Translation Freelancers: Hoisted on Their Own Petard

by Translation Guy on July 1, 2011

If our resume inbox is any indication, one of the big draws of the translation business is the prospect of financial independence. Those seeking contract work flood our inboxes. Independent contractors have been the backbone of the translation industry, whether working directly for translatees or through language service providers who marshal these diverse talents into a value-added quality assurance process (in the best of cases) or who work as brokers reselling the work of other independents (much more common).

Cost of entry into the field is low for any would-be entrepreneur (that’s French for “cash flow problems,” BTW). So anyone with the cojones to call themselves a translator is one, and the Quixote-like dreams of these freelancers drive price and quality lower as they tilt at translation windmills. God bless ’em, for it is the right of every man and woman to make a living by lawful trade, incompetence be damned. But a certain percentage of these hobby translators are savvy enough to learn our craft and trade and to thrive accordingly. And the smartest (or luckiest, depending on your POV) learn the skills to build businesses to Mom and Pop status. The very best go on to build great enterprises. The ease with which freelancers can establish great enterprises on a shoestring and endless phone calls appeals deeply to my Brother Jonathan sensibilities, democratic bootstrapping entrepreneurism of the old American dream.

But, dear State-side friends, our way of life is under attack. Because for cash-strapped state governments, bootstraps are a ready source of new revenue, and the status of translators as freelancers is under attack. And speaking of cash-strapped, now the Feds are interested too.

According to the Contract Interpreter Information Center, “Capitol Hill is presently considering a bill that will create excessive paperwork requirements for businesses that use the services of independent contractors. The bill also will mandate inordinate penalties for failing to file the correct documents.

“This bill, S.3254: Employee Misclassification Prevention Act, is intended to prevent businesses from intentionally misclassifying workers as contractors, rather than employees, for the purpose of skirting the responsibilities of an employer. However, its result will actually create an environment in which businesses will be deterred from using the services of independent contractors, which make up the majority of those employed as interpreters and translators.”

Civics in action, straight up, at least on the surface. Which, as any policy wonk will tell you, invites the question, “Where does the money come from?” That is a question we will answer in our next post on this matter, where we will pull the veil from a titanic intra-industry struggle between the forces of good and evil, which threatens to upend the industry. Boy that sounds good. I can’t wait to read what I write next on this important subject. Please join me.


  1. Dree says:

    I’m not one for political conversations but thought I should mention something abou tthis post. I think it is ridiculous to create more paperwork for those of us whom are resourceful enough to find talent outside the means of traditional, corporate America. Shame on you government.

  2. I wanted to just mention that in many countries of the world we have had to deal with similar problems for a long time. For example, in our market we are constantly in a grey legal area as regards employment of freelancers, since here the burden is on the outsourcer to pay social security contributions and tax at source. This is absolutely impossible since these can total 30-40% on top of net, which completely destroys our margin. There is evidently still a lack of understanding by governments in general for businesses which rely primarily on freelance service providers, despite the fact that this is the only viable model in many industries.

  3. Pissy Baby says:

    Another reason why the American dream is dead.

  4. Lolo says:

    Wow, this is scary news for the entreapuneur in me. Should I run back to my boss and beg for my job again?

  5. More paperwork? I stopped working with US-based clients years ago, because most of them couldn’t understand the paperwork required of them. A PM in New York shouldn’t need someone in Germany to explain the difference between a W-8 and a W-9 form.

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