Charlie Bavington

Professional French to English Translator - Business and I.T.

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No peanuts? – no thanks

February 6th, 2011 | Categories: business

Once again, in the interests of tying up loose ends, in this case from the comments section in my own Nov 2010 blog post “Who sets prices?”, I think I’ve managed to crystallise the logic behind my instinctive rejection of initiatives like those mentioned – No peanuts, the petition crew, the United Translators group on Yahoo!… there may be others that have passed me by.

The common underlying theme, it seems to me, could be summed as some need to unionise, join forces against The Man and suchlike. No Peanuts makes specific reference to a “living wage” and while I’m happy to accept it’s likely just a convenient shorthand, it also perhaps reveals a certain mindset.

I would suggest there are essentially two groups of people who need protection against exploitation by those on whom they rely for income:
1. Those who can be easily replaced. Unions were largely started by unskilled workers, fearful of being replaced at the drop of hat with no safety net if and when they refused to work longer hours, take a pay cut, etc.
2. Those who, no matter how skilled, only have one income source (read “employer” in most cases), such as those working for the public-sector – teachers, health workers, and nationalised industry generally.

(Yes, some poor souls may be in both groups at once.) I am more than happy, morally and economically speaking, to support solidarity for groups of people with fewer choices and opportunities in life. However, I am not convinced that freelance translators fall into either category. There really seems little prospect in the immediate short term that all translation will fall into the hands of one agency, or even a coterie of agencies working in cahoots. And of course, while no-one is ever indispensable, we should all be striving not to be easily replaced; the internet is awash with advice to specialise, and it is one conclusion I draw in my own (rather long, admittedly) article on who sets translation prices. If any of us is that easily dispensed with, we should either seek to remedy the situation sharpish, or consider whether our competitive advantage may in fact be found in some other form of income-generating activity…

So much for the logical (to me, anyway!) argument against it.

In practical terms, there are two further arguments:

a) what, exactly, would be the terms and conditions to be applied worldwide and who would decide them? “Living wages” vary hugely, to say nothing of payment terms. While, AFAIK, none of these initiatives has in fact attempted to set or even recommend rates (which would be of doubtful legality in many countries), they are left merely exhorting us to charge decent and respectable prices that are enough to live on, which presumably is what people do anyway, otherwise they would do something else for a living. Or should. It must be said, there are some who do not, perhaps, act in the economically rational manner I would expect (translation is, unfortunately, plagued by those who are “passionate” about it, and seem prepared to suffer a dog’s abuse for the privilege of calling themselves translators – as touched upon by me (again) here).

b) who, exactly, would I be joining forces with? I estimate that about half the translations I’ve been given to proofread over the years are pretty substandard stuff. By inference, therefore, about half the (Fr-Eng) translators out there are people I would probably rather not be associated with. (And, as such, probably also fall into group 1) above of those easily replaced and who probably do feel under threat.)

Translators are always banging on about being professionals, educated, and worthy of the respect given to architects and lawyers and suchlike. Most of us have the intellectual capacity not to be exploited or oppressed, and the ability and initiative to follow other paths if we prefer them or feel the (financial) need. You don’t see Norman Foster calling for a worldwide union to include no-hopers who would struggle to sketch a shed, and I am as yet unconvinced of the need to bind myself to a movement that, I feel, seems likely to include too many of the translation world’s equivalent. Feel free to disagree below…

  1. February 7th, 2011 at 14:02
    Quote | #1

    I fully agree. The problem is that many translators want to be treated as other professionals but aren’t willing to do the hard work required.

    One example: In a recent online poll almost 30% of translators replied that they do not make time for professional development because hands on experience is the best teacher. Just imagine if your doctor was of the same opinion…

  2. February 7th, 2011 at 15:54
    Quote | #2

    Unions may have started with what you call “unskilled workers”, but they didn’t end there.
    Doctors and architects do organize in unions. In Sweden, 70% of workers belong to a union. The reason for that is simple: they realize the inequality of the bargaining power. They know is not merely a matter of “intellectual capacity”.
    Our profession needs regulation, just like doctors, lawyers, architects etc. have.
    The doctrine of laissez-faire capitalism will not help us. It only helps corporations.

    • admin
      February 7th, 2011 at 20:29
      Quote | #3

      No, indeed, they didn’t end there. It’s not about the profession or job (or intellectual capacity) per se, it’s about the balance of power. If, in your chosen profession, there is only one organisation you can work for, such as doctors in a country where the health service is (mainly) publicly run, then yes, you would need to form a union to look after collective and individual interests, and doctors in the UK certainly have one. Personally, when it comes to employer/employee situations (either actual, or de facto, such as a hypothetical case where you are classed as self-employed but there is only one organisation you can work for, such as the state), I’m all in favour of unions. Although my skills before I became a freelance translator were fairly transferable, I was nonetheless in the union (and I was in the minority in my IT department).

      Nothing in your first paragraph seems to constitute an argument in favour of any kind of “union” for freelance translators. We should not be in thrall to whims and dictats of any one organisation. There are many agencies and direct clients out there, we are free to pick and choose, surely, until we find a set of business relationships we are happy with. That’s business relationships, as distinct from employer/employee relationships. If we are find that hard to achieve, then my view is that either our sales and marketing skills need improving (I speak as a fairly reticent man who is not comfortable with self promotion) or perhaps we are not as good at providing translation services as we could or should be. If, having tried to improve either or both, we are still failing, it is time to re-assess our economic options.

      I’m not sure we “need regulation” as an unqualified blanket statement. What sort did you have in mind, and why?

  3. February 7th, 2011 at 20:30
    Quote | #4

    I find myself unable to disagree at all. Those who endorse what is a basically defensive approach to their remuneration are not really the kind of professionals with whom I would wish to associate myself either. The same logic applies to translation as to any other industry: if you have an excellent offering that distinguishes you from your competition and you actively market yourself to clients who can see the value, rather than just the cost of it, then you are probably well on the way to not needing union-style wage protection. Rather than a lack of desire to do the hard work, though, I suspect that it is a dearth of enterprise to which the problem boils down.

  4. February 8th, 2011 at 02:07
    Quote | #5

    Not willing to engage a somewhat Manichean view on the topic of “organized labor” I’ll just offer a few pragmatic observations. Indeed: in a free, open and democratic society operating in a relatively free marketplace of ideas, goods and services, the key notion is availability of reasonable choice. A choice on which free will can operate. That can be, as righteously intimated, an essential choice of entry or exit of the marketplace. However, sticking to that consideration is a somewhat forced position, more reminiscing of certain fundamentalist tendencies sprung from a perception of an overly complicated society, in which simplicity by way of compensation quenches a thirst for otherwise wanting certitude.

    Take it or leave it is certainly a legitimate but also constrictive proposition.

    Man’s ability to communicate and interact fortunately enables more engaging attitudes than firing rhetorical cannons from the distant security of fortified positions. To engage in a constructive sense is also to learn and to grow; as such, initiatives such as No Peanuts do not attempt to “unionize” – a curiously telling qualification that – but rather share and foment discussion, precisely to empower all players in the marketplace, and ultimately lead to a better product at a better price leading to sustainable satisfaction for all stakeholders involved. As an avid defender of practical and intellectual freedoms who also strongly believes in the importance of companion notions such as integrity, accountability, transparency and professional rigor, I therefor also believe in sustainability.

    So, when freelance and independent professionals – such as myself – rise to criticize certain practices of certain companies when and where they unduly exert their aggregate muscle to establish market conditions that are at odds with the necessary sustainability of the overall market, I am more interested in cogent discussion of the broad implications of globalization for our particular trade, than I am in caricatures and simplifications that deflect from the fundamental “bad money driving out good money” principle at work here.

    Of course, I am not advocating for a pertinent equivalent of reinstating the gold standard here. But whether I look at the origin of products on the shelves at my local WalMart, or the indiscriminate (I stress the qualifier “indiscriminate”) use of translation memories, I can’t shake a sense of wonderment at the curious complacency with which a strategically impoverishing and foolhardy embrace of the purely quantitative advantage of economy of scale is allowed to steamroll over qualitative issues.

    If that tendency continues, the so-called “choice” will become a foregone conclusion, as is the case all too often in the “choice” between setting up a company producing goods locally, or outsourcing to China (or whichever other low-wage country facing inevitable corollary social imbalances one prefers to pick). Put more pointedly: if one truly cares about choice remaining available, then the fundamental defense of choice comes before a defense of choices made and enforced by a privileged few.

    The alternative isn’t leaving the market: the true alternative at stake here is impoverishing communication. That collateral damage is serious enough in nature to not reduce it to sophistry and abstraction about “unionization” or whichever other political lightning rod.

    • admin
      February 11th, 2011 at 20:35
      Quote | #6

      Thanks, rather overdue, for making the effort to reply. I feel I should respond in turn, even if I confess I find it hard to pick out specific key points.

      But you start and end by talking about choice, so let’s begin there. I’m a big fan of choice. But we cannot simply complain about how economies of scale steamroller over quality (let’s assume, as you have, that you can’t have both; that the scale runs from cheap, mass-produced, rubbish along to high quality, bespoke goods). It is up to the purveyors of quality goods and services to demonstrate why that is the appropriate choice for buyers to make. To prove their marginal utility, hence higher value and higher price charged. Or just persuade customers with smoke, mirrors and designer labels even though the product or service is no better or worse.

      But that is definitely how it should work, I think. The perception, at least, and preferably the reality, should be that the higher priced product offers more utility. If there is no difference in utility, then there is no effective choice anyway (the point of choice is difference).

      Sure, I could pick a different supplier, but if I derive the same utility, why bother? (And certainly why would I pay more?) I will grant you that, should one reach the stage where there is a monopoly of supply, we have potentially clearly reached a problem situation where customers can be exploited, but assuming this is a gradual, market-driven process (if it’s not, we’d probably have other more pressing concerns anyway), then market stakeholders would be wholly responsible for that state of affairs. Which is why I am very much in favour of educating consumers as to what might happen if they continue to buy everything in their houses from Walmart or Tesco.

      Talking of education, another of your main points appears to be the parallel with “organised labour” and unionisation. I tried to avoid drawing the parallel too heavily; I nonetheless feel it exists. The very name in NP’s case emphasises that income is the main concern, it describes itself as a movement, the statement of principles refers to powerlessness, exploitation and living wages. Google that cluster of terms and see the general tenor of the results. Sure, the word educate also appears, but the underlying message throughout seems to be “translators of the world, unite, you have nothing to lose but your chains”. Sorry, but I never felt powerless, or that I had any chains, and I genuinely believe that no professional (another word appearing in the principles) should either.

      I feel as though I may have missed or failed to address some key point; if so, state it simply and we’ll see where the discussion leads…

      Thanks again for replying at such length.

  5. February 27th, 2011 at 00:07
    Quote | #7

    I’m not sure there’s any specific “key point” to address, so instead of trying to convince, I’ll just engage in some more conversation.

    Speaking of which: thank you for engaging; that is for me as much enjoyable as the topic is engaging. Perhaps I should situate my vantage point. There are two particular threads of interest running through my life: marketing and language. As such I am equally influenced by Philip Kottler and María Moliner. So, on the one hand I can’t but agree where you point out that:

    It is up to the purveyors of quality goods and services to demonstrate why that is the appropriate choice for buyers to make.

    On the other, “even” Kottler would shy away from asserting that it is principally (let alone solely) a supplier-driven world. The aggregate of people making up markets have pre-established preferences, prejudices, experiences, and a long list of other conditioners. Ignoring those more socially tinted factors is almost a guarantee of failure. However, as someone who at an earlier career stage was deeply immersed in the field of consumer behavior, I have also come to accept long ago that while markets are necessarily a given and a starting point of practical engagement for any individual entrepreneur seeking coin, there is also a wider, more socially oriented aspect of doing business.

    That broader consideration is suggested more in particular by those engaged with fields as business ethics, social responsibility, sustainable profitability, corporate responsible citizenship, and a long list of related issues coexisting, I submit necessarily, with a more quantitatively oriented (and let’s be clear: just as necessary) financial bottom line approach. I suppose an apt but more pointed summary of my approach is the statement that Milton Friedman is an untenable myopic, and therefor unreliable guide in pursuit of collective long-term health and prosperity in the inevitably symbiotic coexistence of business and society.

    Yes, suppliers are essential. So are the other key players in the horribly misused and now sadly near-meaningless term stakeholders, e.g. the media, the communities in which a business operates, the cluster of employees (regardless of contractual status, i.e. including both staff and subcontractors), and also the all too oft neglected and neglecting regulators. At the risk of overly repeating myself: an entrepreneur operates not on an island, shopping more or less isolated in a virtual supermarket of production means and methods for the best stacked shopping cart given the available budget.

    This is a fast shrinking world, where news of troubles in Tripoli instantly reaches and influences people far, far remote from the events in question; the nature and the scope of impact of the internet cannot be overstated as a driving force today in what we more commonly call globalization. And yet, while I indirectly here present the internet as an argument of sorts against what I tongue in cheek call Friedmanitis – an affliction characterized by human interaction constricted to the most utilitarian dimension – at the same time we are also bound the limitations of the medium, most obvious of which is the lack of direct human contact and interaction, where a personal talk over a cup of coffee can by far outweigh a lengthy discussion on an internet forum.

    That “human touch” is an aspect that has more far reaching consequences in our every day social interactions than, perhaps, we care to admit or like. Trust me when I say that I am particularly wary (allergic is probably a more appropriate term) to proverbial goat woolen socks in sandals types, pontificating about the evils of “American cultural imperialism” and such, etched indelibly in my memory by my experiences with popular expressions of “Anti-Americanism” in the 70s in Western Europe, to which I liked to respond by provocatively wearing a tie and jacket – to high school. That stubborn, perhaps deliberately contrarian attitude toward what I saw then as a tendency to atomize human nature into traits that accommodate short-term myopia, is still much alive today, as I now live in the USA, in an environment where the pendulum has moved, to put it mildly, to the opposite end, and where being called a socialist ranks up there with salacious allegations concerning one’s mother.

    This, by the way, is obviously a preposterous divergence from the scope of our discussion here; I’m just connecting my European DNA – and hence my “cultural exposure” – to my take on the deeper issue of cultural identity, as applied to the abstract species of corporations. I vividly recall a conversation I had about a decade ago with a peer progressive but far more erudite mind, who strongly argued against conceding the rights of “personhood” to corporations; for example, he asked, how can you consider something a living, independent entity if it doesn’t even have a soul? I replied that corporations maybe don’t have a metaphysical soul in the classic sense, but there’s decidedly something called corporate culture (with a corresponding but not necessarily congruent “corporate identity”) that exceeds the individual imprint and, in a sense, fulfills the purpose of a soul. That got him thinking.

    Now, yanking this puppy back from Pluto to our topic, I see a similarly disturbing trend to equate “corporate culture” with a particular, much more narrowly oriented attitude, not to call it a damning character flaw: greed. Perhaps the overwhelming multiplication of information available through fast evolving media stimulates a simplifying response. I still don’t like to cast entrepreneurs as inherently suspect on account of the ultimate metric of their success, i.e. the height of their stack of coin. Yet the inverse is also true: I don’t consider monetary success determining for entrepreneurial success.

    Because I look at the whole package.

    At this moment, I see an interesting parallel in the titanic opposition of minds manifested in the case concerning state workers in Michigan, essentially between “organized labor” and those who oppose it. The fulcrum in that debate is, of course, the unsustainable situation of the state’s finances. And yet I dare state that it is a false debate. The pivot point is not where I think it should be: debate should center not so much on a shorter term what can or should we afford ourselves now but on a more broad and longer-term what is the society that we want that is both desirable and sustainable.

    In a sense, many of us reach for Che posters and copies of Atlas Shrugged as proxies of identity. But consideration of individual identity without society, as a surrounding body and vessel on its own course, is as wrong-footed as its exact reverse.

    I take no position on the issue of organized labor in general; I can’t tell whether I’m generally pro or con. In my particular context however, i.e. in this country in which I now live, I do see a role cut out for it. Not so much to cement a permanence of the usual rhetoric wares of sticking it to the man and holding big corporations accountable for the little man, but because I foresee an effect similar to that of the larger-scale economic shifts following the collapse of the Soviet Empire.

    The immense resulting savings on military spending have in some cases necessarily been reapplied to national rebuilding efforts (e.g. in Germany) and in others, well, the opportunity was royally wasted. And I think the current state of the US economy is a vivid
    example of the latter. With a prevailing attitude preferring corporate complacency over shifting collectively into a higher and above all more long-term efficient gear, and driving collective spending more on a whim than a sound and sustainable strategy. I think the reality of the Great Recession needs no further emphasis to that effect. The pursuit of unbridled profitability serving a tiny minority can hurt a large majority; I think it has. And I attribute that to a myopic approach to society as a whole, where individual choices too often are subjected to atomized criteria, and not enough tested against their broad and long-term consequences. Sometimes, reductions and simplifications are a wonderful recourse for rhetorical or philosophical purposes. All too often, however, simplification leads to exaggeration and undue generalization; that’s when things can go wrong. That’s why I don’t like fashion.

    Here’s a final expedition to Mars.

    You refer to an aversion to verbiage suggesting “translators of the world, unite, you have nothing to lose but your chains.” That’s an aversion we both have. For example, I can’t look at a Che poster – not even as a pseudo inoffensive “fashion statement” – without an angry connotation of the current authoritarian regime in Cuba. More broadly in Central and South America, the at times extremely vicious mutual opposition of the two mainstream ideologies of “left” and “right” held the concept of democracy hostage, minimized and nullified in mutual mudslinging and jointly propelling a fundamentally false choice, representing social justice on the one hand and prosperity on the other, as somehow mutually exclusive. Predictably, especially when the use of violence is rationalized as an inevitable remedy, democracy has been lost on the radar too often for too long.

    Currently, we see an unprecedented tidal wave sweeping over Arab and North African nations. There, too, a canonical false choice was offered for many, many years: that between an authoritarian regime and a theocratic regime, where democracy was the first casualty. And now, it is precisely a drive for greater democracy, for exerting a greater role as an individual, for greater freedom, or in politically incorrect vernacular: for a better pursuit of happiness, which is jolting the foundations of several regimes across an enormous region.

    The bottom line on which I converge in my conclusion here is that a societal choice limited to just two mutually exclusive options is by sheer definition a trap; a very dangerous one. And so it is in the instance of increasingly commodified language services. No doubt, large LSPs are useful if not outright necessary to serve certain markets. So are independent contractors. A healthy market requires both; their joint long-term healthy conditions are what I am referring to as the goal posts toward we all should work. And so, when a particular initiative sticks out its head and visibly decries a tendency that it claims damages the health of independent contractors, instead of focusing all too much on the terminological coloring of the argument, I warmly endorse looking through those clothes, at the represented danger; either that purported danger is real, or it isn’t. If it isn’t, then that denies the fundamental validity of No Peanuts’ criticism. While I agree with No Peanuts that there’s a tendency to treat individual independent language contractors more as a nuisance than as equal partners, I have no use either for imagery of raised clenched fists, claims of power to the peephole and other distracting nonsense.

    Because you and I agree, in that essential point: indeed we are not powerless. It is in my opinion irritating and distractive to resort to such language. Maybe Marxist terminology makes for some interesting frat party theme nights, I’m not a Marxist. In fact, I’m in US vernacular a left-leaning libertarian, by all means a rare beast.

    • admin
      March 4th, 2011 at 17:59
      Quote | #8

      I really wouldn’t disagree with any of that. I think where we differ is the amount of weight I give it compared to other factors. I’ve posted a new entry, some of which consists of points I could have included last time. It’s not exactly a reply to the above, just more in the same vein as our ‘conversation’ here.

  6. March 3rd, 2011 at 17:47
    Quote | #9

    I agree with objection (a): the phrase “living wage” is unfortunate. As I see myself as a service provider rather than a wage slave, I had some reservations about joining the ranks of the No Peanuts endorsers. Nevertheless, I went ahead and did so, not because I felt particularly compelled to sign a moan manifesto or join a union, but as a reminder to myself that there is sometimes a fine line between being willing to go the extra mile for customers and being taken for a ride. I added the logo is on my website, in a place where only customers who are very, very interested in how I arrive at my pricing will come across it.

    Objection (b) is more interesting. In theory, it makes perfect sense. In practice, when I looked through the various websites of the other No Peanuts endorsers in my language pair (German-English) and decided that I was, by and large, in good company. That was a while back, so I should probably check again soon. But I suspect that the monkeys who do work for peanuts don’t have the confidence to stick their heads above the parapet and declare openly that they don’t and won’t.

    • admin
      March 4th, 2011 at 17:49

      On the other hand, there are some who work for what I imagine are classed as peanuts by the NP website, and are happy to do so and see no reason why they should change.

      Meanwhile, these confidence-deficient monkeys of which you speak, d’y think they’re on NP, or not? Because if they’re not (and I suspect this may be so – like the confident ones, they’re just turning globalisation to their advantage), the situation is even worse. It’s a bunch of well-paid people with a vague feeling that the market is turning against them, trying to keep their rates up through strength in numbers rather than making other business decisions, while the low-paid with whom they profess some kind of solidarity actually want nothing to do with them. Yikes.

  7. Charlie
    January 10th, 2012 at 20:30

    Anyone who appreciated Alvaro’s comments, and the time he spent on them, may also appreciate being made aware that his medical situation is sub-optimal. See here:

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