Posted by: patenttranslator | November 22, 2013

Are We As Freelancers Distinctly Unique Human Beings – Or Just Team Members?

When words lose their meaning, people lose their freedom.
Confucius, 551 BCE – 479 BCE, Chinese thinker and philosopher.

I sometime receive, or used to receive, e-mails from translation agency coordinators addressed to “team members”.

I don’t like it when a translation agency calls me a team member. To me, this is always a sign that somebody wants to take advantage of me, because that is how it works in modern society.

Low-paid checkout girls working the cash registers at Target are called “team members” in the exploitative lingo of management coming loud and clear out of the store speakers. The even lower-paid women (often past retirement age, and there never seem to be any men there, if you don’t count teenage boys) working the register at Walmart are called “associates”, which is Walmart lingo for “team members”. Associates used to mean people of the same or similar standing. The only standing that Walmart associates are guaranteed is the standing that they will be doing on their tired feet for $7.25 an hour for as many hours as ordered by the boss.

Freelancers are by definition not team members. Each freelancer is generally a team of one competing against the rest of the world. That is not to say that they should not cooperate with each other. They should, and sometime do, but only as distinctly unique human beings who just happen to be working together with other distinctly unique human beings in ad hoc formations.

I am not on your team, and I don’t want you to be on my team either. The famous motto of Three Musketeers (“all for one – one for all!”) was coined a long, long time ago, and everybody knows that even back then, Alexandre Dumas was just an excellent story teller, not a truth teller.

The last time I felt as a team member was probably when I was playing soccer as a 12-year old kid in summer camp. That was a long time ago, and I was not very good at group sports even then.

A team should have a leader or a coach who takes good care of the team members. But nobody does that for freelancers, or for other people, for that matter, in our dog-eat-dog version of modern world.

Nobody will pay our bills if they don’t need us to work for them, and sometime nobody pays our bill even long after all the work has been done.

And if something goes wrong with our translation, the operating principle is always “shoot the translator first, ask questions later (or not at all)”, even though the fault is often not with the translator. Nobody cares if the deadline was impossible, or the text was wrong, incomprehensible, of full of mistakes. When something goes wrong, it is always our fault.

Some people really, really want to belong to a team. That is why various & sundry religions took off in such a big way. Both believers and non-believers join associations and love going to conferences and meetings.

But I am not a joiner: that’s why I became a freelancer. I join associations only if the benefits of being a member of said association are worth the yearly fee, and I have been to a translators’ conference twice in the last 26 years. Veni, vidi, … and that was enough for me. These things are so damn expensive, it’s not really worth it. I prefer to spend my money on a short vacation in Europe.

I think that being a unique human is much more important than being a team member, which is one reason why I did not last very long as a “salaryman” in Japan. I was much happier back in America where everybody has to fight for survival on his own.

Being a unique human rather than a team member means to me that when I look at other people, I see other distinctly unique human beings rather than different members of different teams.

We are all unique human beings in our own way, and to try to make these unique human beings into fake members of fake teams is really to deny their uniqueness as members of human race – the only team that I can identify with.

So don’t call me a team member if you want me to work for you.

If you want me to continue working for you, try to remember my name – and I will try to remember yours.



  1. I don’t just LIKE this analysis; I LOVE it. Bravissimo!!! The writer has nailed the deception that is destroying the freelance translation profession. . .and frankly and accurately described the mature, legitimate, and laudable goals of any true freelancer. Just terrific. . .A MUST read for all of us who, for even a moment, get sucked in to the fraudulent and exploitative “team member” construct that agencies now routinely employ in order slowly to destroy the very definition of freelancing. For more on this insidious phenomenon, albeit from an oblique angle that focuses more directly on the problem of Internet siren servers consuming all employment-related wealth these days, please consider reading the amazing writings of futurist Jaron Lanier.


  2. Thank you so much, Lucille.

    You forgot a link to Jaron Lanier.


  3. As for me, I really object to being called a ‘Vendor’.
    I am not a machine. I do not dispense candy bars for coins!
    Rather a team member than a vendor be. 😉


  4. Great!


  5. @JeTranslate

    In a world where everything is for sale, and I mean everything, you can only be a buyer, or a vendor.


    • I am a nice girl, and I have trouble with the idea of ‘selling my services’. 😉


      • And, in general, I am not mad on ‘teamwork’ as a concept. So I would struggle with being addressed as a ‘team member’ too. Especially of a spurious team which only exists because of a corporate ‘thinktank’ or some such entity.


  6. Translation, and writing in general, is not about being a team member.

    It is the opposite of being a team member, which is something that most translation agencies will never understand because they understand so little about translation.

    I love to buy mystery novels (on sale), but I have one rule – I never buy books written by two authors because books like that are always cheap, commercial crap.


  7. Yet again, I greatly enjoy how you hone in on your target and destroy it with acuity and humor. There’s no such thing as teamwork in translation projects, as the person who has to pull it all together and try to ‘homogenize’ individual input knows all too well. Translators will never be cogs in a machine, despite agencies efforts to achieve that goal and brainwash translators to accept it. I’d like to see a cartoon depicting such a machine; have you come across one?


  8. “I’d like to see a cartoon depicting such a machine; have you come across one?”

    Yes, I have. Mox, (engineer translator), calls it in his cartoons Crados.


  9. My wife and I always enjoy your comments, which are usually insightful and humorous snapshots of our lives as interpreters/translators/agency owners.

    At our agency, we prefer to call our freelancers “colleagues” which acknowledges their professional status.

    We do not feel slighted however, when other agencies who sometimes hire us for a specific language call us a “team member” or an “associate.”

    Our motto is: “Call me anything you want, as long as you pay us on time!”


  10. “Our motto is: “Call me anything you want, as long as you pay us on time!””

    That is my motto too. You pay me fifty percent more for my translation, you can call me anything you want, see this post:

    But I noticed that those who want to call me “a team member” usually expect a lower rate, possibly as “a sacrifice for the benefit of the team”.


  11. “When words lose their meaning, people lose their freedom.”

    I guess this quote is a loose translation of a whole paragraph of a dialogue between Confucius and his rude student Ziyou: “必也正名乎!…名不正則言不順,言不順則事不成,事不成則禮樂不興,禮樂不興則刑罰不中,刑罰不中則民無所錯手足。故君子名之必可言也,言之必可行也。君子於其言,無所苟而已矣。”

    A freelance translator can be a distinct human being and at the same time a team member or just a vendor. The choice is individual.

    In my whole life, I’ve been a salaryman from 1986 to 1989, no more than 3 years. However, I’ve been always a team member in different teams, even when I become a freelance translator. I don’t see anything wrong to be a team member. It depends on the teams you belong.

    Translators are usually sole wolves and that’s the biggest mistake they repeatedly make, as Valerij was talking about in his guest post at yours.

    In fact, I shall thank the other team members that help achieving a lot of translations we have done for some specific clients. The projects could not have been done without their collaboration and cooperation.

    The crucial point lies in the meaning of “team members.” If an agency doesn’t mean it as the term shall be meaning, freelance translators can quit to be a team member of such a team.

    And I would take it for an offense being called a vendor, although I do sell my services at decent prices.


  12. It would be a very loose translation. I don’t see the quote in your Chinese passage at all.

    Maybe this is not the right quote?


    • Well, Steve, Confucius did not say anything directly in your quote. That is why I take it for a loose translation of his dialogue with Zilu (named Ziyou or simply You by Confucius). The following is the translation made by James Legge:

      “What is necessary is to rectify names… If names be not correct, language is not in accordance with the truth of things. If language be not in accordance with the truth of things, affairs cannot be carried on to success. When affairs cannot be carried on to success, proprieties and music do not flourish. When proprieties and music do not flourish, punishments will not be properly awarded. When punishments are not properly awarded, the people do not know how to move hand or foot. Therefore a superior man considers it necessary that the names he uses may be spoken appropriately, and also that what he speaks may be carried out appropriately. What the superior man requires is just that in his words there may be nothing incorrect.”

      What are meant by names are the meanings. When the agencies name us “vendors,” they mean that we sell something to them that they can purchase from anyone who call themselves translators, including those ones whom you would call them zombies. In such a sense, a translator could not be a distinctly unique human being.

      However, when they name us “team members,” they must have been working “with” us for a while. Otherwise, they wouldn’t take a freelance translator for a team member of a specific project or a team member for projects of a specific end client, say, Microsoft, IBM, Audi, Toyota, Hoffmann-La Roche or Siemens.

      When the name of “team member” loses its meaning, it would not be able to be spoken and carried out appropriately. What freedom does a such “team member” could have? S/he degrade him-/herself to be simply a “vendor” who might be selling zombie stuffs.


    • That is, rather a team member than a vendor be, as JeTranslate says.


  13. 1. Confucius seems to be presciently describing the said state of affairs in Western world precisely at this moment, namely 2,500 years after he described the enormous damage that lies will cause to a culture.

    And few thinking people would dispute that our culture is awash in lies at this point.

    But I don’t see the word freedom in his description, that is why I was wondering whether this was the right quote.

    2. I used to work for more than a decade for a small agency that paid good rates and very promptly. Once the guy started calling the people in his stable of reliable translators “team members”, he also started asking for lower rates, at first only for some projects, and finally he must have convinced all of the “team members” to reduce the rates by 15% for all projects – at which point I stopped responding to his e-mails.

    Hence my conclusion that once they start calling you “a team member”, they will also ask you to lower your rates, or “take it on the chin for the team”, if you will.

    The net result is of course that the “owners” of the “team members” make more money at the expense of the “team members”.


    • 1. Correctly, Steve, there is no such a word like “freedom” in the quoted Confucius’ speech. In fact, you cannot find such a word like “freedom” in the whole Confucian Analects which is the only source of Confucius’ words.

      However, “freedom” is a Western concept whose equivalent(s) are not necessarily one word for one word/expression in Chinese.

      For instance, there is a word or an expression in Zhuangzi’s philosophy that denotes the same thing: 逍遙遊 which is quite impossible to translate as “freedom.” I don’t find any English version of the expression coined by Zhuangzi. Since you read Japanese, I provide you a link to the tale of 逍遙遊 translated into Japanese. This version does not mention the expression 逍遙遊 at all, but the original Chinese version is titled by Zhuangzi himself 逍遙遊 which means “the freedom.”

      Now, there is in the part of Confucius’ speech the following: “Therefore a superior man considers it necessary that the names he uses may be spoken appropriately, and also that what he speaks may be carried out appropriately. What the superior man requires is just that in his words there may be nothing incorrect.”

      Isn’t it freedom to be able to speak appropriately and to carry out appropriately what is spoken?

      2. Each and every freelance translator has to make different experiences depending on his life’s circumstances.

      In your case, you met someone who used to pay decent rates and stopped to pay properly when he started to call you a team member.

      In my case, I have always been working in teams, no matter I was a salaryman, a sales agent or a freelance translator. The teams and the team members are important for me to achieve what my clients or the clients of the teams intend to achieve, no matter what we were selling or what we are translating. For instance, one of our clients is a global company who intends to create an enterprise culture that is based on dialog and communication. So, the company started a newletter for their employers in 49 countries since 2006. There are 14 languages to be translated from either German or English into the other 13 languages for each issue of the newletter. You can imagine that it would not be possible to translate into each of the 13 languages without a big team that shall be divided into 13 sub-teams. And you can easily imagine that it would be impossible to achieve the consistency and the coherence of the contents if the team members did not have dialog and communication with each other, either directly or through the project management.

      Believe me, we are not paid with peanuts at all just because we are called “team members.” And the company does not regard us as “vendors.” The project management is coordinated by an agency and the team members are treated very well, so that none of us would consider to quit the regular jobs on scheduled times in each year, though there are times when it could happen that the deadlines are very tight.

      This company is not the only one client that I work for since years in a team. There are some German automobile manufacturers for whom I work and always through different agencies of theirs. They call me “team member” as well and they don’t pay peanuts, either.

      As to the issue of Crados or other CAT tools, I don’t mind that the agencies ask me to use “their” specific tools at all, so long they provide me their tools. Star AG, for instance, provides their freelancers their Transit NXT which is very different from Crados. For the specific projects their teams work on, the tool is quite appropriate and Star AG does not pay peanuts, either. About 25% of my yearly income derives from projects that I use their tool, though not all of the projects are from Star AG.

      The greatest advantage of being a freelance translator is the freedom of choice, when you know that the world is full of thorns and that you don’t have to sit on them. In fact, your blog posts have pointed out a lot of thorns that a freelancer could sit on. It is nice that you do this in your points. However, I would not encourage freelancers keeping on complaining instead of making their choices wisely — that is, don’t choose to sit on the thorns Steve Vitek has already pointed out.


  14. “However, “freedom” is a Western concept whose equivalent(s) are not necessarily one word for one word/expression in Chinese.”

    I would agree up to a point, but I think that some concepts are in fact universal, more or less, and the concept of freedom is one of them, although people in different cultures will interpret the word differently.

    If you look at the word “free” (自由) in Japanese and Chinese too, I think, the word could be translated based the etymology as “self-originating”, which I think is a good description of the content of the word free.

    I met many Japanese people in this country who told me that they feel more free here because they don’t have to worry about societal norms and constraints which can be quite burdensome in a country such as Japan, although you could also say that in some respects, people in Japan are more free than Americans (for instance they are not driven to financial bankruptcy by predatory health insurance companies there when they get sick, and their government is presumably spying less on them than our government is illegally spying on us at this point).

    So, yes, the word freedom does not translate well into some languages, but I think that the word represents a universal concept.


    • Right, 自由 (freedom) was translated into Kanji by Japanese during the Meji Period and was adopted by Chinese later. This expression is in fact a borrowed one from Japanese by Chinese, like 經濟 (economy, economics), 幾何 (geometry), etc.

      I wouldn’t like to argue further. There are a lot of concepts adopted from one culture to another culture or several cultures.


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s


%d bloggers like this: