IAPTI DECRIES Student Exploitation

Does a dentistry student perform root canals? No. Does an architecture student build anything? Not a thing. Does a law school student defend anyone? No one.

Students from any of those career fields can, of course, perform some sort of work “within their areas” of study. A dentistry student can work as an assistant in a dental office. An architecture student can get a handle on his/her future profession by doing administrative work in an architect’s office. And anyone in the legal field is certainly aware of how many law students act as paralegals, traipsing from one court to another every morning.

In our profession, however, there is no place, really, in which translation students can learn to take their first steps. There is no such job as dictionary handler, word researcher, glossarist or anything of the kind for those who are trying their hand at these tasks for the first time. No such position exists. Well, let me correct myself: It didn’t exist. It didn’t, that is, until some slick operators threw together an agency – the way you might slap together a stand for a rummage sale – and (voila!) translation students suddenly had a place to work. So, let’s translate! But translate just like a professional translator? No way! This is cut-rate translation in which students do the work professionals usually do, but for ridiculous rates, turning themselves into veritable “beggar translators.”

In-House Translators and Internships

Some cut-rate wholesalers seek out students and offer them “internships.” Are these genuine internships? Of course not! They are posts for cut-rate translators, period. Are those cut-rate wholesalers at all interested in whether or not the students get the benefits of a real internship? No! Those agencies started up their businesses in Argentina to fill their pockets with money by exploiting translators. They are not interested in anybody’s education, let alone our profession. If tomorrow selling iPods or clothing for “floggers” were to prove more profitable, they would stop thinking about Collins, Trados or ATA conferences in a heartbeat. Right now, however, the lucrative translation business is in full swing.

What makes us professional translators feel uneasy cannot be stated in the simple fact that “there are students working as translators.” Leaving aside the debate about whether translating is an art or a science, a gift or something to be learned (or both), I believe that there are students who are gifted and who have the knowledge and tools to do professional work. I know this, both as the director of a translation firm and as a translation professor. The magic of translating is in some students’ blood. Do they lack experience? Of course they do! But they already carry the hallmark of the translator. The same is true of active professional translators who have no university training at all. I have met several excellent translators who have never spent even half an hour studying translation in a university classroom. But this is a whole other subject altogether and I will leave it aside in this brief analysis, since it is not germane to the point I want to make. Nor are such translators currently at risk to the same extent that students are.

Am I seeking to diminish the importance of university education? Never. I hope to be able to continue studying the rest of my life. What I am trying to get across is that, depending, of course, on their ability or inability to do the work required, I do not have a negative attitude toward translation students who work.

My point, however, is this: What we are talking about here isn’t just plain, innocent work. What we have here are cut-rate wholesalers who are exploiting the students, taking advantage of the students’ lack of experience and their willingness to start working, even when they are paid ridiculous rates that add up to next to nothing. This is utterly shameful and our greatest fear is for the students themselves.

For instance, there is a cut-rate wholesaler in Córdoba who not only pays paltry wages but also encourages students to translate languages that they don’t really know. The line that he hands to the students is that he is paying them little to translate from Portuguese to Spanish because, after all, he is “giving them an opportunity to learn another language.” With as grotesquely cynical as the market is becoming, I must confess that I wouldn’t be surprised to soon learn that the same wholesalers are actually charging students for the “privilege” of translating. Sharp-toothed predator outsourcers stalk universities and teacher training facilities, well aware of the juicy and tasty prey they will find there. Then, they go to work on capturing editors. The rates they pay to student-translators are so meager that they can easily afford to pay for several different levels of editing.

What kind of welcome do they get from students? Happy! Expectant! Appreciative! (That’s because students are unaware that they are being exploited and that they are digging their own graves.)

These Breadcrumbs They Accept Today will Spell Their Own Starvation Tomorrow

Some years back, if a translation student did a translation for friend’s, cousin’s uncle’s neighbor, it didn’t matter. It didn’t have an impact on the profession, as a whole – or in other words, on the future of the student him/herself. (We’ll leave discussion of pay rates for those first translations for another time.) Now, however, the fact that a student accepts paltry pay from avid outsourcers that have disembarked on Argentina’s shores does, indeed, have an absolutely lethal effect on the profession as a whole. This is especially true, because we’re not talking about one student, but dozens, scores, hundreds of students! There is an agency in Buenos Aires that has a staff of 100 freelancers who are, in fact, student-translators. What are their rates like? Dirt cheap. Something like 0.06 ARS or 0.08 ARS (somewhere between 1.2 and 2.1 US cents per word). Such rates are openly offensive, since they place the entire profession at risk.

What students often don’t realize is that while these starvation wages may provide them with a few bucks now when they are still not 100% financially dependent on themselves (“So what? I still live with my parents!”), they are someday going to have to pay rent, attempt to get a master’s degree in some other country, buy a car, finance a household, and so on, and then, it will be an entirely different matter. It is a pity (for everyone) that by that time, the market will be totally depressed – as it is now, but even worse. My advice to students is, please don’t jump up and down for joy when you get these offers! And don’t accept them! If you feel capable of working, check with veteran translators to find out what the current rates are. We’re still in time to put a stop to this kind of exploitation.

Students must come to realize that they are laying all of their knowledge, effort and eagerness at their own executioners’ feet. Our executioners. A couple of slick operators who have made a business out of misleading information and exploitation.

A student that collects 0.40 ARS (approximately 0.10 USD) per word will do very little damage to the profession. On the contrary! He or she would be hard-pressed to find a client who would accept such a rate from a student. We couldn’t poke our nose into that. But the question is, does such a thing exist? Is that what we hear when a conversation about students who work crops up? Is that what translators with years of experience complain about when faced with the fearsome prospect of students who work? Or are we talking about young students who are being “used” by a few unscrupulous people who only pay a meager 0.06 ARS or 0.08 ARS a word?

Aurora Matilde Humarán

Translated by Lamberto Victorica
Illustrated by Juan Manuel Tavella www.hombreilustrando.com.ar
Originally written for Traduba:  http://traduba.com.ar/graduados.htm