The Death of the Amateur Translator\'s Skills in the Modern World
Thread poster: Pat Melgar

Pat Melgar  Identity Verified
Local time: 09:53
English to Spanish
Jul 7, 2002

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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\")[1] 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 [2], 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 [3]. 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 [4].

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 [5]. 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,

for example.

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 [6]. 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 [7].

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

[8], 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 [9].

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 [10].

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 [11].

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 [12]. 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.


[1] 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.

[2] See the historical discussion in Dedecius, Karl: \'Vorn Übersetzen\', 1986

Frankfurt am Main.

[3] 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.

[4] 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\'.

[5] One interesting recent illustration of this was the discussion on

CompuServe\'s Flefo forum of the introduction of on-line MT services to


[6] Cf. UNESCO Statistical Yearbook 1990, quoted in Venuti, Lawrence:

\'Translation, Authorship, Copyright\' in The Translator Volume 1, No. 1, 1995

[7] 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,


[8] Quoted in - The Economist\', August 5 - 11, 1995, p. 14 (\'Walt Disney and

the piper\'s tune\')

[9] Cf. several meetings of the BDÜ\'s \'Schwerter Kreis\' of staff translators

dedicated to developing strategies for identifying added value

[10] 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

[11] Cf. for example the discussion about the emergence / existence and

desirability of a \'superleague\' of translators at the ITI Conference.

[12] 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.


Copyright © 2002, SMP Marketing Sarl. All Rights Reserved.


Mariana Barrancos  Identity Verified
Local time: 09:53
English to Spanish
+ ...
Valioso aporte! Jul 8, 2002

Muchas gracias por compartir esta información, Pat!


Tenten D  Identity Verified
United Kingdom
Local time: 13:53
English to Japanese
+ ...
This topic made my day! Jul 8, 2002

yes, we are always solo-players...


Pat Melgar  Identity Verified
Local time: 09:53
English to Spanish
Interesting Jul 8, 2002

Muchas gracias, Marian! Interesting, right?Que tengamos un buen inicio de semana! Abrazos,



On 2002-07-08 02:43, Marian wrote:

Muchas gracias por compartir esta información, Pat!


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