Industry translation is a capitalist racket. Guerrilla Translation is the ethical choice.

Guerrilla Translation is much like a chosen family, and a lot of that sentiment comes from the shared sense that we ‘found each other’. Most of us worked as independent, freelance translators before joining the collective (and some of us still have one foot in that world). My mind conjures up an image of each of us roaming the inhospitable desert of the translation industry, laptop in hand, until we happened upon the oasis that is Guerrilla Translation. Here we were finally recognised as living beings with creative qualities to offer and human needs to be met. Outside of the translation world, though, most people are entirely unaware of just how bleak things look for the translator and for the craft of translation itself, so I’d like to shed some light on our motivations for deciding to forge a different path and doing things the way we do them.

It’s difficult to hold on to your ideals in any industry that is trying to thrive and expand within the capitalist system. The tendency will always be to consolidate revenue at the top and deprive the workers that drive the industry of fair compensation. Job competitiveness will ensure that wages are kept low as workers are forced to undercut each other until the work no longer provides a living wage. Meanwhile, the revenue generated by the industry is invested in technology that will eventually make the workers obsolete. The translation industry is no different. 

Most translation work is done through corporate translation agencies. These agencies typically have a staff that includes full-time, in-house translators, a management team and other employees to handle all of the admin work that goes into taking orders, managing clients and delivering translations. They also, however, contract a lot of work out to freelance translators, giving jobs to the lowest bidder, typically stipulating very tight deadlines while taking their time to pay for any services rendered, and often expecting the translator to do unpaid work such as providing feedback and updates for termbases and other digital resources. 

On top of this, most agencies will require the translator to work with specific – generally very expensive – translation software called CAT (computer assisted translation) tools. These tools use databases of terms and previously translated texts to automatically translate segments of text, which the translator can then approve or adjust as needed. It can speed up the translation process a lot, and initially it sounds like it would make the translator’s work much easier. 

However, the flip side of CAT tools is that they can calculate how much of a text is made up of repeated words and phrases and how much is uniquely original. This means that algorithms can be created to pay the translator only for segments or phrases that have not already appeared in the text. If a sentence is repeated twice in a text, the translator will only get paid once for that sentence. If a sentence is 50% similar to another, then the translator only gets 50% of the per-word rate for that sentence, and so on. The result is that this often drastically reduces the paid word count of a text and thus the amount of money a translator can earn from it. However, it does not significantly decrease the amount of work put into a translation. The translator still has to read the repeated, computer-translated segments (now in two languages) and determine if the previous translations still apply to the context at hand, or if they should be reworded and translated differently for stylistic or aesthetic reasons. In the end, the translator’s expertise is still needed for a repeated segment, yet it is not deemed worthy of payment. 

Essentially the translator must shoot herself in the foot. She is required to pay out of pocket for very expensive software that directly reduces her value as a worker. After her translation is complete, she will then be required to give the new ‘translation memory’ from her text back to the agency, so that they can plug it back into their algorithm and use it against other translators in the same way. Furthermore, this algorithm only works to reduce payment to the translator. The agency is still charging the client for the full word count and using that extra money to invest in further developing even more advanced machine translation software. According to one machine translation market forecast, neural machine translation (NMT), a kind of approach to machine translation that imitates the logic of the human brain, is now receiving heavy investment from many industry leaders such as Moravia, Amazon, Google, IBM, Microsoft, Raytheon and many more. These corporations are finding profit in the precarity of translators, and this trend is only expected to increase in the coming years. According to the Language Industry Survey Report 2020, NMT is the strongest technology trend in the industry, even exceeding investment in CAT tool development, which nonetheless, is also continuing to grow. 

Accordingly, it is becoming more and more common to see ‘post-editing’ jobs advertised on translation job platforms. This is where a text is machine translated and then reviewed or edited by a human to fix any mistakes made by the translation software. Of course, editing is usually paid at about a third of the rate of translation (or less), so many companies are opting for this cheaper approach to their translation needs. The human ‘reviewers’ are still required to have the skills of an actual translator, but they are paid a fraction of a translator’s (already undercut) rate. In short, translators have been forced to cooperate in devaluing their own skills and, ultimately, putting themselves out of work while industry revenue increases. Corporate industry leaders are using technology specifically designed to reduce the amount of money paid to the very human workers that the entire industry has been built on. I can’t imagine a surgeon getting paid less as her surgical equipment becomes more advanced or as she is able to do more surgeries in less time. Why should this logic apply to a translator?

One industry-level difference between surgeons and translators, though, is that most surgeons are men, whereas most translators (particularly freelance translators) are women. In fact, around 75% of surgeons are men and 75% of freelance translators are women. Considering how much behind-the-scenes, invisible and unpaid (care) work goes into translation, it should be no surprise that women are the majority of the workforce in the industry. Modern western society has always expected women to silently tolerate and complete an exorbitant amount of behind-the-scenes work without any compensation. The classic example is all of the care, maintenance and support that a family and household needs but which generates no income. This type of work has rarely been called ‘work’ and is simply expected based on gender norms. Even today. 

Language Industry Survey Report 2020

The same thing happens in the workplace. Women are typically expected to pick up the slack, ‘take one for the team’ and have much of their creativity and productivity go unacknowledged. In the translation industry, freelance translators are typically paid a per-word rate for texts translated, but there is an enormous amount of work, beyond actual word-to-word translation, that goes into a good translation. New or rarely used industry-specific terminology and jargon must be researched (in two languages) and care must be taken to ensure that translations of such terms are accurate and up to date. This type of research can be very time-consuming; a 10-word sentence, perhaps grossing the translator €0.80, might take up to a half hour or more to translate accurately if multiple sources and databases need to be cross-referenced to ensure accurate use of terminology. This is a half hour of unpaid work that is simply expected of the translator. 

Freelance translators are also not paid for the time spent updating their own term bases and tools, responding to translation requests and negotiating with agencies. While agency project managers sit at their desks, stringing the translator along through an often lengthy negotiation process, they are getting paid a salary. The freelance translator, of course, is not. Furthermore, it is the agency that determines the terms of payment for the freelance translator, not the other way around. The translator has no choice but to accept these terms – often that payment will be rendered at least one month from the end of the month in which the translation is turned in. Would you hire a contractor to renovate your home and stipulate that the work must be done as quickly as possible but that you’ll decide when it’s convenient for you to pay? This type of behaviour would be unacceptable in most male-dominated professions. 

This is not to say that there are not male translators, but if we look at the graph above, we’ll see that men are most represented in translation companies or in translation departments of larger companies, i.e. men are more represented in steady positions where care work is more likely to be compensated by regular salaries or where there are other (probably female) staff to do the care work for them. Meanwhile, the freelance sector, overwhelmingly the most precarious, is significantly more female. 

The precarity of the freelance sector has only increased during the COVID-19 pandemic. Prior to the pandemic, freelance translators were already having a difficult time making ends meet, with around 40% of them needing to take up other sources of income to supplement their translation earnings. This makes very little sense considering that we are talking about highly skilled professionals providing a service that is increasingly in demand. Why is so much pressure put on translators while so little compensation is provided?

Language Industry Survey Report 2020

The Language Industry Survey Report 2020 gathered feedback from freelance translators regarding what changes they feel they would need to make in order to reduce stress and precarity in their profession (see infographic above). Many of the changes suggested, however, are just not realistic within such a profit-driven industry. Translators are in no position to simply negotiate better rates, be more assertive with their needs, reject tight deadlines or set regular working hours for themselves. These tactics are just not feasible because the agencies and clients have too much power. In my own freelance practice, I do follow all of these suggestions and it translates directly into fewer clients (pun intended). The only reason I am able to try advocating for myself and other freelance translators in this way is because I have Guerrilla Translation to fall back on. Most do not have this luxury. 

In order for any improvement to materialise in the professional lives of freelance translators, much larger, systemic changes are needed. Ideas revealed in the survey, such as legally fixed pay rates, educating clients on the complexity of translation work and more respect for the profession in general, are all long-term goals to fight for. But ultimately this is an uphill battle if corporate translation agencies and translation departments are still in the picture. The central wish expressed by freelance translators is that they would have more direct clients and that EU institutions would work directly with them, not through agencies. Freelance translators know that the agencies’ only purpose is to make money off of the labour of translators while harvesting data from their work to develop technology that will eventually make them obsolete. 

Language Industry Survey Report 2020

Freelance translators are caught in a ‘vicious cycle’, and nobody in the industry is doing anything to stop it. Deadlines are too tight, but competition is too high and work opportunities too irregular to refuse any assignments. Translators make themselves available at all hours and then have unrealistic, and frankly unethical, expectations put on them by agencies and clients who make little to no effort to understand the complexity of the work they are commissioning. 70% of freelance translators reported that their pay rate is a source of stress, whereas only 6% definitively answered that they were happy with the amount they earn. It was also determined that the vast majority of freelance translators would only be able to survive without work during the COVID-19 pandemic for less than three months without additional support. 

It’s clear that there is a lack of understanding and respect for what translators actually do. Not only do we attain a very high reading and writing level in at least two languages, but we also master the art of transferring ideas, not just words, from one language into another in a way that sounds natural and authentic. We translate in such a way as to conceal the fact that the text was translated. We study the theory behind this skill and bridge cultural norms and practices in addition to languages. We ensure that your message is received just as you communicated it. Ultimately the client is putting their voice in our hands, and for that amount of responsibility, we deserve much more respect. After all, we’re basically superheroes.

And this brings me back to Guerrilla Translation. Part of our approach is that we do not lose touch with the art of translation, the human touch required to render a truly quality text. We do not use CAT tools or machine translation, both on principle and because they yield sub-par work. We factor care work into our payouts within the collective and have on-going discussions about whether or not this care work is being fairly distributed and compensated among members. We respect each other and we expect the same from our clients. From our little oasis, we try to provide our services in a way that does not feed the capitalist machine and does not contribute to the demise of our art, our craft, our profession. We’re trying to effect change from the ground up, and we hope that we have your support in this mission. 

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