My friend Antonio told me that he was watching an episode of a very popular, long-running American television show here in Italy. The show, like all American shows here, was dubbed into Italian. There was a joke in the show about werewolves. Only, they translated it “i lupi che furono” – the wolves that were (as in, the past tense of “to be”).

This TV show almost certainly has a decent budget for foreign translating and dubbing. I can’t believe they would simply use an online translation program, which are notoriously inaccurate, or, that they would use an unprofessional, non-native speaker to translate their programs airing in front of millions of foreign viewers. But one of those two scenarios appears to be what happened.

When I first came to Italy in 2001, I was a native English speaker with a Bachelor’s degree in Italian and I was completely bilingual. Additionally, my English grammar, spelling, and vocabulary were excellent thanks to reading a lot and having teachers who cared about such things, and parents who cared even more. This skill is essential to accurate and professional translating; it is not enough to be simply mother tongue. To supplement my very meager income back then, I did a lot of Italian to English translations – everything from legal demand letters, to personal resumes, to 100-page manuals for a thermo-electric plant. I do not remember exactly what I was paid, but it was never less than 20 euros per page.

I’m back in Italy now and would love to supplement my income as a project attorney with translation work. It’s fun, it can be done from home or a bar in a sunny piazza, and frankly, with Rome being as expensive it is for someone living on her own, I need it. I need it badly. I have good work coming in from the States but it is not enough to cover my extraordinary expenses here. I pay twice here in rent what I paid for my mortgage in the States, I pay more to insure my scooter than I did for my Chevy back home, and my groceries are four times more. (That is, on average. Some things are cheaper. Others, like toiletries, are up to 8 times more. Also note, I’m coming from Texas, which I realize is one of the cheapest places to live in the States). I also have the stratospherical expense of my MBA tuition, which is what permits me to be in this country in the first place. I need to make more money, or I’ll have to fold my cards and go back home before I am ready.

So now it is eleven years since I first started translating professionally. In the meantime, I have obtained a law degree and a license to practice. I’ve been working as an attorney for more than four years and have gained a whole new vocabulary that non-lawyers would have no reason to possess. Eleven years ago, I would not have known the special English buzzwords that create a contract, or terminate a marriage, or state a cause of action against a defendant. I do now – that ought to be worth a lot!

Wrong. The economic crisis in Italy is worse than I had calculated. My Italian friends will say “I told you so,” and the thing is, I knew it was bad. But I was undeterred. I’m a lawyer! And bilingual! No one cares. The lack of available employment opportunities here means that very educated people are competing for jobs that actually require little or no education. I see classifieds online written by people with PhDs offering to tutor students for six euros an hour. Translating is something that anyone with high school-level language skills can claim to do, and if the people paying aren’t bilingual themselves (and why would they need a translator if they were bilingual), it will be difficult for them to know the difference. Experienced, trained, and native speaking translators are competing against Italian teenagers with a few years of English lessons under their belt. And they will do the work for almost nothing, because almost nothing is better than nothing.

I saw a Tweet online a few weeks ago from an English woman in Northern Italy who has been working as an Italian-to-English translator there for thirty years. In that time, her rate has naturally increased, just like rates for all other professions. She had been charging something like 40 euros a page, which is quite reasonable given her skills and experience. To put it into perspective, that’s less than a 20-minute cab ride from the airport in Rome to your hotel downtown, for something as important as your resume or marriage license. Now, the lady wrote, she is being asked by clients to do the same work for seven euros per page. Because that’s the rate other translators are saying they will do it for. The lady must, therefore, choose to slash her rate by almost 80%, essentially earning less than she did when she started with no experience, or retire.

I really do need the extra income, and as I said, translating is fun for me, so I’ve been looking for agencies online from which to get some work. I was frankly shocked to see that the agencies are asking translators to work for as little as 5-7 euros per page. Given that a page takes roughly an hour, with no coffee or bathroom breaks – this seems like an exploitative amount to ask a professional to accept. To be honest, it is downright humiliating to be paid less than I made as a babysitter when I was 13.

The agencies, however, cannot be blamed for paying translators so low an amount, when the paying clients are not willing to pay the agencies more. And they are not willing to pay the agencies more, in my opinion, because of the other desperate translators out there who are willing to work for peanuts, or because of their teenaged nephew who is taking English in school and says he can do it for free. Everyone is trying to cut costs.

*(Getting private clients can make you a little more money, but not much more, and they’re harder to find in any kind of volume.)*

The problem for the customer is that the results are laughable. Some Italian-to-English translations seen around the internet:

  • “In the event of declenchement of audible alarm evacuer the compartiment without precipitation and come into contact with the crew.”
  • “In case of non expenditure, To wait some minute and to move away from the recaipt, to introduce it to the agent for the refund.”
  • “The our production follows traditional’s products and canons, it ever run the fashion’s trend.”
  • “First Courses: Pens to the angry one/Spaghetti to the Neapolitan/Pens to the meat sauce.”

The other problem is that skilled translators will drop out of the profession altogether and retire, or go make more money waiting tables or, at most, teach English as a second language (for a few euros an hour more, not much). Professionals like me who can translate a complicated Italian lawsuit into precise, accurate legal English will not waste their time. What is time worth, anyway? What is the point of incurring student loans if you can make more money driving a cab?

I am not an economist. I offer no solutions. Maybe we just wait it out and hope in a few years the rates are back up to pre-crisis levels. My only idea is to plead to customers to consider what their resume, business’s website, manual, or book is worth to them. Native speaking, professional translators cannot compete with your teenaged nephew’s prices, but we know the difference between a “werewolf” and a “wolf that was.”