Or: How ProZ, TranslatorsCafé, GoTranslators, TranslationDirectory and their Ilk Undermine Free Enterprise, Obstruct Living Wages
for Translators, and Sabotage the Profession
(and Why They’re Getting Away With It)*
[*Today we’re recalling the formation of the No Peanuts! for Translators movement almost exactly one year ago. Here’s a post from April 2010 that recaps a seminal series of events: the Italian Trust Traduzioni scandal, the petition asking ProZ.com to revise its job-posting policies, and the subsequent decision by a group of translators to transform that isolated incident into an international movement: No Peanuts! for Translators. For those of you who have been with us from the start, for those of you who have only just discovered us: Never give up, and never give in.]
From the February 8, 2010 job offer on ProZ.com, you might never have guessed that a scandal was brewing.
In fact, it was a job announcement like many of the offers that appear on ProZ, especially in combinations into or out of Italian or that involve Italy-based translation agencies: the pay was bottom-scraping (€0.02 or about $0.03 per word); the rate had been calculated on the basis of an entirely fabricated “page” that was 175% larger than the measure typically used by translators in Italy; and the outsourcer warned the translator not to expect to be paid any early than at least ninety days after delivery.
But the job offerer, the Novara, Italy-based translation agency, Trust Traduzioni, made a couple of errors that pushed the flaws in ProZ’s system—flaws that translators had been complaining about since at least 2002—into the spotlight.
In specific, Trust Traduzioni claimed that the onerous conditions in its announcement were not its doing, but were all “requirements of the end client.” That end client, in this case, was the Italian Ministry of Tourism, a government agency.
The problem was, first of all, that the ninety-day payment term was a violation of European Union and Italian law, which requires invoices for commercial transactions to be settled in thirty days not ninety. Why, translators asked, didn’t ProZ vet an announcement that required freelance translators to accept an illegal job condition?
Second, Italian translators were disgusted to realize that the sweatshop wages in question were apparently coming from their own government. Low-end, fly-by-night private agencies in pursuit of a quick buck were par for the course. Price dumping on the part of one of Italy’s largest ministries—the agency in charge of one of the few thriving industries in a largely stagnant Italian economy—was literally shameful.
A petition drive was organized in protest and some 1200 translators signed on in less than forty-eight hours. Several Italian daily newspapers carried the story and, nine days after the offending job announcement, the Italian Minister of Tourism, Michela Vittoria Brambilla, formally responded to the controversy with a statement that Trust Traduzioni’s posting “imputed untrue information to the Ministry of Tourism”; what’s more, Brambilla insisted, “the Ministry … does not apply and has no intention of applying the fees and conditions indicated in the announcement.” That almost sounded like good news.
The ProZ Protest: A Petition Concerning ProZ.com’s Job Policies
But many translators who use ProZ were well aware that the Trust Traduzioni announcement was the rule, not the exception, on the ProZ job board—and not only in the Italian<>English combinations. As a result, a second protest was born some two weeks alter in the form of a “Translators’ Petition Concerning ProZ.com’s Job Policies.” (The text of the original petition is here.)
In barely four days, before the petition was formally delivered to ProZ.com’s Henry Dotterer, 844 translators signed—some two-thirds of them ProZ members. The heart of the petition was this paragraph:
To cite one specific example: the fact that ProZ.com allows job posters to set prices and conditions is, in itself, a form of “market distortion” and reveals one of the main reasons why we believe the ProZ.com job posting system is fundamentally flawed. When offering translation services, the freelance translator acts as a service provider, not as a client…. [T]he freelancer and not the client should establish working conditions, prices, etc.”
The petition had barely been online twenty-four hours when ProZ’s Dotterer contacted the petition’s organizers to object to what he called two “inaccuracies” in the text.
First, he argued, ProZ did not allow those requesting translation services on its boards to “set prices.” Rather, they “can say or write whatever they want, just as those who offer services can, and ProZ.com does not get involved one way or the other.”
Second, Dotterer considered it “misleading” to speak of a “steady and alarming increase in the number of ProZ.com job offers that contain rates and working conditions we consider totally unacceptable.”
So let’s take those one at a time.
With regard to Dotterer’s first argument, ProZ allowed (and still allows) job posters to indicate the amount they are offering for each project. Only in some hyper-legalistic realm of imaginary language does this not constitute “setting prices.” In the real world, that’s precisely what it does: It tells the translator the maximum the client intends to pay.
Despite all the evidence to the contrary, in other words, Dotterer seemed to be suggesting that translators held bargaining power in ProZ-based transactions and could negotiate rates higher than the advertised maximums. Anyone who has ever responded to one of ProZ’s cut-rate job announcements, however, knows the truth. The best a translator can hope for is that, when the outsourcer responds to refuse your request for a higher rate, he doesn’t insult your parentage as well.
Henry Dotterer may be the only person living who believes that the prices set (established, fixed, determined) by ProZ’s outsourcers are up for negotiation but it was, in any case, precisely the fact that ProZ “does not get involved” in this distortion of the proper client/service provider relationship that led to the petition in the first place.
With regard to the second argument, Dotterer may have had a point. Perhaps there was no “steady and alarming” increase in low rates; to the contrary, ProZ had apparently been allowing such rates since its inception eleven years ago. Here, the comments of signers to the petition make the point eloquently:
I was one of the first couple of hundred people to sign on to Proz. Already within a few months it became obvious to me that it was going to be a clearinghouse for downward pressure on translation rates, and I rescinded my membership. (L., 23 Feb)
It is high time that such action is undertaken! I have felt for quite some time that ProZ ought to do everything in its power to prevent dumping prices for translation work. (S., 23 Feb)
It’s been clear for a number of years now that Proz.com has become a magnet for dumping prices and the site has done very little to avert this and other disturbing trends in the translation industry. (P., 26 Feb)
I believe Proz is destroying the quality translation and improvement of translation industry by creating a forum of low paying offers for translation/interpretation services. (F., 23 Feb)
I have been a member of Proz for many years. I have found that the jobs posted on Proz as well as offered to me directly as a result of Proz are often an insult to our profession, especially over the past couple of years. (S., 23 Feb)
I’ve never gotten a single job from Proz. I was a paying member a few years back. (G., 25 Feb)
(More than a hundred comments left by the petition’s signatories can be read here.)
From the Petition into the Frying Pan
Immediately after the petition was delivered, a small group of translators began working on the draft of a proposal to ProZ aimed at remedying the specific problems that translators had identified. That proposal (posted here) was delivered to Henry Dotterer on 19 March 2010.
What followed was an intense couple of weeks in which each individual point of the ProZ Proposal was dissected and discussed on forums that Dotterer set up within ProZ. Much was said. Much seemed possible.
And, in the end, ProZ did nothing.
Or, to be fair, ProZ created an elaborate new system for its job board that allowed translators to change their notification settings and, in so doing, to elect to see or not to see the rates posted by outsourcers. It also got out its Orwell dictionary and found a pleasant-sounding euphemism to employ. From now on, job posters would no longer indicate their price. They would indicate their budget.
Put it another way. The ProZ Petition—and the petition’s supporters who joined the ProZ forums to discuss the 19 March 2010 proposal—argued that allowing outsourcers to state maximum prices undermined translators’ position in the client/service provider relationship and created ongoing downward pressure on translation rates.
Making that small change—prohibiting any mention of rates on the part of a job poster—would have accomplished two goals, one immediate and one long-term. The immediate goal was that the proper position of the service provider would have been restored on ProZ: the service provider would once again be given the appropriate power to establish rates and working conditions. That would have sent an enormously powerful message to other online clearinghouses and, more importantly, to the outsourcers who advertise on ProZ (the vast majority of which are agencies). Above all, it would have brought balance back to the negotiations that naturally take place between someone who needs a translation and someone who can provide one.
The long-term goal is that a shift in ProZ’s policies regarding job postings could have served as an important educational and ethical tool for translators themselves. Having to propose your own rates—rather than wait for them to be imposed on you—means evaluating your services: What do you actually provide? What makes you different from or better than other translators in your language combination? Why should a client pay your asking rate? Those are all aspects of calling oneself a professional, and they’re good questions for translators to be asking themselves.
Instead, ProZ chose to make no change whatsoever in the ability of outsourcers to name their price. And TranslationDirectory, TranslatorsCafé, GoTranslators, and similar online “middlemen,” like ProZ, do exactly the same thing. [For an update on this practice, see “A Funny Thing Happened at TranslationDirectory.”]
That’s how perverted the market has become, and that’s why online jobbers have not only earned our criticism, they’ve focused our attention on our need for self-defense.