Taking Stock: 60 Days of No Peanuts!

No Peanuts! was launched exactly two months ago, on May 3, 2010.

In these past sixty days:

1. Our blog has been visited more than 28,000 times by readers from 111 countries, including Kenya, Peru, and India and every country in the European Union;

2. Thanks to the help of No Peanuts! supporters, we’ve been able to make basic No Peanuts! materials available in 12 languages, with more on the way;

3. We’ve earned 210 official Endorsers who have publicly committed to upholding the No Peanuts! principles;

4. Our official Endorsers include members of some 60 professional associations of translators and interpreters from around the globe, including many of the largest and most influential such organizations in the world;

5. We’ve gained 1630 fans on our Facebook site, with more than 8000 visits to the No Peanuts! Movement’s FB profile;

6. We’ve created a Directory of Translators and Interpreters that includes nearly 100 different language combinations and continues to grow;

7. We’ve published or re-blogged some thirty articles regarding translation and translators in Argentina, Finland, Italy, Spain, Canada, and Brazil, to name a few; and

8. The No Peanuts! badge has been widely distributed on translators’ and interpreters’ web sites all over the world and literally scores of colleagues have blogged about No Peanuts! or linked to the blog on their sites.

For sixty days, we think that’s an excellent start.

At the same time, we realize we’re not anywhere near where the profession needs to end up.

Not long ago, on an online Italian translators’ forum, a member complained bitterly about a colleague, who was also a friend, who had underbid her on a translation job by offering €0.03/word (not quite $0.04, at the current exchange rate).

My response was that it was high time we stopped referring to such people as “colleagues.” They’re not colleagues and they’re not friends. What they are is unfair competition. And what they do has a name: bad faith.

Perhaps that seems like a harsh reaction, but I believe we’re at a critical crossroads. In these two months, one of the things that No Peanuts! has succeeded in demonstrating is the extent of the chasm between, on the one hand, translators and interpreters who see themselves as economically and strategically linked to other practitioners of the same profession and, on the other, those who live and work as if other translators had nothing whatever to do with them.

Such individuals would probably say they were “independent.” That almost seems like a positive attribute, if you don’t think about it too carefully. But let’s not forget that “independent” has quite a few synonyms, and that “indifferent,” “isolationist,” and “self-centered” are among them.

With each of us acting exclusively as individuals, there is no possibility that change will ever take place in the forces that shape our lives negatively. That’s as true of environmental pollution or world hunger as it is of dumping and price-gouging in translation and interpreting.

If twenty people all rush full-tilt to get on an elevator at the same moment, each one determined at all costs to secure a place regardless of what happens to others, the result is that some people will be shoved out of the way, and some will likely be injured in the frenzy. To the “independent” individualist, there’s no time to analyze the fact that there is actually plenty of room for all twenty and that everyone could get on safely, if only there were cooperation. “Independence,” as the word is often used in the context of translation, means that you must succeed. Whether others do or not isn’t your problem.

But we simply can’t go on—and here I mean “we” human beings—as if we had no connection to others who find themselves in the same boat. Or, to say it in different words: Acting solely as individuals, we perpetuate a system in which a few may be able to survive but in which many cannot.

That may be a great system if you’re certain you’re going to be one of the survivors. But life has a way of being unpredictable.

Recently, a member of an important translators’ association snidely remarked on his blog that initiatives like No Peanuts! were for people who believed in bringing back “public pillories.”

Well, perhaps I do, at least given the alternative, which is silence, collusion, exploitation, and unfair competition. If clients that pay peanuts and translators who work for peanuts begin to experience those acts as shameful and embarrassing, we might actually get somewhere.

Because let’s be honest: No one is going to give translators and interpreters an even break just because it’s the right thing to do. The owners of agencies that hurt translators aren’t going to walk out of church one Sunday morning and say, “I have seen the error of my ways.”

The cavalry is not coming.

Translators, who face many of the same economic and market obstacles as performing, visual, and literary artists, also tend to share two of their great weakness: a sense of individualism that drowns all efforts at collective action and a cut-throat approach to competition that might best be described as Darwinian.

Meanwhile, every attempt to create a collective, wide-angle, policy-based approach to the difficulties that translators and interpreters face must first, always, weather a blistering chorus of “Yes, but …” or “I might agree, if it weren’t for…” or “If only you had used a different word….”

We’re all great at analyzing the weaknesses in a given approach, that is, but we’re pretty lousy at identifying and lending our support to initiatives that might, on the whole, be successful.

The result is a fractured landscape: countless web pages and Facebook groups and petitions, each of which appeals to some tiny fraction of translators in some isolated part of the world, but almost none of which ever breaks out of its small community of adherents. Our great richness, ironically—the fact that we all speak and work in different languages—only makes things more complicated.

Last week, in The Silence of the Agencies, we asked why agencies and online translator clearinghouses would refuse to support the No Peanuts! principles. On a more personal level, I wonder the same thing about the scores of translators whom I know or interact with regularly but who still fail to endorse No Peanuts! publicly.

So I’ll ask it again. What is it, in the phrase, “No Peanuts! supports professional translators and interpreters in demanding and receiving a living wage for their work” that you find objectionable?

Are you against the idea that professional translators and interpreters should be able to support themselves and their families through their work? Do you think that hundreds and even thousands of your colleagues are lying when they express the fear that they may be unable to earn a living from their chosen profession? (In your eyes, perhaps they’re simply lazy or incompetent.) Do you believe that constant downward pressure on rates is actually healthy for the profession or for the individuals who have dedicated their lives to it?

If the answer to these questions is no, then why aren’t you a No Peanuts! Endorser? Why haven’t you put the logo on your site?

And, much more important than either of those questions: Why haven’t you written to your colleagues to inform them about No Peanuts! and to encourage them to commit to the movement’s principles? When you come across low-ball offers, rather than simply ignore them, why aren’t you making a point of responding with a detailed explanation of just why they are offensive and unacceptable? (We’ve even written a sample letter you could use to get started.)

Let me put it this way, if I had to choose between 10,000 official No Peanuts! Endorsers and 10,000 translators who didn’t endorse No Peanuts! but who put its principles into practice, I wouldn’t hesitate a moment before choosing the latter.

When our “colleagues” do neither, they aren’t hurting No Peanuts! They’re hurting themselves. And they’re hurting you.

Two months ago, we started No Peanuts! with this statement: “Living wages for translators and interpreters isn’t just a slogan. It’s a commitment to our future.”

At No Peanuts! we’re more firmly committed than ever to that position. We believe in it because we routinely receive email messages like this one from a colleague in the Ukraine:

I work in the International Department of the Federation of Trade Unions of Ukraine and every day we face with the violation of rights of employees and freelance workers. We are trying to deal with these issues and with unfair labour conditions, but I must say that every action grows more fruitful when it is widely supported not only by trade unionists but also by professionals themselves. The world has suffered from the financial and economical crisis. In fact, it is still suffering from it. But it is not an option for employers to make wages and fees lower and to make people not survive or live normally. Decent work and decent wages – that is the way to climb out of the crisis pit!

or this one, from a supporter in Spain,

I guess in Spain is happening the same as in other countries, that is, the translator offering or accepting the lower rates gets the job. When I first started working as a freelance translator, I thought that was the way it was supposed to be, until I became frustrated. I was working like crazy and wasn’t managing to make a living out of it. So I stopped and the most amazing thing happened. I removed my rates from all the translators databases I registered in and, in the end, instead of having to bid for the jobs, agencies were contacting me! And the best part is that they were accepting my rates. That made me notice that if you work for peanuts they don’t take you seriously.

In the United States, tomorrow is the 234th anniversary of our “Declaration of Independence.” It’s an excellent occasion to reflect on what that word—“independence”—really means, and it’s a good time to recall the words of one of our quirkiest, most original statesmen. Just before he signed the famous document in 1776, Benjamin Franklin quipped in a letter to a colleague: “We must, indeed, all hang together, or most assuredly we shall all hang separately.”

No one is threatening our lives here, but the threat to our livelihoods is no joke.

We can’t promise anyone that No Peanuts! will “work,” but we can predict what will happen if it doesn’t.

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About No Peanuts! for Translators

No Peanuts! supports professional translators & interpreters in demanding & receiving a living wage for their work.
This entry was posted in Notes from No Peanuts!, Resistance. Bookmark the permalink.

2 Responses to Taking Stock: 60 Days of No Peanuts!

  1. Just one word: EXTRAORDINARY!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!

  2. AJ Elterman says:

    I couldn’t agree more! Have been practising the No Peanuts! philosophy since I became an independent (but community-minded) translator and interpreter in the early nineties and haven’t regretted ever since. One can also have wonderful relationships with language bureaus when there is mutual care and respect.
    My general motto is: “Be the change that you want to see in the world.” (M. Gandhi) It seems to work in all areas of life, and it may well be the only thing that creates societal change peacefully.

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