Translating in the Time of Pandemics

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Since the beginning of March, I don’t think I heard people talk of anything other than the coronavirus outbreak, which the WHO officially declared a pandemic by the middle of the month. It is clear to all of us that this disruptive event of global scale has created a crisis that humanity, as it exists now, has never faced before. A health crisis indiscriminately affecting developed or underdeveloped countries goes hand in hand with an economic crisis whose shape, length and behavior cannot be predicted by the most able scientists in the world, both crises covered, at a more personal level, by an anxiety or panic crisis generated by the uncertainty and unpredictability of future events.

As an entrepreneur, I have followed with great interest what other states do to protect their economy and make sure that, once the social distancing and restrictions of all kinds are over, we all have a place to go back to work to. To my big surprise, this time the Romanian state acted quickly and quite congruently (don’t let this statement fool anyone, I am not unconditionally supporting the state. There are so many areas where things are going so wrong, pandemic times included… but that’s a totally different story). It listened to the business environment, consulted with stakeholders, and emphasized the key aspect: this is a health crisis first of all, and the focus should be on human health. The state enforced the distancing measures recommended and adopted by most countries in the world, closed down some activities to reduce virus spreading, forced the digitalization of most public institutions and quickly compensated with social assistance measures for those impacted.

My first reaction, of course, was to check whether the social measures applied to our company as well. In brief, the answer was yes, they did. Before issuing the economic aid measures that were ultimately adopted, the Government discussed many other options, including tax deferrals, even postponement of submissions, measures for specific NACE codes that were impacted, measures for companies whose sales decreased. The Government seems to have settled on the least restrictive path, since it cannot have a correct estimate of how serious the impact will be or of how many professional categories will be affected. Therefore, lacking restrictions, the state aid can be accessed by almost everyone.

But, if we are eligible, are we also entitled to feed on the already limited resources of the state? Translation companies and individual translators are eligible for technical unemployment paid by the state based on a simple declaration on their own responsibility. With 850,000 employment agreements suspended and another 150,000 terminated in Romania, are all translation companies and translators in a moral position to access these aids? The Minister of Labor has expressed a very clear opinion on this: the aid was designed for those having no other solution, having no other possibility to support themselves. Our priority is to support those companies and those people who are no longer able to perform their activity, as they were directly closed down by the effect of the decree establishing the state of emergency and the military ordinances that followed. The Minister emphasized the need for solidarity and good faith and the need for employers to bear their own entrepreneurial risk.

What is going on right now in the translation industry? Physical restrictions – i.e. travel restrictions and remote work recommendations – are unlikely to impact our industry as much as they impact others. As a rule, most translators usually work from home, and our systems have been designed to be accessed by users from various locations. We are practically one of those privileged industries where remote work is simply installing one’s computer in their own home instead of an office.

Of course, the uncertainty and the general slowdown of the economy have led to a considerable decrease in demand. As 2020 had started on a growing trend, with economic growth in most industries, with large projects underway from many international clients and with prospects for further growth of demand, the issue we were facing was whether we could scale fast enough to cover the potential growth. The labor market was quite tough, with few candidates having unjustified salary expectations, which would have had to be trained for at least 3 months, if not 6 to become productive. All these perspectives were turned 180 degrees almost instantly: demand has slimmed significantly, companies are now trying to find solutions to keep paying their existing employees, and the thought of alternative channels of recruitment (because the classic ones didn’t work) seems to come from time immemorial.

However, the elasticity of demand is an assumed entrepreneurial risk. Even if the demand is diluted to near nothing, it is certain that it will not disappear, at least not in the field of translation. The entrepreneurial risk should not be passed to the state in a crisis that does not directly affect our field. Moreover, in “peace” time, the technical unemployment is fully supported by the employer. Why would translation companies now opt for state-paid technical unemployment?

We identified in our field of activity three areas where the demand became non-existent or diminished considerably as a result of the state of emergency:

  1. Conference interpreting. Once conference events were gradually reduced up to a total ban, conference interpreters were practically obliged to stay home (doing nothing). There are a number of translation companies whose core business was conference interpreting, and they are certainly included in the scope of GEO 32, both formally and conceptually.
  2. Authorized and legalized translation. As courts reduced their activity, most public institutions closed their public relations offices and notary public offices limited their activity, the demand for authorized and legalized translation has decreased to nearly zero. However, since this activity was not closed down by the effect of the decree establishing the state of emergency or of the military ordinances that followed, but, on the contrary, the services are still needed in order to ensure the smooth operation of public service, I personally believe that a slow demand these days is not a valid reason to suspend activity.
  3. Personal document translation services. The firm recommendation to introduce remote work and the closure of personal document translation offices who relied heavily on a flow of customers who personally presented their documents to be translated massively impacted the companies who provided such services as their core business. Of course, each company is in a different position right now, but the Minister of Labor has shown a firm attitude: if employers have any other means to keep their employees, they are encouraged not to apply for state aid, since resources are limited and the state needs to focus on those who were directly affected by the state-imposed restrictions on activity in order to reduce the spread of the virus.

I would like to express my solidarity with each and every one in our industry: translators, interpreters, terminologists, project managers, DTP specialists, micro-businesses, small or large companies. We have all been impacted to a lesser or greater extent. While some of us have seen their earnings prospects turn to zero overnight, others have experienced huge fluctuations or a very thin demand that only increases anxiety and panic. I am confident, however, that translation services embody a professional industry that will not disappear anytime soon, demand will return to what will become the new normal, and we will adjust to post-pandemic requirements. We need to stay strong, adapt and reinvent ourselves, and keep doing what we do with passion and love.

That being said, if a company is not in a disastrous situation CAUSED by the state of emergency, I personally don’t believe it fits the intention of the lawmaker who passed these social protection measures with limited applicability over time. I recall that the entrepreneurial risk should not be passed to the state.

The inclusive wording of the eligibility criteria leaves room for abuse, but I am certain that any abuse will be identified and sanctioned by the authorities as soon as we put behind the peak of this crisis. In addition, clarifications and implementing rules will be issued for all the measures now adopted as a matter of urgency, following the feedback received by the Government from the market and from specialists. My recommendation for anyone who is now in a grey area regarding eligibility for state aid is to not file the application.

As for translators, it is important for each one to carefully analyze their personal situation and to make the decision bearing in mind the keyword “solidarity”. Is my aid application justified? Do I have no other source of income?

I overheard discussions on how to claim the aid, while keeping an open door to keep translating in the meantime. An idea has been passed around that people would keep accepting jobs, deliver them, but postpone invoicing until after the cessation of the state of emergency. Apart from being unethical and immoral, this practice risks being sanctioned by the authorities later. Cross-checks have already been announced, and the declaration on one’s own responsibility that activity has been suspended is given under criminal sanctions.

My recommendation for translators is to evaluate their situation correctly, morally and ethically and to make the decision to discontinue their activity only if they fall within the risk situation provided by law. Taking advantage of a possible shortcoming in the wording of the law, when the spirit of the law and the intention of the legislator were clearly stated by the government, is a proof of irresponsibility now more than ever.

We will all have to learn to live with less in the next period. We are all obliged to mitigate the health risk first and foremost. I believe that when people’s lives and health are endangered, economic competition comes second. It is time to support each other, to support others and to support the state, so that it can in turn support those in need.

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