Charlie Bavington

French to English Freelance Translator - I.T. specialist

Bringing a pragmatic eye to meeting your needs

Snappy titles? – no thanks

March 4th, 2011 | Categories: business

Some of the following was drifting in and out of my thoughts as I drafted the previous blog entry, and perhaps it would be helpful to add it here (as ever, part of the aim is to clarify my own thinking, none of which will probably turn out to be devastingly original).

(And my apologies – this is a mini-epic.)

One element to all this is that freelancers are two things in one. They wear two hats, sometimes simultaneously. Firstly, they are individuals, members of society, probably members of a family, consumers, voters (perhaps not always, I suppose) and so on, just like anyone other adult. And secondly they are business entities, not necessarily with separate legal personality, certainly, but nonetheless, they are businesses. Something of an artificial distinction perhaps, given that ultimately, anything a business does, any decision it takes, is quite naturally done or taken by a human person, and for a freelance operation there is only one person making all the decisions. Nonetheless, I think it is a point worth making, because we are businesses dealing with other businesses, as well as people dealing with other people.

Of course, then, how an incorporated business behaves (if you will forgive the constant anthropomorphism) is largely determined by the ethics of its senior managers (and supervisory board, perhaps), with the constant background concern that their ultimate duty is, as things stand (by which I mean, in some countries at least, as the law stipulates), to act in the company’s (sometimes interpreted as shareholders’) best interests, these being typically measured in the short, medium and long term by money (I summarise and simplify hugely, see for instance here from a UK perspective. We of course, as independent freelancers, especially the unincorporated ones, are free to do otherwise.

As a student studying business in the 1980s against the backdrop of the miners’ strike in the glory of Thatcher’s Britain, this constant focus on financial value struck me as being short-sighted. I could grasp the point that if it was cheaper to import coal from Poland than mine it in Nottinghamshire, it made financial sense to do so. I also understood that in many cases, people had been striving to break long family traditions of working down the pit, for many reasons, not least the danger and unpleasant working conditions. And yet on the other hand, it seemed there was more to the coal industry than digging up black stuff to burn in power stations, and perhaps people’s career decisions are best left to them to make. I digress a little, and there are more knowledgeable people who have written numerous books and drawn countless more insightful conclusions about that whole period; suffice it to say it left a lasting impression on a previously somewhat right-leaning young man.

And so “…they know the price of everything and the value of nothing” emerges from my creaking, lefty lips pretty much weekly (and did so even when we had a supposedly left-leaning government here) – because sometimes I just cannot be arsed to be sparkling and original. I strongly believe that those who employ others (or in more general terms, create a link of financial dependency), particularly those in unskilled and semi-skilled positions (the “easily replaced” in my previous post), are ethically bound to treat those people decently. Such jobs are largely a means to an end in our essentially capitalist system, and those ends are, in a word, social. Work to live, not vice versa, and all that kind of thing. The failure of employers to behave fairly, ethically and responsibly towards employees, using them as human resources before the term was even coined, were the spark that lit the unionisation fuse. Men don’t spend 20 years beating panels because they’ve reached the peak of Maslow’s pyramid. They do it to remain members of their communities, and if they rally to the cry of “a fair day’s pay for a fair day’s work”, it is at least partly for social reasons. (I hope I’m not guilty of romanticising the role of unions too much – there have, of course, been some fairly shoddy union practices over the years, some driven by little more than greed and a desire to see if the tail can wag the dog.) (Am I guilty of using too many brackets?)

This is a further reason why I feel any union-esque tone in any call for solidarity between freelance translators is inappropriate, to add to the others already given (it was an idea lurking shapelessly at the time, I skipped it for brevity’s sake, it has, to be honest, taken a few days to percolate into even this not exactly bite-sized explanation). While we may blithely blather about online translator communities and suchlike intangibles, the reality is much more fluid than the sort of communities that unions and other organisations were and are, rightly or perhaps wrongly, trying to protect and preserve. It is also, of course, not entirely disconnected from the point about not knowing anything about the quality (in a broad sense) of those with whom it is proposed I join forces. We are not standing cheek-by-jowl in a windy car-park counting a show of hands that I know are just as capable and limited as my own. I realise this view may not be shared by all those who made positive noises on Twitter and elsewhere about the “No peanuts – no thanks” post.

Perhaps I do stretch the union comparison too far. Some have mentioned as much. I can go along with that; after all, I strongly believe the target population is fundamentally unsuited to any union-like structure. Try this, then. What you have is not a group of people united in some common cause. What you have instead is a group of businesses that individually share one interest. The thing is, that interest is the same interest that any business has. It’s a given. I don’t think anyone need get on a hotline to The Economist or WSJ to report a radical new grassroots movement of businesses that would prefer to earn more not less. Why make a song and dance about it?

So much for me (you? us?) as an individual member of society, what about me, you, us, as the financial dependents (or indeed actual employees) of our own businesses? I can, I imagine, rule out any need to join forces to save us from exploiting ourselves… If we decide to replace ourselves with a cheaper alternative, it seems a perfectly valid business decision (translation contract provisions notwithstanding). There is probably little to say here; we could amuse ourselves with scenarios whereby we give ourselves pay cuts to boost company profits, but who gets the profits? (Not to dismiss salary+dividend tax efficiency out of hand, of course.)

And so to the business aspect. I contend that once you’ve decided to operate independently, as a business, you make rational business decisions. But perhaps not exclusively. As a business decision, my office location could hardly be worse. Almost anywhere on the planet would be cheaper, but my business has decided to employ me, and here is where my community and social ties are (frayed and thin though mine are, my immediate family’s are stronger), so my labour does not come cheap if I am to afford to live here, as I wish to do. So, like anyone else, I am not some automaton making only economically-rational decisions on either my own or my business’ behalf.

But having decided to operate as a business, and especially having decided to operate in translation in particular, my business is no longer bound to operate solely within my local community, or even within my country. (I can see how an interpreter might take a different view – indeed, perhaps even an opposite one, if the local market is indeed dominated by one source of income as in point 2. of the previous post). If I am offered projects with inadequate financial reward, I decline. I look elsewhere. If this becomes a long-term trend and long-term revenue drops, I change some business basics. I look harder for clients. I make sure I specialise in something to justify a decent rate. I relocate so the dropped revenue becomes adequate. I revise my revenue expectations or cut spending. I diversify or move out of translation altogether. I outsource to people who will work for even less than the reward I previously viewed as inadequate for myself, on a scale that meets my revenue needs. The options are endless, but in my view, probably should include setting up or joining a website to whine about it.

That last option may sound a bit like the kind of exploitation I previously basically described as unethical. I can see why, and it would not be my first solution. But the fact remains that there are thousands, tens of thousands, of people happy to work for, well, peanuts. And I mean happy, not merely tolerating a situation for lack of any better options. I have read forum posts by translators in Peru and Ukraine, for example, both working for under 5 cents per word and neither seeing any reason to charge more, and both quite plainly sending the message they were doing very nicely thanks all the same and rest of us could go do the other thing if we thought they would change because it suited us. Same applies to the vast numbers in the Indian sub-continent, for example. They are clearly serving a market segment of some kind. Maybe it is not my segment, in which case I don’t care, frankly, any more than I would if they were basket weavers, lion tamers or cutting edge website designers. If they are in my segment, I either have to be just plain better, or add value in other ways, or indeed rely on clients seeing the benefit of using a service provider in a stable Western democracy with reliable infrastructure and a sound legal system (all of which are in part why it’s so dashed expensive to live here!).

Is that position contradictory? On the one hand, I believe corporations, particularly big organisations that may be the foundation of a community (in the case of mines, the very reason for the community’s existence), should think twice, or be made to think twice, before making the decision to switch to a cheaper labour force elsewhere. And in essence, most procurement decisions have an impact on some workforce, somewhere, as most economic output requires labour. There is the trickledown effect (disputed by some), the adverse effect of high employment in one area, reduced taxation and higher benefit payments – basically, the harm an organisation does to an economy on which it may, at least in part, depend for its ultimate survival.
We are all in this together, which would make a snappy slogan for someone.

And yet I am happy for clients to make exactly that same decision, to my detriment, and see no reason to join a club to fight it. If any of my customers can get the exact same service as I provide, from Peru at a third of the price, they absolutely should. I am a business, my customer is a business, making a business decision about another business, a freelance operation which has entered the industry voluntarily and in the hope it proves financially worthwhile. It is up to me to make that business work, by adding value from the service I provide and the wider environment in which I operate. I’m not, and none of us should be, in the position of a vulnerable employee, financially dependent on one source of income and socially inert. Any business that cannot do that should reflect on why that is, not seek to blame the world and build artificial barriers to entry. If there were only one translation agency in the world, I would probably feel differently. But there isn’t, so I don’t. And on that slightly repetitive note, I will close.

(Please keep comments about the miners’ strike to a minimum – it was just the catalyst for my own leftist epiphany and that’s why it’s mentioned here, and quite frankly, even if that epiphany was based on lies and misunderstanding, I’m a bit long in the tooth to go changing now. Telling me I’m a Scargillite pawn won’t change how I feel about the issue of freelancers uniting to moan about free market conditions.)

  1. March 9th, 2011 at 08:44
    Quote | #1

    Then again, if calling you a Scargillite* elicits another pleasure to read I’ll be happy to oblige! Thanks, that was good stuff.

    *Dang I just realized I’m old enough to recall the striking personality (too obvious to resist the pun) by that name…

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