The European North-South divide in translation

Reprinted with gracious permission from Translatio, the newsletter of the International Federation of Translators

“Hello,
It is well known that the rates of translators in the North are much higher than those of their colleagues in the South.
Our clients are also aware of this difference, which is due to the cost of living in each country; therefore, they pay different rates for the same document to have it translated from e.g. French into Swedish and from French into Greek.
We cannot offer you a rate that we accept for a translator of Scandinavian or German languages…”

This is the reply a colleague received from a French agency when she quoted a rate of 8 cents/word for French-Greek, which is an average-to-low rate in the industry. The French project manager claimed a difference in the cost of living between North and South to justify rejecting the quoted rate. Unfortunately, translation companies across Europe seem to use the North-South divide to drive rates down for specific languages, disregarding traditional rate determinants, such as language combination, type of document, field of expertise, timing, etc. The above reply is contradictory in itself, since the project manager bases his argument on languages and not the place of establishment, as if for instance all translators for German resided in Germany, and all translators for Greek resided in Greece.

The North-South divide refers to the difference in wealth between the “rich” countries in the North and the “poor” countries in the South. It is not uncom-mon for the translation industry to repeat this stereotypical-bordering-socially been a convergence between North and South in terms of economies and social indicators, albeit at different speeds at different sectors.

The recent financial crisis in a number of EU countries meant the imposition of severe austerity measures that shrunk disposable income and annihilated pur-chasing power, without freelance translators being able to adjust their rates in order to offset this loss in income, namely due to the inelastic nature of the translation industry, which is accentuated by the wave of mergers and acquisitions witnessed in recent years, and the out¬sourcing of large translation contracts based on purely economic criteria. It has also reinforced the misconception that weaker economies must mean weaker rates. The translation industry was quick to jump on the bandwagon of exploiting professionals in those hard hit countries. Trapped between the Scylla of increased financial burdens and the Charybdis of blackmailing translation agencies, faced with the psychological angst created by those conditions of financial insecurity, freelance translators in the South were left totally unprotected to fend off an attack on their livelihood and professionalism.

Apart from the fact that populism in political discourse seems to spill into the professional sphere, the above project manager also perpetuates another misconception. That he is actually the one setting the rates, and therefore his attitude stems from an ill-perceived sense of authority, of him being the employer and the freelancer being the employee.

Let’s set the record straight. A freelancer by definition sets his/her own rates, business hours and place of work. This means great flexibility in terms of work models, e.g. part-time or full-time single or multiple contract work, business owner or 100% work from home, etc. It also means that when your rates are not accepted, you can pitch your offer to the next interested client and stay clear of those who do not appreciate your service offering. As a professional and a freelancer, do not allow yourself to be conditioned that you are not in control of your work. Freelance translators need to resist this commoditization and highlight the unique properties of their services. They also need to denounce practices like the above-mentioned and show solidarity with their struggling colleagues. Next time someone attempts to play the North-South divide card, don’t just dismiss it. State your ground, defend your work, and defend your profession.
Written by Dimitra Stafilia, FIT Europe Treasurer

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