ATA president Madalena Sánchez Zampaulo talks fair pay

Last week, the American Translators Association (ATA) weighed in on the ongoing debate surrounding worker compensation in entertainment localization, calling for fair pay. MultiLingual reached out to ATA president Madalena Sánchez Zampaulo for a deeper conversation on the topic, as well as a forecast on where entertainment localization is headed.

MultiLingual: From the ATA’s perspective, how long has this issue of underpaid localization/translation services been an issue?

Madalena Sánchez Zampaulo: I would have to defer to some of our members in ATA’s Audiovisual Division (AVD) who specialize in this area to answer this question about industry trends in further detail, but the issue of undervaluing professionals’ work is not new. There will always be customers who undervalue professional work in any industry, not just translation and localization. These professionals continue to hone their skills and gain more experience and training, but their compensation and working conditions do not reflect this in many cases. What’s happening right now in the entertainment industry is shining a spotlight on this. It’s likely this has been an issue for longer than anyone realizes but the rise in popularity of foreign TV and movies has brought it into the spotlight. Whereas dubbed and subtitled films used to be a niche market, recent titles like Squid Game, Money Heist, and Lupin have brought them to the forefront of everyone’s minds, and so, with greater visibility comes greater scrutiny of the processes used to create this accessibility. Just as professionals in any industry wish to be compensated fairly for the work they perform and the skills they have taken years to sharpen, subtitlers and translators are not asking for anything more than what they have earned: fair wages and conditions for the value they provide.

ML: What do you think are the implications if this issue goes unaddressed in the international entertainment industry?

MSZ: If this continues, I would not be surprised if qualified and experienced subtitlers and translators decide to look to other areas of specialization in industries that do value their knowledge and expertise. Then, yes, there will most definitely be a decrease in the number of professionals who see this as a sustainable career path. This, in turn, will affect studios’ and streaming platforms’ bottom lines because viewers in international audiences will not stand for poor subtitles. They will simply stop watching and move on to entertainment that is easier to consume. It has been reported that young people are increasingly using subtitles, and streaming is becoming more and more accessible. It is in everyone’s best interest to pay translators and subtitlers the professional rates they deserve to maintain both a high level of fairness and high-quality productions.

ML: Does the ATA see any other industries that are in potentially problematic standing vis a vis translation and subtitler pay?

MSZ: I’m not sure I understand whether you’re asking about other industries being problematic when it comes to pay for translation (very broad) or subtitling (very narrow). There have always been, and always will be, end clients who prefer a hands-off, low-quality, low-budget approach to translation. And there will always be language service providers (LSPs) who embrace the same principles. That doesn’t make it right. While it’s difficult to paint any industry with a particular brush, it’s also fair to say that those who specialize and continue to hone their craft will continue to move away from these types of clients and more in the direction of those who value their work and are willing to pay accordingly. This conversation is happening in our industry whether large corporations like it or not. Professional translators and subtitlers are becoming empowered and have a right to be treated as the professionals they are. It’s just a matter of time before end clients feel the impact of problematic payment practices.

ML: Is there anything else you’d want to comment on regarding this story?

MSZ: ATA would like to recognize and applaud the audiovisual translators who have advocated for themselves in light of the unprecedented public scrutiny of their work and working conditions. They have shone a light on unfair practices and should continue to demand fair treatment and pay. We support these professionals 100%.

I would also like to point out that large LSPs, studios, and corporations should take another look at their corporate social responsibility (CSR) performance. Many focus solely on environmental issues or employment practices, but they do not address the contractors and subcontractors who form a vital part of their supply chain. Their actions, or lack thereof, affect the livelihoods of those who help them become so successful in international markets. These companies need to look at how they demonstrate sustainable business practices and fair treatment of those who work for them as well.

Cameron Rasmusson
Cameron Rasmusson is a writer and journalist. His first job out of the University of Montana School of Journalism took him to Sandpoint, Idaho as a staff writer for the Bonner County Daily Bee. Since 2010 he's honed his skills as a writer and reporter, joining the MultiLingual staff as Editor-in-Chief in 2021.

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