Exploitation in the translation industry

What Everybody Knows, Many Call Out, and Very Few Do Something About: The Ugly Reality of the Translation Industry

This article has been co-authored by Maria Scheibengraf, Operations Manager at Crisol Translation Services, and Sarah Presch, Director of International SEO at Chillistore. Maria has written the first part and Sarah takes over halfway through.

In this post:

How it all started

Hi everyone, Maria Scheibengraf here. This article is the result of some intense exchanges that have been going on lately on my social media profiles. About a month and a half ago, I learned that a top executive at a worldly known non-profit organisation fostering the professional advancement of translators has been profiting for years by paying peanuts to translators working for their private company on the side.

This was the beginning of a very disturbing and eye-opening journey that made me question many things I thought I knew about the industry, the people in it, and myself.

Learning that this well-respected individual was exploiting their own people made me so furious that I turned to social media, especially LinkedIn, to denounce this type of behaviour – which, unfortunately, is not an isolated case in our industry. But it wasn’t enough. Moaning and groaning online about how unfair some translation companies are might make us feel better, but it won’t change anything if the people who actually can do something about it don’t even read or engage in these conversations.

A top executive at a worldly known non-profit organisation fostering the professional advancement of translators has been profiting for years by paying peanuts to translators working for their private company on the side.

That’s when I thought of making some form of a statement: What could I do to get the message across to those who need to hear it and, hopefully, make them act? The answer was staring me in the face: Nimdzi’s Localization Influencers Watchlist. I’ve been recognised – two years in a row – as one of the most influential people in our industry… along several other people, one of which is no other than the very same executive I was talking about.

So, here’s my “statement”: I contacted Nimdzi to ask them to remove me from their list of localization influencers because I wasn’t willing to share the spotlight with people who, in my opinion, are harming our industry by not respecting the people who make it what it is: translators.

Nimdzi took WEEKS to get back to me, despite me reaching out to them several times through different channels. Eventually, a post I wrote on LinkedIn in an angry tone must have gotten their attention because they replied to me saying that they had removed me from the list.

So far, so good – until a baffling exchange with one of Nimdzi’s partners

I was happy when Nimdzi told me they had removed my name from their list, but surprised that none of their employees or partners had reached out to me to understand my motivations for taking such a step. They had been publicly endorsing a highly unethical individual – not just by recognising them as one of the top localisation influencers, but also sharing the stage with them at various events, posting pictures of them on their social channels, and so on. Surely, they must want to distance themselves from such a person?

So I openly asked Tucker Johnson, one of Nimdzi’s partners, why they had not shown any sign of discomfort or displeasure after learning that one of their “localisation influencers” was not behaving in an ethical way. Tucker’s answer?

“For the record though (and I mean this very sincerely and respectfully) I do know who you are talking about and I don’t care. I’m not King Solomon for the localization Industry and neither is Nimdzi Insights and we don’t participate in #cancelculture. In fact, I very much hope that no company, association, or (especially) individual ever gets that much power in our industry. One thing that makes our industry great is the fragmentation… the diversity. 2022 brought the first USD 1 billion LSP, but for every big company that gets bigger, there are a dozen hungry small LSPs willing to put in the extra effort and make sure buyers have CHOICE when choosing who to work with.

We report and we analyze and provide insights. We don’t take sides. We help companies grow. We provide free trainings and resources for EVERYBODY (including translators) in the industry and try to keep membership prices reasonable for growing LSPs rather than charging $20k for a single report.

What we do believe though, is making sure that everybody has equal access to information. So that’s why I wanted to raise awareness and let folks make their own decisions. Otherwise I’ll end up cutting babies in half.”

Wow. Just wow. I was gobsmacked. It seemed like Tucker was completely missing the point of what I was trying to do.

I do know who you are talking about and I don’t care.

To cancel or not to cancel

Someone else – who, oh how surprising, happens to have worked for Nimdzi for a long time – also commented:

“Wait, is meta-cancelling a thing now? So you cancel someone for the crime of not cancelling the other person that didn’t do what you wanted? And the meta-canceller is the victim? Just confused and trying to understand who I’m supposed to think is the bad guy here…🙄😵‍💫”

Now… I’ve changed my mind about what I replied to them. So much mention of “cancel culture” made me re-evaluate if what I saw as “calling out” was actually “cancelling”. In the threads in question, I said that my public statement wasn’t about cancelling. And while I still believe that it goes so much further than that – it’s about effecting deep, long-lasting change in an industry that’s broken and doesn’t value its own talent – I’ve since then looked up the exact definition of cancelling. And you know what? They’re not entirely wrong.

Cancelling means stopping to support someone or something, typically because of a moral objection. When someone continuously profits from the exploitation of others in our industry and finds their clients thanks to being given support and a platform by numerous organisations, publications, and events… those endorsing them are facilitating and enabling the perpetuation of systematic abuse. Is my asking these organisations, publications, and events to not give this person – and others with such lack of ethics – a platform the same as cancelling them? Perhaps.

But I see it as a moral obligation. If you’re not part of the solution, you’re part of the problem. If you provide a platform for those who perpetuate the status quo of exploitation in our industry, you’re telling the world that these people are worth listening to, that their voices matter. And they don’t. Not when they use them to profit off the backs of others.

It’s high time we start holding those in positions of power accountable. Not just the bad apples, but also those who enable them. It’s time to start expecting more from our industry leaders, from the organisations that claim to have our best interests at heart, and from the publications and events that are supposed to inform and educate us.

If you provide a platform for those who perpetuate the status quo of exploitation in our industry, you’re telling the world that these people are worth listening to, that their voices matter.

Tucker Johnson from Nimdzi Insights, however, doesn’t seem to share this view:

“Yes! I absolutely do think that the race to the bottom and poor working conditions are normal in certain parts of our industry. I don’t think it’s good. It’s terrible. Something can be normal and terrible at the same time.

Disagreement is hard, but valuable, because the ensuing discussion is how we help each other grow. For context: I already offered a discussion in my original post (that post is not included in the above screenshots 😒 but you can see it on my page).

I mean… does this whole thread really pass the smell test for you?

It’s a good cause and a topic that deserves visibility but there are mature and productive ways to have that conversation. This post isn’t it. This post is cringe AF (but not for Nimdzi Insights).

And I also agree that caring is not cancel culture. Believe it or not I’m a big empathetic teddy bear at heart. However, harassing others into saying and doing and publishing only things that you personally agree with and approve of, and then trying to shame those that stick up to the you and say no I won’t let you tell me what to think or how to conduct myself… even AFTER you already did what they wanted you to do anyways…

I think THAT is cancel culture.”

Apparently, calling out the enablers of systematic abuse – again: the public endorsement of those who profit from the exploitation of others in our industry makes you an enabler – is “cringe AF”. And “what I wanted them to do” was, apparently, having my name removed from a silly list. Can you see how little this person actually understands about the issue at hand?

Of course everyone is in their right to not let others tell them what to think or how to conduct themselves. But that doesn’t mean I, or anyone else, will stop trying to hold those who do wrong accountable – even if it’s “cringe AF” for some.

Back to the person who started all of this

I started worrying that the social media fight I picked up with Mr. Johnson could shift the focus away from the person who initially caused all of this drama: the one who proudly represents a non-profit organisation while making a killing off the exploitation of others in our industry.

An organisation, I need to clarify, that does amazing work and that I have a lot of respect for. I’m not trying to take anything away from the great things they do. It’s the individual who worked their way up to a leadership position within this organisation that I have a problem with – and all the others like them.

I haven’t dared name this person publicly. I received proof of their deplorable business practices in confidence from a few sources and I promised not to reveal their identity. So I fear that if I publicly identify them, they will know who my sources are and retaliate against them. Or that they would take some form of legal action against me, who knows.

I have absolutely no problem, however, in sharing this information with anyone who reaches out to me privately. While it’s outrageous enough that so many agencies and individuals get away with this behaviour, it’s even more sickening when they leverage their power and position to do so. For example, by making themselves appear as saviours of the industry – remember they head a non-profit? – while running a business that thrives off unethical practices.

I’d be lying if I said I wasn’t disappointed to learn that many people in our industry excuse and justify such behaviour. An article on Multilingual magazine by Domenico Lombardini, for example, tries to downplay the seriousness of the situation by making it sound like this is normal business behaviour.

Here are some of the (fallacious) arguments Mr. Lombardini makes:

“To both him and all translators, I’d like to point out that our job — running language service companies in a deregulated sector exposed to considerable competitive pressure — is by no means easy. For one thing, each company faces substantial differences in the business environment and tax burden depending on their home country.”

“(…) the heads of LSPs — usually small- to medium-sized companies — must be able to deal with and master topics such as: cost accounting, EBITDA maximization, tax preparation, planning and control, marketing, human resources, currency and other risks, business plans, M&A, investments, etc. It is unrealistic, if not almost inhuman, to expect a single person who often has no training in business administration to master all these skills.”

“(…) during times of limited growth or slow transitions from one company size to another, many of these responsibilities still lie with the CEO. This creates psychological problems in terms of stress, a sense of inadequacy, and ineradicable impostor syndrome. These problems can, in turn, influence the company’s operations. Due to a lack of time, energy, and skills, important matters are neglected in favor of others. This creates disharmony in the company’s development, which in turn generates more stress and psychological pressure on the CEO. It’s a self-sustaining vicious circle.”

“CEOs do hard work, are exposed to the danger of failure (and if they are the company’s founders and owners, they are personally subjected to it with serious losses), never get a real break from work, and many are subject to cyclical burnout.”

“Ultimately, rates are dictated by the market, and often by the large international players that concentrate a large portion of the global demand for translation and localization services. Often, small LSPs at the bottom of the value chain have strong constraints.”

There’s so much wrong with all of these arguments, I don’t even know where to start. Apparently, running a business – one with a model that, by design, can only function by exploiting the very people who make it possible – is “not easy”.

Let me tell you something, dear CEO of an LSP: if you can’t find a way to run your business without resorting to unethical practices, maybe you’re in the wrong line of work. And the stress you feel? It’s nothing compared to the stress and anxiety your translators feel when they have to work long hours for little pay, not knowing how they’re going to make ends meet. So Mr. Lombardini, please don’t try to paint CEOs as the victims here.

Also, those constraints you talk about? They are self-inflicted. When the only way you can make a profit is by competing on price and keeping a cut-throat margin, the natural consequence is that the people actually doing the work will be the ones who suffer.

But nobody is forcing you to do any of this, dear CEO of an exploitative business. You could choose to pay your translators a fair wage. You could choose to treat them with respect and as the professionals they are. You could choose to run your business ethically, differentiating yourself in the marketplace by niching down and catering to clients who are willing to pay a bit more for a better service. But you don’t. And that’s on you.

When the only way you can make a profit is by competing on price and keeping a cut-throat margin, the natural consequence is that the people actually doing the work will be the ones who suffer.

A business model that’s exploitative by design

Let me tell you what happens in Argentina, where I’m from. Most translation agencies use a business model that places them as one of several intermediaries in a long and complex supply chain. In this model, the translator is at the very bottom of the totem pole, with very little to no negotiating power.

The agency’s client is usually some larger language services provider (LSP) company that provides them with a steady stream of work while also taking a large cut off the top. A vicious cycle arises from this model, where the larger LSPs feel they need to keep their prices low in order to win contracts from end clients, so they look for ways to reduce their production costs. One of the most common ways they do this is by only hiring vendors that are willing to work for very low rates, which in turn means that these vendors – Argentine agencies being just one example – need to find ways to reduce their own production costs.

This is where things start getting really ugly.

As you can imagine, there are only so many ways to reduce your costs when you’re already working for peanuts. The most common way is by hiring unqualified translators, or by not paying qualified translators a fair rate for their work. This latter group is the one I’m particularly interested in, because it’s the one I belonged to for some time when I was starting out and could only find work with agencies that lowballed me.

Now – what kind of business model is that? Or rather, what kind of ethics does that show? Anyone who deliberately starts a business to obtain undeserved profits by taking advantage of the desperation of others is not a good business person. They’re a predator, plain and simple.

A business model like this one is not just morally wrong – it’s also incredibly short-sighted. Because what these agencies don’t seem to understand is that by not paying their translators a fair rate, they’re ultimately shooting themselves in the foot. Any business that wants to be successful in the long run needs to nurture talent, not exploit it. They need to build relationships with their employees and freelancers, not see them as commodities.

Anyone who deliberately starts a business to obtain undeserved profits by taking advantage of the desperation of others is not a good business person. They’re a predator, plain and simple.

The thing in Argentina is that graduates from Translation and Interpretation programs come out with outstanding academic knowledge, but very little to no practical experience. This is mostly due to outdated curricula, but that’s a topic for another day. The point is, when these young translators start looking for their first job, they’re bound to find an agency willing to hire them without much experience and pay them very little. Agencies who are constantly on the lookout for fresh talent they can lowball.

At the start, it’s a win-win situation: the agency gets to save on production costs, and the translator gets some much-needed practical experience. But then things start going downhill. The translator quickly realises that they’re not being paid nearly enough for the work they’re doing, but they perceive themselves as lucky to have found work in their field at all. In a country where economic conditions are tough, they’re not going to risk losing a client by asking for higher rates, and they don’t have the tools to insert themselves into a different part of the supply chain. Neither do they have the experience or the portfolio to start working directly with end clients, or the time to learn how to do that when they’re busy working all hours of the day just to make ends meet.

So they keep working for that same agency, year after year, never earning more than just enough to get by. Because remember – there’s always a fresh crop of young translators looking for their first job, so the agency has no incentive whatsoever to raise rates. They’ll just go ahead and hire someone else.

This is how the industry works in Argentina, and I’m sure it’s not that different in other countries where economic conditions are tough. That’s why this business model is so harmful: it relegates talented, hard-working translators to a life of financial insecurity, while the big fish get richer and richer.

What is exploitation?

The user who called me a “meta-canceller” went on to say:

“You may want to check your use of the term “exploitation”. People who are trafficked for sex or forced labor are exploited. Children who are forced to work instead of attend school in countries with no child labor laws are exploited. People who participate in a free market where they can accept or reject work, educate and market themselves to attract higher-paying customers, or change professions altogether? Nah, sorry, not exploitation.”

Fact check: According to the Cambridge Dictionary, exploitation can be defined as:

  • The act of using someone unfairly for your own advantage, or
  • The unfair treatment of other people for your own advantage

Many people seem to think that because translators can choose whether or not to accept a job, they’re not being exploited. But that’s not how it works in the real world. Those who, like I described earlier in this article, are forced by economic necessity to accept work that pays below their actual worth just to put food on the table are receiving unfair treatment at best, and are being laughed all the way to the bank by the agencies who are exploiting them.

At its core, exploitation is about taking advantage of someone’s situation for your own gain. And that’s exactly what’s happening in the translation industry.

Many people seem to think that because translators can choose whether or not to accept a job, they’re not being exploited. But that’s not how it works in the real world.

So my first thought at reading the comment I quoted above was how tone-deaf it is. But then I realised that the person who wrote it probably doesn’t realise they’re part of the problem.

They’re not alone. Most clients at the top of the food chain – big companies, international organisations, etc. – have no idea how their demand for low-cost translation services is fuelling a race to the bottom that’s leaving many translators struggling to make a decent living. They’re blissfully unaware of the exploitation that’s going on right under their noses, and nobody dares tell them.

It’s time to break the silence

There’s many of us who are tired of seeing how the translation industry works and are willing to rattle some cages to bring about change. Personally, I’m leveraging my own platform to call on clients, ethical translation agencies, and fellow translators to join me in taking a stand against exploitation.

So far, the response has been amazing. My posts on LinkedIn have a combined reach of over 78,000 views, and my inboxes are full of messages from translators and translation buyers who are ready to do something about the situation.

It would be easy for me to close this article here and leave you with a theoretical discussion of exploitation. But that’s not what’s needed right now. We need to take concrete action to bring about real change in the industry.

That’s why, in the following section of this article, my colleague and friend (and client!) Sarah Presch will describe what she’s witnessed throughout her years working in the translation industry. As someone who’s worked in the language industry for over a decade in some shape or form, she’s held many roles – from freelance translator to SLV to translation buyer to top-10 LSP.

Over to you, Sarah!

Why I care

Hey everyone, for those of you who don’t know me, I’m Sarah, and I’m the Director of International SEO at a lovely little company called Chillistore. While I’m not a translator anymore (though I did use to be one!) or an LSP owner, I have been involved with the language industry for nearly a decade and worked almost every role imaginable. However, it’s my time as a business owner and translation buyer that really taught me the most – and showed me that knowing what goes on behind the scenes is worth it’s weight in gold.

So, here I am to spread that knowledge and empower any translation buyers who might be reading this to make more ethical choices when it comes to their language service providers.

How many hands has your translation been passed through?!

When I first started in the translation industry, I honestly thought that a client had some files they needed to translate, that went to the agency who sent it to a translator and that was that. However, there’s much more to it than that.

You see, the way the language industry works is that it’s broken down into the following:

  • MLVs: Multi-language vendors, which are agencies who cover pretty much most languages.
  • RLVs: Regional-language vendors, which are smaller agencies who handle their region’s language.
  • SLVs: Single-language vendors who deal with a single language (normally their native one).
  • In-house translations: It’s not all that common anymore, but some companies still have in-house translators who work full-time for the agency and just translate.
  • Freelancers: Most of the time, these are the translators who actually do the translation.

So, say you’re ordering a translation from English into Czech. If you’re a large company who orders lots of translations and, therefore, uses an MVL, this is where your translation is likely to travel:

MLV —> RLV —> maybe another RLV —> SLV —> potentially another SLV, or two, and then to the freelancer.

Each of these companies needs to make their money/profit, pay for sales people, marketing, rent, IT people, etc., and once the money you pay has been broken down, there really isn’t very much left in the pot for the freelancers who are actually doing the work.

So can you see how the cycle of exploitation is beginning?

MLV —> RLV —> maybe another RLV —> SLV —> potentially another SLV, or two, and then to the freelancer.

Solution: Make sure you’re specific with your LSP about wanting to work with freelancers only. It’s also quite easy to cut out the LSP altogether and move over to a model of working with just freelancers. There’s so much talent on LinkedIn and by just using the #LITranslators when posting about your needs, you can find someone amazing super easily.

We’re not allowed to pay someone from a certain country less, so why is it OK for LSPs to do the same?!

You’ve decided you want a translation, you ask for a quote, and then you see that the prices you receive vary by language. Does that seem OK? If it does, let me spell it out for you – translators are literally getting paid not because of their experience, but because of where they’re from.

I’ll give you a personal example of how bad this really is. When I worked as a freelancer, I used to translate from Czech and Slovak into English. Now, because Czech and Slovak are classed and “cheaper “ languages, I’ve literally been offered 0.04 euros a word by companies in Ireland to translate for them.

Now, LSPs say they can translate 1,500 words per day. At this rate, I’d get 60 euros a day. That’s less than the Irish minimum wage which is €10.50 per hour! And don’t tell me it’s justified because the Czech Republic is a cheaper place to live – I work into my native language (which is almost always the case), which is English, which means I live in my country of Ireland, which is the 16th most expensive place to live in the whole world. If I’m earning 60 euros a day, I can’t even pay my rent, let alone buy food or feed my family.  

Solution: Tell LSPs that varying rates per country isn’t OK. This’ll only change if buyers say they don’t want it.

My translation sounds a bit like Google, could it be?!

With all of M&As happening in the language industry, there’s been a massive push for profits amongst some of the biggest players. And that’s meant that some pretty silly processes have become commonplace. If you’ve ever had a delivery that sounds a bit too much like machine translation for your liking, there’s a reason for that.

Many of the top players are harnessing the power of MT to keep costs down, and even though you’re paying for what you think is a human translation, you’re actually getting machine translation (think Google translate, but a bit more professional) + post-editing. Post-editing, however, is paid at ridiculous rates, and is often more tedious than translating from scratch, so as you can imagine – it’s not popular amongst professional linguists which means you’re getting the rough end of the stick. I mean, if you’re paid less than 5 euros an hour to edit some awful text, would you be willing to give it your all and fix it?

Solution: make sure that you have in your contracts that no machine translation is to be used, and if you do get any suspicious deliveries, look into it using this knowledge and stand your ground that MT is not an option.

If you’re paid less than 5 euros an hour to edit some awful text, would you be willing to give it your all and fix it?

Due diligence – take a look at Glassdoor & the Blue Board

If you want to see how an LSP treats its people, take a look at Glassdoor and ProZ’s Blue Board. This’ll give you a good idea if you’re working with an ethical company or not. Glassdoor will show you if the in-house PMs are being looked after (which sadly isn’t always the case), and the Blue Board will show you if they pay their freelancers on time, etc. It’s always best to take a look for yourself rather than believing everything the sales people say, because more often than not, the sales pitches never quite match up to reality.

Transforming the translation industry is ultimately about people

If we want to see change in the language industry, it’s going to have to come from the people within it. That means having more discussions about how we can work together to improve things, and actually following through with those plans.

We need to be raising awareness of the issues that exist, and calling out bad behaviour when we see it. We also need to be working together to build a more sustainable industry that works for everyone, not just the big players.

If you’d like to get involved in building a better translation industry, you can start by sharing this article with your network. This is just the start of the conversation – let’s keep it going!

Related articles:

Maria Scheibengraf Crisol Translation Services SaaS Translation Services

Author: Maria Scheibengraf

Maria Scheibengraf is an English-to-Spanish marketing and SEO translator specialised in software (SaaS, martech, fintech), and Operations Manager at Crisol Translation Services, which she co-founded in 2016. With a solid background in programming and marketing, Maria has an in-depth understanding of the technical intricacies involved in software programs, websites, and digital platforms. Maria is also the author of The SEO Translation Bible.

  • Avatar for Mayda
    Mayda 12:53 pm

    BB and Glassdoor are not that indicative, imho. Some agencies with abhorrent business practices and abysmal rates have a stellar record of 5-star BB ratings. It’s also not unheard of proz to block negative reviews – and it’s the freelancer, not the agency, who has to explain themselves.
    On Glassdoor you can see that some reviews are clearly posted by HR to improve the overall rating and CEO support. What usually happens is one review describing some internal issues, immediately followed by a string of hyper-optimistic postings with titles such as ‘the best place to work!’, ‘simply fantastic!’, ‘the worst thing about the pandemic is that I can’t see the CEO every day!’, etc.

  • Avatar for Romina @tradumotera

    «¡Se tenía que decir y se dijo!»
    Congratz on this amazing article. I totally support this initiative to work for healthier translation environment (not “industry”, hehe).
    BTW, I too agree with the previous comment about the ProZ BB (don’t know Glassdoor but I guess it is not reliable either). The “victim-blaming” and the attacks on translators who report bad practises are rampant,

  • Avatar for Alastair Naughton
    Alastair Naughton 10:52 pm

    Thanks SO MUCH for posting this! It needed (and still needs) to be said – and repeated! Bravo!

  • Avatar for Aura R Olivas
    Aura R Olivas 3:58 pm

    This wonderful article is more leaning toward the transition industry? I wished more was said about companies’ practices in the interpretation field. There are so many wrongdoings; this is not even a joke. Most of these companies do not keep up with the current economic situation and pay their workers very little. And, I will not even go into how employees are treated collectively. As a person with a BA and MA degrees, I have yet to find an interpreting company who will treat me fairly.

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