Twenty eight years ago when I dropped out for good from the corporate job market and started my own one-man translation business in an apartment in San Francisco, many people looked at me strange when I said that I was self-employed.
Back in the eighties, the prospect of not knowing where your next job and thus also your next paycheck is going to come from was quite daunting.
Back in the eighties, it still made good sense to declare your undying loyalty to only one employer and stay true to your declaration because back then, most corporations treated their employees as valued assets rather than as easily replaceable cogs in an ingenious profit-making machinery.
Although I only had an entry-level job with the San Francisco Visitors and Convention Bureau, the job came automatically with everything I could possibly need: comprehensive medical, dental and vision insurance, life insurance and a reasonable amount of vacation time. Every year I got a moderate but significant pay raise, without having to ask for it, along with a letter of commendation from my boss thanking me for my work.
The entry-level job also came with a promise of a pension should I decide to stick around long enough to deserve it once I become a senior citizen, should I live that long.
Unlike now, loyalty of an employee to an employer was a two-way street. It went without saying that on the other side of the coin was also loyalty of the employer to the employee.
How the times have changed. I would bet dollars to donuts that the same job has very meager benefits now, if any, if it still exists. It is more than likely that the job has been replaced a long time ago by a multilingual online shopping card combined with voice mail hell.
If the job does exist, the chances are that it is now done by a freelancer, or by an employee whose benefits somehow disappeared. For most employees, with the exception of upper management, pensions have also disappeared into the bottomless pockets of Wall Street swindlers.
The money changers have won and they are now the ruling class in most countries on planet Earth. And money changers are loyal only to one thing – money for themselves. In this respect, the world at the beginning of the twenty first century looks very much like the world at the beginning of the nineteenth and twentieth century. The more things change, the more they remain the same, the King is dead, long live the King!, and all that.
Surprisingly, inexplicably, and contrary to every principle of poetic justice, even when things fall apart, the center, patched up with bailouts, baling wire and scotch tape, is still somehow holding.
At the beginning of this century, people no longer look at me strange when I say that I am self-employed. In fact, what I sometime detect in their reaction often looks more like envy than pity. Attitudes to self-employed people seem to have changed quite a bit over the last two or three decades because most people understand that it only makes sense to be loyal to your employer if the employer is also loyal to employees. Unfortunately, most of them don’t give a damn about the people who do the actual work.
Attitudes toward self-employed people changed for better in some respects, and for worse in other respects.
In “the translation industry”, this reality is well illustrated already by the process that some translation agencies use to compile huge databases of translators about whom the agencies know in fact very little, although of course they do know how much the interchangeable items in the database would like to be paid for their work.
This is true especially about large agencies who are always on the lookout for new translators, which is to say those that are looking for the cheapest possible labor, cheapest at almost any cost, in defiance of an age-old wisdom expressed in sayings such as: penny wise, pound foolish, you get what you pay for, or le bon marché coûte cher (every language has several such idioms, proverbs and sayings confirming this old truth).
Back in the eighties, there were no databases of translators. All you had to do was mail (fax, or “modem”) a piece of paper called résumé (sometime spelled resumé, and sometime resume, or 履歴書 (rirekisho) when the translation agency was in Japan) to a prospective agency-customer. If translation agencies maintained databases of translators, most of such databases probably consisted of résumés on paper saved in a file folder also made of paper.
The relationship between a translator and a translation agency was a strategic partnership between people representing an agency, who really understood translation because most of them were former translators themselves, but also understood little details like marketing strategy and how business generally works, which is something that very few translators understand and for some reason don’t want to bother to learn.
Once an agency found a good translator and a translator found a good agency, a strategic relationship was established that sometime lasted for decades, or until one of the parties departed this valley of tears. What you needed for this kind of relationship was mutual respect and appreciation, rather than a computer database.
The problem with mutual respect and appreciation is that things like that are kind of hard to computerize.
Because corporate translation agencies want to have as many worker bees captured in their vast, handy computerized databases as possible, they don’t even have the time to input the data about the translators into their database. The translators must input everything by themselves, and every question must be diligently answered by every good, obedient translator, just like every good, obedient Catholic must diligently confess every single sin and peccadillo committed since the last confession to a priest hidden behind a non-transparent screen in a confessional.
And just like a priest does not need to confess his sins to the flock of sinners who pay his salary, translation agency operators do not need to answer questions submitted to them by translators who pay their salaries.
But although it may look as if the labor market in this century consists only of predatory employers who would not dream of raising the minimum wage by about 30%, which would then raise it approximately to the level of late sixties, and of predatory translation brokers who use every trick in the book to get as much work from every translator as possible in exchange for as little money as possible, this is not true.
I don’t know what is the ratio between translation agencies who are still based on the old model of a valuable strategic partnership of two parties that is beneficial to both parties, and brokers who can’t even be bothered to even remember who their translators are. The former model must be in a minority now, but it still exists.
I know that it exists because I work regularly for at least four translation agencies that are based on the old model in which respect for and appreciation of the work of a strategic partner called translator is clearly there, three of them very small, one of them not so small.
How do I know that the few agencies that I still work for respect me as a professional and appreciate my work?
That is easy to answer: they don’t try to “computerize our relationship” to a T, to the extent that they would even try to make me input information about myself into their stupid database by myself, they don’t send me demeaning “Terms and Conditions”, they remember my name, and most importantly …. they pay me good rates and very quickly, within a few days, or no more than in about two weeks.
It could be even said that I am able to deal with the rapacious greedy of the world that we have somehow created for ourselves without even noticing it, in which fewer and fewer have more and more, and most have less and less, only because I have a few customers who do not see me simply as an item to be stored in a huge computer database.