The current economic crisis, brought to us courtesy of big, greedy banks who turned the world’s economy into a crapshoot casino, has been with us for more than two years. Many people have lost their jobs, their homes, their dreams were obliterated by a force stronger than their resolve to make it no matter what. The banks, they told us, were too big to fail, so we had to bail them out. Not like we had any say in the matter since even the politicians themselves admit now that the banks own our government. Nobody will bail out little people, of course. The banks were too big to fail (and now they are even bigger, and their casino is even sweeter since now they know that we, the little people, will be forced to cover their losses again) and we are too small to matter. Last year we had to bail out Wall Street, this year we will have to bail out British Petroleum, and next year there will be more greedy, needy multimillionaires from another thievery corporation sticking their hands into our pockets. We don’t really live in capitalism any more, it is extremely generous socialism for the super rich and extremely ruthless, 19th century style capitalism for the rest of us. We should try to figure out the name for the new system, but that would be a topic for another post. Maybe capitalism is surviving only in the People’s Republic of China. If BP were a Chinese company and the oil spill happened in the Yellow Sea instead of the Gulf of Mexico, a dozen executives would be in jail and one or two on the top would be executed. But nothing will happen here, of course. BP stands for Beyond Prosecution. Nobody will even lose a job over something as trivial as an oil spill lasting weeks or months. Except, of course, for hundreds of thousands of fishermen, people who work in hotels near beaches, people like that. The little people who don’t matter. Should somebody be killed as a result of my reckless driving, I would spend a long time in prison, and deservedly so. But when is the last time that a top executive of a multinational corporation went to prison for a reckless decision? I think the answer to that question is never. I watched a lot of TV coverage of the BP oil spill catastrophe on US, German, French and Japanese TV. One German environmental scientist said, on Deutsche Welle and in German, that drilling under ocean in depths which make it impossible to quickly intervene in case of an accident of this magnitude should simply not be allowed because it is not safe. I have not heard this view of a crazy German scientist expressed in English, on ABC or CNN or any other US teevee station. Not drill for OIL just because you could create America’s Chernobyl of biblical proportions? That is insane!
But I am digressing again. So what was the effect of the current economic crisis on the freelance translation business in the case of this patent translator? For the most part, it was business as usual. I did suffer some losses. The magic number for me here for some reason is 15. A multinational corporation that used to send me Japanese and German patents for translation for 15 years changed the payment terms. This corporation, which accounted on average for about 15 percent of my income in the last 15 years, was now going to pay me in 60 days instead of 30 days. Well, dear corporation, I have to give you an interest free loan for 30 days since this is common practice in the industry, but I really I don’t like waiting 60 days for my paycheck. So I raised my rates to them – I eliminated the discount that I normally give to customers on non-rush jobs in the case of this particular customer. Predictably, they never sent me any more work.
I read more mystery novels in the last two years, which is what I do when I am waiting for a new translation job, than in the years before the economy crashed on a worldwide scale. My income was stagnant. About 15 percent less than what I was used to before the crash, for two years in a row now. But nobody fired me – in fact, it’s more like I fired customers who misbehaved. I lost two more corporations in the last two years because I would not let them have the payment terms extended. But they were fairly recent acquisitions and they accounted for a very small amount of my work. Which brings me back again to the magic number 15. My advice to freelancers would be – never rely on a single customer for more than about 15 percent of your income. It is virtually impossible to say no to a customer who represents a third or more of your income. But otherwise, every customer is replaceable. Even a major corporation that provides a relatively big percentage of your income is replaceable. You just have to pick up two or three new smaller accounts.
I am replaceable to that corporation too. I am sure they found somebody who will wait twice as long as I am willing to wait to get paid for my work. But I doubt that this translator will have as much experience as I do. After all, I was translating patents for them in the same, somewhat obscure fields for 15 years and it took me a few years to figure out the proper terminology in English. Now they will have to get used to a new translator. What is not easily replaceable is the knowledge that people have accumulated over time.
It is sad when we lose a longtime customer. But, hey, we just put the knowledge that we have to work on projects for other people. Customers come and go. As the French classical author de la Rochefoucauld said almost three centuries ago, the only constant in life is change.
UPDATE: FOUR MONTHS LATER
It turns out that I was not too far off the mark with my prediction about the survival of real capitalism, which means real accountability, in (formerly) communist countries such as China, as opposed to the lack thereof in the United States. The CEO of a company in Hungary that caused the biggest environmental disaster there, although nothing comparable to biblical scale of the disaster caused by BP in the Gulf in Mexico, is in prison and the assets of the company were seized by the government. This was only briefly mentioned on our obedient mass media, but none of our “journalists” that I saw on our teevee had the courage to make a comparison to BP, although it must have been on the minds of millions of Americans. Unlike in the formerly communist country of Hungary, corporations here are no longer accountable for anything any more. They dictate the rules because they own the politicians, lock, stock and barrel. And it makes absolutely no difference any more whether these politicians are Democrats or Republicans.