Towards humanism in language services

I grew up convinced, also supported by what I saw in my family, that the “padroni” (bosses) as they were sometimes called in Italy (at least in the lower social classes), or employers in short, were entirely enemies who exploited their employees. As someone from a lower social class (my mother and father were both immigrants from Southern Italy in the 1950s, both “people who worked with their hands” and lacked a high school diploma), I accepted this as a fact of nature that I could do literally nothing about. The appeal (very often from institutions) to the importance of schooling and social harmony sounded like rhetoric to me: I was surrounded by simple social immobility and labour exploitation, where the asymmetry between the power of the employer and the employee couldn’t have been more pronounced.

Thanks to an entirely random, unrepeatable and fortunate series of events, after a cursus honorum in secondary school that was anything but honourable (I was never a model student), I managed to graduate cum laude with a degree in biological sciences. I should point out that there is very little social mobility in Italy, but also in other European countries. For example, only 18% of university graduates in Italy come from families where neither parent has a secondary school diploma, which was my case (IlSole24Ore). It was only after interrupting my PhD studies that I began to “cut my teeth” in the world of language services, first as an employee and then as a freelancer. My desire to work, but above all the fear of not managing to survive (I had no “guardian angel” watching over me, and I was already married with two children), explained why I never turned down a job, accepted low rates, worked all the time, including Saturdays and Sundays, and differentiated my services (I also worked on medical writing and training). In time, I fortunately began to receive so much work that I had to choose between two alternatives: remain a freelancer and start turning down jobs I physically didn’t have time to do, or hire someone. Since I had nothing to lose, I hired a person who would become ASTW’s first in-house translator, Letizia Merello. It was the beginning of a beautiful adventure, which is substantiated by what I believe is a wonderful company today: ASTW. Some may now begin to object: “Here’s another smug, small LSP owner going on about his achievements urbi et orbi“. If I may, I would humbly ask any impatient readers to take it down a notch and have a little patience, since this long introduction was necessary in order to address something I hold quite dear and may also be of interest to them.

This thought, which I have been ruminating over for quite some time, took on a more definitive shape when I saw the discussions following a post by freelance translator María Scheibengraf. María was complaining about the incredibly low rates she had been proposed by an LSP, but in particular her discussion revealed the contradiction (“hypocrisy”, as some wrote) between the supposedly corporate virtues and the real professional practices of some (but apparently many) Language Service Providers. In other words, many LSPs “boast” on social networks how they take great care of their freelance translators, how they’re partners rather than employers, and that they respect their human and professional value, when in fact the reality is quite different. Obviously, as we say in Italy “lies have short legs”, meaning that lies will get you nowhere, and bragging about idyllic relations with translators when things are in fact decidedly (and unpleasantly) different is not only a censurable ethical practice, but also a marketing tactic that is sure to fail. Translators pass on news and exchange information in social networks as well as by word of mouth, and sooner or later these “hypocrisies” become, as we say in Italy “Pulcinella’s secret’, meaning an open one, the worst-kept type. I would like to take the opportunity to respond with my point of view, which benefits from my having been on both sides, both the so-called “exploited” and the “exploiters”. And I will take the liberty of giving both sides some advice.

I’d firstly like to address the translators. In María Scheibengraf’s discussion, this is how Ed Vreeburg defines the CEOs listed as the 10 biggest influencers in the localization sector by Nimdzi: “the entire top 10 consists of a bunch of megalomaniac money grabbers” – a rather colourful expression that made me laugh. To Ed, but also to all translators, I’d like to point out that our job, that of running language service companies in a sector exposed to considerable competitive pressure and which is totally deregulated, is by no means easy. Apart from the often substantial differences in the business environment and tax burden in which they operate (for example in Italy, it seems that every effort is made to hinder companies’ growth, but this is another matter entirely), the heads of LSPs, which are in most cases small to medium-sized companies, must be able to deal with and master, often as eternal trainees, topics such as: cost accounting, EBITDA maximisation, tax planning, planning and control, marketing, human resources, currency and other risks, business plans, M&A, investments, etc. As is quite clear 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. And as a matter of fact, none of the CEOs of small LSPs is Pico della Mirandola, in short nobody is that competent. Indeed, CEOs very often lack many of these skills, and for this reason (if company growth allows it) they will gradually delegate some, if not many, of these activities to other people. This is quite normal, especially in a growing company. But I feel it’s important to point out that often during times of limited growth, but more importantly during times of slow transition from one company size to another, many of these responsibilities still lie with the CEO, which 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 things are neglected in favour of others, and this creates disharmony in the company’s development, which in turn generates more stress and psychological pressure on the CEO in a self-sustaining vicious circle. I can already hear those on the other side of the fence, on the side of the so-called “exploited” saying: “Wow, this one is trying to convince us that the indecent rates are caused by the fact that CEOs are stressed!”. No, this is not at all what I set out to do. I’m not fishing for excuses or alibis for certain behaviours: I would just like to convey an awareness of something that I didn’t have when I was on the so-called “exploited” side, because I was clearly blinded by my visions on that side. 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.

One thing I noticed in María Scheibengraf’s post was that no one clearly mentioned which CEO and which company was in question. So why all this? A code of silence, fear of reprisal or condemnation? Here’s an idea: why not make a website that collects all the information about LSPs, a sort of Language Service Provider Advisor, where every freelance translator can add information and comments on rates, the quality of collaborations with the company, type of projects, etc.? I really don’t think the solution is the creation of a translators’ union (which should be worldwide, given the type of market) or to establish legal rates. While I think that sharing this information about LSPs in an open, uncensored way could lead them to adopt better behaviours.

But the level of rates is dictated by the market, and often by the large international players that concentrate a large portion of the global demand for translation and localisation services. Often small LSPs at the bottom of the value chain have strong constraints that limit the rates they can pay those collaborating with them, nor do they have the freedom to significantly act on increasing business efficiency to recover margins. So what to do? Personally, and here I’m addressing the CEOs of small and medium-sized LSPs, the so-called “exploiters”, one possible choice could be to gradually turn to niche sectors with higher added value, which are more valuable for customers and more difficult to automate (for example where Machine Translation gives comparatively worse results), and to gradually abandon those with lower added value. To do so, to find space in richer niches, it’s important to have culture, to invest in employee training, to (perhaps) accept a physical limit to the size of the company you can reach, and of course to go beyond your comfort zone. We may not exceed the size of a boutique agency or have an eight-figure turnover, but we will have created a solid and valuable entity (also for the possible exit or entry of partners or venture capital funds) which is much fairer to our collaborators. In doing so, we will not incur the “hypocrisy” of vaunted corporate virtues, of good feelings, of stories that are as melancholic as they are ultimately false, which recklessly infest the profiles of companies operating in the language services sector.

In conclusion, even though it sounds utopian, I believe that a climate of greater and more substantial collaboration can be created between LSPs and freelancers. The categories of “exploited” and “exploiters”, of “masters” and “subordinates” have become stale and entirely inadequate for correctly describing our productive realities. We no longer live in manufacturing economies based on 20th-century Fordism, but in the economy of knowledge: policy makers should understand that the only way to reduce social friction is to increase the population’s average level of culture, and invest more and better in schools, universities and research. The climate of exasperated political opposition of the past decades has caused serious damage in many countries, especially in Italy: a way to better and more fruitful cooperation should firstly touch on mutual appreciation for everyone’s work, whether CEOs or employees of companies. But also for the organised and deliberate pursuit of a corporate strategy aimed at increasing the value of services and getting closer to that social harmony which I saw as hypocritical as a child, but which I see as possible as an entrepreneur.

Domenico Lombardini
English translation and adaptation by Sarah Schneider