Not so long ago, most translators thought of themselves as knowledge workers, i.e. workers who unlike manual workers create new knowledge or analyze existing knowledge to create new knowledge.
Peter Drucker predicted in his book “The Knowledge Worker” already in 1966 that major changes in society would be brought about by a resource called “knowledge”, a resource that knows no geographical boundary.
He said among other things that the incredible (fifty-fold) increase in the productivity of manual workers in the 20th century was for the most part the result of the work of knowledge workers.
A few decades ago, there was no question that a translator who had at his disposal only a typewriter with a sheet of paper and perhaps a dictionary, so heavy that it could be easily used as a murder weapon, was indeed a knowledge worker who had to know a lot of things in addition to at least two languages.
A few decades ago, you had to know a lot about the subjects you were translating, whether it was a new mechanical engineering design, description of a surgical procedure, or the proverbial “rocket science”. If you did not know what you needed to know, your only way out was if you knew the telephone number of somebody who knew what you did not know.
But that was before the limitless and borderless resource called knowledge led to development of other resources, including Internet, search engines, computer-assisted memory tools (which I don’t use, but some translators do), machine translation and many other resources available to translators now.
I still consider myself a knowledge worker, and I think that most of my clients think of me as a knowledge worker, especially my direct clients, but also some agencies. One can usually tell these things by the way one is treated by a customer.
But it would be difficult to argue that translators working for agencies who prescribe to these translators in demeaning and incredibly intrusive “Non-Disclosure Agreements”, which sometime border on insanity, exactly how and under what conditions these translators must work, think of the workers who work for them as knowledge workers.
In the second decade of the twenty first century, it is easy for a translation manager to think of translators as tiny, easily replaceable worker bees who by virtue of knowing two or more languages can be employed to replace words in one language by words in another language by using digital tools, preferably as cheaply and quickly as possible.
First, you ask the worker bees to sign an incredibly demeaning “Non-Disclosure Agreement”, which is in fact an acknowledgement of acceptance of terms that would be more suitable for slaves than for knowledge workers.
Then you tell the hard working bees which CATs to use to translate words between two languages, usually Trados. By agreeing to use these tools, the working bees are automatically agreeing to a big discount: repeated words (called “full matches”) are usually not reimbursed at all, while other matches, called “fuzzy matches” are paid at a much lower rate.
The worker bees are not allowed to issue their own invoices with their own terms of payment, they must bill the agency through “a portal”. They either accept agency’s terms of payment (invariably at low rates and with very long waiting times, usually around 2 months), or other, more obedient worker bees will take their place.
The honey produced by the worker bees who call themselves translators, namely the knowledge residing on the hard drives and even in the brains of the working bees, is actually not the property of the translators, as the “Non-Disclosure Agreement” also contains a clause assigning any and all intellectual property created during translating activity to the translation agency.
Workers who are not even able to own what they know can hardly be called “knowledge workers”. I call them all kinds of things: subprime translators, zombie translators, or worker bees (when I am feeling generous toward these poor people).
It is obvious that the more restrictive the conditions that some agencies impose on translators, the lower the quality of the translators who feel that they must accept work under these conditions. People who accept these conditions, coupled with low rates and very long periods when the hard working bees have to wait for a meager payment, may think that they have no choice if they seem unable to find better work.
But one of the interesting things about our often humble earthly existence is that we always have a choice (except, of course, when the political systems allows us only to vote for a Democrat or a Republican, that is unfortunately a completely meaningless choice at this point).
Sometime we may not see all the choices available to us, but we always have a choice between at least two options. And the choices that we make will in the long run determine who we are, including whether we as translators are knowledge workers, or just obedient worker bees who are easily replaceable and almost completely indistinguishable from each other.