News / 28.05.2010

Audiovisual translators embark on mobilization for better working conditions

By Linus Atarah

In a publicity stunt this Friday named “There are people between the lines” saw dozens of workers in the sector distributing flyers and talking to passers-by in the centre of Finnish capital Helsinki. It was the first time such an event had been organized, but it was preceded by the creation of discussion forum earlier this year on the internet ( which brought together people working in the sector to discuss some of the central changes that were needed in the sector.

“Translators are always invisible so people only see the translation and don’t think that there is a human being behind the text they see. Perhaps people can recognize the names at the end of the text but have never seen us so we need to show our faces”, said Anna-Maija Ihander, one of the activists involved in the mobilization effort.

“Finnish people are very good in languages especially young people and so most think that they don’t need the translations or could have done a better job themselves”, she said

This was clearly illustrated by a young woman who, when handed a flyer, spat out: “I don’t speak any foreign languages and so I don’t care a hoot about translations, they are not necessary”. On the contrary, precisely the fact that she doesn’t speak any foreign language and therefore needed subtitles more than anyone else did not even occur to her.

There is a total of about 400 audio-visual translators producing subtitles for various television channels, DVD production companies and movie theatres. For many years, apart from those who work for the major broadcasters such as the Finnish Broadcasting Company (YLE) and MTV3, who had collective agreements with their employers, the rest worked in isolation from their homes for small translation firms with no contacts with each other.

According to Ihander, in some companies many of the different translators were very scattered across the country and even abroad and, even those who worked for the same company did not even know each other –classic case of Marx’s workers living like potatoes in a sack.

Under such circumstances it was easy for translation companies to use the intensive competition in the market to drive down translators’ pay. Mobilising such a dispersed and diverse group of workers was understandably very difficult.

“In one of the companies especially, we had to look at some of the things that they had translated and get the names of the translators at the end and then try to find them”, said Ihander,

Things came to head in December – that is when the translators decided to strike back – when Pretext, a Finnish translation company and the main client for Channel 4 Television lost a contract to a foreign company which led to a loss of jobs of nearly all the translators. Broadcast Text international, the Sweden-based company which won the contract did not retain the experienced translators but rather decided to recruit student translators from the universities who have little capacity to organize themselves for a collective agreement negotiation and are prepared to accept lower pay.

No wonder the mobilizing effort is also partly seen as a fight against foreign companies from driving down pay in the sector. “This is a battle against the multinational conglomerates. Their goal is to get the job done for as little money as possible and we want to fight against that and get people sympathize with the cause”, said Ilmari Pirttilä, one of the activists and former translator for Pretext.

“It is not a good development for the work if all the multinationals come and take away all the jobs and pay just peanuts”, cried Laura Ruuttunen, who even though have a job with MTV3 but came out in support of her former colleagues who lost their jobs.

With its contract snatched by Broadcast Text International which offered lower bid, Pretext is virtually bankrupt and so there are only two major translation companies left in the Finnish translation market, both of which are foreign, Broadcast Text International and SDI Media based in Los Angeles.

The campaign drive seems to have paid off because according to Ihander, last year most of the audio-visual translators did not belong to any union or didn’t even know about a union but the situation has completely turned around. Most of them now belong to a union. One hundred and fifty new members have joined, the Union of Journalists in Finland and others have joined the Confederation of Unions for Professional and Managerial Staff (AKAVA)

The goal of the translators, says Ihander, is to obtain a similar collective agreement that governs the working conditions at YLE and MTV3, even though she concedes that it may not be possible to attain that in the short-term.

However, the other pressing issues are to obtain better salaries and the right to keep the copyrights of their work which have been appropriated by the translation companies. For the translators, a copyright means that once a work has been translated for television for instance, it cannot be transferred over for use in another platform such as on DVD or movie theatres without paying extra compensation to the original translator.

They are also demanding that translation companies should treat them as their workers and not sole entrepreneurs who provide services on freelance basis. As entrepreneurs, it means the translators have to pay for their own pensions and are not entitled to paid holidays or sick leave. Neither can they claim unemployment benefits if they lose their jobs.

Besides that, to be categorized as entrepreneur is a misnomer because for most of the translators they rely entirely on one company as their client.

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