Macro/Micro: How the Occupy movement affects language business

I am the 99%. Or maybe I’m not. To be quite frank, it doesn’t matter. I understand that apathy regarding the Occupy Wall Street movement may not be the best thing to admit in an internationally circulated publication, but to be honest, I have enough going on in my own life and with my own company to plead it. I’m really not as apathetic as I seem — I do have an opinion on the Occupy movement and a very strong one at that — but my opinion is irrelevant right now. What is relevant is how the movement affects my business and others like it. I run a translation company, and like many US-based translation companies, we rely on independent contractors to conduct some of our translation work.

Independent contractors. By nature they’re individuals, working independently. A no-brainer, huh? But the key point here is that independent contractors are individuals — in other words, people.

Language service providers (LSPs), meaning translation companies like mine, are legally not people. We’re entities. In Every Language is a limited liability corporation (LLC). According to an Association of Language Companies’ member survey, 14% of American LSPs are structured as LLCs. The majority (57%) are S Corporations. Only 2% were classified as sole proprietorships, which means according to the Internal Revenue Service, only 2% of translation companies in the United States are considered people.

Indeed, with all the anti-corporation rhetoric circulated by the Occupy movement and elsewhere, it’s really easy to forget that businesses are run by people. In Every Language may not be a person, but I am. My assistant Abigail is one and our bookkeeper Peggy is also a person. In fact, every employee we have working here is, well, a person. No Data from Star Trek or robots of any other type. We’re people. But this is a fact that’s easily forgettable in today’s social climate.

Perhaps I think this way because I hang out with hipsters, shop local and drink micro-brewed beer. Maybe if I spent more time with Republicans I’d hear arguments in the opposite direction, but the macro-trend I’ve noticed recently in these American states is one where people don’t like companies too much. In fact, a February 2012 Inc. Magazine poll reports that only 61% of Americans have a favorable opinion of large corporations. That may still be a majority, but it’s not a very big one.

Perhaps this lower figure is part of the backlash from US government bailouts and the general state of our economy worldwide. Voting “unfavorable” in a poll is one thing, but remember the death threats made against AIG’s CEO? And let’s not forget that the US Supreme Court recently had to rule in Citizens United v. Federal Election Commission whether corporations are constitutionally people.

It’s all so silly. Again, I am a person. Peggy, Abigail, both people. In Every Language, not a person. It does not have a pulse, it cannot give blood, and it can’t put its arms around you when your boyfriend has left or your grandmother has died. However, the silliness is taking hold and affecting how LSPs deal with independent contractors. I don’t know how many of you know Jill Sommer, who works as a freelance German translator and publishes the blog Musings from an overworked translator ( January 18, one of her entries, “Unprofessionalism in the industry” took hold and started to grow like Audrey II, that evil plant in Little Shop of Horrors. Here’s a summary, just to get you up to speed. An LSP project manager told Sommer that she’d asked a translation applicant to complete a translation test so quality control could screen him before putting his information in the LSP’s system. The freelancer’s response? “F— off.” Nothing less, nothing more. Since Sommer used to serve on the American Translators Association’s business practices committee, she blogged that she was of course appalled that any freelancer could act so unprofessionally.

So that’s the blog post. Now we get to the comments — ah, yes, the comments, which were closed after only a few days. 46 principle and 45 secondary comments later, we have a lack of consensus over whether that type of language is ever appropriate in business as well as an interesting argument brought up by Catherine Christaki, a Greek freelancer. “I think we keep forgetting,” Christaki writes, “that [project managers] are humans too and should be treated accordingly.” It seems as though a bit of that Occupy thinking has seeped into the translation industry after all.

It’s very easy to ignore that while a corporation isn’t a person, the employee working there is, particularly when your only interaction with that employee is via e-mail. You don’t see the employee’s face and you can’t hear the quiver in her voice that tells you if she’s having a good day or a bad one. She represents “the man,” a derogatory expression for an oppressive authority figure, and it’s long been American culture to scorn or shirk “the man.” Unless you count the Seven Dwarfs’ “Hi-Ho” from the Disney cartoon Snow White, there aren’t really any positive songs in the American repertoire about people heading off to work. Instead, Johnny Paycheck has taught us to “take this job and shove it,” Dolly Parton “swear[s] the man is out to get [her],” and Johnny Cash made a joke of stealing Cadillac parts from his employer “One Piece at a Time.” Americans have a cultural tradition of sticking it to “the man.” Add to that anger over our recent recession, and you have a social climate prime to be occupied.

As LSPs we have to be cognizant of the fact that this attitude is out there. Yes, I’m a person, but I represent In Every Language. When freelancers hear from us, they don’t hear from us as individuals, but as corporations. Most LSPs will tell you the stereotypical relationship between freelancers and LSPs has long been tenuous at best. Of the 91 different comments on Sommer’s blog, far too many justified the freelancer’s behavior. It didn’t take long for those sort of comments to start rolling in either. Comment number three takes up for the freelancer, stating “Bottom line, I can understand if some translators, especially in Europe, are sick and tired of agencies!” One poster even goes so far in defending the freelancer’s behavior against the big bad agency that he compares “Mr F— Off” to Jesus. Clearly, there are some freelancers out there who think of LSPs as “the man.”

The issue now becomes how we’re going to fix this. The language services website reports that 93% of all translators and interpreters are independent contractors. 40.7% of them have been working independently for 15 years or longer. The business model of the LSP client-independent contractor provider is long established in our industry. While it seems easy to those outside our industry for “the man” to simply hire everyone in-house, the majority of LSPs, regardless of size, are financially and logistically incapable of bringing on translators as employees for every language and specialization they serve. Not to mention independent translators don’t want this. In another blog entry, “Freelance translators and interpreters are NOT employees,” Sommer writes with pride, “I am a full-time freelance translator.” This entry discusses recent Language Line efforts to deny the independent contractor model. Sommer’s response to these efforts is that freelancers willingly see themselves as separate from companies. While freelancers must think and operate like businesses to be financially successful, I’m certain if you asked them if they were businesses or people, they would say people.

As people, though, they need us and we need them. We are a pipeline to work, revenue, income. We connect them with end clients and without us, that whole left side of their balance sheet — assets — would be bereft. But they’re also the right side of our balance sheet, as liabilities and accounts payable. They are operating expenses because we do need them to operate. What is translation, after all, without a translator? It’s all so silly, biting the hand that feeds you. But that’s the potential this Occupy movement has to affect our industry.