Are LSP CEOs “a bunch of megalomaniac money grabbers?” Ode to humanism in language services

 

In Italy, employers are sometimes called the “padroni” (bosses). As someone from a lower social class, I grew up convinced the padroni were enemies who exploited their employees. My mother and father were both immigrants from southern Italy in the 1950s — people who worked with their hands and lacked a high school diploma. Observing their experiences, I accepted our exploitation as an inevitability I was powerless to change.

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 labor exploitation, where the asymmetry between the power of the employer and the employee couldn’t have been more pronounced. Like many other European countries, there is little social mobility in Italy. For example, only 18% of university graduates in Italy come from families where neither parent has a secondary school diploma, as was my case.

Thanks to an entirely random, unrepeatable, and fortunate series of events, after a cursus honorum in secondary school that was anything but honorable (I was never a model student), I managed to graduate cum laude with a degree in biological sciences. It was only after interrupting my Ph.D studies that I cut my teeth in the world of language services, first as an employee, then a freelancer.

My desire to work, but above all a need support my spouse and two children, explained why I never turned down a job, accepted low rates, worked nights and weekends, 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 or hire someone. Since I had nothing to lose, I hired a person who would become my company’s first in-house translator, Letizia Merello. It was the beginning of a beautiful adventure.

Some may object: “Here’s another smug, small LSP owner going on about his achievements urbi et orbi.” Let me assure you, the introduction was necessary. Let me explain.

Recently, I saw a post by freelance translator María Scheibengraf regarding the low rates offered by some LSPs. Her discussion revealed the contradiction (“hypocrisy,” as some wrote) between the supposedly corporate virtues and the real professional practices of some LSPs. 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.

As we say in Italy, “lies have short legs,” meaning they get you nowhere. Bragging about idyllic relations with translators when the reality is 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. Sooner or later, these “hypocrisies” become, as we say in Italy, “Pulcinella’s secret” — in other words, a secret to no one. As someone who has been both the so-called exploited and exploiter, allow me to offer both sides some advice.

I’d firstly like to address the translators. In Scheibengraf’s discussion, one commenter characterized the biggest Nimdzi-ranked localization influencers as greedy, writing: “The entire top-10 consists of a bunch of megalomaniac money grabbers.” The rather colorful expression made me laugh.

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. For example, in Italy, it seems that every effort is made to hinder companies’ growth, but this is another matter entirely. More to the point, 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. CEOs of small LSPs aren’t superhuman and, if possible, will try to delegate tasks to others who possess the skills they lack. This is normal, especially in a growing company.

But 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.

I can already hear those on the other side of the fence, on the side of the so-called “exploited,” saying: “Wow, you’re arguing that indecent rates are caused by stressed CEOs!”
On the contrary. I’m not fishing for excuses or distractions. Rather, I would just like to convey an awareness I didn’t have when I was on the so-called “exploited” 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 Scheibengraf’s post was that no one clearly mentioned which CEO and which company was in question. So why all this? Is there a code of silence? A 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, and other information?

Regardless, I 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. Instead, the sharing of open, uncensored LSP information might lead companies to adopt better behaviors.

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 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, one possible choice could be to gradually turn to niche sectors with higher added value and gradually abandon those of lower added value. These sectors are more valuable for customers and more difficult to automate. For example, areas where machine translation is comparatively inadequate. 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 — and the possible exit or entry of partners or venture capital funds. Overall, this is much fairer to our collaborators, and we will not incur the “hypocrisy” that can infest LSP company profiles.

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,” are becoming stale and 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 in better schools, universities, and research. The climate of exasperated political opposition of the past decades has caused serious damage in many countries, especially in Italy. The path to better, more fruitful cooperation should firstly touch on mutual appreciation for everyone’s work, whether we be CEOs or company employees. But we must also consider the organized and deliberate pursuit of a corporate strategy aimed at increasing the value of services and working toward that social harmony — a harmony I found hypocritical as a child but aspirational as an entrepreneur.