Translation Today: New Opportunities for Bondage and Poverty

It’s not true that the translation profession is in trouble! Kevin Lossner describes the new employment ballandchainopportunities available to today’s translators: chattel labor, indentured servitude, linguistic sausage production, slavelance, cog in the profit gears, bulk-market bog slopper, digital sharecropper.

Essential reading for those floundering in the “tsunami of information.” Reposted from Kevin Lossner’s Translation Tribulations blog.

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Post-Slavery Bondage and Poverty
Kevin Lossner | August 16, 2014

Following the news recently, I read with some interest a number of stories involving the latest innovations in the modern chattel labor market. Some corporations now control their labor costs with the use of innovative software which optimizes the labor force to meet the ebb and flow of spot demand at retail locations. What that means is that worker’s schedules are adjusted, sometimes on as little as an hour’s notice, and after working the night shift, getting off for an hour or two or three to sleep and shower before opening the shop early the next day, these desperate low-wage workers may find that they are sent home after just a few hours of work that morning because not enough customers have showed up.

The effect of this on families and relationships [is clear, as are ] the complications – the impossibility – of serving multiple massahs should one be unfortunate enough to have two such optimized part-time positions to make ends meet.

“Blessed are the flexible, for they shall not be broken” a youth pastor in my church used to say many years ago. But that was in an era where such things were unheard of, where the expectation of a job was that one could meet life’s expenses with it, not be an underutilized but optimized cog in the profit gears that grind out their soylent bulk feed for the global corporate trough. A body just can’t bend enough to meet some of today’s unreasonable demands by the merchants of greed.

Some of this may sound very familiar to many translators, especially those stuck in the bulk market bog where tools like Across or GeoWorkZ [are] used with or without the Babeled output of machines to grind and season wordworkers in linguistic sausage production. “Ah!” – you may protest – “But slavelance translators can do their work at home!” as if the digitally sharecropped fields where one need not even be exposed to sunlight on the way to work all day for the sugar in yer tay were any greener….

Historically in oppressed labor markets, companies and those who supported the interests of exploiters at the expense of social stability and healthy markets made good use of “divide and conquer” tactics to pit one group against another and drive wages into the dust on which the desperate choked in an attempt to eat it when bread was too dear. Living in Portugal and having just left a neighborhood with a degree of social misery through economic disadvantage which I simply cannot describe in public with polite language, I have seen some modern variations on this [theme}: skilled college graduates willing to go to extremes for the typical monthly wage of a bit over €400 (with skilled engineers earning a lordly €1500 a month or so, enabling one I know to pass up the opportunity to work for three years in Germany as an indentured servant of Siemens for €800 a month and share a flat with other chattel). I see the stress cracks in spirits pounded relentlessly by those much-loved laws of “supply and demand” and wonder how it is that most have forgotten history and are now doomed to repeat it.

In a recent Twitter dust-up, a number of colleagues who position themselves in well-compensated parts of the translation markets, where there is a continued demand for the kind of quality and service that Linguistic Sausage Producers are unable to deliver or even really comprehend in most cases (and which, alas, too few are able to deliver, though the Dunning-Kruger effect often leads them to think otherwise), argued with a prominent figure in the language service world known for his role as a consultant to commoditizers, as a co-founder of the Common (Non)sense Advisory and more. I found it interesting and disturbing that a man involved with marketing and market development for a bulk processing word shop would make a divisive statement claiming that his partners in the conversation “despise” those with lower rates. Those receiving the slave wages are very conscious of the difficulties of their lives and are often rightly resentful of the arrogant and dismissive way in which some colleagues do go on about the “price dumpers,” but in this particular discussion the point was being made that there is more room in the “premium markets” for those with the skills and the business savvy to work them.

I’m not taking a side in that particular argument, nor will I add my voice to the occasional chorus that condemns Renato, who may well have responded too sharply in this case because of the many unwarranted personal attacks directed against him by people who too often fail to understand his world as he appears to fail in understanding theirs. But I have been fortunate to have a few exchanges with him in person and through various online media, and while I disagree on a number of points (possibly a great number, but I really don’t know, because we haven’t talked enough), I have found him to be one of the most insightful persons with whom I have discussed marketing in my many careers, and the fact that his focus is on linguistic sausage shops and their bulk word paste and redefined “quality” criteria doesn’t detract in the least from the many good lessons I have learned from advice he has generously shared in public and private.

On the other hand, I am taking a side on a number of other matters, because I feel it is necessary for the good and profit of all parties who deserve to continue in productive participation in our societies. I think that we need to resist the temptation to suck the black, infected milk of lies from the “free market” advocates of markets which are far less free than claimed and recognize that all boats will not rise with the wave of prosperity unless we do something about patching the holes in many of them. Rather than waste its time canonizing popers who protected child molesters for decades, perhaps the Catholic Church should think about making Henry Ford a saint. Certainly he qualifies better than some of the disreputable characters in the roll of holies.

Mr. Ford is often noted as an innovator of sorts with assembly lines. He came rather late to the game of automobile manufacture, but it’s probably fair to say that the automobile industry as we know it today and the prosperity it helped to create for generations is due to this great man and innovator. But what, in fact, was his greatest innovation. His assembly lines produced cars at a lower cost than ever before! Surely that, and in school I think this is what I was told. But I think that is not it. Mr. Ford had the radical idea that the workers in his factory should be able to buy the cars they produce. And they bought them not because the cars were suddenly cheap enough that a worker in an automobile factory could afford them. They were not. Unless that worker happened to be building cars in Mr. Ford’s factory. The rest is history as they say.

Today the largest retailer in the world, Walmart, has many of its (low wage) workers subsidized by public benefits to be able to afford to shop for the cheap goods in their stores. McDonalds I’m told even has a hotline to advise its workers on how to get food stamps and other necessaries to support lives that are not sustainable through their employment. And at Lionbridge, TransPerfect, thebigword, Moravia, Kern and others….

Yes, there is a premium market of which many of the linguistic sausage pundits in the MpT world are often largely unaware, though, as colleague Kevin Hendzel has pointed out for years, it comprises many billions of dollars, euros, zlotys, etc. of business ripe for the taking by those who can meet the market criteria. All the disputes and denials on that subject are either deliberate deceptions on the part of corporate-side exploiters or simple lack of insight or of information by others. But in parallel there is that other universe of “commodity” language service which some are best suited to serve. There is no shame in that, because these words are often needed just as much or more than those in the world of high-end language service, and the waters are indeed rising swiftly with globalization there for all The Big Wave itself might have failed. But those hoping to profit from what the profiteers often refer to as the tsunami of information would do well to remember the example of Henry Ford if they want to escape being left broken on the beach one day when the tide recedes. Fairness pays and bread cast upon the waters is indeed found again, multiplied.

Kevin Lossner

About No Peanuts! for Translators

No Peanuts! supports professional translators & interpreters in demanding & receiving fair pay for their work.
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