This new space on No Peanuts! – The Sustainable Translator – was inaugurated in late 2010 in response to a series of articles that we encountered in the space of about 48 hours. They created a sort of satori moment in our thinking about our efforts to support translators in respecting their profession and defending their livelihoods.
The first member of the tetrad I mention above was Luigi Muzii’s long article in Italian, “Sostenibilità” (Sustainability), which is listed in the links section at the bottom of this article. As the title suggests, Muzii’s discussion centers upon what he calls the GILT (Globalization, Internationalization, Localization, Translation) industry and upon the forces (some of which are legitimate market forces, but many of which result directly from the conditioning, perceptions, isolation, and preparation [or lack thereof]) that shape the translator’s working life.
There’s certainly a lot to disagree with in Muzii’s propositions, some of which seem deliberately decontextualized (such as the assertion that the plunge in translators’ rates has come not because translators accept lower rates, but largely because translators are inadequately trained to provide what customers need and, thus, increase the perception that their work has little value) or even cavalier (his faith in the potential to transform crowdsourcing from a parlor trick for getting free translations into a way to build translation communities).
There’s also no special reason to be convinced, as he is, that the individual freelancer—that is the sole-proprietor of a one-person translation business—is a dinosaur marked for extinction or that the only hope for sustainability is to embrace precisely the high-volume, quick-turnover business model that has already so distorted the translation industry, including its focus on such aspects as speed over quality. (Your dentist could fill your cavities faster, too, if she didn’t have to wait for the Novocaine to take effect.)
In fact, Muzii can’t have it both ways. If translators earn less because they can’t respond to customers needs and, thus, increasingly seem pointless, then pushing them further down the food chain by turning them into cogs in the machinery of McTranslation megastores can never increase their prestige, skills, or ability to demand better working conditions (and pay).
The reality is that much of the translation business is in the hands of people who don’t know anything about translation and do not, themselves, translate. That’s a problem of no small proportions. (Just one example, for humor as much as anything else: Dana Forsythe’s forty-four-page book, available online, Start a Business in Language Translation within 24 HOURS: Own a Business Today and Be Successful with No Prior Experience! Writes Forsythe: “As a translation broker you have the ability to build a lasting business doing something that’s easy and requires no experience.” Forsythe’s approach isn’t unique; she’s just more up-front than most. For more than a few agencies, all that globalization means is an opportunity to exploit the need for language professionals while taking no responsibility for the sustainability of the profession.)
Still, much of what Muzii has to say is rich food for thought. Above all, his analysis is one of the few attempts we’ve read to place the translator in a three-dimensional perspective—within a kind of ecosystem, in other words.
The second inspiration was an article by Aurora Humarán on the site of the International Association of Professional Translators and Interpreters. The IAPTI is based in Argentina, a country where translators have been specifically targeted by predatory agencies who, taking advantage of Argentina’s ongoing economic crisis and subsequent currency devaluations, flocked there to make a killing on what Humarán calls “cheap intellect,” just as other industries have headed to the Southern Hemisphere and Asia in search of “cheap labor.”
Third was a call by a colleague, Frauke Joris, for an awareness campaign aimed at bookstores that sell—and, thus, at publishers who publish—books in translation. In a few words, the concept was this: Not another penny for translated books from publishers who don’t pay their translators adequately. The objective is to extend the notion of the “fair trade” or “equosolidale” product to the interwoven relationships among translators/publishers/and booksellers. It’s one of those wild-sounding ideas that has all the potential to take off like a rocket.
Joris’s call to action brings to mind Anne Leonard’s remarkable animated online series, The Story of Stuff. As Leonard describes it, the mission of the Story of Stuff is “to serve ecological sustainability and social well-being. Our goals are … to facilitate … involvement in strategic efforts to build a more sustainable and just world.”
But the main impact of the Story of Stuff is its ability to shift our gaze away from the heady moment of purchase and consumption, which is where manufacturers, service providers, and their advertising reps constantly insist that we look, and to show us the “before” (the production cycle) and the “after” (the disposal cycle) of the everyday objects we buy and the everyday services we use. In that perspective, the story of stuff is often quite literally a shock.
And so: an ecosystem of translators. An ecology of translation. The before, during, and after of a process that doesn’t depend upon the exploitation or obsolescence of the translator-worker and which insures sustainability along the entire trail of production and consumption. Naturally, translation and interpreting are not the same kind of “products” as cell phones, for instance, but thinking of these services in slightly different terms reminds us of a joke that’s pretty old (but still pretty good): In this world, there are two things that you don’t want to know how they’re made. Sausages and laws.
There are a lot of good reasons to add translations to that list.
No Peanuts! began with the concept of supporting “living wages” for translators. Use a different term if you like, but the principle remains the same: qualified, professional translators and interpreters should be able to earn, with their labor, enough to live on, enough to support themselves, enough to provide for their needs. Supporting the ability of translators and interpreters to command a decent living from their professional work is the beginning of sustainability for the profession and for the people in it.
But there’s so much else to think about. Meanwhile, these days you can witness the birth of innovative projects everywhere you look: a Facebook-based “Translator Seeks Help” board that doesn’t cost anything, doesn’t offer points or prizes, and doesn’t promote ProZian popularity contests; as a result, it gives translators the chance to share their expertise with one another simply because it’s an appropriate way to strengthen the profession, build community, and promote mentoring in the translator-training process.
You can see a mounting rejection of old clichés about translation coupled with a growing awareness of the strength that lies in our numbers. You can see a fierce new determination to resist, to talk back, to analyze those elements of the translation industry that have long ignored the best interests of translators and interpreters.
You can witness a growing emphasis on questions of ethics and solidarity as you browse the sites of international translator/interpreter associations, blogs, and social networks or read discussions on translator/interpreter listservs.
We’ve got a million contrasting ideas. We don’t always agree. We’re at the very beginning. But many of us seem to be wrestling with a similar concept: sustainability. Or, to paraphrase Anne Leonard, we’re trying to understand how we can facilitate strategic efforts to build a more sustainable and just profession.
And so … The Sustainable Translator.
Talk to No Peanuts! about sustainability. Tell us how you’re holding up/how you’re holding out. How are you (re)imagining your business? What are your experiences in building strategies that worked (or that didn’t)? What are your fears? What are your greatest successes? How do you see the future of translation?
Send us your stories (write us at firstname.lastname@example.org) and we’ll put the best of them online (with or without your name and contact information, as you prefer). Let your colleagues see your ideas and build upon them. Let’s start talking seriously about what we can do to make our chosen profession a more sustainable one.
Humarán, Aurora (n.d.). “Globalization Gone Awry: The Rice for Intellect Mindset.”D. Newland, trans. From the site of the International Association of Professional Translators and Interpreters.
Leonard, Anne. The Story of Stuff Project.
Miller, Laura. (2010, 9 May). “Yes, the Internet Is Rotting Your Brain … and Nicholas Carr’s The Shallows Has the Evidence To Prove It.” From Salon.com.
Muzii, Luigi (2010, 10 May). “Sostenibilità.” From the Il Barbaro blog.