Yes. There’s Still Hope for Argentina’s Translators

We could be talking about a market on which many Argentine translators (known the world over for their sound academic background) could say with satisfaction that they have a lot of work. With an Argentine market that is still depressed due to the tailspin provided by that unforgettable helicopter – the very emblem of the start of the 2001 crisis – made worse still by an inflation rate that shows no mercy, the international market could (and should) provide a solution for hundreds, perhaps thousands of Argentine translators, permitting them to enjoy the standard of living that they deserve.

Why, then, does the paragraph above start off in the conditional? It does so because the nefarious hand of globalization (that “very” visible hand) has done its best to foster unfair distribution of what should have been a great job opportunity for many of our colleagues. Today, most of our Argentine colleagues manage to subsist, while a handful of slick operators are getting rich off of the situation. Nor has any great favor been done to the international market. And regarding our profession as such, the less said the better: Any true translator must certainly feel sick at his or her stomach to hear translation being spoken of as a commodity.

In the first stage, foreign agencies began tempting Argentine translators to work for dirt-poor rates. The combination of local colleagues’ urgent needs with a clear lack of knowledge regarding the international market were a lethal combination. The result was a swift market collapse. But some international agencies took a still further step (or a closer one, as it were) and set up shop right in Argentina. They’re still here and – worse still – have served as an inspiration for countless Argentine agencies that have copied their model: They land contracts abroad and pay miserable local rates to the translators they hire (be they staff or free-lance). In many cases, the profit margin is astounding. For example, in Germany the contractors charge USD 0.24/word, but only pay USD 0.02/word to their Argentine translators (and less still if you consider what their “cost” per word is for in-house translators). In other cases, the damage is even greater, because some agencies also make it their business to depress the international market. How? By quoting lower than the fees foreign clients expect to pay. They engage in dumping on the international market while exploiting translators on the local one. Strong Argentine backs continue to bear the burden of the succulent profits these agencies turn. The big money stays in the hands of a few.

At a time when professional associations and guilds are recommending that local translators start pegging their rates to 0.30-pesos/word benchmark (and more power to them!), wholesale exploiters are paying insulting rates of 7 to 9 Argentine centavos per word. Some wholesale agencies pay even less, as real professionals look on in consternation at the flea market that the profession has become. The power of these agencies is on the rise and the reality faced by translators is inversely proportional. You can work for the insulting 7 centavos offered by that agency based in Córdoba or you can “compete” by listening to that university professor who says that “it’s okay to charge 0.06 pesos per word.” To top it all off, young translators are being brainwashed into believing that the best possible situation (sure, for the agencies!) is that of being an in-house wholesale agency translator ? in exchange for truly offensive wages: 1,200 to 2,000 pesos (between USD 315 and USD 525) a month, in what constitutes a source of shame for the profession and a prelude to a dark future for everyone.

Those of us who love this profession and know what it is like to make a real living, and to live well, from it have tirelessly alerted our younger colleagues to the need to be well informed, to consult those with long-standing reputations and, above all, not to take a short-term view of their chosen profession. The lousy seven, eight or nine centavos a word that they accept today and that is enough for them to buy that new pair of jeans they wanted (“because, what the heck, I’m still living at home with Mom and Dad”), won’t cover any of their wants and needs when their tastes and requirements change in the future. If we decide to live off of our profession applying the criteria of the bubble we live in today, later when we rub our hands together in anticipation of the improved earnings we are planning to get in the future, reality is going to show us that the market won’t offer more than the seven, eight or nine centavos  (or even less!)  that we ourselves helped establish as the standard rate. What right have we to be surprised by the very market that our own short-term mindset has favored?

Can this scenario be changed? It can be and it must be. How?

1) By consulting the fees being recommended by professional associations. You’ll see just how far from these the miserable pay offered by the wholesale agencies is.

2)   By understanding that if the option of working as an in-house translator is going to be worthwhile as a living, the pay offered should never be lower than 6,000 or 7,000 pesos a month. 

3) By taking advice from colleagues of long standing. We all form part of a system, and it behooves every member of that system to ensure a free and healthy flow of information among all professionals of good will. 

Aurora Humarán 

Translated by Dan Newland

Illustrated by Juan Manuel Tavella