Posted by: Steve Vitek | September 20, 2011

Do Corporations Really Create Jobs?

Corporations create jobs, we are told over and over by people who are paid a lot of money by really rich people to play journalists on TV, or to play the role of thoughtful and caring politicians representing “small businesses” such as yours and mine in an increasingly more and more absurd debating club called the US government, where 1.5 political parties keep pretending to be fighting over something or other, before they finally vote to increase my taxes and your taxes, and to lower them and create more loopholes for said rich people who will gladly take our money and then give some of it back to the same politicians for reelection.

The same principle can be applied to the translation business. We are told that big agencies create jobs for translators and if we, translators, work harder, faster and charge a little less, these agencies will be able to send us more and more work and everybody will be happy.

But rich people don’t really create jobs that much anymore, at least not in this country. They only create jobs to the extent that they need people to work for them because otherwise they can’t make any money.  But the fact is that the great majority of jobs are generated by small businesses and by individual consumers because there are millions of small businesses and more than three hundred million consumers in America, not by rich people.

All of us create jobs. When I go to have a haircut, I create a job for a hairdresser who cuts my hair every few weeks. Which is why I make sure that I tip her well. When I go to a supermarket to buy groceries, I create a job for a cashier as long as I refuse to learn how to use automatic checkout scanners. Each and every one of us creates jobs for many professions.

Because I am freelance a translator, it is in my power to create jobs for other freelance translators and since other translators send me work as well, we create jobs for each other. Although I prefer to translate everything by myself because I am a control freak, every year I send work to at least a dozen other translators, mostly in languages that I don’t know, and at least half a dozen translators send me work every year from their clients in languages that they can’t translate themselves. No translation agencies are involved in these transactions, except that sometime I am the agency, and sometime I am the translator.

I much prefer to work for another translator than for agencies that are run by non-translators. Translators rarely ask me stupid questions about my translations because unlike monolingual agency coordinators, they understand what translation is about. I can usually get a decent rate from a translator, and I know that he or she will not let me wait too long for my money. In fact, when I work for a translator, I am usually paid within a week or two. When I work for an agency, it almost always takes a month, sometime two, before I see the money, because the longer they let me wait, the more they make on the “float” on the money that is “floating” in their bank account.

The fact is that rich people have been actually mostly killing jobs in this country for the last 20 or 30 years by sending them to countries where labor is cheaper than in the United States, first to Mexico and India, and now to China. As soon as they find a place where the labor is even cheaper, they will move the jobs there, whether it is Vietnam, Mongolia, or Moldova. Millions of blue color and white color jobs disappeared in this manner and as Bruce Springsteen sang in the eighties, “they ain’t coming back”.

Big agencies too have been pushing down the rates that translators can get for their work by looking for cheaper labor, mostly in all the wrong places. When they can, they go to a third world country, even if the resulting English translation looks like English that was created by a malfunctioning computer of a visitor to planet Earth from Mars. Eventually, they may have to come back to translators who actually know English, but then they will try to figure out how to get a third world rate from them anyway, for instance by forcing them to use Trados with obligatory discounts for “fuzzy matches”. Am I the only one who noticed that rates paid for translations have gone down instead of up in the last 20 years, while the cost of living went through the roof?

It’s all the inevitable result of globalization, machine translation, CAT tools, Internet “marketplaces” for translators such as Proz and all of the changes that were brought about by computerization and the Internet we are told. There is nothing we can do as translators, we are told, because only luddites would even try to resist modern technology.

Well, this is one translator who has been resisting mammoth translation agencies and fuzzy matches quite successfully for quite a while now. I don’t really think about my translations as words, a commodity that should be processed, normalized and thus improved with computerized tools.

I try to think of my translations sort of the way Antonio Stradivari must have been thinking of his violins. True, I am no Antonio Stradivari. But I do understand that just like violin makers of old times, as a translator, I am practitioner of an old art that has been a part of our civilization for centuries, and that it would be a big tragedy if we allowed this art to be replaced by software, hardware and managers who push human production units formerly known as translators to produce more and more words per day at a lower cost.

Most violins are probably produced quite cheaply now in huge factories where workers are  simply assembling them from parts that have been produced, very quickly, by software-operated machines.

But that does not mean that I have to be one of those pitiful human factory robots who are operating smart machines to produce huge quantities of cheap and barely functional violins, just like some translators are assembling their translations from preprocessed computer files these days.

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Responses

  1. Pattenttranslator, Master Artisan, Artist of Translation (I hope), I love reading your posts because they talk to the core of my personal conflict. I understand what you are saying. Yes, in the 1970’s, when I started translating, we were, indeed, intellectuals who produced high quality works of the mind. Moreover, as I recall, most translators had “ended up” being translators after a long time as intellectuals, professors, or the like. 35 years later I have declared myself officially obsolete as the profession has already undergone the shift of progress and is in another stage of its existence. The word translator, as I was proud to call myself at some early point in my life, exists no more. Its connotation and its implication is something different. Not better, not worse, just different. And here is where you and I diverge. Only very few have the physical (and economic) possibility of remaining Master Artisans. The rest of us must either become part of the “translation industry” (that did not exist at all 20 years ago), or desist from participating in it for commercially sound purposes. For me, that is a fact. It is not a choice. Thus, I do call upon those who are still in the industry to embrace the technology that underlies such shift. Not a change. A shift. A structural modification. I want to play a game of words. I will quote the hated Wikipedia (didn’t exist 20 years ago) just because the text was easy to “Google” (which did not exist 20 years ago either): “The Industrial Revolution was a period of of the 18th century marked by social and technological change in which manufacturing began to rely on steam power, fueled primarily by coal, rather than on water or wind; and by a shift from artisans who made complete products to factories in which each worker completed a single stage in the manufacturing process. Improvements in transportation encouraged the rapid pace of change.” So, this is my game of words, I will substitute some of those words from the quoted passage: “The Digital Revolution was a period of the 21st century marked by social and technological change in which mass production began to rely on digital systems, fueled primarily by wireless communication, rather than slower means of connection; and by a shift from workers and professionals who produced complete products and services to computers and robots and other web-based technologies whereby humans and machines interacted to complete different stages in the output process. Improvements in digital technology encouraged the rapid pace of change.” By the way, thank you for keeping the discussion open. Surely needed, even being on opposite sides of part of the discussion.

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    • Hi Claudia:

      Good to hear from you again.

      I understand what you are saying. But I think that people who think that that translators will be largely replaced by machines and software as a result of the digital revolution are at best uninformed, and some (“industry insiders”) who actually believe that this how things will be for most translators must be pretty dumb.

      It is true that as a result of computerization of everything and of the insidious evolution of the corporate profit model, which, incidentally, resulted in a worldwide economic crisis, translators are not very respected for their knowledge as they might have been a few decades ago.

      But we don’t have to work for agencies that don’t respect us as knowledge workers and see us merely as easily replaceable cogs in their ingenious machinery. And if we do work for them, we have nobody to blame but ourselves.

      It’s a big world out there and thanks to the digital revolution, we get to pick our clients too.

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  2. @Steve: I agree up to a point: I also resist the downward trend, the fuzzy discount squeeze, and I have no big agencies on my client list (I “lost” the last big agency about 10 years ago when I became too expensive for them). I have a good mixture of direct clients, colleagues who outsource to me regularly and a couple of small agencies willing to pay my rates. Not a single Trados treadmill or MT factory among them. Having said that, I do actually use a CAT tool (DejaVuX2), and sometimes even the dreaded MT. But they are merely tools which contribute to my own virtuoso performance, and at the end of every job, the “music” is mine, it is not the toothpaste squeezed from a mechanical tube.

    @Claudia: I have read your comment twice, and I still don’t know what you are saying. Are you regretting the development of your career (an erstwhile genius who has capitulated to the march of the machine)? Or are you celebrating the triumph of the machine and joyfully urging people like Steve and me to join you in this wonderfully liberating lifestyle?

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  3. Hi Victor:

    I lost my last big corporate client about 3 years ago. And I have been working for them since 1994. I used to think that some corporations are different, even the big ones, but I don’t think that anymore. There is not much difference between them once they reach a certain size.

    I agree with you, I think it makes much more sense to work for small and medium-sized companies and agencies, in particular very small law firms and agencies in my case because they understand the value of my work and pay me accordingly.

    And I am not against memory tools per se. I may even start using one of them one of these days, although it will not be Trados since at least once a week I can see on my blog’s dashboard that another poor soul who Googled “I hate Trados” ended up on my blog again. I also think that a significant percentage of translators refuses to use memory tools and I think they tend to be working in high added value fields of translation such as literary translation or translation of highly technical documents.

    I am talking about the negative influence that these memory tools have been and are exerting on our working environment mostly because nobody else seems to be talking about it.

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