Posted by: patenttranslator | December 2, 2015

The Difference between Translators and Toilet Paper

Some time ago I saw a short documentary on HBO about what happened in Haiti after it was struck by a 7.0 earthquake in January 2010. Two images from that documentary illustrate for me the best the result of international aid that was generously offered to Haiti after the disaster, and they are still seared in my mind: one of them is the image of thousands of homeless people living in pitiful shanty towns in little shacks stretching as far as the eye can see, constructed from pieces of plywood, plastic and corrugated metal. The other is the image of a huge soccer field that was built by an American contractor after the earthquake, presumably so that the hundreds of thousands of people who live in little leaky huts made of plastic and tarp could enjoy a game of soccer.

If you are an idealist who doesn’t really understand how modern charity works, the extent of the corruption and mismanagement that accompanied the efforts of the worldwide community to help Haiti is nothing short of mind boggling. If you are a realist, you understand that this is exactly what is to be expected from a system that has become known as disaster capitalism.

A few celebrities, Sean Penn and Madonna in particular, tried to help the people of Haiti by donating their own funds, their own time – years in the case of Sean Penn – and the gift of their magnificent star power.

But because of how disaster capitalism works, most of the money pledged by individuals who have a big heart but only a little bit of money to spend was essentially wasted by NGOs and private American companies on highly profitable projects.

There is much more profit in building a first class soccer field from generous private donations than in trying to use donated funds to build much needed permanent houses for homeless people. Only a very small percentage of the money donated by private individuals actually reached the Haitians who were affected by the earthquake and who desperately needed it. According to the documentary, it was less than 10 percent of the funds. Most of the money went to private, for-profit American companies. Uncounted numbers of Haitians still live in shanty towns almost six years after the earthquake, while a few hungry goats are thoughtfully grazing on the green grass growing on the soccer field.

None of that is even hinted at in an article celebrating Translators without Borders that was featured prominently in the November/December issue of the ATA (American Translators Association) Chronicle. The article, written by Lori Thicke, the founder of Translators without Borders, starts with this very funny joke:”Some translation humor was making the rounds of the Internet a while back. Underneath a picture of an empty roll of toilet paper was the caption, ‘Translation is like toilet paper. No one thinks about it until they need it.'”

Although the joke comparing translation to toilet paper is side-splittingly funny, there is one big difference between toilet paper and translations and translators. Unlike the labor of translators who work for Translators without Borders, toilet paper is not free. When toilet paper is given for free to somebody, for instance refugees from a disaster area stricken with dysentery and other diseases, it’s free only because somebody like Sean Penn bought it first.

The article goes on to describe the beginnings of Translators without Borders, which was at first conceived in Paris in 1993 as a small French charity called Traducteurs sans frontières based on an organization called Médicins sans frontières (Doctors without borders).

But just as there is at least one big difference between translators and toilet paper, there is also a big difference between medical doctors and translators. The average income of an experienced, hard working doctor in the United States is about 250,000 dollars a year, although depending on the specialty it can be a little bit less or quite a bit more. The average income of a hard working translator in the same country is only a fraction of that. This fraction may be again a little bit bigger or smaller depending on your language and specialization, and most importantly on who your customers are, (which is to say whether you work mostly for translation agencies or mostly for direct clients), but it will still be a fraction of what a doctor can make.

When your income is a quarter million dollars a year, it is not really a huge sacrifice if you spend a few weeks or even a few months a year in a foreign country helping poor people who could otherwise never afford your services. It may help you sleep better at night when you feel good about yourself, and you’ll still be able to make enough to pay all your expenses and taxes, while also making a significant contribution every year to your tax-free savings designed for a worry-free retirement.

But when your income is something like 10 to 20 percent of a quarter million dollars a year, it’s a very different story. Who will be paying your rent or mortgage, not to mention your taxes, while you are working for free, even though it may be for a worthwhile cause, or at least for an effort that is worthy of your labor and time on paper?

The answer is, obviously, nobody. You’ll just have to figure out how to make do with less. But perhaps just like to a doctor who sometime works for free, it will help you sleep better at night. Although, on the other hand, you may instead be waking up several times each night from a bad dream because your subconscious is wondering how to make ends meet.

There was a presentation given two years ago by Attila Piroth at the second IAPTI (International Association of Translators and Interpreters) Conference in Athens held in 2014. I didn’t attend this conference, but I understand it contained the same concerns about ethical issues with an organization that is encouraging translators to work for free instead of for the usual bag of peanuts that were expressed two years ago also in this blog post by Kevin Lossner.

I’ve met a few Haitians right here in Virginia where I live. The people I met here spoke Creole, which is their native language, as well as French, which many people in Haiti speak, and English, which is not exactly an unknown language among educated people in Haiti either.

I think the money that was donated by generous individuals and then spent building a vast soccer field as one can see from the HBO documentary would have been much better used if it were spent on local Haitian translators, who must have been present right there in Haiti when the earthquake struck in January of 2010, but who would have found it impossible to work for instance for Translators without Borders for no pay. That money would then go straight back into the local economy, which would be good for everybody living in that country.

Even translators who live in a poor country like Haiti have expenses, and they need to be able to make money to live. But how could they possibly compete with translators brought in by foreign NGOs and private companies whose labor is free, which is to say cheaper than toilet paper?


  1. I had the same reaction as you when I first became aware of the organization TWB–and I have the same reaction every time I see yet another exhortation to work for the organization–or an expression of gratitude to those who have done so–on

    As you so rightly indicate, “Doctors Without Borders” makes perfect sense. But “Translators Without Borders” makes little more sense than “Bus Drivers Without Borders.”

    As far as I am concerned, the fact that–an entity that has been an active participant in debasing the profession of translation–continually exhorts its members to donate their time to the organization simply adds insult to injury.

    For now, I can only hope that we some day reach the point where the notion of an organization like “Translators Without Borders” constitutes something more than a bitter joke.


  2. Thanks for your comment, Robert.

    Bus Drivers without Borders ….. an idea whose time has come?


  3. Here’s more shocking evidence of the corruption and waste in the charity industry operating in Haiti: “How the Red Cross Raised Half a Billion Dollars For Haiti and Built Six Homes.” Read it and weep.


  4. Thanks, Catherine. I just posted a link here in the comment when I saw your link on Facebook. So I will now delete my link … I’m still reading the article.


  5. Crapitalism at its cynical best.
    Thanks for inventing the word, Steve.
    I’ve read Naomi Klein’s books recently; they’re an eye-opener for the ignorant, gullible and naive. I highly recommend them.

    Liked by 2 people

  6. Specialised work provided by NGOs tends to be paid. MSF seems to be no exception.

    Is translation specialised work? That is the question!


    • “Is translation specialised work? That is the question!”

      I learn something new every day. Thank you so much!

      (Incidentally, the first link is not on the topic of my post, the second link does not work).


      • Indeed, the first link directs to a page in French. It would have been appropriate for me to specify that.

        I will try again with the second one. In case it doesn’t work, I suggest googling the link as such. It might appear as the first non paid result.


      • I read French, but the link is about Doctors without Borders, and my post is about Translators without Borders. I’m afraid I don’t feel like wasting any more time Googling your links.

        Liked by 1 person

      • As to the question, maybe my phrasing was not ideal. The years of study and practice needed to become an established translator leave no doubt about the answer. Hopefully, we will be able to convey a convincing answer to the public as well.


  7. I can’t claim the credit for having invented the word, Louis. I must have read it somewhere, don’t remember where …. probably a discussion forum.


  8. Aren’t people joining Translators Without Borders because they want to acquire experience and some credentials to get a better paid work? I mean, it is not just altruism, isn’t … Lawyers do plenty of pro bono work these days, particularly the young ones who can hardly afford working without pay. Doing voluntary work for free is very different from low rates. But I agree that many aspects of it (and the extent) are just odd.


    • Lawyers working pro bono generally do so for a particular person who is in trouble and could not afford to pay the expenses. If one receives legal assistance from an NGO, you would expect the lawyer working for the NGO actually gets paid.

      In order to be able to work for TwB, you need to be an established translator. If you lack experience, it is unlikely you would qualify to work for TwB.

      “If you are an experienced professional translator willing to volunteer your services for humanitarian causes please follow the instructions indicated in Translators without Borders’ web page.”


      • We need more excellent organizations like Translators without Borders. So many people can’t afford services of persons who charge as much as or more than doctors and lawyers. We should also have Janitors without Borders, Bus Drivers without Borders, Street Cleaners without Borders, Cashiers without Borders, Dishwashers without Borders, Nurses without Borders, Farm Workers without Borders …. wait, we already have those, they are called “illegal aliens.”

        But unlike translators who work for Translators without Borders for free, “illegal aliens” make at least 5 bucks an hour, don’t they?


  9. People do all kinds of things for all kinds of reasons. They’re even getting married for all kinds of reasons.

    But what do you mean by “to get a better paid work?”

    Since TwB don’t pay translators anything at all, if you are making half a cent a word, you are making more than if you were working for TwB. Unless you are a logistics specialist or something. I’m sure people who are more important than toilet paper (or translators) get paid well.

    Translators have no expenses, so you don’t need to pay them.


  10. I agree that lots of money from donations is lost or misused… that is why volunteering makes full sense to me.

    The people a surgeon operates are helped, that is direct help reaching the wished audience.

    I know some doctors and nurses who volunteer for MSF and you can take my word for it, they don’t earn the money you mention in your post. They work in the public health system and are paid under 2000 a month before tax for nurses and some 3000-3500 a month for doctors. Well below what many translators earn… right? Also, in France for instance with the revenue you mention 70% would go to taxes, but that is another story. They don’t get money for volunteer work, they take a one or two month’s leave without pay and earn nothing the time they spend there. In fact they “save” for 2-3 years so as to be able to leave as volunteers for a couple of months.

    I translate for an non for profit organisation in Honduras where my daughter is a full-time volunteer. To get funding they need to fill-in lots of forms in English (as complex as EU tenders) but these people don’t speak English. So I don’t translate into English professionally, but I do translate for them when they need it.

    NGOs are like translation agencies… you can’t put them all in the same basket.


  11. Well, doctors here do make the kind of money that I mentioned in my post, that is one reason why tens of millions of people have no access to healthcare, even though they may have insurance, but only on paper, while between 15 to 30 million people don’t even have insurance on paper. But it is not the main reason, the main reason is the murderous greed of Pharma and private insurance companies.

    But my post is not about Doctors without Borders. That organization does make sense to me. It’s about people who don’t make much money, in this case translators. Translators without Borders, Janitors without Borders, Bus Drivers without Borders, Street Cleaners without Borders, Cashiers without Borders, Dishwashers without Borders, Nurses without Borders, Farm Workers without Borders – none of that makes sense to me.


  12. […] Some time ago I saw a short documentary on HBO about what happened in Haiti after it was struck by a 7.0 earthquake in January 2010. Two images from that documentary illustrate for me the best the …  […]


  13. In fact the “without borders” movement is mostly about qualified professionals who bring help to people living in places where qualified professionals are really scarce…or who can help in emergency situations: architects w/o borders, engineers w/o borders, chemists w/o borders, reporters w/o borders, psychologists w/o borders, … also firemen w/o borders… you can also find clowns w/o borders, these offer releif in conflict zones and the like, through smiles and laughs…


    • Come on, Patricia, Firemen without Borders? How can you put out fires in a country that you may not know anything about, possibly not even understand its languages.

      Now, Clowns without Borders, that’s a different story. Clowns probably don’t need to eat much, they pay no rent because they can sleep anywhere, which is why they are always happy, so that should work fine. They would be probably perfectly happy even if nobody paid them as long as they make you smile.

      (Unless it is a murderous clown modeled on one of the dark novels of Stephen King).


      • Clowns are not always happy, but they are indeed trying hard to always make others happy. And they have a personal life and they have expenses.

        We might also wonder how other professions see us.

        Liked by 1 person

      • Some probably see us as toilet paper.


  14. Fantastic post, Steve, thank you! Won’t you try sending it to the ATA Chronicle in response to the article about TSF? I am extremely curious about their reaction, especially since, unlike ProZ, ATA’s mission is to “benefit translators […] by promoting recognition of their societal and commercial value”. While I would agree that the TSF article does promote the societal value of translators, I have frequently wondered how offering translation services to NGOs, some of which are rather well funded, fits in with promoting the commercial interests of translators. And as you point out, in the particular case of Haiti, the effect would have been quite contrary to the interests of Haitian translators, some of whom may have families to support in the disaster zone.


  15. I think it would a total waste of time on my part, Evelyna.

    Your really think I should try to offer it to the ATA Chronicle, aka Voice of Translation Agencies?

    In any case, more people will read it on my blog (and I also published it on Open Mic and other translators linked to it in their own media) than if it were just published in the ATA Chronicle.


  16. I agree, but if they don’t publish it, it would make for an interesting follow-up, don’t you think? And if they do, it will reach a wide variety of people who may not have thought about it before. We each tend to live in our own personal bubble, surrounded by (mostly) like-minded groups and individuals, and I myself am often surprised by the variety of knowledge and opinions about the industry, even among qualified translators.

    People who read your blog mostly agree with you or at least identify with your concerns. In my opinion, it is crucial to reach those who, for one reason or another, aren’t yet aware of your blog or the important issues you raise.


  17. I just talked to somebody who will have her article published in the next issue of the ATA Chronicle. She was pretty mad at the way the article was edited.

    I had a few articles of my own published in that magazine over the years, but at this point, I don’t trust them. That magazine is now The Voice of Translation Agencies, plain and simple.

    For example, there are two articles celebrating machine translation post-processing in the current issue and exhorting translators to become MT post-processors. All articles about machine translation that have been published in that magazine were pure propaganda on behalf of “the translation industry”.

    ATA never published anything that would be even slightly critical of the way “the translation industry” wants to use MT to turn translators into post-processors.

    If somebody from the ATA wants to publish a post from my blog, then can contact me, and I will let them do it, but I will not offer anything to the current ATA crew, at least not until I start seeing better, more balanced articles in the Chronicle.

    And I am not exactly holding my breath.


  18. Firemen don’t only put out fires… they also work in humanitarian emergency situations, they take people out of debris after an earthquake, or help secure buildings, etc. And as in all the other cases, part of what these volunteers provide is knowledge (eductaion), technology transfer, hands-on training for local populations…

    The main difference with translators is that we don’t bring direct help/relief (interpreters can do it) and that we still work from our comfortable office or home…


  19. Interesting article. I do sometimes translate for NGOs because it is a field that interests me personally and professionally, so it is a win-win situation – I have a sense of usefulness about my work as well as I gain experience. BUT I know these organisations generally have the budget for translations, they pay good salaries to the people who commission the jobs so why saving money in ‘small jobs’ (generally the translation of a document, a few simple webpages, etc)? Why saving some peanuts money? This intrigues me because, as you have demonstrated, translation is hardly the better paid service you find out there. It is a bit like with some companies – they are ok to spend lots on marketing professionals and logistics but when it comes to translating content, the main medium of the global marketing operation, they want it cheap and fast, as if translation was just an afterthought. When I have my low tides in terms of workflow, I tend to look for voluntary work as well as paid work to keep me busy and my portfolio alive. But I am reluctant to take on big voluntary jobs not because my charity is selective but because, as you have mentioned, my bills don’t stop at the same time as the workflows lessens, so if something worthy comes up whilst I am translating for free I need to accept it, I need to survive, I need that time. And I guess it is the same with most translators, few people work in this field as a hobby, not everyone has a stablished and reliable clientele. So it amazes me how some well known organisations expect your full availability for weeks or months as if you possibly could afford it.

    Liked by 1 person

  20. Thank you for your comment, Daniela.

    I work for NGOs too. But not for free. I don’t understand why translators should be working for free – while professionals offering other services should be reimbursed for their work.

    For example, I translated a long report for Project Hope from Japanese to English. The report was written by a Japanese ethnologist who lived for some time in a small village in Indonesia in order to figure out the most effective way to lower the number of deaths occurring in that region among women during or shortly after childbirth. Because it was an extremely poor village in an extremely poor region, instead of hospitals, the women were using the services of local midwives due to the cost.

    The main conclusion of the report was that the most cost effective way to lower the death rate would be to buy steel knives for the midwives who were using bamboo knives to cut the umbilical cord, again due to the cost of the knives. Unlike steel knives, bamboo knives cannot be disinfected. The remedy for the high death rate was actually as simple as that, but first you needed to find a woman who would be willing to learn the local languages and live in the village for a relatively long period of time, and the Japanese researcher was willing to do that. She was probably paid for her work too, because she must have had expenses.

    As you put it, the bills don’t stop when you work for somebody for free.

    I got that job by submitting a bid to a query from Project Hope that came to me through my website. My bid might have been lower than what other translation agencies wanted, although probably not by much.

    Project Hope paid me several thousand dollars for my work. I remember that the report was actually handwritten in Japanese, which slowed me down quite a bit.

    Can somebody please tell me why it would have been better, and for whom it would have been better, if I worked all this time for free?

    Liked by 1 person

  21. […] Steve Vitek (originally posted in Patenttranslator’s Blog)  […]


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