The Revolution of the Translators: It’s My Business, and I’m Minding It

A guest post by Wendell Ricketts


On February 8, 2010, the Novara-based translation agency, Trust Traduzioni, published the following job announcement on (Proz, arguably the internet’s largest translation-services clearinghouse, is widely used in Italy.)

Dear Translators,

We are looking for new team members to include in a translation project for the Italian Ministry of Tourism.
The Ministry has begun sending us—and will continue to do so throughout 2010—materials from the site that need to be translated into English, French, German, and Spanish.
The “cartella” imposed by the Ministry is 2600 characters and the price is 9 euros gross with payment after 90 days (this condition is also a requirement of the Ministry).
The price is extremely low, but translators should consider the large amount of work on offer and the ongoing nature of the project.
If you are interested, contact me via email, telephone, or Skype.
We already have files ready for translation that need to be assigned with some urgency.
Your participation is appreciated.

The outraged reaction from translators was almost instant—and it hasn’t abated in the three days since: literally hundreds of messages to translators’ lists, to Proz, and on Facebook. A petition to the Minister of Tourism, Michela Vittoria Brambilla, which garnered more than 1000 signatures in its first 36 hours (as of this writing, there are slightly more than 1200). A pissed-off response from the owner of the agency in question (about which more later), and (so far) even a brief mention in today’s Corriere della Sera newspaper.

In other words: what we’re seeing is practically a revolution.

Translators, especially Italian translators, never protest en masse (we tend to complain a lot, but almost never agitate as a group). One of the profession’s greatest weaknesses, in fact, is the lack of collective action (and, more seriously, the absence of any sense of belonging to a collective, which must obviously come first).

There are a lot of reasons for that lack of protest, but one of the most debilitating is the fear of getting a “bad rep.” The fact is, a translator’s livelihood depends on word-of-mouth. Particularly in Italy, where troublemakers, muckrakers, and whistle-blowers of any kind are routinely and effectively shunned, marginalized, silenced, ridiculed, and “disappeared” (figuratively speaking), there’s a huge amount of fear of standing out too much in the crowd. Which means a lot of people get away with a lot of things they ought to be ashamed of, from Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi on down.

Translation clients (especially agencies) know this. And they take full advantage of the fact.

There’s also this Kafkaesque reality to deal with: Under Italian law, anyone who disseminates information that could be construed as “defamatory” about a business entity is guilty of a crime. What that means is that I could be charged with breaking the law if I sent a message to a translator’s list that said, “X Agency has owed me €1000 for six months. I’ve sent them five emails asking them to pay me. They’ve never responded.”

Truth is not a defense. Let that sink in. It does not matter if what you say is true. The agency in question could still report me to the police. Does it happen very often in the case of translators? No, but it could. Talk about a “chilling effect.”

But this time was different. This time, Trust Traduzioni’s announcement touched a raw nerve. In a troubled translation market and in the midst of an economic crisis that the Italian government refuses to acknowledge, that obscenely low offer on behalf of a government agency and those insulting conditions were a blow upon a bruise.

This wasn’t just another case of a private client expecting a translation for peanuts—a situation that was not unusual in 2007, became epidemic in 2009, and is now simply the norm. It was a case in which the employer offering sweatshop wages was the Italian government itself—a government bound to uphold a constitution whose very first line is “Italy is a democratic Republic founded upon work” and which goes on to affirm, in its Article 36, that “Workers have the right to wages in proportion to the quantity and quality of their work and in all cases sufficient to ensure them and their families a free and dignified existence.”

There wasn’t a lot of dignity in the Ministry’s offer.

Not a lot of dignity, starting with the detail of that cartella of 2600 characters—supposedly imposed by the Ministry of Tourism. (Here’s a quick primer for those not “in the trade.” In Italy, translators are typically paid by the cartella or page. In the case of publishers, the cartella is generally 2000 characters; for all other jobs, the standard cartella is 1500 characters. Inventing a 2600-character cartella is like your employer telling you he’ll pay you $20 an hour–but when he says “hour,” he means 104 minutes instead of 60.)

Not a lot of dignity in those nine euros, either. For a standard cartella of 1500 characters, €9 would already be considered “starvation wages,” especially in a country where freelancers pay 40% of their gross in taxes and social security contributions. In this case, it means putting about €5.40 per “super-cartella” in your pocket after taxes—or €3.12 (about $4.30) at the standard-cartella rate.

A translator working full bore with material that isn’t especially complicated (i.e., which doesn’t require hours of research) can finish off somewhere between eight and ten standard cartelle per day. That’s equivalent to 4.6-5.75 “super-cartelle,” for a net of €24.84-31.05 ($34.28-42.85) per eight- to nine-hour workday.

Well below the federal minimum wage in the U.S., that is (currently $7.25/hour). In Italy, where there is no minimum wage (or, rather, where the minimum wage can quite easily be zero in the case of the thousands of “internships” that are virtually the only employment available to young workers entering the labor force for the first time), it is palpably insufficient to “ensure (workers) and their families a free and dignified existence.”

And there wasn’t a lot of dignity in that 90-day payment period, a “condition imposed by the Ministry.” If true—that is, if the 90-day wait wasn’t a pretext invented by the agency—the Italian Ministry of Tourism is violating European Union law. Because paying one’s creditors as slowly as possible is something of a national sport in Italy, a law was passed in 2003 (Legislative Decree 231) whose purpose was to bring Italy in line with 2000 European Union legislation intended to “Combat Delays in Payment in Commercial Contracts” throughout the Union. If it was a pretext, then Trust Traduzioni is in violation of the law. Either way, it’s an illegal condition.

After the controversy had raged for only a day, the owner of Trust Traduzioni sent an anonymous response to the forum. In brief, her message was this:

1. I participated fair and square in bidding for the contract to translate the Ministry’s tourism site and my agency won.
2. Nobody’s forcing anybody to work for low rates; if you don’t like them, don’t accept them.
3. If translators and interpreters don’t have a union to help them establish decent wages and working conditions, it’s not my fault.
4. If you don’t stop complaining about this, I’ll sue Proz for failing to protect its job posters and for not verifying the truthfulness of the announcements it publishes.
5. Why don’t you all go back to minding your own business?

In other words: the usual bluster and bluff, and a not-especially-adroit dodge of the issues.

I might agree with Trust Traduzioni on one issue, though. Someone ought to sue Proz. True, I’m not sure what Point 4 means (sounds like language suggested by a lawyer): no one has attacked the “truthfulness” of her announcement, and it isn’t clear how she would propose to be “protected” against the outraged responses of translators who find a job offer offensive.

But Proz deserves to be sued for its refusal to protect translators (who are the ones who pay hefty annual fees for its services) against agencies like Trust Traduzioni and other clients who apply steady, implacable downward pressure on fees. In that calculus, translators have almost no power, and job offerers, with Proz’s help, have all the power.

Below-market offers have been common on Proz for years, but the situation has become dramatic in the last 12 months. Removing them from Proz wouldn’t eliminate the practice, but it would disable one of the main mechanisms by which low-ball clients come into contact with desperate, inexperienced, barely professional translators. It’s a link that deserves to be broken. And if Proz’s owners refuse to intervene at the level of fees, it shouldn’t be too much to expect them to stop approving announcements that contain illegal working conditions. I mean, at the very least.

Speaking of barely professional translators, meanwhile, I can’t help but close with this observation. Virtually every single “official” Italian government site that I’ve seen (whether national or local) is marred by preposterous, often comical English (I can’t speak for other languages), and the Ministry’s site is no exception. You can see a growing collection of such specimen here.

Clearly, other Italian ministries, governmental agencies and departments, and official city and regional sites (not to mention private businesses and organizations) have been choosing translators the way the Ministry of Tourism chooses translators. Rest assured that they’re getting just what they pay for.

1 Response to The Revolution of the Translators: It’s My Business, and I’m Minding It

  1. I totally agree!
    I have just discovered that the University of Milan (Polo di Mediazione Linguistica e culturale) has a partnership with Sesto San Giovanni that involves translations from Italian into English, done by Italian students.
    I mean: if the University too teaches to translate INTO English and not FROM it, the whole situation is understandable.,2180

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