Co-op l’Argot is a women-led translation and language services co-op based in Montréal, QC. They will be offering simultaneous translation services at CWCF’s 2023 Conference in Quebec City this November.
The below is an edited transcript of a Zoom interview by the RéseauCOOP team on February 25, 2021, translated from the original French. Thank you to RéseauCOOP and Coop l’Argot for their support in bringing this interview to an Anglophone audience.
As part of International Women’s Day on March 8th, we’re highlighting women entrepreneurs and the co-operatives in our network that are exclusively (or predominately) led by women.
Marie Bordeleau and Fannie Poirier, co-founders of Coop l’Argot, sat down with Réseau COOP to answer some questions.
Réseau COOP: Can you introduce your co-op in a few words?
Fannie (F): L’Argot is a women’s worker co-operative functioning under a “mixité choisie” model, meaning that our organization prioritizes women and non-binary people but not exclusively. We have one member who identifies as a man, but who shares our values and denounces gender-based oppression.
Our co-op has a dual mission. First, we offer translation and other linguistic services to our client base in the social economy, international cooperation and social movement sectors. Our professional services are there to help them make use of the best possible communications in their operations.
Secondly, we wanted to create a workspace that allows us to fight against the precarity inherent to freelance work in our field, which is largely made up of women working on a contract basis or as freelancers.
By creating a translation worker co-op, our goal was to contribute to improving how information and communication is shared between different linguistic and cultural environments in Quebec, and to support translators by providing meaningful networks of solidarity for the women working in our field.
Marie (M): I would add in terms of our clientele that we are increasingly working with clients in the academic community, as well as in the arts and culture sector. All of our members come from feminist, activist or co-operative backgrounds, which allows us to benefit from one another’s expertise—we’re comfortable with several different linguistic landscapes used in the communities we’ve been a part of.
At the moment, the co-op is made up of four founding members and one additional member who joined afterward*. We offer translation, interpretation, subtitling and editing services.
(F): Each of our members has their specialty, depending on their language and training. As a result, we’re able to offer a diverse range of services. We also each wear different hats in terms of managing the co-op’s administration.
Why did you choose the co-op model?
(M): We started with the idea that we wanted to remove the precarity from freelance work and provide our services in fields that we care about. At first, we were considering a non-profit format, but we wanted to be able to give ourselves good-quality working conditions and have a say in the business we were building together, and have it pay off in the long run… So all of that led us to choose a co-op model rather than an NPO.
(F): As a team, we share certain anti-capitalist values and a critical theory approach. For me personally, it was important to work with people with whom I share affinities and who move through the world in similar ways. Organizing as a co-op also meant that we could create a new model for our activity sector—in translation, you generally see large agencies that do a lot of subcontracting and offer wages and working conditions that are less than ideal, versus this huge “grey market” of freelancers or contract workers. For us, choosing a co-op model meant proposing a new way to do translation. The wager that we made with Argot was to say that as professionals—and as women—we know what we need, and we are capable of seeking out the resources we need to create structures that line up with our values and our needs over the long term. I’ve never regretted that decision!
(M): We learned about the co-op model from our respective backgrounds—also, one of our members had been part of a worker co-op. But we weren’t familiar with all the nuts and bolts of worker co-ops, no.
(F): If it weren’t for the Parcours COOP program, it would have taken us a lot more time to understand all of the administrative frameworks involved.
As women entrepreneurs, how does this business model correspond with your needs?
(M): One of the main things we wanted was to be our own bosses, to decide for ourselves the work that we take on, the clients we want to work with, how we’d organize things internally and carry out our operations. Also, translation as a field is almost entirely made up of women, but we rarely hear about women translators—from what I see, the structures that exist in the field tend to highlight men. I also think it’s important to be able to benefit from the power and the leverage that we create by organizing as a collective.
(F): Same. Personally, I needed to create a job for myself where I could see things working in the long-term and that would allow me a lot more autonomy in how I manage my tasks, and my life at work more broadly. Being part of a women’s co-op gives me an enormous sense of security. I don’t have to deal with feeling like I’m the token feminist, or like it’s going to rub people the wrong way if I take some initiative or show leadership. If I show entrepreneurship at Argot, I know my colleagues are going to support and appreciate it. I don’t feel that sense of competition or struggle that you sometimes have in mixed-gender settings where you have to prove your experience, your expertise, your professionalism. For me, it feels really healthy to be working with friends, with women. We put a lot of importance on recognizing the value of one another’s work and bringing care, active listening and kindness into our relationships at work. That changes everything, especially when you compare it to the experience I would’ve had at an agency, for example.
If you’ve had previous work experience in another type of business, do you notice a difference in your working relationships now?
(F): Absolutely. I see the biggest difference in terms of how we co-construct ideas. Given our structure as a co-op and the tone of our relationships, which tends to be warm and caring, it’s a very different approach compared to the classic productivity-focused, utilitarian approach that you see in most working relationships. As Marie mentioned, we have a lot more control over our working conditions, so we can really negotiate every angle of how we offer our services, our deadlines, and so on.
(M): My background is more in non-profits—my previous jobs were in the feminist and international solidarity worlds. That means that working as a team and making decisions collectively weren’t new concepts for me, but I was at a point in my life where I wanted to assert myself as a professional in a career that would help me move out of financial precarity and towards a stable future, all while doing something that I love. In a co-op, the support, trust and leverage we have in negotiations are all so different from working as a freelancer.
Do you believe that the co-op model helps reduce issues like income inequality and glass ceilings in women’s careers?
(M): Our co-op isn’t unequal—our male co-worker earns the same wage as we do! We’re still in the start-up phase, so we have had to make some sacrifices for business development purposes, but it’s temporary.
(F): I think we have to be careful here, because there is a lot of liberating potential in social economy structures, but I don’t think that the co-op model can single-handedly respond to all of the problems that come from patriarchal oppression. I think any structure within which women can organize, whether it’s a women-only space or selectively mixed-gender, has a huge amount of potential in the fight to make sure that we value and recognize women’s expertise, professionalism and work. Once we start setting up more decentralized modes of operation that are less hierarchical and allow for more of our members to have a voice, we have a lot more to build on in the conversation about equality. That being said, the people that are involved in the co-op and the values that they bring to the mission and the business plan all have a huge amount of influence in this. For us, preserving our feminist mission means putting a lot of care into our recruitment processes: how we find new members and how we onboard them. I would say that the co-operative model facilitates feminist work, but what really makes a difference are the feminists themselves.
(M): I think leadership is a key issue here. There aren’t many other business models that provide as many possibilities to show leadership, to practice leadership. And true, it depends on the team. There are co-ops that are more hierarchical and operate differently than ours does. We made the decision to start the co-op with people who had a concerted interest in giving ourselves the space we needed to encourage everyone to develop their full potential within the co-op. That’s what really made a difference.
(F): Exactly. Our members share anti-authoritarian and anti-hierarchical values. And those values that we each bring are integrated into the structure of the co-operative. If five years from now we have a completely different team, we can’t guarantee that the structure will continue to support those ideals forever. It really falls on us to that.
Is every day in your co-op Women’s Day? Do you have any examples of that to share?
(M): It’s definitely every day!
(F): For sure, it’s Women’s Day every day!
(M): Speaking about our work very specifically, we have the opportunity on a daily basis to work with feminist issues in terms of language and translation. Every contract that we do, we’re reflecting on how to make the text more gender-neutral, and we’ll check in with our clients about their preferences. That’s part of our approach. We’re trying not to reproduce patterns of domination in the language we use.
(F): We’re really interested in inclusive writing techniques, gender-neutral language and anti-authoritarian language. There are dozens of ways that feminism shows up in our day-to-day work, starting with the people we work with—we’re often brought in to work for really inspiring conferences, for example in the migrant justice world, or with organizations that advocate for Indigenous rights. Our work often gives us the opportunity to hear from people—stories from women who experience intersectional oppression, between race, class, gender… These themes are regular features of our contracts and our work. Which is incredibly inspiring, because it invites us to continually hone our critical eye and our approach to ongoing movements and discourses, practices, etc. And then, drawing from our own co-operation and leadership within the structure of the business is in itself a feminist approach, which helps us gain self-confidence and realize the value that our work has in the market.
(M): Self-confidence is really a key element in a lot of our journeys. If I compare our situation to two years ago, I think the co-op has really given us space to build our confidence in ourselves not only as professionals, but also as entrepreneurs, as human beings.
If you were to give one piece of advice to a woman entrepreneur who isn’t sure which business model to choose for her project, what would you tell her?
(M): Start a co-op! (laughter)
(F): Get some friends together, a few people with similar needs and interests to you—that’s how we started our co-op. And then don’t be shy about getting more information or asking for help, doing workshops. Like I said before, the program we did with Réseau COOP was a huge push to help us get our project off the ground, both in terms of networking and the professional training we gained. We’re a bunch of bookworms, so for something like organizing a marketing campaign, there was no way we’d do it without help! We really normalize wearing a bunch of hats in co-ops, but it’s important to remember that it’s OK not to know everything. It takes a lot of momentum to get a project going and working properly, so it’s important to seek out external resources as much as possible.
(M): And trust yourselves!
Do you look to any women entrepreneurs as role models?
(F): There are so many little non-hierarchical and self-managed projects that have cropped up and grown that I find inspiring, like Cirquantique—they’re performers who put together stunning pieces. [Editor’s note: Cirquantique is a worker co-op that was also interviewed as part of this March 8 series.] Or, I also have some friends in worker co-ops that inspired me to start my business and who made me feel like it was something attainable, something possible. We have some friends at Bâtiment 7, including at La Coulée, which is a foundry run by women. There’s also the co-op Café Rond-Point, which is a self-managed feminist café. So yeah, we had some examples in mind.
(M): There’s also the bookstores L’Euguélionne, and La Livrerie… there’s a whole network of co-operatives in Montréal that we’ve had the chance to get to know in different ways. It helped us feel less alone, and when we’re able to work together, it’s really inspiring.
Can you sum up being a woman entrepreneur in the co-op world in one word?
(F): Solidarity. The understanding that’s built between us as coworkers. And autonomy—financial, professional and intellectual.
(M): I’d say three words: trust, strength, and mutual support.
Thank you, Fannie and Marie, for taking the time to answer our questions. Learn more about Coop l’Argot.
*Note: Since this interview was conducted, Coop l’Argot has added three new members and an administrative assistant to its team.