Wednesday, January 4, 2012

Are Translators Becoming Employees Without Benefits?

In his "GeekSpeak" column in the current issue of the ATA Chronicle Jost Zetsche notes that translation agencies increasingly ask translators to work with specific online tools. Some even require translators to pay for the agency's own tool. I have had several requests to use an agency's online tool myself last year, including from agencies with whom I had worked previously. As Mr. Zetsche points out, such a trend toward cloud computing erases the gains made in the ability to exchange data among different tools. In the still highly heterogeneous world of online tools we can rarely use a glossary we developed in one tool in another one, for example.

If we work with multiple agencies who use cloud computing, we also have to learn to use these tools, generally without being compensated for the time this takes. Once we have mastered the tools, we must constantly switch between different ones as we work on projects for different agencies. That makes it difficult to become thoroughly familiar with any one of them. We simply can't develop the necessary "muscle memory" for each tool. It also means that the agencies decide on the tools their independent contractors use. I tell agencies that I use a standard tool, Trados Studio 2009, and do not intend to switch.

Another trend I have observed during the last year is that translation agencies ask me to commit to specific periods of availability for them -- i.e., being "on call", but without compensation, except for whatever projects the agency might offer me for these times. My standard answer is that my availability varies depending on other projects I have accepted, but that I have always delivered any projects I do accept on time or early.

In addition, some agencies I have worked with in the past have asked me to accept lower rates, threatening that I would be unlikely to be offered projects from them in the future, if I refused. I refused anyway.

Taken together, these trends point towards agencies increasingly treating freelancers as if they were employees, but without any benefits or job security. Agencies require us to work with tools they specify, invest time in learning these tools, be available to them for specific periods of time, all with the promise -- not guarantee -- of projects to be assigned. We are only paid for the translation work assigned, and the rates we receive for that work are falling.

This reflects a trend in the larger U.S. economy to hire "consultants" to perform the work previously done by employees, often under substantially the same conditions, but without overtime pay or benefits. Unless all of us refuse such attempts at controlling our tools and time while being paid less, translators may end up becoming quasi-employees without benefits or rights.


  1. Barbara, this problem is by no means limited to the US. However, not all remote server solutions deny the translator the use of his or her own resources, but with the current state of technology implemented, they do require an unacceptable juggling of one's working tools. This is why, after years of pushing the idea of data exchange between tools, I now take every opportunity to demand that the producers of translation environment tools like yours and mine provide open interfaces to their servers, so, for example, a translator with SDL Trados Studio could connect directly to a project on an Across or memoQ server and use not only the server-based terminologies and TMs but any personal ones as well (without sharing these with the remote computer). Currently, tool vendors are reluctant to take this path, but not doing so serves no interests except their own. Fight that!!!

  2. Better yet, sometimes translators are asked to pay a subscription fee for the privilege of working with proprietary cloud-type applications. Which, like your slide towards treating freelancers as employees (certainly imposing requirements as to how something is done is a step in that direction under English law, although there many other criteria) could potentially be the thin end of a nasty wedge (see also

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