Volume 3, No. 3 
July 1999



Translation Journal
The Profession

The Challenges of Being a Translator on the Eve of the 21st Century

by Frédéric Houbert

Most senior translators will probably tell you that starting a career as a freelance translator 20 or 30 years ago was a relatively simple matter: all you needed then was appropriate language skills, a reliable typewriter and a fair idea of how to find clients and keep them. Even five years ago, when I started my own career as a freelancer, I thought that my university qualifications and sense of purpose would be enough for me to join this profession I had long admired. And indeed, I was right: after three of four months of feeling my feet, my prospecting efforts finally started to pay off and work began to come in in a steady, if not altogether overwhelming flow.
    Now, five years later, I cannot help but cast a nostalgic and regretful eye on my debut as a freelance translator. In spite of my relative lack of experience in the trade, I often find myself thinking, “those were the days...,” when I come to consider the turn the translation trade has taken over the past few years. Indeed, the days of smooth sailing are over; experience, good translating skills, competitive rates and fast turnaround are simply no longer enough to meet the many requirements translators are now faced with and to ensure a sufficient workload in the long run. The rules of the game have changed, the wheel has turned, and a good command of bluffing techniques just won't do now.
    Now, you may rightly wonder, why has this come about? Whatever happened on the way to “translation paradise”? Let me just try and provide one or two personal explanations to this riddle.
A couple of decades ago, translators were usually highly regarded by clients or at least recognized for what they truly were, that is, high-level linguists with a satisfactory level of expertise in one or several fields of specialization
A couple of decades ago, translators were usually highly regarded by clients or at least recognized for what they truly were, that is high-level linguists with a satisfactory level of expertise in one or several fields of specialization and a fairly decent knowledge of the industrial world. Why? Simply because they provided a service that was deemed useful in spite of the cost it entailed. Nowadays, partly due to the widespread feeling of distrust prevailing in the working world, most translators, or at least those with under 10 years' experience, are looked upon as opportunistic service providers with few or no skills of their own; clients often consider them as “bogus” specialists, with no real expert knowledge, and self-proclaimed language experts, who could probably be dispensed with altogether since most people now perfectly understand English anyway (it should be pointed out at this stage that I primarily handle translations from English into French).
    I thus recently spoke to a shipbroker I had contacted in order to offer my services as an English-French translator. He sounded genuinely surprised that I should seek to sell him my stuff, since, in his opinion, all experts working in the field of shipping and maritime transport should be fluent speakers and writers of English. My reply was that although the people working in his specific field are obviously expected to have at least a basic understanding of English, languages and more specifically, the transmission of shades of meaning from one language into another, hardly come within their scope of expertise. The shipbroker however stood his ground (isn't that a funny expression for an expert in sea transport?!) and we continued our conversation on more diplomatic terms, each sticking to our guns. The one thing I learned from this particular conversation is that as long as the client doesn't see where your skills as a linguist can benefit his business, chances are he will always consider you as a kind of go-between trying to take advantage of the lack of professionalism of certain individuals in his field.
    The widespread feeling that most people are now fluent in English is of course a major disadvantage for translators, especially those who, like myself, essentially handle English-into-French assignments (and obviously even more so in the case of translators doing jobs into English). We have all heard stories, regardless of the language combination, of how a large number of companies now satisfy their translation needs on an in-house basis, using whatever “multipurpose” employee they believe is best qualified to do the job (incidentally, the “employee” in question often turns out to be a secretary or someone from the communication department with no proper translation background). The question in fact is the following: when faced with a client with few or no language skills, how can a translator possibly give proof of his competence as a linguist? The London-based Institute of Linguists asks the same question and provides a “biased” answer, to say the least!: “As a translator, how do you prove to potential clients that you are ’professionally competent’? How do you demonstrate to them that you are a cut above the rest, how do you show them that you are a true expert in your field? By showing them that you hold the Institute of Linguists’ Diploma in Translation, that’s how,” (taken from the “Linguist” section in the IoL's web site). This suggestion is interesting enough but it hardly answers the bottom-line question: how can the translator show his client the difference between “being fluent for business purposes” and being able to master each and every subtlety of language? After all, this is what it all comes down to: the problem is not so much about providing proof of your own competence as trying to make the client aware of the gap that exists between his own skills and yours.
    As a translator myself, I simply couldn't tell you how many times I have been told by a client, after having been given a translation to perform: “I would have done it myself, but as you know, time is scarce, so I thought I'd give you a call....” Now, is this really what a translator likes to hear, or more accurately, is this really what a translator deserves to be told? I think this observation says a lot about the present frame of mind of a large number of clients with respect to translators.
    The slow change in the client's perception of translation as a profession is, however, but one of the many predicaments modern translators have to deal with nowadays. Indeed, in addition to their sometimes difficult relationship with clients, translators are usually faced with a multitude of challenges which take up whatever time they have left once the translation work itself is out of the way.
    The first challenge the translator has to take up is directly related to his profession and is something that translators often take for granted, without giving the matter a serious thought: I am talking about maintaining one's language skills. Many translators feel that just spending time translating is enough to ensure their skills are maintained at an appropriate level of quality. Well, this is obviously wrong: translators, regardless of their personal level of competence, should spend a decent amount of time, before and after translating, researching information, speaking or otherwise practicing their languages, compiling glossaries, seeking out dictionaries, following training courses in their fields of expertise, etc. This is probably the first step towards guaranteeing 100% dedication to your work. A translator who never even bothers to read the papers (in both his source and target languages), travel abroad or listen to foreign news on the TV or radio is definitely not worthy of the title he uses, because he lacks the one quality that all translators should exhibit in the first place: curiosity.
    In addition to updating his linguistic skills on a continuous basis, the translator needs to make sure his computer literacy is in sync with the standards set by his clients (especially those who regularly come with fat user manuals and other large translation projects). A few years back, a translator could not reasonably offer his services without including in his equipment a high-speed modem. These days, hanging around trade fairs and having to admit you are still without your own e-mail address will make you look like a would-be Formula 1 driver cruising around in a second-hand Lada.
    Updating your information technology skills is probably more of a challenge than “simply” maintaining your linguistic competence; indeed, while there are many ways for a translator to maintain or improve his knowledge of languages on a stand-alone basis, organizing your own IT training courses proves a much harder task. Most translators will always find an answer to their terminology-related problems but will see most error or warning messages on their computer screen as a potential threat to their mental integrity.
    It is true that the fast-changing world of computers represents a major challenge not only for translators but also for most people working on a freelance basis, and although senior translators sometimes manage to retain their long-term clients despite their obvious reluctance to use modern means of communication, their fledgling colleagues will often find that a strong background in computing and IT usually stands as a prerequisite for a career as a freelancer.
    The trickiest part of keeping abreast of technological evolutions is probably the necessary ability to anticipate what will become tomorrow's standard requirements: after the modem and e-mail address, what will be required of translators next in order to be given assignments? Having their own web site? More and more freelancers are now trying to sell their skills via the Internet, which is a proof of our increasing awareness of the potential of this medium. Although web sites aren't as yet an indispensable accessory in the marketing toolbox of modern translators, they certainly prove to be an invaluable communication tool which translators can use to show their clients that they are in step with the modern world and that their horizon reaches far beyond the clichéd heaps of dictionaries and gloomy library halls with which translators have always been associated.
    For those of us who manage both to maintain our language skills and resist the unrelenting tide of technological progress, the next step is to keep an eye on the many requirements imposed upon us by the “administration” (this word is used in France to describe the French army of civil servants) and the various departments of government, which often seem to be out on a mission to make our lives a misery. Most translators practicing in France will tell you that fighting one's way through red tape and solving the many problems posed by the “Direction des Impôts” (i.e., the French IRS) is a time-consuming process that often leaves little or no room for more useful pursuits such as those mentioned above (updating your skills, etc.). Well, being a “traducteur libéral” myself, I unfortunately have no alternative but to subscribe to this point of view; however, the problems related to red tape are probably more acute in the early stages of a translator's career, when lack of experience at most levels often makes even the most harmless looking form look like a maze full of pitfalls (that was my case anyway). As far as I am concerned, even though I am now less easily impressed by the hefty amount of material I receive every day from “les impôts” and other governmental departments or organizations, I still find it difficult at times to grasp the logic of French bureaucracy or to know exactly where I stand (it should be pointed out here that I act as my own accountant, which means I have no choice but to keep myself informed of any changes affecting this field).
    Now, if you manage to keep your language skills up to top quality standards, get the hang of every IT novelty, successfully fight your way through red tape, and still manage to meet your client's deadline every time, I suppose you deserve a star on the Hollywood Boulevard of Translators.
    The problem is, even complying with all of the above is sometimes just not enough to ensure a steady workload over a long period of time. I don't really know if this has anything to do with the above-mentioned client's perception of a translator's work, but it seems to me that clients' top requirements are now increasingly for shorter deadlines and low rates to the obvious detriment of quality. This trend has been noticeable for some time now and it certainly doesn't look like things are going to improve in the near future. I am fairly confident that if you take 10 freelancers and ask them about the quality of their relationships with their clients, at least 6 or 7 of them will tell you how disrespectful most of their clients are (with the possible exception of 2 or 3) of their work and how little consideration they give to quality. For those of you who may find this statement exaggerated, I am ready to provide you with the names of several fellow translators who would make similar observations.
    A favourite topic among translators these days seems to be “client education,” or how we should all make it a priority to take a minute or two and explain to our clients that ours is a very challenging job and that you can't just “feed” a translator a text and press a button for immediate delivery. There is obviously a need for client education, and I wholeheartedly agree with Geoffrey Samuelsson-Brown's statement according to which “We, as translators, do however have an obligation to the profession as a whole to make clients aware that translating is a very demanding occupation and that quality does take time and does cost money,” (in A practical guide for translators, Multilingual Matters, 1995). Nevertheless, I am convinced that the problem lies elsewhere: before having thoughts about educating the client, I think the profession should first try and educate itself. The general problem I am raising here is the lack of organization observed in the translation trade, which may be one explanation for the lack of recognition it is suffering from nowadays. In spite of the efforts of the Société Française des Traducteurs (the French Translators' Association), whose most influential members are doing their very best to define and establish professional standards applicable to all translators, we—I am writing on behalf of all French translators—are still a long way from the nationwide status translators deserve and need in order to be acknowledged as true dedicated professionals. The problem is, today, in France, pretty much as everywhere else I suppose, anyone can start his own translation business without being required to demonstrate his skills or otherwise provide proof of his qualifications. Even the standards set by translators' organizations sometimes fall short of what one would be entitled to expect from a professional body providing translator certification. Could it be that some of these organizations are more eager to increase their membership than they are to control the actual quality level of their members?
    I sincerely believe that it shouldn't be up to each and every translator to explain to the client the usefulness of his role and relevance of his services: have you ever expected your lawyer to give proof of his qualifications or to justify his fees? Now, although the translation trade and legal profession obviously have little in common, comparing the two gives a good idea of what we translators have yet to achieve in order to gain recognition.
    Unfortunately, the lack of coordination between the various translators' organizations Europe-wide and worldwide leaves most of us to set our own standards and define our own rules. As far as I am concerned, I decided, when I started out as a freelancer five years ago, to abide by a certain number of principles which I swore I would never deviate from; one of these—I suppose you could call it my “tariff policy”—was I would never accept working under a certain price limit. Another was I would always—and I mean always!—comply with whatever deadline I have agreed to work to, no matter how tight. So far, I am proud to say I have never failed in my commitments. As opposed to what others might think, I don't believe we translators should burn the midnight oil at any cost: dedication is one thing, slaving away at our job is another.