rom the point of view of the translator, all the languages spoken and written in this world may be divided into three groups, although borders between groups are not always very sharp. Classifications always imply a certain degree of generalization; generalization, in any degree, entails loss of precision. However I hope the basic ideas derived from this article may be of some interest, if not of any use.
What I would call Group A includes English alone. Group B basically comprises what the industry calls FIGS, namely French, Italian, German and Spanish. I would also include Russian here, although it would probably be more exact to classify it in a Group by itself, but there is a limit to things. Group C includes all the remaining languagesincluding my native Brazilian Portuguese, just in case someone starts to feel a victim of discrimination.
This division, in turn, implies a division of the market into nine theoretical segments according to the groups of languages involved and I claim different working conditions apply to each segment, although I have very little in the way of hard evidence to support my thesis.
From Group A into Group B:
For instance, if you translate from English into a Group B language, say, from English into Spanish, you are in technical (if not economic) heaven. You will have access to good general and specialized monolingual and bilingual dictionaries, not to mention the amount of stuff you can find on the Web.
The variety of jobs available will also be ample and will range from literature to a vast variety of technical subjects, as well as subtitling and similar jobs connected to the audio-visual branch of our trade.
Most people who do A → B work into their own languages, which is far less fun than working into a foreign language, but a lot easier too and does not attract so much flak.
The Foreigner Writes
The quality of source texts, however, will vary over a very wide range. You will translate professionally edited texts that are a joy to do. On the other hand, you may have to cope with texts written by foreigners, some of which may be more aptly described as a challenge. English is the new koine: many companies, for instance, have their foreign correspondence done in English to be translated into the language of the receiver at the receiving end-if at all. People who translate from Group B or Group C languages often and justly complain that this trend is eating into their income.
The quality of this koine varies widely and translating it requires a certain degree of flexibility. For a long time I translated texts written by a German accountant who imposed the convolutions of German syntax on a passable English vocabulary. If I did not know any German, that could have prevented me from translating the stuff, in the same way as my lack of Japanese once prevented me from translating a text in English published by a Japanese concern. I must say, however, that most technical texts written in English by foreigners are very clear and precise and that is what counts, as far as the translator is concerned.
Room for Specialization
The possibility of specialization may be one of the major advantages of working from English into a Group B language, for the amount of work usually permits it. Specialization is a mixed blessing, though. Specialization gives depth to our work and makes us more productive, of course. On the other hand, variety widens the scope of our techniques and probably helps make us better translators.
If you do A to B, competition may be fierce, for there are many good translators doing those combinations. In addition, the number of people who know (or think that know) English and believe their knowledge entitles them to bill themselves as translators is also very large.
From Group A into Group C
The situation is not the same for all Group B languages and I believe there are fewer dictionaries into Italian than into French or German, for instance. But the picture changes abruptly when your target is a Group C language. You can still count on the vast amount of monolingual English dictionaries, but the number of monolingual dictionaries in the target language falls steeply. In addition, bilingual dictionaries are bound to be inadequate and there will be a dearth of technical glossaries, many of them dated.
Brazilian Portuguese as an Example
Let me cite the example of Brazilian Portuguese, with which I am more familiar. We are fortunate among Group C languages in that there are at least 180 million of us and that provides a decent market for dictionaries. That notwithstanding, the largest English → Portuguese technical dictionary available is Sell's, which dates from 1953 and has often been reprinted, but never updated. Others include Bini's (1971), Fürstenau's (1976), De Pina's (1976) and Mendes Antas' (1979).
More recently, there has been a spate of small very specialized business glossaries of good quality, but there is no large business dictionary. The best thing in the market is still the small volume currently attributed to the late Manoel Pinho but in fact the latest avatar of an opus formerly attributed to Martin Altmanand it is full of errors of which those two eminent accountants are innocent. The most famous legal dictionary on sale is the one by Durval de Noronha Goyos. The author may be a very competent and successful lawyer, but the dictionary itself is disaster. There is a more reliable one by Maria Chaves de Mello, but it is regrettably short.
Some other Group C languages may be in a better position (Scandinavian and Japanese, for instance), but most of them are far worse off.
Taking a Ride
People who translate English into Brazilian Portuguese often take a ride on English → Spanish dictionaries. That is taking a ride into a minefield: Brazilian Portuguese and Spanish are very similar, meaning they are very different. The differences between the two languages are apt to hide camouflaged by what seems to be a forest of similarities. You cannot reduce Spanish-to-Portuguese translation into a series of exact formulas, and to make good use of those dictionaries, you have to know a lot of Spanish, which not many Brazilian translators do.
I don't know to what extent other Group A → Group C can take rides like we do with Spanish. For instance, when translating from English into, say, Bulgarian or Ukrainian, how useful would an English → Russian technical dictionary be? But I can imagine the traps, even if I cannot tell Russian from Bulgarian without identifying flags.
In other cases, the into-Group C translator is bilingual or nearly so. People who translate into Basque (Euskaro seems to be the preferred name nowadays) will probably speak Spanish too and may take succor in an English → Spanish dictionary. The situation here is different, because Portuguese and Spanish are sister languages, but there is nothing like Euskaro in this world. People using an English → Spanish dictionary as a help in into-Euskaro translations, must translate everything twice, not a very efficient way to do things.
The foreigner writes, specialization, variety
Of course, if you translate from Group A to Group C, you will have to face the same problems with texts written by foreigners as our brethren who translate into Group B languages and there is no need to approach the matter again here. There may be fewer opportunities for specialization, though, as the market is likely to be thinner.
From Group B into Group B
If you translate between two Group B languages, you will have fewer bilingual dictionaries, but will have excellent monolingual ones, which is a greater help than most translators realize.
The foreigner writes
If the source text is in a Group B language, there are fewer chances of its author being a non-native. French is still used as a second language in several places, but it has lost much ground to English. German has also lost ground after WWII. Italian has mainly been the fief of Italians since the Renaissance, although it seems to have a high status in Malta. These days even American executives seem to be learning Spanish, but most texts written in Spanish are still written by natives.
Russian, of course, is the exception in that it still very much used in Eastern Europe and in countries that formerly belonged to the USSR. In those countries, it may operate as a koine, in the same way English operates for the world at large.
Specialization, variety and all that
The extraordinary volume of work created by the EU will probably help increase the degree of specialization in intra-Group B translations, but I cannot see a steep increase in the translation of Italian films and TV shows for the benefit of German speakers in the near future.
From Group B into Group C
Things begin to become very difficult here. Again, I must take my Brazilian Portuguese as an example and remind you that elsewhere the situation tends to be a lot worse. As far as my research through Brazilian bookshops has shown me, there is no large German → Brazilian Portuguese dictionary. There is the middle-sized Tochtrop/Caro, which dates from 1952. There is the Langenscheidt Universalwhich is mainly directed to the European Portuguese public. There is a business dictionary published by the German Chamber of Commerce and very little else.
Porto Editora has a German → Portuguese dictionary, but this is European and of limited use in Brazil. There is a Dictionary of Industrial Technique, but, again, it is for Portugal and this is a great problem because the gap in industrial terminology is the widest one separating Portugal from Brazil. A book on philosophy well translated into Portuguese can be read with equal profit and pleasure on both sides of the Atlantic, but a Portuguese engineer would find it very difficult to discuss technical problems with a Brazilian colleague.
People who translate from French, Italian or Russian into Portuguese are even worse off. Even for Spanish, our sister-language, the language of all of our neighbors and which we hear everyday on the streets of São Paulo, there is precious little.
In fact, many professionals who engage in Group B → Group C work have to do a lot of what we call triangulation, first using a Group B → English dictionary and then an English → Group C dictionary. This is different from "taking a ride" and even more dangerous, because many Group B → Group C translators have but a very imperfect knowledge of English. Of course, it is also costly because you need a large library, and time consuming, for obvious reasons.
Unless you are very lucky and find a market niche, there is no way you can specialize when doing Group B → Group C, because the market is too thin for that. The highest degree of translation possible is literary vs. technical and sometimes not even that.
The foreigner writes
What was said for B → B work is valid here too. Sometimes a text in French written by someone in Rumania or in an African country, things like that, but the volume is very small, really. Thank God. B → C people have too many problems as it is.
There is less work than from Group A, and sometimes next to nothing. Years ago, the São Paulo State Registry of Trade (which supervises Sworn Translators, for reasons which are better left undiscussed here) even tried to classify Italian as an "exotic" languageand São Paulo has a large population of Italian origin.
From Group C into Group C
In most cases, there is very little work between Group C languages and there is a correspondingly meager quantity of resources. As far as I know, there is a single Rumanian → Portuguese dictionary and a few pocket things by Berlitz for combinations such as Swedish → Portuguese. Finding an intra-C technical dictionary is almost out of the question.
Most intra-C work is composed of legal documents. Even those can be complicated though. Translating the records of a lawsuit from Danish into Portuguese without the benefit of a bilingual dictionary is quite a task.
The situation may be less dramatic in certain cases, such as where the two Group C languages are spoken in countries that share a common border and thus have had a certain degree of intercourse for a long time. It is never comfortable, though.
There is a good chance someone who does C into C will do a Group B or Group A language as well. Some of the people who do one of the Scandinavian languages into Portuguese, for instance, also work with English. There is one translator doing both Russian and Spanish to Portuguese, one doing Polish and French, and so forth.
Opportunities for specialization are practically non-existent: as a rule you translate what comes your way and that is that. Sometimes, there is a single person doing a given pair, and that this person must deal with whatever traffic there is.
In many cases, C → C translators also have to translate from their mother tongues and sometimes into more than one target language. This is anathema to many, but often there is absolutely no option. The world is what the world is, not what we want it to be.
From Group C into Group B
Now, we are beginning to climb up the ladder, so to say, and that is far more difficult than climbing down. Usually Group C → Group B dictionaries are even scarcer and shorter than in the opposite direction. In addition, because there is often no accepted way to explain the institutions of Group C countries using Group B terms, translation in this direction may be harder than from B to C.
The amount of work is very small too. There are few literary jobs. From time to time, a Group C author breaks the barrier and becomes known abroad but this is an exception. The amount of film and TV work is also negligible: not many Korean films showing in Italy these days. Practically no technical books, either. Very little software localization, an area that is one of the mainstays of "from A" translation.
What do Group C into Group B guys translate? Well, mainly legal, technical and commercial stuff, although many business clients prefer to communicate with Group B clients using English. And business, as you know, is where the gravy is.
From Group B into Group A
If you do Group B into Group A, there is a good chance you are a member of an intellectual elite. Your native language is probably English, you have gone to a good school and have a very sound knowledge of both language source and target languages. You don't have as many good bilingual dictionaries as the guys who do A into B, but you are probably not very badly off.
There will be very little film and TV work. Very few books, practically nothing in terms of literature. Whereas it is often possible to earn a living translating films and TV shows (or pulp literature) from English into a Group B or Group C language, the reverse is not true.
There is a very good chance you will work into a specific variety of English, for a German or French agency is bound to specify whether they want it into US or UK English.
The foreigner translates
Part of the work from B to A is done by natives of the B language. There are two reasons for this practice. Sometimes the client is not sufficiently knowledgeable about the market and cannot find the right native speaker of English to do the job. This used to be the case even when the client was an agency, but now agencies prospect for vendors in the Internet and the problem has become less acute. However, often the client just wants to save money on the grounds that "a translation is a translation, after all".
The practice is strongly criticized and, in most cases, justly so. The wealth of competent B→A translators available makes the practice inexcusable in the absolute majority of cases.
On the other hand, some clients believe any guy whose mother tongue is a foreign one is a potential translator--again, a very bad idea.
From Group C into Group A
Materials available to the Group C into Group A translator are fewer and less useful than those available to the fortunate guy who goes A into C. For example, there is no Portuguese → English counterpart to Sell's technical dictionary, which, half a century old as it is, still constitutes a pillar of translation in Brazil. And Bini has a Portuguese → English supplement that accounts for approximately five percent of the whole book.
There is less variety too. Tons of English-language books and films and TV shows are translated into Group B and Group C languages every year, but traffic in the opposite direction is practically nil. I have learned, to my dismay, that in the UK translators actually have to submit specimens of their work to publishers, not to prove they are good professionals, but to prove that the text is worth translating. In Brazil and certainly many other Group C (and Group B) countries, it is the publisher who selects the title and then looks for a translator to do it.
Patent work is almost non-existent. Practically no software localization. Almost no scientific papers. But, of course, lots of legal and financial work.
The foreigner translates
Whereas there is a worldwide interest in learning English, very few native speakers of English ever bother to learn a foreign language sufficiently well to engage in professional translation and most of those go for Group B languages. Some of them try a Group C language "as a second": first they "do" Spanish and then "take up" Portuguese (and may add Brazilian Portuguese as a "fourth").
Same with, say, Russian and Bulgarian or Polish. Or German and Dutch. Some languages of Africa and Asia are the worst problem of all. Not many chances of finding a native speaker of English to do twenty pages of Tibetan, Azeri or Pashtu, over the weekend. But even Eastern Europe is a problem.
So, C into A is the paradise of the non-native. Even purist US agencies for whom "from native language" is anathema have learned to their dismay that on occasion, that is the only way to get a job done. Some say this is unprofressional, I call it "reading the small print of life".
In other cases, the "right native" does exist, but has so much work that the turnaround is not realistic in our days. No one wants 10 pages of Lower Slobovian into perfect English for next month, you know. They want it for tomorrow, first thing in the morning.
The Internet is changing this, for it is now easier to locate a translator and easier to have a job done in a far-away place (abroad, if that is where the perfect translator lives) and a larger portion of this work is now falling into the hands of native speakers of English. Whether the number of translators available will be able to cope with the traffic is a question I cannot answer.
However the end-client who does not use an agency and has no direct access to the extraordinary pool of translators found on the Web still had to rely on what can be found.
From Group A into Group A
Is there intra-Group A work? Yes, there is. Although books and films still freely cross the Atlantic and can be understood on both shores, it is sometimes considered convenient to prepare separate versions of some texts and a few people seem to be making a business of providing this kind of service. Is that kind of service to be classified as translation? That is a very good question, which I will not try to answer.