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The Death of the Amateur Translator\'s Skills in the Modern World
By Deborah Fry, Fry & Bonthrone Partnerschaft
The translation industry is undergoing profound structural change. Although
a global society and a global economy are now clearly emerging, many
translators are having difficulty exploiting the opportunities these bring.
Indeed, many see their livelihoods - or at least their margins - seriously
threatened. Modern business and working methods, changing customer
requirements and modern technology are making traditional translation
paradigms untenable. This article takes a provocative look at the mindsets
of translators and their employers, and identifies the skill sets needed for
success, many of which have been pioneered in the localization industry.
What is a translator?
Part of the trouble about discussing translation is that we rarely know what
we are talking about. At least three common - partially conflicting and/or
overlapping - paradigms exist, making a discussion of the role of
translation in practice difficult.
The unreliable secretary-cum-typewriter
Dr. Johnson\'s Dictionary of the English Language - the one that immortalizes
the lexicographer as a \"harmless drudge\" - defines a translator as \"one that
turns any thing into another language\". As a former hack translator himself,
rendering Latin literature into English, Johnson was probably writing with
feeling. He also had the advantage of living at a time when the total body
of Western knowledge was still small enough for an educated person to have a
reasonable overview of all its branches.
Although this state of affairs is so far in the past as to be almost
unthinkable, the view of translators held by many clients (and many
traditional translation agencies) has remained remarkably similar.
Translators are solitary animals, and their activity should consist of an
almost effortless \"reclothing\" of any text on any subject (\"just type this
up into German\" as a customer once told an ex-colleague). Failure to produce
the goods during the desired (always incredibly short) time often leads to
the resolution to get the secretary/boss\'s girlfriend/own girlfriend to do
it next time. The unspoken assumption seems to be that since everyone speaks
at least one language, everyone is automatically a language expert (a
related phenomenon is the assignment of \"problem\" employees to the
translation and documentation departments of software companies, on the
basis that \"those who can\'t do, translate the manuals\") Other basic
assumptions related to this approach are the ideas that speed and price are
the only arbiters; quality comes a poor third, if at all.
This view is obviously linked to a fundamental misappreciation or ignorance
of the role of communication and cognitive processes. Although it is a
truism (at least among good translators) that you cannot translate what you
do not understand, many clients paradoxically invest their otherwise lowly
service providers with an almost God-like ability to appreciate all the
nuances of a complex text automatically. In addition, this approach starts
from or unconsciously reinforces a theory of translation in which the
original text is paramount. This debate had already been running for
centuries in Johnson\'s day , but is now increasingly becoming academic in
the face of modern communications theory, with its emphasis on sender and
receiver, and modern business needs and customer orientation.
In many cases, the most important criterion is now equivalent effect, with
the level at which this effect is defined being relatively abstract. To give
two examples: a marketing brochure should produce the same positive reaction
and willingness to purchase the product described in a different target
audience, even though the arguments, examples and even layout may have been
changed to suit local sensibilities. Equally, a localized financials package
will be used in an equivalent situation, even though the interface and
manuals are in a different language and the contents and functionality of
the product itself may differ considerably, e.g. as a result of local
The translator as artist
What is happening here is a redefinition - indeed a broadening - of the act
of translation to include a creative authorial component on the part of the
translator. Conceptually (but not in practice) this is not all too far
removed from the emphasis on individual creative effort in translation held
by supporters of a second definition. For this group, translation is an art,
not a science, and let alone a business. For such people, indeed, the idea
of a translation \"industry\" would probably be unacceptable in itself (unless
perhaps in the Johnsonian sense of \"diligence\" and \"assiduity\"). The
fundamental ideas behind the \"translator as artist\" camp are individual
labour, intrinsic (as opposed to customer-oriented) style and quality, and a
non-profit approach (both in theory and in practice) to translation. Staff
translators are good, because \"neutral\", but freelances are better, and all
agencies are bad, because commercially oriented.
In this approach, great emphasis is laid on quality, but it is not the
quality of reproducibility and repeatability, of \"the right product in the
right place at the right time and at the right price\" that underlies the ISO
9000 series and total quality management movements. Translators as artists
will consciously ignore deadlines to continue polishing a text, because for
them the text has an intrinsic value, in its own right and as the product of
their labours. They are in no way bothered by the fact that the archetype of
this approach - literary translation - is often suboptimal, because
underpaid (alternatively, it is done \"on the side\" by academics specialising
in the authors concerned, or by willing enthusiasts).
This is particularly interesting in that another hallmark of the translator
as artist is a concern for professional competence as expressed in
membership of professional bodies and academic qualifications. In countries
in which undergraduate and postgraduate translation studies are well
established, membership of professional bodies may well be weighted
accordingly . While professional competence is obviously the baseline for
all translation activities, the relationship between qualifications and
quality is often more subtle than this suggests, especially for technical
translations where an understanding of the subject matter is vital. Equally,
in my experience a degree in translation does not automatically rule out
translators having a tin ear for their native language - an important point
given the increasing expectations surrounding target text standards.
This point is all the more important in practice since translation - like
sales - is a profession which is traditionally open to comers. In many
countries, be they developed (like England or Germany) or developing, (like
the Central European republics) anyone can call themselves a translator -
and many frequently do .
In this context, there are interesting parallels to be drawn with software
programmers. Twenty years ago, these had all done something (or nothing)
else beforehand, prided themselves on the creative and individual nature of
their work (remember spaghetti code?), worked at the odd hours dictated by
machine response times and their fancy, and had a healthy disregard for the
\"suits\" who demanded finished products, budget discipline and (horror of
horrors) teamwork. Today, economic necessity, formal training, industry
maturity and cheap mips have produced a new breed of \"software engineers\"
generating reusable, structured objects, using prefabricated frames and (at
least in theory) committed to and measured by project deadlines and budgets.
Of course, programming/software engineering is a much more overtly technical
discipline than translating, and the industry as a whole far less fragmented
and infinitely more powerful - all incentives to change. In addition, the
technophobia which is the hallmark of the traditional translator, and of the
traditional freelance in particular, is missing. One classic example of
this - perhaps the key one now that many translators have succumbed and
bought computers - is machine translation . The emphasis on subjective
creation and contents-based quality leads to the neglect of the potential
benefits of machine translation - increased productivity and speed.
Opponents commonly miss two points about MT: firstly, that it does not have
to work perfectly, just well enough, and secondly, that it is increasingly
being used to meet needs unsatisfied by the traditional translation - and
translator - spectrum.
This atmosphere of fear, uncertainty and doubt exists partly because the
translation industry is so deeply fragmented that many players cannot see
the wood for the trees. Many national translation associations are currently
beset by generation gaps, organizational problems and battles over strategy
(or the lack of it). Surprisingly, too, there is a general lack of
cross-border and supranational activity in the profession (there are of
course honourable exceptions, such as the LISA community). Within national
frameworks, too, translation is fragmented - in Germany, for example, many
literary translators are organized in the IG Medien (the media trades union)
rather than in the BDÜ; equally, the specific requirements of localization -
and its value as a forerunner for the profession as a whole - are not at all
widely known to translators. Last but not least, this fragmentation is
repeated across the increasingly artificial boundaries within the language
industry as a whole - there is deep mutual ignorance, misunderstanding and
even on occasion suspicion between translators and computational linguists,
The translator as value-added service provider
Despite these problems, there is a gradual introduction of economic
discipline and more advanced technology into the profession, and hence the
emergence of a third paradigm - that of the value-added service provider. In
fact, in many cases this development is the attempt to make a virtue out of
necessity, with failure to move in this direction being penalized. There are
several reasons for this. Economic and political developments have led to a
shift in workflows (away from \"minor\" European languages such as Italian,
for example, and towards \"exotic\" ones such as Chinese and Japanese).
Equally, English is widely established as a backbone language, with many
non-native speakers now writing in it. While the volume of translation as a
whole is increasing, that of translation into English is therefore
stagnating . Equally, the size of individual jobs and the tighter
turnaround times require increased coordination of work by different
individuals and hence project management skills (localization is a classic
example of this). Finally, the increasing transparency of translation costs
caused by the conversion of many in-house departments into cost or even
profit centers has led to an increasing need for financial management and
for sales and negotiation skills.
A 1983 study by a committee of the Fédération Internationale des Traducteurs
concluded on the basis of a survey that internal translation services were
among the most expensive service departments within enterprises, and
therefore the most liable to be cut during economic set-backs .
Management concentration on \"core competencies\" and a corresponding
readiness to outsource non-core areas has since compounded this trend.
Obviously, this process is not confined to translators, but is part of a
much more general phenomenon. For example, the Ford automobile company used
to make its own steel, but now sources even vital parts from subcontractors
, while EDS has risen to worldwide prominence by outsourcing data
centers. Given the low standing of translators mentioned earlier, though,
the problem is particularly acute, and has triggered an ongoing search among
staff translators for solutions .
In-house departments would seem to have the most success where they are cast
in the role of integrated providers of a wider range of \"language services\",
which maximize the added value to their in-house customers .
Obviously, the great advantage they have against external suppliers is their
company knowledge - an advantage which can be exploited in the form of
internal consulting and marketing, and through the provision of customized
services meeting the needs of their enterprise and of particular groups
within it. Two examples of new types of services are corporate language and
terminology concepts and language audits. Another major area is quality
management, both in the context of ISO 9000 series certification and in
relation to product liability legislation, which includes the translation of
product documentation within its scope.
In addition, such departments may offer back-up operative services for
emergencies, and services for certain categories of work. Generally
speaking, though, the trend is towards liaising much more, and much more
closely, than before with external suppliers (the buzzword here is the
\"integrated workbench\"). This does not necessarily mean one-stop shopping
from a single supplier, although it may do, depending on the particular
skills, volumes and resources involved. What it definitely does mean,
though, is a new concentration on \"non-translation\" activities - project
management, quality assurance, budgeting and cost control, and interpersonal
skills. In addition, there is a significant increase in the degree of
in-house expertise and investment in technology - in itself part of a more
general trend to office automation.
The same basic process can also be seen at work in the rise of a new breed
of translation agencies offering more than mere envelope-changing. Some
common value-added services are DTP and layout, typesetting and printing,
localization, technical writing and copywriting, machine or computer-aided
translation and terminology work. Above and beyond such additional services,
though, there is once again an emphasis on modern, process-oriented
management concepts, quality assurance and financial control.
Where can and do freelance translators fit into this picture? Those who do
not wish to work for agencies have traditionally developed good
relationships with a handful of direct customers - relationships that may
well be threatened by the structural changes mentioned above. Competing on
productivity and price alone is dangerous, since the bottom end of the
market is being squeezed by new technologies and offshore human competition.
In addition, the size and complexity of jobs today mean that the entry level
in many areas is rising. To obtain any sort of work - be it from agencies or
direct customers - in the localization area, for example, requires a high
degree of computer literacy and equipment, and a high degree of
professionalism about deadlines, terminology and stylistic register. Those
who fail to meet these criteria are increasingly being sidelined. Since many
translators - and particularly the generalists most threatened by these
developments - are women with families working less than full time, the
fall-out process is not as immediately visible as it would otherwise be.
Nevertheless, it is still widespread and apparent enough to be a serious
cause for concern in professional associations .
Freelance translators who want to survive are therefore positioning
themselves further up the quality chain - in the modern, process-oriented
sense of the word. The old resistance to technology is slowly breaking
down - according to the latest ITI statistics, all but three of the British
freelance translators surveyed now have a computer, and 87% of full-time
freelances had a modem . Equally, a show of hands at the last ITI
Conference indicated that although very few translators used a terminology
management system, a majority thought it probable that they would have one
within the next five years. This is a remarkable statistic given the
traditional status of terminology as something that translators do in their
spare time. Allied to this is the fact that those freelances are doing best
who can demonstrate profound competence in selected subject fields - an area
where agencies are traditionally weak. In such cases, a basic split in the
market is appearing - high-volume, low-margin providers versus low-volume,
(hopefully) high margin ones. High-volume, high-margin work is nice if you
can get it (but rare), while the low-volume, low margin model means living
increasingly poorly and dangerously. This having been said, the stakes for
all variants are increasing, and margins will probably decrease in future
with increased competition and computer power.
In this environment, the amateur and the generalist are endangered species -
threatened by the pace of the profession, by the increasing complexity of
the subject matter, by the rising economic stakes involved and by the sheer
class of the new operations. While this may be no news to either the
publishers or the vendors in LISA, who are characterized by a high degree of
professionalism, it represents a radical change for translation as a whole.
LISA members - and the profession as a whole - can only benefit from it.
 It should be said however that such an approach is becoming increasingly
rare as businesses reduce overheads and concentrate on core competencies.
Equally, product liability discussions and market share considerations are
starting to have an effect, with (good) translation no longer being seen as
merely - nice to have\' or a necessary evil.
 See the historical discussion in Dedecius, Karl: \'Vorn Übersetzen\', 1986
Frankfurt am Main.
 For example, the regular admissions procedure for the German
professional association, the BDÜ, is heavily tailored towards candidates
with German translation qualifications -candidates with foreign
qualifications not recognized as equivalent, or with domain-specific
qualifications have to apply to a special selection panel. Membership of the
British association, the ITI, in contrast is based on personal and work
assessment, and on proof of experience in the field.
 For Central Europe see the remarks by Arturo Quintero Arellanes and
Stephen Duzs on translator numbers and backgrounds made during their
presentations at the LISA Forum on Localization Quality Management for the
Central European Markets, July 2-4, 1995, Vienna; for an example of a
Western country see Verrinder, J. in Picken C. - The Translator\'s Handbook,
2nd Ed. 11989, London: - it is probably true to say that only a small
proportion of people who translate for their living are actually
salary-earning staff translators... It is probably equally true to say that
a very high proportion of these people never planned to become career
translators and equally never trained as such\'.
 One interesting recent illustration of this was the discussion on
CompuServe\'s Flefo forum of the introduction of on-line MT services to
 Cf. UNESCO Statistical Yearbook 1990, quoted in Venuti, Lawrence:
\'Translation, Authorship, Copyright\' in The Translator Volume 1, No. 1, 1995
 Quoted in Zeumer, J. \'Effiziente Organisation von Sprachdiensten -
Überlegungen zur Optimierung des Vernültnisses zwischen Aufwand und Erflog\'
in : Tagungsband der Internationalen Vereingung Sprache und Wirtschaft,
 Quoted in - The Economist\', August 5 - 11, 1995, p. 14 (\'Walt Disney and
the piper\'s tune\')
 Cf. several meetings of the BDÜ\'s \'Schwerter Kreis\' of staff translators
dedicated to developing strategies for identifying added value
 For a fuller discussion, see Fry, D. \'Interesting Times - The Threats
and Opportunities Facing Staff Translators\', ITI 8th International
Conference & Exhibition, Edinburgh 27-29 April 1995
 Cf. for example the discussion about the emergence / existence and
desirability of a \'superleague\' of translators at the ITI Conference.
 Gardham, J. : \'Key Observations from the 1994 - 95 Rates and Salaries
Survey\' - ITI 8th International Conference. The reason given for the sharp
rise in modems was agency pressure.
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