Living Wages for Translators: Hey, ProZ.com, see that translator over there? The one holding a slingshot?

Here’s the analogy I’d like to start with.

In the middle of your town, there’s a dangerous stretch of road where numerous accidents have taken place. Wrecks have occurred because the road is full of holes in the summer and tends to ice over as soon as temperatures drop in the winter. Many people have been injured, despite the fact that they were themselves driving carefully. The area is badly lit, and even walking on the sidewalks isn’t entirely safe because of the cars skidding on ice or veering suddenly to avoid potholes.

Given the way your town is planned, though, it is almost impossible not to travel on that road or visit that area. It’s where almost all the businesses are located, the majority of the stores. If you want to buy groceries or grab a pizza, you have to go there. Your work and your kids’ school are on that road.

A group of citizens asks the city to take action. The city says: “We don’t have any authority over the weather. It isn’t our fault if the temperatures drop below zero and the road gets icy. We can’t control the fact that asphalt eventually breaks down. It’s a natural phenomenon! And you certainly don’t expect us to put someone in every single car to make sure the driver observes common decency or is respectful of others when he or she drives? Plus, at the end of the day, the sun goes down and the street gets dark–are you demanding that we control the sun, too?! You’re being ridiculous! Everybody knows what that area is like. We’re each responsible for our own personal safety. If you don’t like the road, don’t use it.”

In essence, this is what the owners of ProZ.com have to say to translators who—for years—have complained about the rock-bottom rates, detrimental working conditions, and unfair competition that ProZ promotes via the job announcements that appear on its site.

Translators who complain privately to ProZ about rates that don’t allow them to make a living wage receive this canned answer from the job board’s monitors: “We believe that each member should be entitled to set his or her own minimum rates.”

And so, not even a month after the Trust Traduzioni/Italian Ministry of Tourism scandal, in which ProZ permitted a job posting that included both an illegal payment condition and an obscenely low rate that equated to less than what people earn for cleaning houses or flipping burgers, ProZ has bought itself a boycott and a petition drive. (The petition is available online: A Translators’ Petition Concerning ProZ.com’s Job Policies; in the petition’s first six hours of existence, 380 translators signed it–more than one a minute.)

ProZ.com is the largest online clearinghouse for translation-related jobs. It’s not the only one, and it’s not the only one that gives job posters free rein to drag the market down. But it’s the biggest one and the most influential. Positive change on its part would ripple throughout the industry.

At issue are a couple of dead-serious errors of judgment on ProZ.com’s part. First, ProZ.com allows job posters to establish rates and conditions, a complete distortion of the way freelancing works. Translators are service providers. Companies, agencies, and individuals who want translations are clients. Service providers set rates, not clients. (For precisely the same reason that, when you sit down in a restaurant, you don’t have the right to tell the owner: “Your steaks are over-priced. I’ll pay half. And throw in a bottle of wine with that.”).

Second, because of its influence and international reach (ProZ boasts 200,000 members all around the globe), ProZ does not merely reflect the market, as it consistently claims. Rather, ProZ plays a significant role in shaping it. Low-wage conditions exist in part (not entirely, but in part) thanks to ProZ.

While we’re at it, in fact, it’s worth exposing the lie of the “free market,” which is the “reality” that ProZ claims to be “reflecting.”

Here’s a newsflash for ProZ and its owner, Henry Dotterer: The free market does not exist. All that exists is the question of who will pay for it.

In the case of ProZ (which currently charges its members €114 [or about $158] per year for a basic membership and more than double that for a “corporate” membership), its executives have decided that letting translators pay for the free market—in which every cog in the wheel except the translator has the opportunity to earn a profit—is a perfectly acceptable business model.

Rather than talk about such capitalist wet-dreams as the “free market,” though, I’d much rather talk about living wages for translators. Clearly, defining the concept of a “living wage” is complex, but that doesn’t diminish the fact that translators deserve to earn one.

When an Italian agency offers a job to a translator who lives in Italy and earns in euros, meanwhile, it isn’t too much to expect that agency to pay a rate that allows the translator who lives in Italy and spends in euros to earn enough to make ends meet. And that’s largely the kind of job we’re talking about: the kind in which the job offerer and the translator live and work in precisely the same economy.

Ever since the boycott and petition were first being discussed, of course, the naysayers were already tripping over themselves to say their nays. My feeling is: Who cares? You can’t have a revolution without counter-revolutionaries. Plus they allow one to recall happier times, when terms like “capitalist lackey of the running dog imperialist scum” had some teeth.

In the meantime, translators are doing something to bring attention to an untenable situation. They’re taking action. They’re helping themselves. They’re demanding, with the ProZ.com boycott as a first step, living wages for translators.

It’s the first time in years I’ve felt some pride in the profession I’ve chosen. Go sign the petition and see if you don’t feel a little better yourself.

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