Globalization Gone Awry – The Rice for Intellect Mindset

Globalization is a truly one-sided affair: It serves the interests of the sports shoe manufacturer, who sells its products at the highest of international prices over those of the exploited workers of Asia who are paid in humble bowls of rice… And it serves those too of exploitative translation wholesalers over those of translators by knocking the bottom out of the market.
Once upon a time, there was a foreign exchange situation in Argentina. From one day to the next, a peso was no longer worth a dollar. Suddenly, the relationship was 3 to 1.
Like the sports shoe maker who went to Asia to find cheap labor, some foreign translation wholesalers went out in search of cheap intellect. Why keep on paying USD0.10 per word, if you could reduce the international rate to a third (USD0.03) and translators would keep on making the same peso rate as they had before on the local market? Despite the fact that other colleagues around Latin America were suffering a similar situation, the ones that were most sought after were the Argentine translators: University education in our country enjoys international renown and is much valued worldwide.
Many of us continued to work with international translation agencies at the same dollar rates as always. As professionals that we are, our rates should be the same whether we live in Buenos Aires or Durban. Unfortunately, not all of the agencies upheld their former rates: Many wholesalers decided to take advantage of the foreign exchange situation and make more money for themselves than they ever had been before.
These wholesale agencies were, then, basically depending on the grave economic situation that many colleagues were living through…as well as on “disinformation.” Colleagues that knew of the existence of an international translation market stood their ground. Although we were aware that ten years earlier USD0.03 was close to the local rate, we also knew that remaining in the profession back then was becoming ever more difficult: how to keep up with courses, membership payments, computer maintenance and all of the software necessary, etc. In other words, playing in the big league meant having to make big-league investments. Granted, we can’t charge local clients (be they direct clients or agencies) the same rate we charge the ones abroad. The local market is not comparable to the international one from any standpoint.
But the fact is that the great majority of translators had no idea of the existence of two markets (a local one and an international one), with two different ways of operating and two different rates. And because they didn’t know, they began to accept these international projects, and even did so happily!
Very soon, the market began to feel the impact of this situation. Those of us who continued to work on the international market at the rates we had always charged suddenly noticed a drastic cutback in the jobs we received. And the response was always the same: Why pay USD0.10 when I have hundreds of Argentine translators who will work for USD0.03?
Almost simultaneously, in translators’ directories and forums, a campaign began to get colleagues to “wise up,” but even then there were a number of translators who “didn’t know·” and who continued to accept exploitative proposals and, in doing so, to destroy the market (many times truly without realizing what they were doing). Others accepted the proposals simply because of their own mediocrity (“a bird in the hand”…) or because they were in dire economic straits. But this last group wasn’t the one that devastated the market. As I said before, everything depended, essentially, on the colleagues that were “disinformed.”

Insult Added to Injury

Then one day, wholesale agencies began to disembark in Argentina. And what did they do? Most of them did exactly what exploitative wholesalers abroad did. These agencies basically set up shop in Córdoba, Rosario and Buenos Aires. The community soon learned what they were paying: staff translators were paid miserable monthly wages of around 1200 pesos (just over USD 300 and less than the pay for an entry-level receptionist), while free-lance translators were paid really abusive rates of 0.06 pesos per word, a rate that was abysmally lower than the base rate that we had been charging on the local market 15 (FIFTEEN) years before! Clearly, accepting this kind of rate is an offense to our profession. It is an attempt perpetrated against our own future.
While these miserable little peso rates might help you buy a new pair of jeans today (because you’re still living with Mom and Dad and are trying to gain some experience), tomorrow you’re going to have grown-up obligations: municipal taxes, the insurance on the car, your children’s kindergarten. And who are you going to blame then, in the not so distant future, when you find yourself working on a depressed market? You can only blame yourself!
What we veteran professionals recommend to those of you who claim to be working cheap in order to get some experience is this: Translate for some of the many NGOs that are out there. If you’re going to “give” your work away, do it by helping groups that are helping the community and the world, not by aiding and abetting a handful of hustlers who are lining their pockets at the profession’s expense.

A Bit of History

The job of “in-house translator” was practically non-existent before the financial debacle in Argentina (2001) and the subsequent birth of the “cheap Argentine translator”.
Taking myself as an example, when I went to work for an international bank as an in-house translator, my pay was set by making a comparative study of what staff translators in legal firms and some other banks were making. Here I’m talking about real in-house translators, not the hybrid “secretary-translators” and similar species. It wasn’t a job description that was found in abundance, but in the year 2000 (with the peso-dollar exchange rate still at one to one), I was granted a starting wage of 3,500 pesos a month (about USD 42,000 a year). That was the pay grade that the Human Relations office offered me after properly analyzing the post I would fill. That was the fair market value of a full-time language professional.
Several months ago, I did some research among companies and consultants to update the pay scales for in-house translators. One consulting firm that didn?t list this job description among the profiles offered told me that if they had to define an in-house translator’s pay grade for a client company, they would make it comparable to that of a senior analyst. What kind of money are we talking about? Monthly salaries of between 5,000 and 5,500 pesos. Clearly, we’re talking here about real in-house translators, not the “Wal-Mart” type, working on a translation production line, who make less than an entry-level receptionist.
Be that as it may, Argentine wholesale agencies have opted for lousy pay scales that are an insult to any professional translator.
As you might imagine, these cut-rate wholesalers have pulled down some enormous contracts abroad. As soon as they were up and running, they had production lines of 10, 20 or 30 translators working for them -cheap, exploited translators. According to information gleaned from those agencies themselves, they quote rates of around USD0.07 on the international market (while the average for independent pros on that market is USD0.10).
The conclusion to be drawn from this is simple and easy to reach: dumping on the US market and exploitation in Argentina. I mention the United States because most of the mayor projects are born there and because we all know the importance that the USA places on market laws, on market-breakers and, as I say, on dumping. Cut rates abroad, impoverished rates/pay at home and a booming business… for them, the wholesalers. A checkmate situation for an entire profession.
So is this where the story ends? Have we simply been had? So far the only ones eating high on the hog are a couple of wholesale agencies.

Every Cloud has a Silver Lining? or Does it?

Sorry to be the bearer of another piece of bad news. Things have gotten worse (for us, I mean).
The wholesalers have set their sights on an ever more lucrative target: STUDENTS! Campaigning on university campuses and in other institutions where translation studies are offered, these agencies were able to harvest even cheaper intellect. The excuse was that they were offering “internships”, but the goal was a different one.

The Frameworks for Deceit

Taking advantage of translation industry congresses, the wholesalers started brainwashing disinformed colleagues with bells, whistles and colored beads. In the case of the students, this kind of PR smoke screen was even easier to accomplish since in 99.9% of the cases, students don’t belong to the professional forums or directories where such things are discussed. They didn’t just happily accept, they actually felt grateful! They felt that they were getting a hand (an “invisible hand”, so to speak) from the agencies.
But the wholesalers didn’t stop at congresses. They also managed to wrangle a presence in translators’ associations (the Public Translators Association of the City of Buenos Aires, for instance). And so, with this, they have ended up having a framework of “legitimacy” which they can use to their advantage.
And while we’re talking about things getting worse, it is worth noting that we now have a few university professors who justify pay of 0.06 pesos per word by telling their students that this is a “proper” rate!
When we denounce the exploitation of the country’s translators, the response of the wholesale agencies is that “nobody makes them” work for that money. Let’s not be naïve! The framework that these wholesalers build around themselves by occupying places in the universities and professional associations and congresses provides their proposals with a “seal” of officialdom and of legality. As a student, why would I doubt a possibility that I am being offered within the framework of my school. Why would I doubt my professor or an association that is founded by and for translators? In my world that’s called marketing, a pitch, a ruse (or whatever else you might want to call it). A hook. A con.

Where Will it End?

I understand perfectly well that this is precisely the business of exploitative wholesale agencies. Just one problem: Their business is invading mine, yours, the business of every one of the hundreds of us who, years ago, started advocating a better future for our profession. The market already existed when they arrived on the scene to depress it as means of filling their pockets through volume sales!

Thanks to globalization, Wal-Mart wiped out vast numbers of smaller stores.
Our own history will be written by us, the professional translators. Small store owners failed to oppose Wal-Mart. They simply became extinct. Is that the future we want for our profession?

Aurora Humarán

Translated by Dan Newland

Illustrated by Juan Manuel Tavella