03 The vision for the translation profession

29 Apr

IMG_3358 best cropped to 320 x 200 shortIt takes only a cursory reading of the postings by members of the various translators’ groups to realise that the outlook reflected by the more thoughtful of our colleagues, is a grim one indeed.  The universal complaints speak of powerlessness in the face of exploitation and abuse by agencies, brokers and assorted intermediaries posing as language services providers.

What I find most discouraging about these posts (apart from some of the unprofessional comments among them), is the prevailing despondency and the lack of effort made to bring about change.  Regrettably, this is not a new experience.  When attending meetings of our institute or running workshops dealing with the commercial aspects of being a translator/interpreter, I always find a willingness to complain and a reluctance to take action.  I know a good moan among colleagues can make you feel better for a little while, but in the end, the best cure is fixing the problem, or at least improving the situation.

True, it’s easier said than done, but even a failed attempt is better than doing nothing at all, which is what has probably led to the current situation in the first place.  Between us, we have a lot of knowledge, talent and expertise, so why not put it to good use?

Fixing a problem is a bit like taking a journey.  You already know, or should at least determine where you are now, and then you have to decide where you would like to be.  Like planning a holiday: we are tired of our daily routine and have a vague idea of what we would like instead, i.e. sunshine, beaches, cold drinks, sleep-ins, etc.  However, we still have to decide exactly where to go before we can start planning and organising the trip, book tickets, hotels, etc. Just dreaming about it is not going to do much good 🙂

The same is true for what we need to achieve for our profession.  We need to decide what we want our future to be, before we decide how to get there.  A wise man (or perhaps a woman, the name escapes me) once said: “If you don’t know where you are going, you will probably wind up in a place you do not want to be”.

I cannot help thinking that the translation ‘profession’ has very much arrived in the place we do not want to be, and by all accounts, we are not happy about it.  We have allowed others to decide where we should be, and here we are, in a place where the others want us to be 😦
The ‘industry’ has been growing exponentially, whilst the profession has been sidelined with nowhere to go but down.  Yes, I am generalising, but that’s the only way we can avoid clouding our judgement with technicalities and irrelevant details.  We’ll attend to the details later.

So, where do we want to be instead of where we are now.  Some of us are there already, of course, or at least nearly so, but from what I can see, even they feel the cold draft of an uncertain and less prosperous future.  There will also be differences of opinion about what the vision for the profession should be, but since nobody is putting forward any alternatives, I’ll venture out there and put forward my own vision for a successful professional future.  I’ll be happy to hear any others, but don’t just criticise!

As it happens, we are rather fortunate in a one sense.  There are a number of professions out there that have gone through the long process of building a commanding respect, and with it, very much improved their incomes.  Let’s not forget that doctors started out as barbers doing a bit of doctoring on the side, and dentists were once blacksmiths who discovered that people with a tooth ache are willing to pay more than people who want new shoes for their horses.  Both their journeys into a highly regarded and highly remunerated profession was a long and arduous one, but in our case, we can take the shorter route.  After all, since this wheel has been invented already by various professions, all we need to do is modify it to suit our purposes.

In my own lifetime, I have seen accountants rise from obscurity to the highly regarded status of CPA, and in my view, their basic system would suit us quite well.  Now, you know that there are doctors and there are nurses, there are dentists and dental technicians, and there are accountants and bookkeepers.  In going forward, it must be understood that there are professional translators (university educated) and there are para-professional translators (those with some language skills but little or no formal education at tertiary level.  There will be some overlap here and there, but we cannot develop a vision to suit both, a common failure among translator associations with a focus on increasing membership rather than protecting and advancing the interests of the members.  In this case I will proceed on the basis of establishing a vision for the professional translator only.

I do not necessarily mean that a professional translator has to have a degree in translation studies.  Indeed, a translator with a degree in any discipline together with a good knowledge of another language and some translation studies, as is the case for many of us, will be well-equipped to translate material related to his or her discipline from a second language into his or her first language.  I have no doubt that we will need to specialise in the long run if we are to survive as a profession.

So what is my vision for the future of professional translators like myself?  My personal vision is for professional translators to achieve the recognition and rewards that a CPA enjoys today (i.e. CPT – Certified Practising or Professional Translator).

I imagine having a small professional practice with one, two or three highly motivated, well-educated and experienced partners and one or two support personnel, together with a new entrant into the profession being mentored in a professional environment.  Such small practices may also be able to act as an agent for a number of properly vetted free-lance translators who prefer to continue working in that capacity rather than invest in a practice of their own.

You will note that I said ‘act as an agent for freelancers’ rather than as an agent for clients/governments.  Think about that for a moment……………………………………..….., if it’s good enough for a film star, it is surely good enough for a professional translator!

This is more than a just a dream of course, because such professional practices (bureaus/agencies) already exist, and many of my colleagues do, in one way or another, act and perform as professionals already.  However………………………, the world at large does not understand the difference between a professional translator, a para-professional translator, an agency/broker/intermediary or the bi-lingual tea lady for that matter.  Part of this is general ignorance, and part of it is the dominance of the sector today by large agencies who have a vested interest in minimising the importance of translators.

The greater responsibility, however, must rest with ourselves.  I constantly hear colleagues talk about rates instead of fees, working for agencies instead of providing services to agencies, not getting paid enough instead of not charging enough, etc. etc. ad infinitum.  This is what has to change among other things; i.e. we must start thinking of ourselves as independent, self-employed professionals instead of casual workers (like fruit pickers), waiting in a parking lot (ProZ) for a gang boss (agency) to hire us at a minimum wage.

The next step will be to define what it is that we have to do to achieve the vision of ourselves as successful, self-employed professionals, i.e. our mission.  Till next time (04)

For more details about my professional profile, go to: www.doubledutch.com.au

3 Responses to “03 The vision for the translation profession”

  1. Diana Coada April 29, 2013 at 6:40 pm #

    Great post. I completely agree. Shared already!

  2. Comleon May 22, 2013 at 11:40 pm #

    You’re right, we definitely must stop complaining and start finding solutions. Translators’ agents are one, but they are not enough. Too few translators are members of professional associations, although we should remember that united we stand, divided we fall. Working together, we can find ways to better promote our trade, to better sale our services.

    But more important, freelancers must see themselves as businesspeople, because that’s what they are.

    • louisvr May 23, 2013 at 9:22 am #

      Thank you for your comments Francois.
      I agree with your views, but I must comment on the last one.
      Free-lancers may well be ‘business people’ in that they are involved in commercial activity of providing a service for a fee (please stop calling them rates). However, professional translators (university educated and with enough knowledge and experience to successfully handle translation projects on their own), are self-employed professionals, just like doctors, solicitors, accountants, etc.
      None of the latter would call themselves ‘business people’ or even consider themselves to be involved in a ‘commercial’ activity.
      Calling ourselves ‘business people’ detracts from the true nature of our occupation, i.e. that of independent professionals providing a specialised, knowledge-based service. Agencies prefer to cast us as just business people, vendors, sub-contractors, etc. but they do so to reinforce their own position in a value chain of their own creation, by deliberately devaluing the contribution within the value chain by translators.
      As it happens, our contribution to the value chain of their creation is the most important, and often the only contribution, even if this is not reflected in the distribution of the fees.
      How we think of ourselves, What we call ourselves, and how we conduct ourselves, is largely responsible for how we are treated. It deserves careful calibration.

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