The Difference between Translators and Toilet Paper (Steve Vitek)

Some time ago I saw a short documentary on HBO about what happened in Haiti after it was struck by a 7.0 earthquake in January 2010. Two images from that documentary illustrate for me the best the result of international aid that was generously offered to Haiti after the disaster, and they are still seared in my mind: one of them is the image of thousands of homeless people living in pitiful shanty towns in little shacks stretching as far as the eye can see, constructed from pieces of plywood, plastic and corrugated metal. The other is the image of a huge soccer field that was built by an American contractor after the earthquake, presumably so that the hundreds of thousands of people who live in little leaky huts made of plastic and tarp could enjoy a game of soccer.

If you are an idealist who doesn’t really understand how modern charity works, the extent of the corruption and mismanagement that accompanied the efforts of the worldwide community to help Haiti is nothing short of mind boggling. If you are a realist, you understand that this is exactly what is to be expected from a system that has become known as disaster capitalism.

A few celebrities, Sean Penn and Madonna in particular, tried to help the people of Haiti by donating their own funds, their own time –years in the case of Sean Penn — and the gift of their magnificent star power.

But because of how disaster capitalism works, most of the money pledged by individuals who have a big heart but only a little bit of money to spend was essentially wasted by NGOs and private American companies on highly profitable projects.

There is much more profit in building a first class soccer field from generous private donations than in trying to use donated funds to build much needed permanent houses for homeless people. Only a very small percentage of the money donated by private individuals actually reached the Haitians who were affected by the earthquake and who desperately needed it. According to the documentary, it was less than 10 percent of the funds. Most of the money went to private, for-profit American companies. Uncounted numbers of Haitians still live in shanty towns almost six years after the earthquake, while a few hungry goats are thoughtfully grazing on the green grass growing on the soccer field.

None of that is even hinted at in an article celebrating Translators without Borders that was featured prominently in the November/December issue of the ATA (American Translators Association) Chronicle. The article, written by Lori Thicke, the founder of Translators without Borders, starts with this very funny joke: “Some translation humor was making the rounds of the Internet a while back. Underneath a picture of an empty roll of toilet paper was the caption, ‘Translation is like toilet paper. No one thinks about it until they need it.'”

Although the joke comparing translators to toilet paper is side-splittingly funny, there is one big difference between toilet paper and translators. Unlike the labor of translators who work for Translators without Borders, toilet paper is not free. When toilet paper is given for free to somebody, for instance refugees from a disaster area stricken with dysentery and other diseases, it?s free only because somebody like Sean Penn bought it first.
The article goes on to describe the beginnings of Translators without Borders, which was at first conceived in Paris in 1993 as a small French charity called Traducteurs sans frontières based on an organization called Médicins sans frontières (Doctors without borders).

But just as there is at least one big difference between translators and toilet paper, there is also a big difference between medical doctors and translators. The average income of an experienced, hard working doctor in the United States is about 250,000 dollars a year, although depending on the specialty it can be a little bit less or quite a bit more. The average income of a hard working translator in the same country is only a fraction of that. This fraction may be again a little bit bigger or smaller depending on your language and specialization, and most importantly on who your customers are, (which is to say whether you work mostly for translation agencies or mostly for direct clients), but it will still be a fraction of what a doctor can make.

When your income is a quarter million dollars a year, it is not really a huge sacrifice if you spend a few weeks or even a few months a year in a foreign country helping poor people who could otherwise never afford your services. It may help you sleep better at night when you feel good about yourself, and you’ll still be able to make enough to pay all your expenses and taxes, while also making a significant contribution every year to your tax-free savings designed for a worry-free retirement.

But when your income is something like 10 to 20 percent of a quarter million dollars a year, it’s a very different story. Who will be paying your rent or mortgage, not to mention your taxes, while you are working for free, even though it may be for a worthwhile cause, or at least for an effort that is worthy of your labor and time on paper?

The answer is, obviously, nobody. You?ll just have to figure out how to make do with less. But perhaps just like to a doctor who sometime works for free, it will help you sleep better at night. Although, on the other hand, you may instead be waking up several times each night from a bad dream because your subconscious is wondering how to make ends meet.

There was a presentation given two years ago by Attila Piroth at the second IAPTI (International Association of Translators and Interpreters) Conference in Athens held in 2014. I didn’t attend this conference, but I understand it contained the same concerns about ethical issues with an organization that is encouraging translators to work for free instead of for the usual bag of peanuts that were expressed two years ago also in this blog post by Kevin Lossner.

I’ve met a few Haitians right here in Virginia where I live. The people I met here spoke Creole, which is their native language, as well as French, which many people in Haiti speak, and English, which is not exactly an unknown language among educated people in Haiti either.

I think the money that was donated by generous individuals and then spent building a vast soccer field as one can see from the HBO documentary would have been much better used if it were spent on local Haitian translators, who must have been present right there in Haiti when the earthquake struck in January of 2010, but who would have found it impossible to work for instance for Translators without Borders for no pay. That money would then go straight back into the local economy, which would be good for everybody living in that country.
Even translators who live in a poor country like Haiti have expenses, and they need to be able to make money to live. But how could they possibly compete with translators brought in by foreign NGOs and private companies whose labor is free, which is to say cheaper than toilet paper?

Steve Vitek (originally posted in Patenttranslator’s Blog)

Illustrated by Juan Manuel Tavella