Professionalizing Translation

Martin Boyd

St. Jerome, patron saint of translators, apparently never obtained certification

St. Jerome, patron saint of translators, apparently never obtained certification

Practically since the dawn of history, translation has been of vital importance to human society. All manner of interaction between different communities, whether for trade, cultural exchange, for waging war or making peace, has depended hugely upon the work of translators and interpreters. And yet it is only relatively recently that translation has begun to be consolidated as a profession. And even now, the persistence of the popular misconceptions that translation is an activity that can be mastered by any person with a working knowledge of two languages and a good bilingual dictionary, or that machine translation is effectively eliminating the need for human translators, suggests that we still have a long way to go before translation receives the respect it deserves as a profession.

One of the fundamental elements in the professionalization of any field of work is the establishment of professional associations charged with overseeing the conduct of their members and setting general standards that define the skills and training that a practicing professional is expected to possess. In this respect, translation is clearly lagging well behind “traditional” professions like law, medicine and engineering. Nevertheless, there has been some progress. With 11,000 members in more than 90 countries, the American Translators Association (ATA) is one the largest professional associations for translators and interpreters in the world. Founded in 1959, ATA has done much to raise the professional profile of translators in North America, and its Code of Ethics and Professional Practice, certification process and continuing education requirements for certified members provide a framework of professional standards that offer a certain degree of uniformity and guarantee of quality in what has historically been a highly unregulated profession.

Ironically, this professionalization process faces much of its most fervent resistance from within the profession itself. As a quick browse of any translator forum discussion on the topic will reveal, many professional translators consider obtaining and maintaining certification to be an unnecessary expense that does little more than support the bureaucracy of the association. Some complain of the costliness of the certification exam, its low pass ratio or its lack of relevance to the everyday reality of translation work. But perhaps the most common argument I have heard against certification is that clients simply do not care about whether a translator is certified or not, and that thus there is no financial benefit to being a member of a professional association. My own experience has been otherwise, as I have in fact made numerous professional contacts, including repeat clients, by virtue of my status as an ATA-certified translator. On the other hand, I also established a very good client base before becoming certified, and I know many translators who have enjoyed very successful careers in the field without needing to obtain certification. At the end of the day, dedication and professionalism are worth a lot more than certification when it comes to finding and keeping clients.

But the priority given to this consideration seems to me to beg the question of whether financial gain should be the main or only factor in determining whether it is worth participating in a professional association. If we really care about our profession, shouldn’t we be interested in raising its profile with the general public? In my view, translator associations offer the most effective means of combating the popular misconceptions about translation mentioned at the beginning of this article. Only by working together to reach a consensus on certain fundamental standards and expectations that should govern the practice of professional translators can we hope to have translation recognized as a true profession.

8 thoughts on “Professionalizing Translation

  1. Associations are meant to be the unifying body to establish and raise the standards, each professional translator should become involved with their associations and resolve whatever logistic issues have to be dealt with. The members are the heart and soul of every association. Translators need to be active in their groups if they want to see professionalization.

    It is worth to mention that the certification for Translation Service Providers TSPs in Canada (CGSB 131.10) has as a mandatory requirement either certification as a translator or a degree in translation.

    Great points Martin

  2. A couple of important points, since facts are important. ATA is NOT the largest translator association in the world. It’s one third the size of the Translators Association of China, for example, which has about 30,000 members. Also, ATA’s membership ranks have been shrinking year-over-year since about 2009, where it peaked out at over 11,000. It has about 10,000 now. It’s true that ATA once did a great deal to raise the public profile of translation — I was instrumental in that effort as the architect of the national media program launched in 2001 — but it’s crucial to emphasize that since 2012 ATA has completely disappeared from public visibility. Today ATA is INVISIBLE to the media. By that I mean that between 2001 and 2012 we reached 20 million people and averaged about 3,500 press mentions every year. Since 2012 ATA has received exactly 4. There are well over 30 individual members of ATA, myself included, that have received far more press attention from the media on the subject of translation than the entire ATA organization. In my case I get more media mentions some weeks than ATA has received in the last two years. This catastrophic situation has not been resolved yet by two successive Boards, despite endless appeals from the membership to address it, and very considerable behind-the-scenes efforts by those of us who know how to work with the media to get it relaunched.

    The ATA media program at its zenith had an extremely positive and solidly tangible impact on translators’ and members’ professional lives. We succeeded in getting the profession listed AS A PROFESSION with the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, drove up wages paid to translators and interpreters on federal contracts, significantly increased membership levels year-over-year and drove traffic and hence customers to the ATA online searchable membership directory.

    It’s important that people are aware that ATA long ago completely abandoned its commitment to public outreach and client education and has done nothing tangible to restore it to a fraction of its previous level over the last two years.

    Current ATA members who believe that such public visibility is important need to become more vocal about this topic by speaking out in online forums such as this one, spreading the word at local association meetings as well as the national conference and also by electing candidates for office that place PR and media promotion at the top of their agendas.

  3. Thank you both, Lola and Kevin, for sharing your thoughts. And thanks, Kevin, for the correction with regard to ATA’s size; I’ve corrected the reference to this in the article. Your point regarding ATA’s current media invisibility is extremely alarming. Although I think it’s worth stressing that receiving press is neither the only nor the most important duty of a professional organization, in the case of the translation profession, which has such a low public profile in general, it should certainly be a major focus, and ATA members indeed need to speak out about this. At the same time, I think we need to encourage translators outside the association to come on board as well, as I believe there is a direct relationship between ATA’s current woes and the prevailing skepticism among translators about professional associations as discussed in this article. Unless we can get more translators to support the concept of collegiality, associations like ATA will be in danger of sinking into oblivion, and taking the profile of our profession with them.

  4. Thanks, Martin.

    With respect to your comment that “…it’s worth stressing that receiving press is neither the only nor the most important duty of a professional organization,” I think there’s value in examining how the organization itself sees its mission.

    The ATA Bylaws define the mission of the association in the first paragraph. The very first provision of those Bylaws reads that the purpose of ATA is:

    “To promote the recognition of the translation and interpreting professions.”

    As recently as 2009 ATA adopted the tag line, “The Voice of Interpreters and Translators,” for the entire association — one year before they killed the PR program due to appalling financial mismanagement that forced the association to assume losses of $150,000 on the FIT conference.

    The combination of the Bylaws and the adoption of the tag line in 2009 to say nothing of the commitment and dedication of 6 previous ATA Boards and presidents to the PR and media program from 2001 to 2012 would strongly suggest that the issue is not that ATA does not value PR and media promotion of translators’ and interpreters’ interests, but rather that the current Board does not embrace such a mission.

    So far ATA’s biggest PR coup is to have a table at the Guadalajara Book Fair this year.

    I am not making that up.

    I would suggest that the fastest way to remedy this problem is to encourage existing ATA members to stand up and demand that the Board embrace the same mission and commitment to PR and media promotion on behalf of translators and interpreters that the previous six ATA Boards did. Every candidate for office standing for election in Chicago should be asked about that candidate’s commitment to this issue.

    Thankfully my colleague and former PR Committee Co-Chair Chris Durban is running for the Board in Chicago and I expect she will probably garner more votes than any other candidate. Her candidate speech will probably be the most electrifying event at the entire conference. She and I have been sounding the alarm on this disaster for the last two years. Watch for her speech on Thursday morning.

    In the meantime, there is strength in numbers and I am sure Chris would welcome the support and enthusiasm of every ATA member in turning around this wholesale disaster.

  5. I couldn’t agree more with this post. Believe it or not, 21st-century translators suffer from the same kind of criticism as those living at the beginnig of the 5th. You only have to go to the cinema to watch a subtitled film and have a language-neophyte as a neighbour –one of those who attend a two-hour-a-week linguistic-immersion English course and say they know their way around because they have taken a lowcost flight to London on a one-weekend trip. High chances are that he will sneer at the first “¿Me puede traer la cuenta?”, addressing to the subtitler -as if the translator was listening- some derogatory comment. The harsh reality is that translating has suffered from the harassment of “judges” and “opiniologists” for more than two thousand years because the world is packed with them; just watch a Madrid-Barcelona in any Spanish tapas bar and you will find a legion of would-be football managers discussing how the performance of first division footballers should be improved.
    Back to the critic in the cinema, he may have realised that the photogram offers a very small number of characters and he may actually have become indignant about it because the translated phrase is shorter than the original. However, if he had ventured onto the winding, steep and rough paths of translation, he would have noticed that Romance languages are not “responsible” for interpersonal actions, whereas Germanic ones are. “¿Me prestas un lápiz?” equals “Can I borrow a pencil?”, that is, while some people ask to be lent a pencil -or a 23,465-millon-euro financial rescue (Veloso, 26/0512, others “borrow” all they need. Even if incredibly interesting, this is not an economic-social-linguistic debate. This post is to make clear that translators are not dictionaries and not anyone with a dictionary can translate. Translators don’t charge for what they do but for what they know. People should realize that translators are irreplaceable and start showing the respect their profession deserves.

  6. Thanks, Corina and thanks again, Kevin, for keeping this discussion going. I should explain that my reference to PR not being the only task of a translators’ association wasn’t intended to underrate the importance that the ATA itself gives or should give to PR, but rather to contextualize it within its other roles. As you rightly point out, Kevin, promotion of recognition of the profession is the first purpose stated in ATA’s bylaws; I think it’s important, however, to add that it is one of six purposes, which also include (for example), “to formulate and maintain standards of professional ethics, practices, and competence” and “to promote professional and social relations among its members”. I think ATA, with its code of ethics, certification program, and conferences, continues to pursue these purposes relatively well, especially if compared with other translators associations on the continent. Here in Canada, for example, where associations are broken down by province, the largest translators’ association, ATIO, does not even offer its members an annual conference; conversely, OMT in Mexico organizes an annual conference in conjunction with the FIL in Guadalajara, but it lacks a certification program and its profile, even among translation professionals in Mexico, is extremely low. Having said that, there is no denying that the effective abandonment of promoting the profession that you have identified in your comments is a “wholesale disaster”, and I look forward to participating in the efforts to turn it around in the coming months. As Corina points out in her comment, we still have a long way to go to establishing translation as a profession in public perception, and ATA has (or should have) the resources to continue to be an active force in that mission.

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