Lost in Translation: Israel’s Translators Are Underpaid, Undervalued

'Anyone who’s ever traveled overseas can wake up one morning and decide he’s a translator.'

Last summer a large Israeli financial firm was about to sign a business agreement with a similar company in Brazil. The Israeli firm hired the services of a translator to translate its Hebrew-language documents detailing its business and strategy into Portuguese.

The documents were sent off to Brazil and a few days passed. In Israel, the company began to wonder why the Brazilians, who had shown great interest in the relationship, were not responding. When they called Brazil, they were told the documents they had sent raised serious questions about the company’s financial strength. The company’s balance sheet was strong; it was the translation that was weak − a misstep that could have cost the Israeli firm millions of shekels in lost business if the problem had not been cleared up.

“In a situation in which anyone who’s traveled overseas can wake up one morning and decide he’s a translator, many such cases happen. Translation is often a moonlighting job for single mothers, lawyers and doctors,” says Shakhar Pelled, who for 25 years has translated legal, financial and technical documents.

In a small country speaking a language almost no one outside its borders understands, translators play a key role in cross-border business, government and culture. Yet the translation business in Israel is a free-for-all where anyone, even those without any training in the field, can call themselves a translator.

“The profession isn’t officially recognized,” says Pelled. “There are no criteria for working in it, and no one needs to pass an exam to be a translator. There’s no one regulating the business and no official rates ... What happened to the company that lost the deal is the result of amateur work.”

Most translators in Israel − a profession which probably numbers in the thousands, though they have never been formally counted − are self-employed. Only about 5 percent are salaried and an estimated 80% are women.

The most prestigious and sought-after segment of the business is translating literature. Here the final work bears the name of the translator along with that of the author. But while translating fine literature may be the intellectual peak of the profession, almost no one can make a living from it. Publishers usually pay 50 shekels ($14.20) for a page of 250 words, while other businesses such as banks and insurance companies, which require professional technical translations, pay some 100 to 120 shekels. They also pay some 50 shekels a page for less skilled work.

The most poorly paid translators includes those who translate for television subtitles. They receive between 25 shekels and 30 shekels an hour, which amounts typically to a monthly income of less than 6,000 shekels. A few years ago television translators went on a prolonged strike to protest their conditions, to no avail.

Translation companies have conquered the market in recent years. Such firms resemble other service providers in other sectors, such as companies supplying security guards or cleaners. The firms maintain lists of translators according to language, and when the company receives an order from a client they farm it out to the appropriate translator.

“The competition between the different translation companies is fierce and has caused prices to drop, which is expressed in the translator’s salary,” says Pelled, adding that the public sector, even if not intentionally, is the worst offender.

“[Government] tenders are designed for the translation companies and not freelance translators. The winner of a tender is the company that offers the lowest price. Sometimes I see government notices whose translation into English is at a really low level. A professional translator cannot set foot in a government office. The government should establish an internal translation unit whose job would be to sample the quality of the translation and serve as a filter,” says Pelled.

Moti Shapira, who heads the Lahav umbrella organization for independent businesspeople, is worried about the preference given to the lowest bidder in public tenders.

“It’s very serious that courts and public hospitals hire the services of translators who are not always professional,” says Shapira. “That’s how the profession is being ruined. The product is poor, and the role of professional translators is deteriorating. The way to correct the situation starts with government and municipal tenders, and continues with the Antitrust Commissioner’s office, which should allow for a price list to be set and the profession to hold its own.”

‘Most translators can’t make ends meet’

Yael Sela-Shapiro started working in translation as a student, when she was hired at a science fiction publishing house. In 2001 she went to work in high-tech, but after a year the tech bubble burst and she found herself back in translating. Today she is a freelance translator for publishers Keter, Kinneret Zmora-Bitan and Matar. Since she is not tied to any one publisher, she also translates commercial material when she has time.

“I’m a freelancer, like 95 percent of those in the translation field,” she says. “Since I’m not a salaried employee and I don’t have any job security, to make a living I have to market myself all the time, using my website and also Facebook. I don’t rule out any employer, starting with publishers and businesses, including small businesses, who need a legal document translated. I’m paid by output, I have to work precisely but also quickly, and I have to be able to negotiate with whoever orders the work. Money-wise, I prefer to work with large businesses. The pay is twice that in the literary world.”

Would you prefer to be salaried, if you could?

“The freelance model is destructive because you are paid by output. If I work slowly, because the material is difficult to translate or requires preliminary research or searching archives, or because I’m sick, I’ll receive less money,” she says. “The client or publisher doesn’t care how hard I worked translating.”

She says the duopoly of the two big book retailers, Steimatzky and Tzomet Sfarim, has brought many publishers to the verge of bankruptcy. Translators are thrown out on the street, usually with the excuse they are too slow − and most translators can’t make a living since what remains for a freelancer is only 50-60 percent of the gross payment.

Tirza Biron-Fried, an editor at Am Oved Publishing, is familiar with the translators’ grievances. Publishers almost never hire salaried translators, an employment model she terms “regrettable” because it means the translator lacks incentive to take the time and effort to produce high-quality work, “like a contractor.” But she does not see any light at the end of the tunnel.

“We try for our translators to be people we will work with continuously,” she says. “For now, there is no chance to improve the translators’ shameful situation because of the financial distress of the publishers,” says Biron-Fried.

Ask your neighbor

Another problem for freelance translators is getting paid on time − or at all. Most work from home and cover their costs for electricity and equipment out of their own pockets. “Even cleaning workers are now in not such a bad situation. At least the economy minister [Naftali Bennett] put out a new regulation requiring employers to pay them regularly and fairly,” says one translator who worked for years for a translation firm before finding a new line of work.

“Anyone who is sick goes to a doctor to take care of them. But whoever wants a translation can ask their neighbor who learned English. The neighbor may translate word for word, but won’t be accurate,” says Danit Ben-Kiki, who worked for 20 years in high-tech before she was fired five years ago and decided to start a second career in translation.

“The contempt [for the profession] lowers the prices for translation − and after all, it’s a profession in which you have to invest a great deal. It sometimes required diving into a specific field. I translate subtitles for the National Geographic channel. They deal with a range of topics such as construction, bridges, flight and animals. I have to understand all of them.”

Could the Internet become the enemy of the translator?

“Theoretically you can get a translation using Google, but no software can enter the author’s mind to translate his book faithfully. Only when computers will know how to create complete works themselves will they be able to translate,” says Ben-Kiki. “But it won’t happen. There is no replacement for a human translator.”

Moti Kimche