Tag Archives: Translation studies
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A sad tale but true

24 Apr

IMG_3358 best cropped to 320 x 200 shortIn a recent moment of uncharacteristic whimsy, I responded to a ProZ enquiry by a private client, who needed a certified translation of various documents.
The client’s response to my offer of assistance opened follows:  Thank you for your response!  I am rather dismayed that, of the dozen or so responses that I received via proz, yours was the only one without English spelling, grammar and usage errors.  But I suppose I should look on the bright side: if I want to sign up with proz myself later, as a translator, the competition won’t be as tough as I had thought.  🙂

She is a native English speaker, and her compliment initially lifted my spirits; after all, most people are reluctant to compliment one’s professionalism, lest they be thought of as patronising.  It is a rare treat, therefore, and should be savoured.  On reflection, however, I understood that her words should not be regarded as a compliment about my skills and professionalism, however tempting that may be.

Her words should be understood for what they really are, i.e. a serious indictment of the so-called ‘translation industry’ that has sought to harness and exploit the skills of translation professionals through global sourcing mechanisms like ProZ et al.  This is sometimes erroneously, but more often than not fraudulently, referred to as an innovative expansion of the ‘free market’.  There is nothing new about this sort of opportunistic, exploitative and long-discredited c[r]apitalism, of course, and it is not going to be abandoned in favour of more ethical but less profitable alternatives any time soon.

It would be easy to dismiss it as a minor incident of little consequence, but I have come across disappointed, and sometimes despairing, clients before; so I think it is worthwhile to have a closer look at the details and what they imply:

1) The client clearly indicated that she needed Dutch translated into English and that she preferred a native speaker of the target language.  If we lived in a rational world, having to spell out the latter requirement would be regarded as redundant, but it seems we don’t.
Why then would all responses, bar mine, be from people who are either not fluent in English, or worse, who are not very articulate if they are native speakers of English?

2) She also asked for a certified translation.  Am I to assume that all the responses came from ‘accredited’ professionals?  Or did those who responded believe they would be able to ‘fake’ it; or worse, believed they could get an ‘accredited’ translator to do it for even less than what they quoted?

Are we seeing the beginning of the end of the ‘free market’ global sourcing model for translations?  Are those who are qualified to handle a translation like this no longer responding to the ‘offerings/opportunities’ on ProZ et al?  Did our professional colleagues wake up to the idea that depriving predatory language services brokers/agencies of their expertise, though perhaps counter-intuitive, is the obvious way to improve their own professional status and career?

In view of the warm feelings of appreciation the client engendered in me, I felt I owed her a warning about entering the translation profession on the basis of assumptions derived from the responses she received via a blind auction site like ProZ.  I pointed out to her that linguistics, professional competence, knowledge or expertise, are not necessarily the deciding factors for an ‘industry’ that uses ‘global sourcing’ to hire casual or freelance translators.

What really saddens me about this, is that yet another person will talk about her very ordinary experience, without clearly understanding and differentiating between the translation  ‘industry’ and the translation ‘profession’.

It is mostly our own fault.  Many among our colleagues appear unable or unwilling to decide whether they are free-lancers (casual, contract workers), run a small business (selling services for profit), or whether they are self-employed professionals (in private practice).  Until we decide among ourselves who and/or what we are, we will not convince anyone else.
As a consequence, we will have the devil of a job protecting and advancing our personal, professional interests and long-term careers.

When the current, downward spiral hits bottom and the opportunistic part of the ‘industry’ hits the wall, the ‘profession’ will both gain and lose.  We will, of course, be blamed by the very entrepreneurs/opportunists responsible for the cause the collapse; after all, they are not likely to blame themselves for the poor quality of the translations they have sold and subsequently procured from dubious sources, are they?

Hopefully though, the end clients will learn that having a close and enduring relationship with a professional translator delivers better quality at the same if not lower cost.  The critical factor in this, is whether the end client understands the difference between an intermediary sourcing the cheapest possible translation through the internet, and a well-established, accredited, professional translator.  Even more importantly, whether a client will be able to locate and identify a professional translator.  If not, the client will choose an agency to ‘find the translator’ (read: handle the translation), and we will be right back where we started.

There are a number of solutions, but until everybody agrees on what the problem is, no solution will be seriously considered or accepted.  This is where my innate optimism takes a bit of a beating.  Discussions among translators suggest that every 12 of them have 13 or more different opinions on whether translators are free-lancers (i.e. casual employees hired by agencies), self-employed professionals, or business owners/vendors of translation services.  Few of the opinions demonstrate any knowledge or understanding of the differences.  Yet, it is the thorough understanding of these differences that determines the strategies that are likely to succeed and/or fail.

 

 

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