Translation Blog

Why No Peanuts! is not for me

OK, sooner or later it had to happen. I’m going to talk about the translation industry. Specifically, about No Peanuts!, a movement whose aim is to support translators in demanding and receiving a “living wage” for their work. There’s been a lot of talk about No Peanuts (sorry, it’s too irritating to include that exclamation mark every time) in both public and private forums since its launch about 18 months ago, and I’m not sure I have anything original to add. (So why am I writing, you ask? Good question… let’s see if I can crystallise something useful out of my random thoughts.)

First, many, many people have criticised that term “living wage”. The No Peanuts website discusses this objection. To paraphrase, they say that according to the various dictionaries, “wage” is “payment for labor or services to a worker” or “a payment to a person for service rendered,” and go on to say “We think it’s essential for translators and interpreters to understand that we are workers, first and foremost…”
Whoa! Stop right there. Sorry, I’m not a worker. I used to be, when I was working in a factory. But now I’m a freelance translator. That makes me a businesswoman, or an entrepreneur, or simply a freelancer – but not a worker. Yes, of course the simplest definition of worker is “one who works”, and I do indeed work, but in my culture I stopped being a worker and started being an employee when I got out of the factory and into the lab, and stopped being an employee and started being a freelancer when I began selling my services to a number of different clients. I am not a worker who is paid a wage, I am a businesswoman who sells a service.
I find it astounding that a movement by and for translators – people who work with words, let’s not forget, people who are inclined to agonise over every nuance – should persist with this reductive term even though it has come in for legitimate criticism from a number of well-respected peers.

However, that’s not the main reason I don’t endorse the movement. I did consider doing so, in fact, thinking that perhaps I, and others, were getting too hung up on an unfortunate term and failing to engage with the underlying principle.

So what is my problem? It’s basically a result of how my own business has developed. Apart from the first year or so, I have put astonishingly little effort into marketing. Sure, I did and do a lot of networking (AKA chatting away all day on translator forums), but not a lot else. Like most if not all translators, I started by accepting everything that came my way (albeit already marketing myself as a medical/chemical translator), got burned a couple of times in the process, learned more and more every day, gained a few clients, lost a couple of clients, and after about three or four years arrived at a point where I could afford to both drop my lower-paying clients and turn down everything that wasn’t in my specialist fields.
And it really wasn’t that difficult. I’m lazy: I’d far rather idle my time away doing a puzzle than send my résumé to a potential client. So if I managed to make a success of my business, I put it down to three basic things: delivering a good product on time; specialising; and word of mouth.

Delivering a good product on time: this should be a no-brainer, although I’m sure we’ve all seen our fair share of dire translations supposedly produced by professional translators, and stories also abound of translators who “disappear” just before the deadline, never to be heard from again.
Specialising just makes sense: doing what you know well means you’ll do a better job, faster. So you’re more productive and can earn more.
• And finally, word of mouth does your marketing for you. It goes hand in hand with specialising, in fact: you want to get to the point that yours is the name a potential client always hears when they ask someone to recommend a translator in your field. It’s a win-win situation – the client is reassured that you can do the job, and you’re reassured that the client is trustworthy, as they’ve already been “vetted” for you by whoever recommended you. (Assuming you haven’t made too many enemies, of course…)

The point of all this is I would never have believed that I was the kind of person who could become a successful freelancer. And yet, so far at least, I am. I honestly believe that if I can do it, anyone with a reasonable amount of skill and common sense can do the same. So if after years of unceasing toil you still find yourself being constrained to accept a pitiful rate because it’s that or nothing, perhaps rather than blaming the market or your clients it’s time to take a good, hard look at yourself and ask whether you’re really cut out to be a freelance translator. You’re running a business, you are not dependent on one source of income and none of your clients has any obligation to you other than to pay you the rate you both agree on and to pay it on time. If you can’t make a go of it, I would suggest that either your business skills or your translation skills leave something to be desired.

This is probably the point at which I should put in a disclaimer: I am not a hardnosed Tory capitalist. I was a union rep and head of the staff representative committee in my former job. I firmly believe in workers’ rights and the power and importance of organised labour. I just don’t believe that such a model is appropriate in a completely different business context.

Other interesting and relevant points on this topic have been amply discussed by others, and I don’t propose to go into them here. Instead, I’ll direct you to my esteemed colleague, Charlie Bavington.

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