our quiz is “I am considerate of other people.” Number three: “I treat people with civility, courtesy, and dignity.”

The line between true translators and bilingual hacks is unfortunately not as clear to those outside our profession, and that’s part of the problem. But, remember, I said the real problem was us. We do not agree amongst ourselves and when we try to make a difference, egos and division get in the way more often than they should. In order for LinkedIn to think it could get its site translated for free, there had to be registered professionals who LinkedIn thought would do it. LinkedInFail would have never happened if the division between those who said yes and those who said no didn’t exist.

We need greater standards, including a wider-spread national certification program. The ATA has gone to outstanding lengths toward this. But the fact that certification is still not out there for certain languages or for interpreting allows unprofessionals to pose as professionals, making it harder for us to project a positive image of our industry to the world. In fact, where interpreting is concerned, two organizations have recently created further division by breaking off into a separate camp, right when interpreting certification was so close we could taste it. We will not gain respect from outsiders by having different standards for different languages or by dividing amongst ourselves for what looks like personal profit.

We must unite. We must work to rid our industry of unprofessional behavior, to present a uniform front of what is right and what is wrong. We must help the ATA in its efforts at certification for more languages, and we must reprimand those who threaten these efforts.

Most importantly, we must let go of our grudges. We must realize that former errors might not be repeated by the next client in line. We must in fact hope that they won’t be. We must look at the respect we’ve already gained and when we gather, we must discuss it positively.

The time has come for the prism to stop shining on its pain and to let the more beautiful colors through. The time is here and the time is now, be you in Motown or Downtown, to stand for change, no longer injured by what we don’t have, but proudly singing instead about what we do, just as assertively as Aretha always has.


R said...

The only translators, who are not respected, are those, who work cheaply. If you are expensive enough, everybody, who gives you work, respects you, because he pays your (above market) rate, because he/she knows you deliver value.
If you don't feel respected, there is probably a good reason for it. Either you are bad translator, or you are good translator working as cheaply as the bad ones.

Gabriella said...

I fully agree with your blog. But I cannot stop myself to comment on R's comment:

R, apparently you are neither a translator or an interpreter to fully understand the elements of respect towards our craft. A craft we all love and cherish.

You say the only translators that are not respected are the ones who work cheaply. This is a geographical criteria. It all depends the target language. The culture, the regionalisms in linguistics. In India, agencies will offer translators 0,02 cents a word. I have been approached but refused. Why? Because I respect myself. But take a starving translator who wants to get started into the business and wants to break the barrier and work. He/she'll accept anything.

A good reason for not being respected? And WHAT, may I ask is a bad translator? I'll tell you! It's someone who translates literally the text and forgets about the message. And do you know where you get most of those? Machine translations. These will never replace us humans.

Your comment was really uncalled for.

Stephoto said...

I don't think respect is so much linked to whether or not and what translators are paid (that is common to many, many freelance industries--primarily creative ones). I have found that almost everyone I tell I am a translator shows some degree of respect for the job we do, and I live in a multilingual country with a monolingual mentality (US).

I would say it has more to do with ignorance about what the job entails, on the one hand, and lack of public recognition, on the other. We mostly remain anonymous. Our work is everywhere; our names are nowhere.

I am also a photographer and everything I post/produce/print is copyrighted and my name is on it. Not only is this normal, it is an extremely good way to gain more recognition and thereby more jobs. Translators and interpreters do not have this luxury--in essence, we have very few ways of being recognized for our work, if any.

I would argue for a complete picture. Certification, industry-wide standards for determining pay AND credit.

Stéphanie said...

I am sorry to break your ideal view of the world but a)the big translation agencies who offer cost cutting as a main objective to their customers are responsible for cheap rates, so if I were one of them I'd avoid claiming my rage against unfair translation practices on the web and b)I have seen expensive translators deliver texts I would be ashamed of.
What is lacking is not only respect but also people who know what they're doing, on all sides (customer, agency, freelancer).

Katarzyna said...

Respect means money. People work for money, not for a good word.

Essentials said...

An interesting approach.
The division you are describing in your article I have noticed in with my own fellow translators in my country. All comes to money: people are ready to do almost everything to be the first ones in the line, to be the first ones to earn that money. And in this set of actions they forget that there something we call it "dignity" and "standards" and "professionalism".
We somehow need to find a balance.

But I have to say that low rates does't implicitly mean a poor translator. Like someone said here, it is about location.

Us, the translators, have a long way to go still in order to define who and what we are as translators.

God's speed!

YaniQC said...

Next year I'm going to the Olympics as a volunteer translator.

Of course, because of this I don't deserve to be respected!

Nor the hundreds of medical personal, nor the thousands of other volunteers who will pay a lot to go to Vancouver, to get accomodated, to spend their own time/holidays on this, and they won't get a penny in return.

They definitely don't deserve any respect. Nor am I.

What I find cheap is the attitude of other translators to their profession. This is the attitude (respect = money) that is irrespectful.

Omar Postigo-Martell said...

Great article Terena. It goes straight to the heart of a very important issue our industry needs to address.
First of all, I disagree with R’s comment that “The only translators, who are not respected, are those, who work cheaply.” As Gabriella pointed out on her post, this may or may not be geographical criteria. I reside and work in the U.S. but understand that someone in Argentina will charge less—even for far higher quality. There is no reason why we should feel ashamed, embarrassed or disturbed by this. It is a global, borderless world connected by the Internet. Yes, it sucks for me that this availability from “elsewhere” is or could depress my wages. But I can’t ignore the fact that I have purchased cheaper products from China when these could have been easily obtained from a local vendor. It’s being hypocritical…to say the least.
Now, back to the issue that R and Katarzyna bring up. Should we equate “lower” rates with lower quality? I think not. Everyone is guilty of lower rates: freelancers want to remain competitive, agencies need a profit margin, and the-client is looking for their bottom line--regardless of whether value AND quality are part of the client’s thinking.
My business coach told me repeatedly to avoid competition based on price. Instead, I should market quality. This is what just about every major business guru wants to convince you of. However, it is easy to say that when you have millions in your bank account and spend most of your time giving lectures. Another entirely different reality is the life of a freelancer (or the daily struggles that a small agency faces). Price IS important regardless of what anyone else wants to make you think. However, for me it is no longer a deciding factor. In fact, after speaking with my wife (she is a School Psychology/Professional Counselor) about her idea to accept payment based on a sliding scale, I thought it was a noble and egalitarian concept. I decide to implement a sliding scale for certain services and only for my not-for-profit clients. Well, to my surprise, the vast majority not only paid higher rates than I would normally charge them but they also appreciated the gesture. Did they think I was cheap, or offered lower value because I was willing to accept a lower rate? Certainly NOT India/China type rates but lower nonetheless. I did not get that impression. Therefore, I disagree with their statements that “respect means money”. Perhaps in certain parts of the world but that is a huge generalization.
Other posts have covered many other ideas and perspectives. But I wanted to give it a bit of a spin and go deeper into something you touched upon “that interpreting allows unprofessional folks to pose as professionals, making it harder for us to project a positive image of our industry to the world.”
I just read the case of Betty Lichtenstein in the news. More on that story by following the link below.

Bottom line, she impersonated a nurse, when she wasn’t. She faces up to five years in jail, etc.
Now, some may not want to equate a nurse gone mad who puts the life of a patient at risk with, say, an unprofessional and inexperienced translator/interpreter who works on financial reports.
However, there are thousands of, supposedly, Medical Interpreters with absolutely no training (or skills) out there. They are being hired both here and abroad. Is anyone being prosecuted for impersonating a translator or interpreter? Certainly not! Even with the implementation of higher standards and the national certification program we both agree we need, we’ll still face the some of the same issues if the law does not protect our profession.
Respect…so hard to get. So easy to lose!

R said...

It seems my "money" approach makes some colleagues unhappy. It all depends on why you do translation/interpreting. I do it in order to have very substantial income for nearly 20 years. I do not need respect, I need customers who are willing to pay my rates year after year after year. They know they can get somebody 3-5 times or more cheaper any day in a week. But they come to me because they know they get what they pay for. Good Mercedes cost 3-5 times more than other cars, but they have no shortage of buyers. I do the same for my language combination and I am doing fine as well. If you don't feel enough of respect, increase your prices. Respect will come. If you charge less per hour than your plumber or car mechanic, why you think you deserve more respect (smile). Look at $500 per hour lawyers or surgeons, they do not complain about respect. They don't need to (smile)

Matthew Bennett said...

Hi, Terena, thanks for pointing me to the article and apologies for taking so long to leave a comment, I've been a bit busy.

I see where you're coming from and I think it's a good idea to explore different metaphors but I don't think I really agree with the sentiment of your article as a whole.

I've blogged about the CSA opinion so I won't repeat myself, save to say that I don't agree with it.

As for the LinkedIn story, the fact that all of these professional translators, the NYT and the ATA took the same side says something.

I agree with those who have already commented saying that respect and money don't necessarily go together.

I don't think we all have to agree on everything and the idea of a 'translation industry' is a bit of a misnomer. There's no obligation to unite around anything, nor to present a uniform front.

I think there are probably too many people trying to say that the 'translation industry' should do this or that and, on the other side, too many translators who because one company offers them 0.0001c / word, thinks the whole corporate translation game is not worth bothering with.

Every translator, every company and every agency has the right to conduct their own business in the way they see fit. Some actions leave them more open to criticism than others.

There seem to be lots of companies and agencies who try to take advantage of translators' business inexperience which by default implies that I think lots of translators could do better at 'business'.

It is here, perhaps, that an individual translator would do well to learn to respect himself more until he has grown his own particular business to a point which pleases him. Ditto the owner of a small translation agency.

I'm not sure there's much I can do about the translator that lives up the road though, or on the other side of the planet, other than offer advice and share experiences.

I'm not convinced, as others currently seem to be, that crowdsourcing is the future of translation. It is a trend which companies are jumping on with gusto because it saves them money but there are too many unanswered questions and potential pitfalls for companies to be anywhere near certain of its benefits yet.

And if free and crowdsourcing really were the future, then the trends would affect more industries too, as well as one of the fundamental pillars of capitalism.

¡Saludos from Murcia!