Translators’ rates and the poverty cult. Plus ça change?

In the comments to one of my recent posts about translators’ rates and pay, translator Kevin Hendzel mentioned a speech by Neil Inglis, a translator with the International Monetary Fund. Neil’s speech referred to the “poverty cult” that so many (too many) translators seem to espouse. I haven’t been able to find the speech itself, but Kevin’s article “The Seven Virtues of the New Translation Era” (published by the North California Translators Association (NCTA)) was inspired by it. And Chris Durban mentioned it recently in a post entitled “The Frugal Translator” for the Institute of Translation and Interpreting’s “Pillar Box” blog. Here are some key points about the Poverty Cult, as summarised by Kevin and Chris.

The Poverty Cult and its Seven Deadly Sins

According to Neil Inglis, the Poverty Cult may develop from “the inferiority complex that language professionals have (and others have about them) regarding their worth in the marketplace”. The Seven Deadly Sins of the Poverty Cult are:

  1. envying the success of others
  2. gloating over the failure of others
  3. a pervasive sense that it is better for everybody to fail than for a few to succeed
  4. a sickly squeamishness where the subject of money is concerned
  5. shabby gentility, more shabby than genteel
  6. a widespread conviction that it is better to have a little and be secure than to take a gamble and risk losing everything
  7. Schadenfreude mixed with sour grapes.

‘Poverty culters’ inhabit or aspire to a world where the sensitivity to and love of language essential to expert translation is pure and desirable — and any sensitivity to market realities is the first step down the slippery slope to vulgar commerce. The choice is clear: noble, impecunious linguist or tacky money-grubber.

The depressing thing about the Seven Deadly Sins of the Poverty Cult is that Neil Inglis wrote that speech about them back in 1996 – nearly 20 years ago. And they still haven’t gone away. In his article for the NCTA, Kevin suggests Seven Virtues of the New Translation Era as a remedy to the Poverty Cult. Here they are in summary/paraphrased form:

Seven Virtues of the New Translation Era

  1. Master Your Subjects. Deliver a product of unparalleled quality. Choose a few commercially viable specialty areas and learn everything about them. Translators with a formal education in the various subject areas have a huge advantage in the commercial market
  2. Appreciate Your Limits. All good translators recognize the limits of their knowledge and turn down (or refer to colleagues) assignments that may imperil the quality of their product. Referring work to colleagues promotes the notion that what translators do is sufficiently complex and demanding to require specialization [client education]
  3. Defend Your Product. Stand up and defend the integrity of your product. Good clients will rely on the translator to look out for their interests on a level far in excess of their ability to judge it. They will give latitude sufficient to operate in a manner consistent with the translator’s quality standards, which in the end can only benefit them.
  4. Sign Your Work. The simple act of claiming authorship shatters the “black box” invisibility of the translation process and reinserts translators into their rightful place as craftsmen of the translation product. Translators who sign their work are also expressing confidence in their product in public […] Signing your work also serves as a means to elevate public recognition and appreciation for the role of translators.
  5. Quote Your Rate. Set your rates at your own discretion and quote those rates to translation agencies or companies. There is plenty of room for good faith negotiations between parties that approach a transaction as equals.
  6. Promote Your Profession. Public relations and promotion of translation has been so catastrophically poor for so many years that it is a miracle the public knows we exist at all. Engage in client education. Grasp opportunities to talk about the profession.
  7. Perfect Your Craft. Establish and maintain a close community of cooperative and disciplined colleagues whose talent and expertise help to guide you and hone your skills in the intensely personal creative act that is translation. All translators benefit to the extent that their work is “at risk” for examination, revision or review [by peers and colleagues].

What do you think, readers? Are we saints or sinners?

Articles by Kevin and Chris:

The Seven Virtues of the New Translation Era

The Frugal Translator

Other posts you might like:

Translators’ rates: of guns and hoes

St. Jerome: a good role model for translators?

How to be good (2). Tips for clients 

By Marian Dougan

9 responses

  1. Not much more to add.
    However, I don’t think that the poverty and misery culture can be eradicated. It is well planted in a larger social context and affect other professions and people as well. I also don’t think that everyone can escape it, simply because not everyone is a “professional translator”, i.e. one that sees oneself as a professional practitioner rather then temporary job seeker/day worker or an employee.

    What I do think is possible is to differentiate the professional translation practitioners from the misery cult, thus helping translation buyers that look for a quality service and reliable business partners to steer clear of the greedy, toxic, indifferent, and unreliable masses that populate the lower market segments.

    This could also serve as a social proof to newcomers that are usually exposed to the market through a very skewed prism in online marketplaces and “human automation platforms” of various sorts, that what they see is just a sliver of what is available out there, if they are only willing to put the effort and get there.

  2. Many of the seven Virtues also apply to any consultancy service (in my case, IT consultancy).

    For example, #1: specialising in sectors or areas certainly seems to help (I specialised in IT for the not-for-profit sector)…

    As #2 points out, in a wide field of knowledge, it really helps to be able to refer to people who have more specialist knowledge or expertise. For example, my clients would often ask about project management of the installation of the software we had selected so I made sure I had trusted project managers who could take such projects on.

    Thanks for the list!

    1. Thanks for commenting, Heather. Yes, I agree – many of the virtues do indeed apply to other consultancy services. I think lots of professions face similar problems: trying to educate clients (and clients’ occasional refusal to take in the lesson!), undercutting by low-quality competitors etc.
      I plan to write a post on this subject – the common challenges we face – in the near future.

  3. Nice post and good tips Marian!

    Poverty cult or shift of paradigm?

    I don’t think we live in a moral world unfortunately (or fortunately?). Virtuous capitalism has long been defeated by globalised free trade – also called “liberalism” by some people.

    Free trade forces us to compete with the whole world. It helps us to discover our own weaknesses, but it also encourages us to use dirty practices in order to survive (like knocking your rates down to keep your clients).

    As Chris Durban says, once you’re on the slippery slope, where does it stops? Next you’re giving away free ebooks, free software, free pictures (sorry, “movies”!), free music, free encyclopaedias or even free porn (talking about sins, the porn industry is on its knees, notably because of free online amateurs’ videos).

    I think that virtues and sins are moral rules. And unfortunately (or fortunately?), rules don’t matter when it comes to free trade.

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