How to recognize professional translators?

Why talking about professional translators matters

The last few days have seen a few articles popping up in which translators talk (brag?) about a rather simplified approach to translation.

  1. This post was written by a blogger in Japan who has started translating from Japanese to English, even though she happily admits that she is flying by the seat of her pants. (Edit March 2016: The post has now been taken offline.)
  2. This post shows a similar, if slightly less casual mindset by a Russian translator (Update Jan. 27, 2014: The site is offline. Update Feb. 4, 2014: Olga Arakelyan wrote a great response to this post that is worth sharing).
  3. This article is about translating from Arab to English; again something that is only possible with the help of Google Translate.

All three articles are variations on the same topic of a lack of professionalism among people who call themselves translators. People who get paid for translating, but depend on Google Translate and other online tools because they lack the necessary source language skills to fully understand the text they are supposedly translating. And not all of them see this as a problem, which is worrying in itself. At times, it seems that the translation industry is too open for low-skilled translation providers who are blind to the moral issues of selling a bad service – be it because they overestimate their translation skills, they under-appreciate the implications of providing faulty translations or they simply don’t care.

The raw deal for professional translators

Translating is a profession that straddles a rather strange divide. On the one hand, acquiring a language and using it to communicate is part of our biological makeup. People don’t need to reflect on grammar or other finer linguistic points to be able to speak just fine. Translators are just better than them at using a dictionary. So, languages are really easy. And translators struggle to gain respect for their work.

On the other hand, the rules and structures of language are seen as mind-numbingly boring by a depressing amount of people. Horrible language learning experiences from school abound and have forever closed many a mind to language issues. Nobody wants to hear about the details and challenges of translation. So, languages are really hard, which makes working with them something to outsource as quickly (and cheaply?) as possible. And again translators struggle – to gain respect for their work and to point out that not all translators provide the same type of service.

Where does this leave us translators? Well, we are left trying to straddle that gap. Explaining why I have certain specializations and don’t just translate anything that comes my way takes time. And not everyone agrees. Many think I should just be able to translate everything as long as it is written in my working languages.  And they will probably go find somebody who will promise them just that (and rock-bottom prices). Educating clients about the need for professional translators and establishing ourselves as experts in our various specializations takes time and energy. That might be why it irritates us even more when someone from our ranks so blithely undermines all our hard work.

The effect unprofessional translators have

Clients get a wrong idea of translation and the value of translation. Providing a translation requires trust from clients, especially if they don’t speak the target language and can’t judge the quality of your work. Articles that talk about cheating your way through a half-understood text do not inspire trust. Why not choose big agencies that claim to have implemented strict quality control for their translators? Or machine translation? At least machines can’t lie. And according to these articles, translators use Google Translate, too. And there’s another argument for low pay for translations.

Among translators, articles like these stir up old trust issues. Translators come from all walks of life and from all over the world. That is part of the fun, but also what makes translation such an unregulated industry where untrained unprofessionals can make the entire profession look bad. I can already hear the demands for mandatory exams before you are allowed to call yourself a card-carrying translator. I would much prefer for translators to stick together and pass on knowledge and experience. (Having said that, it’s hard not to want to take away the job title “translator” from the people who wrote those articles.)

What to do?

We need to ask (again) what defines a professional (a.k.a. good) translator. And how do you recognize one? Tough questions. The work translators do varies so wildly that it’s almost impossible to find a one-size-fits-all definition of THE professional translator.

Off the top of my head, here are some aspects that could define a professional translator:

  • Language training is good (language experience is even better), so is subject matter training. Having actually studied translation should be the winner. But haven’t we all met qualified translators who unfortunately are still not great at what they do. And what about the translators that are fully qualified but whose business practices are lacking? They damage the standing of the translation industry in other ways.
  • Membership in professional translator associations, which admit translators to their folds according to known membership criteria. They provide training, peer support and industry information. Membership represents a form of quality assurance for clients. What’s more, associations also educate the public about the ins and outs of the translation industry.
  • Networking with other translators who are a great source of inspiration and information. (Have I said how much I love Twitter?) Staying in touch with like-minded professionals means that you are familiar with industry requirements. Wannabe translators need to be aware of what they’re doing wrong and why they would want to change their ways. Someone has to reach out and let them know the responsibility that comes with translation.
  • A commitment to continuing professional development can show that translators want to keep their skills up to date and acquire new skills.
  • Experience plays an important role. Experience helps translators better understand the source texts, especially the badly written or extremely clever ones. But translators just starting their career should also be seen as professionals. What do we do with them? When should they be let loose on “real” translations? There needs to be space for development as a translator.
  • A professional website that is clearly structured and showcases a translator’s experience and maybe provides some references can be helpful. But, we all know that a shiny website and marketing copy promising clients the best translation in the history of translation (obviously, at competitive prices) can easily be faked. And all the translators who have spent too much time correcting/revising/retranslating poor translations from other “translation professionals” know that appearances can be deceiving.
  • Use of CAT tools could be a clue. Yet, not all translators use them. And those that do don’t always want to talk about it because CAT tools can be used to enforce lower rates. And the mere fact of using a CAT tool doesn’t mean that you can provide great translations.

None of these factors are decisive in isolation. I think that many a combination of the above would lead to an excellent translator.

The onus is on every translator to abide by the rules of professional conduct. And that’s a very obvious requirement. Translator associations generally have an ethical or professional code that translators agree to when they join (even ProZ has one  you can endorse …). Acting professionally includes refusing translations that are outside your areas of expertise. Translators are the only ones who fully understand the source as well as the target text and they need to be able to vouch for the accuracy of their work. And they can’t do that if they’re using a scary combination of Google Translate and guesswork. (See also a really interesting post by Joseph Lambert on the difference between the ethics of the translator and the ethics of translation.) Every translator should lead by example.

What do we do with the clients?

I can only say what I do. I strive for honesty and reliability in my dealings with clients. I am transparent about how I work. I refer translations outside of my expertise (I’m looking at you, dreaded legal translations) on to more suitable translators. Part of positioning yourself as an expert is being grounded enough to tell clients that a certain translation would be better suited for a different translator.

There a number of guidelines and helpful articles available to help clients determine a suitable translator. Just this morning, I stumbled over this one here (in German) by Karen Rückert (she of the Translator Mentoring Blog), explaining how to find the right translator for legal documents. The ATA provides a number of resources on their website.

I would be surprised to find my plumber or web designer using the internet to brag about bluffing their way through jobs. How strange is it that translators would have no problem doing just that? If we translators don’t take ourselves and our work seriously we are going to have a tough time convincing everyone else to do so.

For that reason, I really like the Love Your Translator and ProudXL8 campaigns. Besides being fun ways of making translators a little bit more visible, they also remind us translators what a wonderful, challenging job we have. (So does this hilarious recent post on the Diary of a Mad Patent Translator.)

There are 5 comments on this post

  1. How to recognize professional translators? - Sp...

    […] Talking about what defines professional translators is important. Unprofessional translators make life harder for their clients and for other translators.  […]

  2. Caroline Alberoni

    Great article, Else!
    I think it should be shared around, since the subject fits perfectly with all the fuss about the fake sign interpreter going on this week.
    And I’m also a fan of the Love Your Translator and ProudXL8 campaigns. I just admire their initiative and try to spread this love as much as I can. If we don’t give us the credit we deserve, who will?
    Thanks for helping us get noticed! 🙂

  3. Kevin Hendzel

    Good observations on some of the consequences of unprofessional translation.

    These amateurish practices also badly damage the public image of professional translation, which you rightly point out.

    I’m curious, though, why in addressing how to fix the problem, you don’t look to professionals in PR and promotion. It’s among the key objectives of professional associations like ATA to promote best practices as well as the public image of its members. [Disclaimer — I’ve done a lot of personal volunteer work as National Media Spokesman on behalf of ATA for about 15 years, and that was under a funded program where we paid PR professionals to work with us — this is absolutely essential for success .]

    I confess that I’m a bit troubled by the idea that we castigate amateurs and do-it-yourselfers who attempt translation, and then, in addressing ways to promote the profession ourselves, we, uh, repeat that mistake. We rely on self-instituted under-the-radar social media that clients and the public never see.

    Why not go for the big leagues? We’ve succeeded at this before. We’ve put translation on the front pages of major newspapers for years in the US. It made a difference in how translators were perceived, trained, hired and paid.

    If you want to make a difference, demand that all translator professional associations get serious about safeguarding the status of their members through PAID PR promotional programs.

    1. Else Gellinek

      Hi Kevin,
      thank you for taking the time to comment.

      I appreciate hearing a different perspective on what I wrote. I personally like the #Proudxl8 and Love Your Translator campaigns because they boost morale in discussions often dominated by negativity. They serve their purpose within the translation community and that’s why I mentioned them. But I agree that they will not serve to change the public image of translators.

      When I wrote the post I was focusing on individual translators. Charging them to solve a structural problem is obviously an unfair burden and cannot lead to real change. As you say, a professionally developed campaign launched by translator associations is much more suited to addressing the public’s lack of concern about translation quality. And while we’re at it, we can reach out to the non-professional translators who aren’t really involved in the debate at the moment. (Establishing more mentoring and coaching programs for translators is something else I would task translator associations with.)

      You’ve definitely given me food for thought and reason to revisit the expectations I have toward translator associations. Maybe the time has come to ask more of them.



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