By way of introduction, I have written this article in order to recapitulate my recent – and sometimes not as recent – thoughts on a couple of current issues in the translation world that in my view have impact on the dignity of the profession. Here they are:
Entry-level office tasks as additional services... or core requirements of the job
I must admit that I am never pleased to see a translator offer basic copy-shop services, let alone express satisfaction with the earning opportunities arising from such requests being made by clients and outsourcers. It is already unfortunate enough that we earn cents for words, and generally in the single-digit regions, we have no need to make things worse by agreeing, let alone offering, to execute entry-level office tasks for a small surcharge.
One does not pursue a degree in this or that variety of language studies to take over entry-level office tasks in a translation client's or outsourcer's organisation, which are outsourced from junior personnel who need not have the type of education and experience it takes to translate. Should one think this merely a high-nosed kind of elitism, one should think again. If office tasks for which secondary education is sufficient were all to devolve onto translators, who are overqualified for them, what kind of jobs will people with sufficient education need to work?
The same which applies to education applies also to relative experience levels, whether within the profession itself or, more broadly, in the work force as a whole. At some point yesteryear's grads should stop competing with the firsties. Why don't we include cleaning services in a bundle with interpreting? It's clearly not beneath us, we do it in our homes, why don't we do it for our clients if we could make a wee bit higher rates that way?
Our jobs, others' jobs
Just like we don't want unqualified people (or not yet fully qualified ones) to take over the jobs that in our respective opinion should be reserved for qualified translators, qualified translators should not be 'stealing jobs' for which they are overqualified from office staff. And from copy shops.
Rumour had it once that a prime minister captured the interest of the general public by cleaning his own shoes. Except that the attention was far from enthusiastic. Quite the contrary, it was noted that during the time when he was not busy governing he should at least have rested to be fresh for his proper work of running the country. Not only that, he could have paid someone to do it for him, created a job that way.
So how about translators keep translating and stop being the clients' and agencies' external junior subassistants? You don't improve an office assistant's lot in life by taking over his tasks, especially with your overqualified self charging rates lower than what he would normally be paid. For the record, he might need that job to pay for his education, after which he'd move on to other tasks. That's a goal a translator can help achieve by creating a corresponding job opening in his own sole proprietorship, not by taking the tasks over himself for no or little additional fee in addition to his own professional work.
I do realise that what I'm saying here goes against the prevailing 'one stop shop' mentality in business and marketing. However, pretty much everybody must have noticed that at the same time translators are expected to specialise rather than covering all fields, surely? So do law and medicine but don't do engineering? Do humanities and science but stick with academic writing and avoid marketing? Translate marketing and fiction but don't do contracts? But do become a proficient user of 15 different CATs and provide a full scale of basic office work? You gotta be kidding me. Here's what: A translator should specialise in translating. How about that!
For the record, a translator's CV (résumé) isn't as strong as one could think for copy shop jobs, no matter the degrees. And the job may well be substandard compared to what a real office assistant, let alone office machine technician could do. There is no good reason why a business owner should pay the translator more for a less qualified job merely in the light of the translator's other qualifications, such as degrees that are irrelevant to... running the fax machine, making copies, scanning, OCR-ing and whatnot. And forget being the equal of a real DTP specialist (probably also a grad like you).
The only thing the translator can achieve there is to take over the client's or agency's most onerous and often least skilled jobs for a fraction of the quality for a fraction of the pay, just like the so called unqualified 'bottom feeders' that they talk about all the time. The client or agency will not use its staff for those jobs out of reluctance to waste human resources like that. But, since as a freelance translator you are your own, external, one-man company, they don't care so much about wasting even the highest-qualified human resources you have. 'Look, here's some stuff we don't care to waste our computer-literate late-teenager of an errand boy on, along with his $3 per hour wage. How about you, Master of Arts in Linguistics with 10 years of experience do it for no fee instead?'
Economy is a game of resources. Don't be surprised that people would waste yours rather than their own if they can help it. And few people care to put your skills to optimal use if they have junk to fill your time with. Don't enable them that time. Sleep instead.
Standing corrected – by just about anybody and his dog
My personal favourite. In a somewhat dated post I am no longer able to locate, a popular translation blogger by name of Marta Stelmaszak (with whom I don't actually always agree but love to quote her when we do) built a client profile and provided a handful of tips for translators framed in a metaphorical conversation with John, a clothes shop owner. One of the points raised by John was something to the effect of: 'Don't ask me how to translate. I know about selling clothes, you know about translating.' And just why would you ask John about subjunctives and ellipses and collocations and tenses?
Sure, clients sometimes want, bah! expressly require the ability to correct their translators. Except that when we let them, we are not at all showing them that we are those spectacular purveyors of client satisfaction. They were dissatisfied to begin with. Nothing was gained by telling them the work they'd received was bad when it was good! Or by allowing a professional translation job to be visibly spotted with a layman's interventions that the said layman thinks were absolutely necessary and saved the day. Or reflected critical improvement on the aesthetical value of the work.
In fact, the above is not good client service. We actually owe our clients better. At least my business ethics require me to do a better service to my clients and agencies when that happens (and it rarely does, actually, perhaps not without connection with the fact I don't ever let it fly). Moreover, if an assertive-but-wrong type of misguided business executive attempted to tamper with a translation that were beyond his competence and with a detrimental effect to the quality of the job, it could be said that we owed the shareholders
better than caving in to their clueless employee that fails to know his bounds. I certainly see it that way.
Make a principled stand. Craftsmen several decades ago knew how to, whoever they talked to. 'Captain, with all due respect, my job is to be the mechanic, your job is to be the captain,' to cite loosely an old war film in one of the scenes of which a jeep run onto a field mine but stopped short of releasing the firing mechanism. Sometimes the guys with more authority than competence in the area can override you, but you can always go on the record protesting. And in any case, you should defend the principles of your craft. And your profession. You are not a professional because of bowing down to everybody else who is not.
Also, I realise we are living in a world that's just bad for translators, economically and otherwise, and that we're currently expected to tolerate all sorts of things such as the ones mentioned here and perhaps more, many of which have actually long stopped raising anyone's brow but a newbie's. But when you're, say, a native speaker of English with an M.A. and 10 years of experience, and your advanced grammar and style is apparently being amended by some guy with an FCE from a continental agency, then: 'dude, what the heck?' still is the correct reaction. And the correct answer, as far as I go. I have, in fact, used stronger words.
Naturally, dude with FCE still has a one in a thousand chance of being right, so, statistically, it probably happens once or twice a year that he is, as long as he has a lot of turnover. The brunt of even semi-professional reviewers and others, however, are thankfully better qualified than that. If you've messed up, own up, apologise, fix and remedy. Feigning ignorance or refusing to fix a bad job would do little to enhance the honour of the profession. I'm not saying translators should dismiss all correction out of principle. But being corrected by amateurs who are wrong does little either for the amateurs or for us.
Why, you may ask? Because we are hired to translate, or at least that's in the contract. We're not hired to be typists who write down what they are dictated.
(To avoid needing to fess up, avoid messing up. To avoid messing up, double check and follow up on terminological leads. Invest the required time in quality even you aren't paid nearly enough for it. It still take less time than processing complaints. Try to raise your rates instead to have that subjective feeling that your work is compensated fairly, and find clients who actually appreciate quality and are prepared to enable it, rather than simply preferring not to witness too dramatic a want of it.)
Not valuing one's own work - or is it self-esteem missing?
My impression is not only that a translator's work fails to be appreciated by others, it also fails to be valued by the translator himself. In connection with what I noted above, one trace of this may perhaps already be found in how ready translators are to accept tasks which fall below their qualifications and are compensated at the usual rate such tasks take or even less (or none at all, being included as stated in the PO). Another in how ready translators are to accept correction from people who are clearly not qualified to give it – or clearly wrong even if they're qualified on paper.
Yet another, though, I believe, is reflected in how eager translators are to please the client per se rather than do a good job and rise in their profession. 'We/I aim to please,' 'your wish is my command,' 'your satisfaction is my goal,' (or obligation, whatever) have you ever heard a medical doctor utter any of these? Or a lawyer? Doctors aim for the patient's health and sometimes well-being, but they don't make a living selling ego-stroking diagnoses, and it would be hard to find one willing to prescribe a treatment he didn't believe necessary (forget detrimental to the patient's health, no matter the patient's wishes). Lawyers, while they sometimes need to please, agree to reduce disputed billings, wine and dine the client and offer discounts, lawyers aim to get or keep the client out of (legal) trouble, solve his (legal) problems, secure his (legal) interests. Why don't translators aim to translate well but to please and obey?
Finally, at times it seems to me that translators might perhaps be inhibited from accepting a professional status and image. If not outright, then at least in some kind of a subconscious self-destruct routine. Has their spirit been broken by the (years of) abuse endured? Or do they, themselves, not value their own chosen profession too highly after all?
Not so professional image
Unfortunately, the fruit of a translator's work is not the only thing he is judged by. Impressions are formed all the time on the basis of all sorts of factors relevant or not, and the degree of professionalism perceived in a translator by his client or outsourcer will in turn translate into the regard the translator is accorded. Will he be the equal of lawyers and doctors and accountants and realtors and other people or will he be ordered around by their assistants? Will his usually high formal education be respected or will he be placed in a bracket in which a half of it is the norm rather? Will he, with time, be seen on the same level with low and mid-ranking managers and senior specialists employed in-house in companies or will he forever remain a junior member of the work force used for jobs that the client's own gophers are too precious to be tasked with?
A lot in the thereinabove depends on how the translator manages his professional image and his presentation. From having looked at so many, many translator profiles, my impression is that a lot of professional translators embrace presentation that is more appropriate for someone of comparatively junior status than they should have, putting emphasis on things of which a manager or senior specialist employed in a different field would shun any mention, seeing them as not befitting his grade. This, again, is in connection with what I mentioned earlier about focusing on the client's pleasure, the willingness to be corrected by one's juniors freely and without objective merit, and everything else. Business people will adapt and treat the translator accordingly, i.e. like a permanent intern.
Apart from the junior status projected unduly by some of the translator presentation I've noticed, I've also seen pictures that'd be more appropriate at a translators' lounge kind of portal or a dating portal, not a business setting in which translators interact with their porential clients and agencies. And really, a translator shouldn't pursue the look of the carricatural sexy secretary unless he wants to be treated like one. The same would go for a junkie or a happy-go-lucky or whatever else a picture manages to convey. Unfortunately, pictures aren't always where it ends. The language is sometimes as ill-advised as the pictures. Not only is the language used by linguists often far from the rigours of business presentation (which might very well make a client wonder what exactly we are doing offering to translate serious business stuff for his company), but, in fact, haphazard writing is not a rarity. The kind that our old teacher would not be amused to see in a school paper quite a long way below M.A. Or would he be? In any case, amusement of that kind is hardly what a professional writer is after.
While it may be true that translation is more than simply knowing the language, what else is translation more than? Is it also more than comprehending the source, writing well in the target, conveying the meaning and carefully revising and perfecting the outcome? (If it really is, then it certainly deserves a lot more respect than it gets.) In any case, just because there is more than the bare basics doesn't mean that the basics can be neglected freely. It shouldn't come as a surprise to anyone that translators are judged by their writing. Matter of fact, I know that for a fact.
A translator's chosen image is often based on not being as bad as others in his trade. Pretty much the same goes for translation agencies. Our copy often focuses on all sorts of unthinkable calamities that we won't bring on our clients' necks or might even actively help expel what others have invoked. Whenever a client – perhaps a client that doesn't even know about the multiple ailments of our 'industry' – is solemnly assured that his simple job will not be botched in a spectacular fashion, it reinforces some bad stereotypes about professionalism in translation instead of helping defeat them. We don't defeat stereotypes by claiming that we are exceptions from them. In essence, the (non-)negative marketing tells the client that translation is a thoroughly unprofessional business area teeming with semi-amateurs who can't be trusted to keep a deadline or follow a pattern or even not to disappear on you just like that (which, unfortunately, is indeed far from unheard of). And we, the client's chosen, are the exceptional translators who are unique in not being horrible. Yeah, right.
From the perspective of a solid business person, not being horrible is hardly a glowing asset. And it hardly justifies paying anything better than a modest wage and a bare minimum of respect or business courtesy. Perhaps the clients would be more open-handed with both if they simply had the chance to hear about good translation instead of being shocked with the gory imagery of regurgitated blunders some restaurant made 20 years ago in a menu chart. Or, more likely, an inexperienced overworked translator, or an experienced overrated translator, brought into existence (and forever the spotlight).
Saying hello in 20 languages and zooming in on basic dictionary searches
Just like the recycled set of others' blunders, translation marketing abounds with a plethora of entry level language teaching associations that are likewise less than brilliant. What does 'Hello, what's your name?' have to do with the realities of our work? I can understand half the planet's worth in flags on an agency's website, but why would a translator need to invoke associations with all the languages on the globe?
With very few exceptions, what we offer is not a basic command of all the languages found in a geographical region, forget the entire world, but rather the meticulously honed skill to execute reliable translation in one or two language pairs and a couple of advanced subject areas. Sometimes it's more than one or two, even much more, but it's still very rarely anything like a dozen. Proficiency thresholds that we must meet in order to do our work competently are worlds apart from whatever a student learns during the first couple of years of instruction. If some of us, in very specific situations, can actually get away with less than that level of proficiency in a specific language, that's that's because of some really unique proficiency with languages in general, which is probably an even rarer skill. In any case, those skills either are unique gifts or have taken years to acquire. They are language skills, but we don't do everything that's related to language. We certainly don't make foreign languages easy, we take over the difficulty from the client. We don't teach basic language classes, either, we solve advanced language problems. In making languages look easier than they are, we're basically shooting ourselves in the foot.
I see a similar problem in the prevalent use of dictionary stills that also often centre on the most basic of words amidst much ceremony, as if to figure out their meaning were a piece of most prized arcane knowledge. If anything, it makes translators look like people who spend their entire lives diligently studying what everybody else simply knows. Studious but daft. Think of lawyers and doctors. They too may overcelebrate the basics, but you won't catch one making it look like it took him years to apprehend the very basics of his profession or like he's still in the process, in fact. At least not on purpose.
The human factor
On the other hand, translators – just like everybody else – are normal human beings with all the limitations attending their condition and can't be expected to be supremely and consistently flawless at all times, regardless of the severity of the conditions they're forced to work under. The translation market harbours its own share of outsourcers and end clients who press for shorter deadlines and lower rates without minding the consequences. When by virtue of the law of large numbers
the latter inevitably materialise in at least a couple of cases out of a hundred, they are blamed on the acquiescing translator, not on those who pressured and pleaded and coaxed and whatever else they did.
As if the modern failure to understand that proofreaders once existed for a reason weren't enough! In order for the profession to avoid losing even more dignity, let alone regain any, the translator's right to be human must be asserted. For the record, it can be asserted by just not taking jobs from clients and agency staff who fail to understand the consequences of their choices or the objective situation they're in along with the translator.
Similarly, translators need to put their foot down on more thing regarding their right to be human: they can't be expected to know everything, let alone disparaged when they actually don't. They already know quite a lot of things, such as the source language, the target, translation techniques, writing, research, even some substantive knowledge of the relevant area of specialisation. They can't, however, be expected to replace an entire team of fully-fledged professionals of the highest caliber while being paid like a gopher and treated like one.
The bad original
The problem of the bad original connects with the denied right to be human and with the expectation to please. Nowadays, not only is a translator expected to domesticate the foreignness into oblivion (and has to be a native speaker of the target, while any benefits of native comprehension are officially banned from being thought about) and pretend that neither it nor he have ever existed, he is shot like the proverbial messenger when the quality of the document being translated is simply not as good as one would like it to be. Especially one who holds the purpose and perhaps wrote the source.
Back when the education system was less forgiving, to take it out on the messenger would be regarded as a mark of low character or low culture preventing one from coming to terms with the message like a reasonable person should. At present, however, it is about to become a client's most sacred right with more than a few reviewers ready to lend their red pens to its protection. Satisfaction – and satisfaction begins more and more to come down to serotonin level rather than even a subjective evaluation of the quality of the job – is valued more highly than the truth of the message conveyed, i.e. the fidelity of translation.
Furthermore, free rewrites are requested and granted until even a rought draft in the source language turns into a polished document in the target language, handed in by small people bending over backwards in assuring the 'demanding' client that his most luminous source, the boon to all mankind that it is, has finally found its worthy expression, which would obviously have been impossible had it not been for the enlightened guidance. Further reinforcing everybody in the opinion that translators are people who spend years in the study of their discipline only to need correction from people who didn't.
The 'cutting edge technology'
We all know what the 'cutting edge technology' is. It is the code word for CAT discounts. CATs are not rocket tech, and they don't deserve the credit for making you a good translator above your degrees and mentors. Translator marketing needs to focus more on the real, human translator. Otherwise we'll eventually be seen as low-level copy machine operators – because advanced copy jobs actually require someone with real training, like a real copying expert, not some translator that does it for a fraction of the price!
So, read in Sourcish, 'retype' in Targetish and, when you're done with the OCR, replicate the formating anyway, then edit the pictures also while at it (taking the scolding humbly and agreeing to have your rate cut in half when something happens not be as good as the work of a real, high-paid graphics expert), never deviate from the dictionary or TM no matter what you think makes linguistic sense (but everything should still make sense or its your fault), carry out the instructions to the letter and ensure 100% compliance with everything else the client has ever said, however cryptic and inconsistent it may have been. And don't forget to run the 'QA' on your own and answer one million questions when the QA guys go through the same motions. Not to mention that they will be taking exactly 5 seconds to override choices you researched for 30 minutes before you made the decision.
That's not what we went to school for.