Interviews & Articles 2021
Are working systems making the audiovisual translation industry less sustainable?
By Joss Moorkens, Dublin City University
Translators have worked with the assistance of technology for many years, usually translating whole texts, divided into segments but in sequential order. In order to maximise efficiency and inspired by similar moves in the tech industry and predictions for Industry 4.0, some translation companies have recently begun to break tasks down into smaller chunks and to rigidly define and monitor translation processes, a work system sometimes known as Digital Taylorism, harking back to the work on ‘scientific management’ by Frederick Winslow Taylor in the early 1900s. This is particularly true of audiovisual translation work, which is increasingly platform-mediated, highly collaborative, and requires near-live turnaround times, as was evident from many presentations at Languages & the Media 2018.
The adoption of Digital Taylorism in translation differs to its use in the tech industry. The main difference is that most translators work on a freelance basis, and as such are likely to have less power and agency than direct employees. Employers can save on costs such as social security, pensions, office space, and resources. Freelance translators have the flexibility to work when and where they like as part of a ‘portfolio career’. However, these freelance translators are also reliant on ethical behaviour on the part of their employers and are particularly vulnerable to unilateral changes to working conditions when they work exclusively with a single language service provider. By working as a small and interchangeable part within a system, they can be swapped out without any detrimental effect to the system as a whole. This system works for many translators who translate on a part-time basis or who have no wish to build a long-term trust relationship with their employer. For others, rigidly defined and decomposed work offers little job satisfaction, particularly where a lack of trust means that employers use technology-enabled and invasive monitoring and surveillance to ensure that tasks are carried out as expected.
Taylor’s assumption was that money alone could motivate workers. A well-performing employee in a scientifically managed factory should, in theory, receive a bonus or premium in salary, and this may be the case for valuable employees working for tech giants who see only the positive side of teamwork. However, the bonus for the micromanaged freelancer is to be retained for the next project. The number of acquisitions within the translation and interpreting industry brings a need to satisfy shareholders, and the related cost pressures often decrease the security and rates of external freelance vendors. Decomposed work results in little sense of ownership for an overall project. This isn’t true just of audiovisual translation. In 2012, translation scholar Prof. Sharon O’Brien wrote that, “in some domains, the notion of a text, with a beginning, middle and end, has changed radically.” But we can see this process in fast-turnaround subtitling work for OTT media, or in mobile game localisation that follows an agile weekly sprint development cycle.
Translation workflows are increasingly complex, but not truly collaborative, as geographically distributed workers often work with a single intermediary, and the temporary nature of project-specific organisation means that there’s little chance of building an empathic trust relationship. As Zygmunt Bauman wrote in 2000, if a worker feels that they are disposable, “they see little point in developing attachment or commitment to their jobs.” The literature by Frederick Herzberg and others on job satisfaction suggests that, rather than money being a motivator, factors such as interpersonal relationships, working conditions, salary, status, and security are basic needs. If they are not fulfilled, workers are likely to be dissatisfied. An increase in pay may be effective in getting work done, but positively motivating employees requires a sense of achievement and recognition for that achievement, the ability to perform a wide variety of tasks, a feeling of intrinsic pride in work, and personal growth or advancement. The opportunity to fulfil those needs for motivation is rarely part of a Digitally Taylorised workflow, and repeated negative responses to translator surveys of job satisfaction suggests that this should be a concern.
Recent work on sustainable work systems proposes that, for a system to be sustainable, companies should prioritise long-term returns, or at least attain a just balance in development between all stakeholders and long- and short-term needs. This will require continual rebalancing and adjustment following certain principles, such as regeneration of human, social, material, and natural resources utilised and non-exploitation of one resource over another, including external resources. This is not a particularly controversial assertion, as business and business ethics literature has moved on from the focus solely on profit from the 1970s to a stakeholder-led approach, whereby the needs of all parties connected to a company should be considered, although the perception remains that societal concerns exert a drag on business.
Elkington popularised the idea of the ‘Triple Bottom Line’ of people, planet, and profit, promoting a sustainable balance between human and social resources and with ecological and economic resources. There is little sign of the consideration of corporate-social responsibility or sustainability in a translation industry focused primarily on cost and efficiency. This culture will be difficult to change, as consumers demand ever-more speed in production and fast turnaround times, especially for multimedia content. A company that weans itself away from an army of unpaid workers-in-waiting, ready to produce translation at speed and low cost, is liable to make itself uncompetitive in the sector of the market that prioritises cost and speed over quality. The problem is when an unbalanced system removes all autonomy, potentially leaving a repetitive role of relatively meaningless, rigidly defined and unsatisfactory tasks.
No business wants to be inefficient, and that is not my proposition. Rather, a broad conceptualisation of sustainability needs to be at the forefront of thinking at all levels within the translation ecosystem. This necessitates translation employers bearing some responsibility for the satisfaction and motivation of workers, as a sustainable industry will ultimately benefit all stakeholders.
[A longer article on this subject appeared in issue 9(1) of the journal Translation Spaces. See https://benjamins.com/catalog/ts.00019.moo.]
Dr. Joss Moorkens will be a speaker at Languages & the Media 2021, which takes place online from September 20 – 24, 2021.