In spite of the usual title in music (first track in New Adventures in Hi Fi by REM, 1996), this post is neither about music, nor about the music of words. It’s about business and (un)fair competition. It’s about (former) developing countries and globalization. Same old story, but I thought I could add my own perspective on the scenery – after all, I was born in a former developing country from an economic point of view!
How the West was won …
Once upon a long ago, we Italians from South were considered the equivalent of India or China as far as manufacturing was concerned: we offered cost-effective … no, really cheap labour due to a basic lack of regulations and to our categorization as a ‘developing area’ (as we still are). It was a real bargain to relocate or outsource manufacturing here – legally or not – because our manpower costed half the price as in the rest of Europe (and even Northern Italy). We played with loaded dice and this way we spoilt the market. Something similar is now happening to the rest of the industrialized world: markets are being dumped by low-cost subcontractors from the East and Far East. Translation industry is not exempt from this process. On the contrary, in an increasingly globalized world language services are fundamental but fundamentally outsourced to companies based in developing countries. Easy and cheap, especially if you consider that what once was a physical barrier (i.e. distance) it’s now struck down by the World Wide Web. I’m registered in a series of dedicated directories and most of the calls for bids are from Eastern countries, basically from Eastern Europe, Turkey, China, India. I don’t even try to respond, it’s quite impossible to compete even if I cut down my prices. I’m Italian, I’m paid (and pay) in Euros, I pay Italian taxes and contributions, I’m subject to the Italian regulations, so I cannot lower my prices below a certain limit – after all, I work for a living! Companies from the Far East, instead, can firstly count on the fact that they can devalue their currencies as much as they like and need, since these are not traded on foreign markets and their exchange rates are fixed by the coining countries themselves. These countries take advantage from their cheap money – and from their tiny regulatory framework as well – to skyrocket their external sales. Don’t get me wrong, I’ve absolutely nothing against those countries, basically they are just doing their best to improve their economies, it’s understood and understandable. Instead, it’s the result that makes no sense. We translators are giving a hand in this dumping process. We are the authors of this huge own goal. I’m not in the first row now, but I’m seriously considering this possibility myself. Some of us are working for peanuts, even those working in Italy. Not to mention U.S. translators, which are facing the fierce competition of their neighbouring countries. Just take a look at the various comparison tables available on some online translation directories, like Proz.com – just to mention perhaps one of the most famous. Many translators work for less than 0,05 Usd/word, the average rate for my working pairs is 0,07 Eur/word (my really cut-down rate is 0,08 Eur/word and is broadly considered fair, if not cheap). Chinese prices, as we call ’em here in Italy. And I suspect their fee schedule is strongly influenced by their major customers: translation agencies. Apart from wondering how much they (the agencies) charge their end customers, I would like to tell something to these ‘valued customers’: you are spoiling the market. You are playing with the same loaded dice as we Italians did at the turn of the 20th century. But we are personally paying a heavy price for our past mistakes (our internal market is languishing and our unemployment rate is sky-high even in our wealthy and industrialized North-East), probably you won’t (but I’m not even sure about that). After all, there’s plenty of Asian translation companies offering such bargain prices and – thanks to the complicity of the various directories and their insane Dutch auction mechanism – you might be trapped in this downward spiral. And what about us, the translators? We are perhaps the most responsible in this race to the bottom, because we have a choice: we can choose not to sell off our expertise. I know this puts our income at stake, but can you see what this bargain sale is doing to our profession? A perfect nonsense, the demand is increasing and prices are diving, a blatant contradiction to the market rules! Our future is going to be ‘Chinese labour’, as far as I can see now. But we don’t live in China nor we are used to live like Chinese – you must be really tough to endure their kinda ascetic way of life! We ought to break this silly chain, rise up against this wicked game and stand up for our right to a fair competition. We ought to. Easier said than done. It’s a classic Catch-22. If we refuse badly paid assignments we run the risk of losing clients. If we accept them, we venture on our future rates. In theory, we should draw a baseline that we should never trespass. The line of our reputability, of our self-esteem. But in fact, it’s a mammoth task to persuade your (potential) customers to swallow rates that are apparently way above market price. Apparently.
… and where it got us
We are mangling each other like beasts in the arena. An internecine struggle that will bring no good to our profession. I guess it will somehow slacken, otherwise we are risking self-destruction. If that’s the case, we shall build our own fallout shelter and batten down the hatches! Otherwise, we shall stand up and cry out loud: NO PEANUTS FOR MONKEYS!
Your passionate (Italian) Translator
“I don’t know what kind of weapons will be used in the third world war, assuming there will be a third world war. But I can tell you what the fourth world war will be fought with — stone clubs.”
— Albert Einstein
This piece was not meant to hurt the feelings of translators from Asia or other s.c. developing countries. It’s just my complaint against this vicious circle that rules the translation industry. I do know you’re not to blame for that – you’re victims yourselves – and if you feel offended, please believe me, it wasn’t definitely my intention! I apologize to anyone whose sensibility might have been offended by my words.