Collaborative Competitiveness: Empowering Freelancer Translators


In “A Pervert’s Guide to Cinema,” a thought provoking two and half-hour documentary, Slavoj Zizek (Slovenian philosopher, psychoanalyst, and senior researcher at the Institute for Sociology and Philosophy of the University of Ljubljana) provocatively claims that, “In order to understand today’s world, we need cinema, literally. It’s only in cinema that we get that crucial dimension which we are not ready to confront in our reality. If you are looking for what is in reality more real that [sic.] reality itself, look into the cinematic fiction.” If my Matrix series and Pirate post prove anything, it’s that – despite Aristotle’s warning – this is one thought I not only entertain, but also happily accept.

In the documentary, Mr. Zizek analyzes several movies, one of which is Charlie Chaplin’s 1940 film the Great Dictator. Of course, Mr. Zizek’s analysis is philosophical and psychoanalytical –arguably even political; but as I was watching the documentary it occurred to me that the film also has something to say about translation.

Less than a minute into his touching speech at the end of the movie, Chaplin claims that it’s in our nature, as human beings, to want to help one another, to live by each other’s happiness, not each other’s misery, and that our world is rich and can provide for everyone. As Chaplin reflects on greed and hate, the role of machines and technology, he comes to the realization that his voice is reaching the world; but those who cheer him on as a leader of peace and love are the same people that cheered Adenoid Hynkle on as he led “Tomainia” into hate (you need to see the film to get that).

The parallels with the current world of translation are uncanny. We face wealth and greed on a daily basis when negotiating translation agreements, we struggle against unethical uses of machines that were initially created to help us, and some translators even face exploitation, while others strive to defend and justify the exploiters. But what really hit home with me in Chaplin’s film is the moment when you realize Hynkle is nothing without the mass, yet the mass seems utterly unaware of its power. It’s kind of like that famous image of the panicking fishes: the power really is in the numbers.

What’s also interesting in the film is how the mass is willing to follow Hynkle both into evil and into peace. What changes at the end of the film is simply the dominant paradigm.


Enter translation. I don’t know how many translators are out there, but I do know we are somewhere in the hundreds of thousands. Proz claims on its site that it has over 300,000 members in 190 countries; the ATA has about 10,000 members in 90 countries (not sure if these are the latest numbers though); and IAPTI has about 40,000 followers on Facebook alone (I don’t know how many actual members they have). There are a lot of us and there is power in numbers. But because we view each other as competitors, we are unable to channel our collective strength.

Meanwhile, in a post on why translators should think like scientists, I quoted Alice Gast, President of Imperial College London and internationally renowned scholar and researcher, on the importance of collaborative competitiveness. I gave an example of how by joining forces with a “competitor,” we can go after direct clients who may need more than a freelancer, but not necessarily an agency or broker. The idea behind this is simple: collaborative competitiveness consists of freelancers joining forces on specific projects or marketing to specific clients and pooling their resources together to eliminate the middleman. With all the money going into translation each year, there really is enough out there to provide for everyone. What freelance translators need is to work around current practices that foster asymmetry in access to clients and contractual terms. Collaborative competitiveness may be the key to changing the dominant paradigm and empowering the masses to eliminate the Hynkles of the translation world.

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