If Lady Gaga has a business plan, why shouldn’t we?

There is one compelling subject that all potential translators should debate openly before throwing themselves to the lions of the professional arena. In truth, it is also something that those of us with more experience should also reflect on.

That subject is our (bad) relationship with money. It has been said that Judaeo-Christian civilisation has drunk too much from the fountain of guilt, something that comes to the fore whenever we speak about money. It is difficult to talk to anybody about money questions in an even minimally natural way. “How much do you earn?” (Cough, cough.) “How much do they pay for this?” (Cough, cough.) And in the translation world: “What are your fees?” (Hacking cough, cough.) Perhaps this is due to fear of the Taxman. Perhaps it is because we believe we earn very little (in other words, we undervalue ourselves). Perhaps it’s because, in general, being largely from the humanities, we are no experts with figures. Perhaps, perhaps, perhaps… However, what is certain (and the most important factor) is that this characteristic is not doing our business any good at all. Yes, I said it: “business”.

I have seen too many colleagues stammering when working out an estimate, stopping at every morpheme, really suffering in a process that should be completely natural. My physiotherapist does not hold back when quoting his fees, why should I?

At the moment of truth, the fact that our profession is so vulnerable, in so many ways, does not help us when we need to state clearly: “my work is worth so much”. This is most obvious with our fundamental tool: language, which has no hierarchy since it “belongs to everyone” (it does, of course). This makes it more difficult to establish the value of a professional wordsmith. Indeed, we are often held in low esteem. Those of us who use a vocabulary that is a little richer than average are often seen as, at the very least, eccentrics. And on top of all that we expect to charge for our services? (“How much did you say?”)

I believe that the translator who stumbles when having to quote his or her fees is giving off a signal that is damaging for all of us. Stand up for yourselves, colleagues! We’ve invested time, money and prospects in this profession! It is easy to take an insecure person for a ride. There is
nothing easier than fooling a person who is too embarrassed when quoting their fees, to dupe the person guiltily examining the shine on their shoes instead of meeting the client’s eyes and confidently stating how much a job is worth.

When I was an in-house translator in a bank, a work colleague called to ask me for something “rather personal”. We met together to have a coffee. He
wanted me to translate his CV. (These were the years of the sad exodus of professionals from my country). I told him I would gladly do it. He gave me a little folder, thanked me and stood up, preparing to leave. “Ahem… aren’t you interested in knowing how much I’m going to charge you?” I asked him. You can guess the end of the story. He grabbed the folder out of my hands. “No sweat. Forget it. I’ll give it to you another day. Ciao!”
“Anyone can translate.” “Translation should be free.” “Translation takes millionths of a second”. None of these three statements are correct, but it is us who have to explain that. That is why it is important for us to reconcile ourselves with figures.
As you already know, these days, the “translation business”, the great
critical mass of translation work, is not in the hands of translators, but rather in those with degrees in business administration and other similar qualifications.

These new protagonists in the world of translation are now making money from translation, but tomorrow they could as easily make it from breeding huskies to pull sledges, or from some dot com business, or from merchandising for Lady Gaga. We share our work arena with people who view figures from a completely different perspective. Thanks to that they are powerful, while we (if we don’t shake ourselves) are weak, vulnerable.
We should all know the current market rates, how much we can translate in a day, what would be a reasonable discount for a text of X number of words, etc. We should all know how to affirm what the value of our work is without a single shy look, without fear or guilt. As I have said, we have to reconcile ourselves with figures.

We all know that as translators we are captivated by words. We hear the word “hummingbird” and we see colours.
We read the word “catastrophe”, and a meteor strikes the world of our imagination. However, there doesn’t seem to be any way that we find figures magical or enchanting. We hear “tax”, we read “average” or we write “percentage” without being spellbound by their sound. Quite the reverse! One piece of advice: don’t let your clients know this.

Aurora Humarán
Translated by  Berni Armstrong

Illustrated by Juan Manuel Tavella www.hombreilustrando.com.ar