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."