Translation is a Profession, Too

Part 1

 

Most likely, if you’re reading this, you speak at least two languages. In which case, you have probably encountered the following situation: you go to a party and get talking to somebody about how you speak more than one language. What kind of response do you get?

 

“Oh, how cool is that!”

 

“That’s difficult, how do you do that?”

 

“So, English and Russian… What else do you speak?”

 

There is amazement in their voices; it’s a fairly common phenomenon. Apparently it also works as a chat-up line. Not that I know, I’ve just seen it used… People are amazed, they think you are cool. They may say things like, “You polyglots are amazeballs”, if they know words like that.

 

And you start feeling pretty good. Even if you speak to most of the people in the room, you’ll find they do not have the ability that you have. It’s like a superpower. They say things like: “Oh, I can barely speak my own language, let alone a foreign language!” Then they ask you to say something in that language, and you put on your sexiest voice, and say “Pulchrae sunt oculi tui”, and, umm… You get the point.

 

And now the conundrum: you then get into the translation business. You set a reasonable price for your work, because it’s a reflection of the hours and years of your life you spent studying; of your work experience so far; of your ongoing education.

 

A job comes along, you tell them how much it’ll cost… And the client also looks at you with amazement – only this time, it’s not amazement at how awesome you are, but at how expensive your services are. And they say:

 

“Why is this translation so expensive?” So you explain – hours & years, studies, work experience.

 

“I see. And still… why is it so expensive?”

 

So you go back to basics: “Look, you’re amazed at my abilities with languages, right?”

 

“Yeah.”

 

“Well, that’s why it’s expensive. I have linguistic superpowers! I mean Superman did his stuff for free! But if he was running a business, his services wouldn’t come cheap, right?”

 

[Blank stare].

 

It’s an ongoing conundrum, which I’m only beginning to study. I don’t have solutions to it, yet. Some approaches work for some people, not for others. But it is something we face on an almost daily basis. And I think that it comes down to the following.

 

We translators work in a profession. The dictionary definition of the term ‘profession’ is “any type of work that needs special training…

 

Do we need special training? Yes. That’s what you’re getting when you do an MA in translation; when you go on a special post-grad course; when you attend workshops on audiovisual translation. The dictionary continues “A particular skill, often one that is respected, because it involves a high level of education.

 

Well, you have to learn the language at school, you go on foreign exchanges, you get a university degree in the language and its translation; you’ll probably need an MA too, and then there are the post-degree courses… It involves a high level of education.

 

And yet I look at that definition, and realise that there’s one word in there, wherein I think the problem lies. Look over it again, do you see the problem word?

 

“Respected”.

 

For some reason monoglots are amazed by us. They think we’re witty and charming, funny, educated, interesting; but that doesn’t guarantee respect for us.

 

We, as a profession, have to do something to generate that respect. Not just me, not just the people who run businesses that are twenty times bigger than mine, and the people who run their own freelance businesses dotted all across the world; but the students, too, starting out in the profession.

 

To generate that respect, we need to know the fundamental characteristics of a profession:

 

Great responsibility. We translate documents about nuclear reactors, weapons, people’s health; we might translate a writer’s life’s work, or a passport with someone’s personal details. Tick.

 

Accountability. We hold ourselves accountable to our clients for what we translate; some even give satisfaction guarantees, money-back guarantees. We all put our names and our reputations on the line when we work. Tick.

 

Specialised theoretical knowledge. Plenty of that. Tick.

 

Institutional preparation. The rare genius can get into translation without going through universities and schools. Otherwise we all require it. Tick.

 

Autonomy. It’s a profession that runs on freelancers. With control over the terms and conditions under which we work, it’s ideal for people who like autonomy. Tick.

 

Clients rather than customers. Mostly, if someone needs translation once, they need it again. We have clients. Tick.

 

Ethical constraints. Client confidentiality is perhaps the most obvious ethical constraint, but there are plenty of others too as outlined in the profession’s various codes of ethics. Tick.

 

Merit-based work. One of the great difficulties for this profession; much like espionage, it is very hard for the client to assess the quality of the service rendered. However, much success is based on mutual recognition & recommendation among peers. Tick.

 

Capitalist morality. Each of us has a right to spend our time doing what we please to earn a living. A profession recognises that, and provides a framework within which to work to accepted standards, and earn said living. Tick.

 

Direct working relationships. The final characteristic in our list, and perhaps the most telling one for the problem identified. The majority of translation work is done by freelancers through an agency. Freelancer-end client relationships are the minority. Typically, when an end client does establish such a relationship, they cling on to it. The element of trust is significant in a profession where the end client is not able to personally assess the quality of his purchase. Half a tick.

 

Most (9.5 out of 10) of these fundamental characteristics apply to our profession. Perhaps the conundrum therefore lies in how thoroughly these fundamental characteristics apply to our daily work?

 

For clients to treat us like professionals we need to behave like professionals. We need to be aware therefore of two opposing phenomena: Impostor Syndrome, and the Dunning-Kruger Effect.

 

When a translation student graduates, they will need all the work they can get: to buy food, pay the rent, survive. This is understandable; but there needs to be constant movement away from the all-I-can-get approach, towards what-I-can-excel-at. It is a process of turning things down, of boldly saying: “Sorry, that’s not my specialisation; I’m not good at that”.

 

If they do not have the self-awareness and the discipline to do this, then they will become a victim of the Dunning-Kruger effect. This is “a cognitive bias which causes low-ability individuals to suffer from illusions of superiority”1. We’ve all met that person. Perhaps it is best illustrated in Catherine Tate’s The Offensive Translator [by which, of course, they mean an interpreter, but nevermind].


In contrast, a truly professional translator will likely experience Impostor Syndrome. It’s “the feeling of many apparently successful people that their success is undeserved”2. It’s a psychological phenomenon. Think of those awkward interviews with people who have shot to sudden fame thanks to some incredible feat they have performed. When asked questions like “How did you do it?”, they look a bit awkward, pull their trousers up, and say, “I just… worked. I mean…”

 

The reality is that they worked very hard for a long time, and they became true professionals. But they don’t recognise that, all they can see are the tiny imperfections that they still need to conquer. A prime example of that is Isaac Newton: “If I have seen further than others, it is by standing upon the shoulders of giants.”3 Perhaps he was being modest; more likely he had Impostor Syndrome.

 

In summary; translation & interpreting have all the hallmarks of a profession. But lacking sufficient respect from clients, we are not treated like professionals. We have only ourselves to blame. We must strive for professionalism in all our work, to become recognised for what we really are. That requires knowing our limits; and also not undervaluing our abilities.

 

In Part 2, we will look at some of the methods and resources a young translator can use to edge towards true professionalism, to earn respect, and to earn a higher income.

 

 

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Will Hackett-Jones

Co-Founder & Partner

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