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Freelance Translator: The Most Democratic Profession?

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Steve YolenI’m old enough to remember life without the Internet and e-mail.

I actually began my writing and translation career typing on manual typewriters, literally cutting and pasting to rearrange sentences and paragraphs. And I had to physically deliver — in the form of paper, faxes or even teletype messages and telegrams — my work output, actually visiting the offices of my clients and correspondents, in many cases!

The reason I’m bringing up such ancient history is because it is germane to the thesis of this article: that the freelance translation business in today’s highly technologist and electronic workplace just may well be the most democratic of professions. Through the ineffable magic of e-mail, FTPs, virtual workgroups, broadband Internet connections and cutting edge telecommunications, freelance translators today have the privilege of being able to work in almost any location they desire. And they do not have to physically interact with any of their far-flung clients. I’ve begun translation projects in Rio de Janeiro, polished them in Nova Friburgo and sent them off to clients from my sister’s farm in the Berkshire Mountains of western Massachusetts.

Out of a client portfolio of about 40 companies in six Brazilian states, the U.S. and Europe, I have personally talked to only about one-half of them (by telephone) and actually seen — face-to-face — a mere handful. Different than a decade ago, almost everything is handled via e-mail — client requests, project price quotes, product delivery. Basically, unless I want them to, my clients only know if I am male or female because of my name. All of the rest — all of the discriminatory stuff — is filtered out by the electronic interface. What this means on a personal level is quite interesting. It means that today’s professional freelance translator is judged exclusively and entirely on his or her work output — and not, as U.S. federal government equal opportunity guidelines currently are intended to protect, on race, color, sex, religion, national origin, age or disability — or for that matter such less weighty but real criteria as pregnancy, weight, personality traits, dandruff, tattoos or bad breath.

This is a revolution in the international job market. And it can be entirely attributed to the advent of the Internet and e-mail. Imagine a job interview where only your professional qualifications count. That your continued success on the job depends only on your personal capacity to fulfill the exact requirements of each project. Whether you are young or old, black or white, male or female or other sexual orientation is irrelevant. It sounds like a perfect definition of a democratic workplace, a true meritocracy. From what I can gather, the corporate environment even in the most democratic of countries, the U.S., is still very discriminatory. Here’s an explanation from David H. Greenberg about what happens when a job discrimination case gets its day in court. Greenberg is a discrimination attorney in the U.S. yet the fact that there are “discrimination attorneys” is already a good indication of the unsettled state of the employment marketplace there:

“So far, the courts have allowed employers to discriminate against people on the basis of long hair and facial hair (except when worn for religious reasons), weight (except when the weight is because of a medical condition), and because the employer wants to hire a family member or promote a family member. Under the law, an employer can refuse to hire you because you are too young, but not because you are too old (over forty). None of these are protected categories. In other words, if the category of the discrimination isn't spelled out in a statute, the employee is not protected from that form of job discrimination. Therefore, if the boss doesn't like you, but you don't know why, or the category isn't protected by law, he can fire you or not hire you for that reason.”

Well, that’s not going to happen to an Internet-savvy freelance translator. You can have facial hair and halitosis and still get work. If the boss doesn’t even know you, he won’t fire you — he’ll just judge you on the merit of your work.

So, congratulations to all freelance translators for choosing what is arguably the most democratic profession in the world. Now, of course, there is the slight problem of your being as good or better than all of those other virtual translators out there…but that’s the subject of some other column.

Steve Yolen, an American resident in Rio de Janeiro, has worked as a professional translator since 1994, although as a journalist and foreign correspondent in Brazil and South America he has been involved in translating throughout his entire career. Together with Peter Warner, he heads the Ccaps high-end English language translation service and plays in Copacabana Handshake, an American folk music band.


This article was originally published in Сcaps Newsletter (

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