Saturday, February 27, 2010

About those help-wanted ads...

In the days when translators were still writers and linguists, the following piece would have been the object of derision, cat-calls, mocking laughs and other expressions of like purport and tenor. Of course, today when many translators are or have become so-called "language engineers" with the scantest knowledge of idiom, punctuation, grammar, syntax, etc., etc., not an eyebrow will be raised.

Dear ATA Translators:

I am seeking to hire a full-time French-English Quality Manager. Quality Managers proofread/edit translation projects for clients. If you're interested, please feel free to reach out to me, and attach a copy of your resume. This position would be based in New York, however, we are open to having people work from one of our other offices where we are set up to do business in the United States. Feel free to review our website at

[Underscoring added to assist "language engineers".]


By Bernie Bierman

When Rosene Zaros told me that she had started a translation blog and journal, the words that came immediately to mind were a paraphrase of those of Martin Luther King, Jr.:

"Fresh air, thank God, fresh air at last"

Some who read the present commentary may ask, "What makes Ms. Zaros' publication 'fresh air' and why do you think that this 'fresh air' won't go stale?"

The answer to the first part of that question is given in Ms. Zaros' opening piece and I am sure will be reinforced as more issues of this publication come before the eyes of its readership. The answer to the second part of the question is that Ms. Zaros has a record, or to use the American vernacular or slang expression, a "rap sheet".

You see, in today's world of translation, particularly in the segment sometimes known as "industrial translation", Rosene Zaros is a kind of outlaw. Not even an "outlaw" or "so-called outlaw" or a "let's pretend outlaw". She's the real thing. Now, if you don't fancy "outlaw", you might want to accept "heretic". And we all know, or should know from our history what happened to "heretics".

As just mentioned, this latest blogista and journalist to enter the blogosphere has a record or rap sheet that includes "arrests" and "indictments" and "guilty verdicts" for such "crimes" as questioning so-called "conventional wisdom", permitting others to question so-called "conventional wisdom", criticizing translation industry leaders over matters of policy, permitting others to do likewise, asking, inviting and virtually begging the recipients of such criticism to air their views and defend their viewpoints,, and engaging in all sorts of other "journalistic heresies".

Her latest "arrest", "indictment" and "guilty verdict" came in the form of being dismissed (or if you prefer, fired, or if you don't like "fired", you might prefer "canned") as editor of the "Gotham Translator", the bi-monthly newsletter of the New York Circle of Translators (NYCT), one of the oldest chapters in the family of chapters of the American Translators Association (ATA).

And why was she dismissed, fired, canned? Because she believed and believes passionately in a free and open exchange of ideas and viewpoints; because she believed and believes passionately that no idea is sacred and therefore beyond questioning; because she believed and believes that the spatial-like diversity of translation and language results in a spatial-like diversity of ideas and opinions and viewpoints.

But her "superiors" at the NYCT, and by practical and quasi-legal extension those at the ATA, did not like and do not like diversity of opinion and free and open exchange of ideas and viewpoints. And if Ms. Zaros has a "rap sheet" for so-called "violations" of so-called "conventional wisdom", the record of forced and enforced acceptance of conventional wisdom not just by the American Translators Association but other translator organizations throughout the U.S. and I daresay the world, is at least twice as long. Try to air some views embodying "unconventional wisdom" on Henry Dotterer's and one of King Henry's thought policemen will "zap" you so fast that not even Google will have time to get your thoughts into its cache. Or try to talk about issues of translator and translation economics on Anatoly's while citing a few names and locations here and there, and Anatoly's thought policemen will be down on you like a June bug.

And that is essentially why Translation Commentator is not merely a breath of fresh air, but a blast of fresh air.

Many will not like this blog and journal. Many will consider it "unprofessional" or "unworthy of the translation profession". Others will privately fume and fulminate against it. However, I would be willing to wager a good amount of dollars or euros or yen or zlotys or shekels or drachmas that those who do not like this publication or fume and fulminate against it will flatly turn down or, worse, not even respond to an invitation by its publisher to express and otherwise defend their viewpoints.

Wednesday, February 17, 2010


When U.S. translators get together at conferences and other gatherings, two things stand out. First of all, one need only listen to their conversations to know that they genuinely enjoy what they are doing. I have never met a translator who dreaded the thought of "going to work" and it goes way beyond mere pecuniary motivation. There is a genuine passion for language. The second thing that stands out, and it's hard to reconcile with the first, is what could be described as a rancorous prate about "bad translations", "disastrous translations" and "hilarious literal translations". Although no names are ever mentioned, it is implicit in these conversations that these translations were not done by "professional" translators. In fact, if we were to count the number of times the word "professional" occurs in translator discourse and use it as an indicator of translators' priorities in the same way that pundits use the words of politicians, it might give us pause.

So, what exactly is a "professional" translator? For me, the answer is very simple. A professional translator is a translator who earns his/her living (or part of it) by translating just as a professional writer earns a living by writing, a painter by painting and a baseball player by playing baseball. Otherwise, the person is an "amateur". That, however, is not what all the babble and blabber is about because, obviously, the translators who produced the "bad" translations were paid for them and the person or persons who paid were taken in because they hired "uncertified" translators to do the job, or so goes the story. In the eyes of these self-appointed guardians of translatordom, the only way that translation will ever be recognized as a "profession" is when all translators are tested and "certified". This will be the subject of a future article or articles.

Another factor in the inordinate use of the word "professional" has its roots in another definition of the word which is "of, relating to, engaged in, or suitable for a profession: Lawyers, doctors, and other professional people." (my emphasis). As I pondered this definition it occurred to me that perhaps these would-be protectors of our noble profession are suffering not from "professional envy" but from "envy of [a] profession". George Witherington, a longtime translator, expresses it as follows:

"It arguably takes almost as much training and development to become a fully competent translator and interpreter as it does to become a doctor. Medical knowledge, teaching and best practice are dictated by the profession and not by the companies which do business in the health sector. Translator know-how, teaching and best practice have never been formalized in universities and translation companies in the same way as in medicine. The lack of a truly scientific basis has left these functions in the translation sphere exposed to commercial pressures."

In my opinion, this desire to "formalize" translation, to reduce it to a formula that can be taught and tested is one thing that has brought our profession and, yes, it truly is a profession, to its present sad state. Medicine is a science. Translation is an art. Both can be taught, but the processes and goals are vastly different. To attempt to make human language conform to a "scientific basis" is nothing short of ludicrous. It is as ludicrous as the idea that "you will never have to translate the same sentence again". That would be true only if that sentence appeared in exactly the same context as the previously translated sentence because the same original text frequently requires different translations in different contexts. In other words, retrieving an "exact match" from a database (or translation memory) may not be good enough. Recognizing this simple fact is an art; it is not a science. It requires that the human translator be sensitive to culture, beliefs and, above all, to have interpretive skills and common sense.

The foregoing fits in well with another definition of "professional" which is "having or showing great skill; expert: a professional repair job". And who is to decide whether the end product, albeit a translation, a painting or a theatrical performance has these qualities? I would say that it is the end user. If my client likes my translation, which exists among many other possibilities for conveying meaning, I am happy. I will not be overcome with remorse if, perchance, ten years down the road, I come upon that translation and decide that I would have done it differently.

When it comes to how we are paid for our work, I have one last thought on "professionalism". Several of my colleagues have been accused of being "unprofessional" in the way they have responded to those offers we all get to provide translation services for $.005 per word or less. Such offers seem far more "unprofessional" than any retort from a translator ever could be. In fact, they deserve the same response I would undoubtedly get if I asked my dentist to provide a sample filling so that I might see if I liked his work.

"It arguably takes almost as much training and deveopment to become a fully competent translator and interpreter as it does to become a doctor. Medical knowledge, teaching and best practice are dictated by the profession and not by the companies which do business in the health sector. Translator know-how, teaching and best practice have never been formalized in universities and translation companies in the same way as in medicine. The lack of a truly scientific basis has left these functions in the translation sphere exposed to commercial pressures."

Tuesday, February 9, 2010


Although there is no dearth of translation blogs and translation forums, not to mention the publications of national and international translators associations, they do not fulfill the need of the translation community for an environment that not merely allows open and free discussion of the challenges today's translators face on a daily basis, but actually fosters and promotes open and frank discussion. In reality, of course, this should be the raison d'ĂȘtre of our professional organizations; however, from North America to South America, as well as in Europe and Asia, translator organizations are fearful of addressing anything "controversial". In fact, what stands out is a phobia of any mention, for example, of the current economic situation, the terrible, ongoing world recession and how these situations are affecting the translation industry. Even more terrifying to translator organizations, translator online gathering sites and translation blogistas is the idea of airing or even taking a position on issues that have a so-called "political" overtone, namely cases in which translators, both oral and written, are involved in torture, terrorism and immigration. Clearly, one would think that at the top of the list of issues that would be omnipresent in today's translation publications would be the precipitous decline in rates and translator earnings, along with the resulting out-and-out exploitation of translators. Yet, relatively little about our economic plight can be found in current translator-oriented publications.

In the collective mind of our associations and the various organizations which provide an online gathering place for translators, the mere acknowledgement that these issues exist and that these are troubled times for translators appears to constitute a real and present danger to the image they want to project. Indeed, the largest international translation association seems to be comatose from an overdose of image-concern.

If translator associations are running from anything controversial, this is equally true of translator websites, the two biggest of which maintain a vast network of "moderators" or "thought police" who are quick to muzzle anyone who brings up anything that might be considered "controversial" (one translation website specifically states "nothing controversial"). There is also a ban against "inappropriate" language. Curiously enough, there does not seem to be any real consensus among translators on what is "controversial" or on what is "appropriate", and that is exactly what we would expect to find in a free and open forum; but instead, we are nothing but children who must be shielded from the evil and insidious effects of opinions that differ from our own. However, there are fortunately some of us who know that it is only under the threat of censorship or when some "higher power" dictates what is "appropriate" that real problems begin. If we would all stop for a few minutes and really think and think hard about what we do, we would readily see that ours is not merely a diverse profession, but a profession that is diversity cubed. Just the number of languages, language combinations, subjects and sub-subjects should alone provide us with an inkling of that diversity. Then throw cultural context into the mix. The very idea that we should all be expected to think alike on matters dealing with language is truly offensive.

Unlike some blogs, this blog will not be about me. I won't be telling you about how I run my business or giving you advice on how to run yours. Lots of other bloggers are doing that very well. Translation associations and websites provide valuable information on setting up and running a business. They also do a good job with news about dictionaries, terminology, computer technology, etc. What I will be doing is publishing articles that are controversial -- a word that could be translated as "going against accepted ideology" -- because there is a need. As the translation industry has become increasingly complex, translators need more than just news briefs about what is happening. They also need to keep abreast of the myriad of ideas and opinions about our highly diverse profession and industry, the very ideas and opinions that translation newsletters and websites are looking to hide and, in too many instances, to censor.

So, in addition to my blogs, TRANSLATION COMMENTATOR will publish articles by guest bloggers, and I will accept and welcome contributions of articles about all aspects of translator-related issues. It will be my policy to post all sides of the challenging issues that confront translators all over the world because we are all part of a world community. I do not believe that translators need to be "protected" from ideas or to be fed sugar-coated news. I feel very strongly that if we are going to survive, we must all take the time to get involved, to demand a voice in the decisions that determine how we live and work. In order to do that, translators need to be informed. We need to know what is going on in the world and in the translation industry.