“We don’t want a translation!” | Is the profession suffering from a credibility gap?

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Sub-par work damages the profession’s reputation

I don’t know about you, but in the past few weeks I’ve had several prospects, now turned clients, whose first words on contacting me were “we don’t want a translation”.

Y’ok, I thought to myself, you need this adapted from French into English, and you want it to read properly, is that it?

That was precisely the message. In these prospects’ minds (or in those of their clients who’d jumped up and down claiming “I don’t want a translation” or “just a translation”), translation equates with bad copy that sounds like a chimp’ wrote it.

Good for some of us, but…

That may be good news for some of us who are positioned at the high end of the food chain and who also promote copywriting (among other, related) services.

In these recent instances, it meant:

  • the first issue was not the per word rate 
  • the second issue was not the overall budget
  • the gut reaction was not “Oh my stars, you are too expensive!”
  • THE ISSUE was “we need this to achieve X, can you help us and what is your fee?”

I’ve observed that rate-driven projects take a long time to negociate (if they get off the ground), while those where the need is great copy in another language get sorted out in a half-day at most (quote and T&Cs signed, brief completed and off we go). No time (money) wasted. Liberty to focus on what is important and freedom to go create or transcreate.

While I’m very happy about that (it’s good for my business!), I’m also annoyed as heck.

Clearly, a profession to which I belong has acquired so much bad PR (and for good reason – see the presentation I made recently here) that it has spilled over and become a pervasive belief on the (uneducated segment of) the market.

Like when I was a kid, and products “made in Japan” meant bad quality (OK, I’m dating myself — let’s subsitute made in China – progressing – or India for a more contemporary feel) despite the exquisite talent and perfect rendering of so many items crafted in Japan.

Today, Japan stands for innovation and quality in many industries. I look forward to the day when the same upsurge benefits ours. Am I tilting at windmills in this machine translation era?

Love your translator

Click on the image above to claim your own stickers to plaster all over town. I learned about this initiative from a colleague, Nelia Falhoun, who came to the SFT’s annual general meeting on December 7th with one proudly displayed on her sweater. I ordered mine the instant I got home. I received 8, so I’m in the process of figuring out where they’d have the most impact (without my getting fined…).

Clearly, we need MORE good PR to compensate for the bad rep’ sub-par or wannabee translators give the profession.

I look forward to the day where prospects who need a translation contact me because I am an excellent translator, and not because I am also a darn good copywriter. Both can co-exist happily; the translation market and profession represent a rainbow of needs and services, with fees commensurate with the value provided — an old clunker or a Lamborghini.

Good PR in your part of the world?

If there are some terrific PR initiatives going on in your part of the world, please post them here so they can be promoted as widely as possible.

It’s time the real professionals’ work got talked about as much as the crap sub-par examples we see all over the place.

[rant over!]






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Comments: 33

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  • Yes, of course the profession suffers from a credibility gap.

    In the U.S. it’s more like a credibility Grand Canyon, where an appreciable percentage of the population earnestly believes that the King James Bible was handed down by God inscribed in 17th Century English.

    The way out of the woods on the translation PR front is not stickers, though. It’s a cute idea but a little too much like a bumper sticker, I would say. And those never convince anybody.

    We’ve succeeded before in putting translators and translation on the front pages of major newspapers — Chris Durban and I worked on this for over a decade on behalf of ATA in the U.S., and repeatedly hit the front pages of The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal, The Los Angeles Times, and other major media outlets (NPR, CNN, MSNBC, etc.) with the message that professional translation is important and crucial to clients’ success.

    It made a difference. Translator visibility skyrocketed. Rates increased on government contracts as did qualification requirements. Translators began to be heard in the public policy debate on languages and training.

    The way this works is simple. We are professionals and reasonably demand that we be treated accordingly.

    PR and media experts are professionals, too. When we try to bypass paying these people for their expertise (and instead rely on stickers or social media or get trapped in an echo chamber complaining to each other) it’s part of the problem and not the solution, as I’m sure you would agree.

    So the solution is to do what works — push your professional association to get aggressive about promotion of the profession and hire (and pay) professional PR and media advisers to work with your translation PR team to get your message out there, in media your clients actually read.

    I’m sure I’m preaching to the choir to some extent here, but I do think it’s crucial to emphasize the importance of institutional support and funding to do this the right way.

  • Kevin,

    Thank you for your comment and, as a member of the SFT and other professional organizations, I of course agree with much of what you say. Our professional organizations play (and have to play) a leading role in promoting our profession and educating clients and end-users; some even have the means to hire media pros to help do so.

    But may I suggest that is looking at the issue from just one end of the telescope.

    Many young and upcoming professional translators suffer from what one could call a confidence gap. Notwithstanding whether they have an entrepreneurial spirit and have acquired the skills to run and market their business, many budding talents get sucked into the peanut rate quicksand. This has, inter alia, two effects:
    – They end up having to produce volumes to make ends meet (which affects quality and limits time to hone skills and land better clients) and
    – It does not build self-confidence, moral or pride.

    So when I see three young colleagues in Germany, two of whom are working on their doctorates, show pride in their profession and invest their funds to produce, give and mail out their stickers – rather than complaining about crummy rates, bad payers and all the usual fare – I think they merit better than “stickers are cute but unconvincing”.

    Top down high profile PR is great and there should be more of it. But there is space for bottom up PR too. And if some of those small grass-roots initiatives boost the confidence of the rank and file so to speak, that may have a positive effect on some of the other reasons for the credibility gab.

    With more self-confidence and pride, a young professional is better equipped to educate his or her clients that translation is important, an investment rather than a cost and critical to their bottom lines.

  • Yes, I see your point. I’m in favor of encouraging beginners, although there seems to be an inordinate amount of effort being focused on young people just entering the profession instead of trying to advance client-education at the highest levels today. It’s also unclear to me how seriously novices’ experience levels will be taken by clients.

    I suppose my other problem is that “bottom up” PR is not visible enough to the best clients these new translators should be targeting, and at the end of the day it’s sending a bumper sticker message instead of making a persuasive business case for our services.

    To put it another way, I have trouble grasping how “Love Your Translator” stickers advances the idea that our work is crucial for clients in a real economic sense, to say nothing of promoting an environment where your wish that customers come to you because of your excellence could actually materialize.

    I think we would agree that translators are mostly introverts. The temptation to act by small “inside the bubble” steps — petitions, appeals, speeches, stickers — is ultimately costly because that effort is wasted on other translators and similar believers, instead of being directed outward, where it could do some good, and while the rest of the world residing outside that bubble will not hear or see any of it.

    So I’m respectfully suggesting that if you want to change the views of future clients and how they treat you, which is how I read the heartfelt appeal (and rant) 🙂 of your blog post, you will likely be better off standing athwart the road these clients walk on and talk to them directly and earnestly, making the case for professional translation — and your expertise! — in a forceful language of commercial self-interest that they will understand.

  • I respect your views, Kevin, but I feel the undercurrent of your message could be construed by some in an unfortunate way.

    In a nutshell, and broadened to other industries and concerns, it says if the action isn’t high profile, headline-catching and “targeting client education *at the highest levels*” it isn’t worth doing. This may be an extreme and convenient parallel, but if Mandela had subscribed to that view in the early stages of his actions against apartheid, he would have stopped in his tracks.

    Bringing it back to our industry – professionals and professional organizations hammer the message that the translation market isn’t ONE market, that there are as many types of clients, projects, needs, fields of expertise and niches to fill as there are hues in a rainbow. In that spirit, isn’t it judicious to be a bit more open-minded towards and supportive of some of modest efforts around the globe?

    As to your perception of the reasons behind my rant, let me reassure you :).

    I wouldn’t want to change a thing in how my (direct) clients and prospects perceive me or treat me. These are vibrant, respectful and rewarding partnerships, in part, yes, built on solid pitches that show I understand what keeps them up at night and how my work (however one would like to label it) contributes to the success of their strategy and the health of their bottom line.

  • To take up Kevin’s point about the translation profession being too inward-looking, a crucial ingredient of a business case for clients in commercial self-interest terms is stats: studies showing that such-and-such a professional translation project led directly to an X% increase in revenue / website hits / whatever. The plain-language movement has tons of evidence like this. What have we got?

    • Good question, Oliver, and I hope someone chimes in with data. What light research I have done on the Net turned up some negative numbers (cost of poor translations) but no solid ROI data.

      Two clients have provided feedback: one on the very short time (under a month) it took for the English version of their website for the U.S. market to have the equivalent number of daily hits as their French site, which had been on line for several years, and the other a corporate museum (fully bilingual FR/EN) with international visitor stats.

      Do you have any examples?

  • Thank you, Kevin, for your thoughts and the critical feedback, which we appreciate very much.
    Indeed, LOVE YOUR TRANSLATOR is not a professional PR campaign and we do agree that it is a “small “inside the bubble” step”, as you put it.

    Still, we don’t agree it’s a waste of effort:
    We have received hundreds of messages from all over the world – France, Portugal, Spain, Serbia, Russia, New Zealand, Australia, Canada, Argentina, Brasil, La Reúnion etc – from translators telling us how much they liked our initiative. More than 800 people like LOVE YOUR TRANSLATOR on Facebook and we see more and more people joining every day. Translators even *wear* our stickers for professional meetings and conferences. The positive feedback is overwhelming.

    We strongly believe that taking pride in being a professional translator provides an important foundation for building (and keeping!) sufficient self-confidence to – as you made the point – “talk to [clients] directly and earnestly, making the case for professional translation — and your expertise! — in a forceful language of commercial self-interest that they will understand”.

    Thank you, Patricia, for spreading the word of our initiative. We agree 100% with what you said in your follow-up comments. 🙂

    Anja & Marie

  • I can see where the stickers will make other translators feel better.

    But that’s been done since translation associations were first founded — actual bumper stickers with similar happy slogans were produced in the U.S. in the 1990s, there were new T-shirts around 2000 at ATA at the national level, the NCATA handed out mugs at their sessions with these kinds of messages, the display tables at ATA conferences have been packed with them for years.

    Clients and the public have seen none of these happy messages, of course, so it didn’t have an impact on clients’ or the public’s views on the importance of professional translation at all.

    If your objective is to preach to the choir (meaning other translators) and “build self confidence” then more power to you.

    And of course translators love these things — we all love appreciation, right?

    But please, let’s not call this “PR,” the first letter of which stands for “public.” None of this is reaching the public or clients in any meaningful way or changing their views about the importance of professional translation to their business in the slightest.

    It’s also not “internal PR,” which is an oxymoron.

    We’re translators, and we strive to use words accurately, right? 🙂

    I do feel that while we’re spending what free time we have running around patting each other on the back, it’s time not being used to actually change the public’s view and drive the market in our direction.

    I had this same observation in the 1990s, when it finally hit critical mass and we all stood up together within ATA and burst out onto the front pages of major newspapers and on TV.

    It was a bit shocking for the public, trust me. Most had never, ever heard of professional translators at all, all those bumper stickers and T-shirts and slogans notwithstanding.

    This public awareness activity is crucial if we’re to advance the cause of professionals in the market. It makes a difference! To rates, to respectability, to visibility as a profession.

    And to some degree we surrender the right to complain about how underappreciated translators are when we spend what little time we have to devote to rectifying that situation by just circulating happy messages among ourselves.

  • Speaking of coverage in national media – this week’s Le Point has a 5-page spread on Amanda Galsworthy, interpreter to Presidents Mitterand, Chirac and Sarkozy, and founder of Alto International.

  • […] Sub-par work damages the profession's reputation I don't know about you, but in the past few weeks I've had several prospects, now turned clients, whose first words on contacting me were "we don't …  […]

  • Kevin, I’m afraid that I cannot, in good conscience, do anything but concur with your judgment on this one. When I heard of a campaign like this (maybe it was the same one) through one of the new splinter associations in Germany, I had a bit of a sick feeling in my gut and could not resist the urge to roll my eyes. Feel-good initiatives are all very well, but taking a few hits off a joint will make translators feel just as well and get them just as far professionally.
    It is far more important to prepare the ground in the public fora where clients are found. Sharing something like the old “Getting It Right” brochure from Chris & alia will have much more impact, and if translators will take those messages to heart and express them in their daily interaction with prospects and clients, the self-esteem issues will sort themselves out nicely. I would be mortified to display a silly bumper sticker or button.

  • Folks! No one is disputing the immense role and patent ROI of highly-visible media coverage, tools such as “Getting it Right” and “Buying a Non-Commodity” (I was part of the teams that produced the French versions), and presenting a compelling business case to prospects/clients.

    It’s not an either/or | black/white issue, and it’s not a competition.

    The opinions (or initiatives) of others should be treated with dignity – whether we agree with them or think them useful. Tolerance allows for diversity. And isn’t that part of what translation is all about?

  • Christine Cross

    To Kevin H (whom I don’t know and who doesn’t know me) and Kevin L (whom I do and who does), I would respectfully suggest that you may just be falling into the generation gap. In addition, I suspect that you have also, to a degree, fallen into the culture gap between the USA and Europe, even though Kevin L. has been living on the old continent for many years.

    While I agree with you that the “sticker” approach may be construed as naive, and while I personally have no use for such stickers, I must side with Patricia in welcoming an initiative on the part of a group of serious debutant translators wishing to raise their profile. From what I can gather, they seem to have given their campaign quite some thought before agreeing as a group to fund the operation.

    The success or failure of the bumper sticker is also probably irrelevant, firstly because bumper stickers were essentially a curiously US phenomenon that never really took off here in Europe and, secondly, because these young translators are only doing what comes naturally to their generation (in Europe at least), in other words making maximum use of images as a PR vehicle.

    Kevin and Kevin, I have news for you: the younger generation is part of an image culture that people already established in the profession and therefore, by definition, older, may find faintly incomprehensible. Among my Masters 1 translation students, you would be amazed how many are hoping to make a career in translating video games. My initial dismay to this news receded when realised that I was within inches of falling into the generation gap myself!

    To me, the stickers could serve a dual purpose. They could contribute towards creating or reinforcing a sense of solidarity among individuals working (often in isolation) as translators and also, if used judiciously, could help raise the profile of the profession among clients.

    You mentioned the excellent brochure on “Getting it right”. As a member of SFT, for the first and only time in my life, I recently gave copies of the translation and interpreting versions for distribution at the Executive Council of an association where a decision was scheduled on future language service policy, the previous practice having been to work with volunteers. Frankly I don’t even know if anyone actually read the documents, since I had done the groundwork by convincing the Secretary General and by ensuring that the battle was as good as won. From what I can gather, his purpose is circulating copies of the brochures was to demonstrate to his patrons that he was dealing with serious and qualified partners.

    My point in saying this is that the brochures are just part of our weaponry as translators in persuading potential clients that we are true professionals capable of giving them a first class service and good value for money, however high our price. As it happens, apart from this one instance, where my role is essentially that of a consultant, I don’t need to market myself. My experience is in international organisations and in a sector where good translators are few and far between. Clients come to us.

    Not everybody is, however, in that fortunate position, which is why I am ready to back any initiatives that have the potential to help good qualified translators raise their noses above the parapet and boost client awareness.

    The profession needs good new translators/interpreters as well as seasoned professionals already at the top. Those of us who have long been in the business should be supportive of those who may well replace us one day. They have to progress, sometimes as part of a hit-and-miss process. They even stand to learn from their mistakes, not least poor marketing decisions.

    We should not presume to judge them and be dismissive simply because we wouldn’t do things their way. Our elders may well at one time have felt the same way about us!

  • Christine, thank you for your thoughtful comments.

    Since I’ve written at length about this already in these comments, let’s see if I can do it in abbreviated form to save time.

    1. It’s not a generation gap. Bumper stickers, slogans, mugs, T-shirts and other products designed to make translators feel good about themselves have existed for many decades.

    I thought they were fun too, but just as useless for PR, when I was 22.

    2. One of the key reasons Chris Durban wrote “Translation: Getting it Right” in the first place — which is written directly for clients and firmly focused on client education — was because translators were spending too much time in their own echo chamber with slogans and mugs and T-shirts and nobody was getting outside their comfort zone to talk to clients directly and frankly. It’s also why we on ATA PR localized it for the U.S. market over a decade ago.

    3. Translators in the U.S. (Chris Durban and I were the primary drivers of this effort) have pulled together and made a huge difference in public visibility of the profession in the recent past through media outreach, and it has made a serious difference to government contract rates, visibility, foreign language education and their role in public debate.

    We have a road map that works (media outreach) and one that has never worked, even when I was 10 years old (stickers).

    4. What we really owe the new generation is not stickers and slogans, but a better working environment, higher rates and greater respectability with the public and clients. We have been successful in achieving this in the past, so the road is clear — it’s most important to have the discipline and focus to stay on that road and not become distracted or wander off into the woods.

    5. And since time is a finite resource, let’s encourage the next generation to use their time wisely to follow this successful path instead of those that lead exactly nowhere.

  • Christine Cross

    Kevin H.

    Thank you for your input.

    With all due respect, I am not sure you entirely got my drift.
    I am packing up for a 10-hour drive tomorrow so my time is limited but I as said in my post:
    a) I personally see no point in stickers
    b) the new generation has to make its own mistakes, including marketing, this being part of the learning curve.

    I am full of admiration for all you Chris et al have succeeded in doing, despite the fact that it is all very US, which is perfectly normal and very fine but which doesn’t always go down as well in Europe. Horses for courses, and all that!

    The world is moving on. Times are changing. Clients are changing. Approaches are changing. There is no one blueprint.

    The “sticker” group has thought about what it is doing. We may think they are wrong but who are we to say?

    I remain modest in my claims of universality. I prefer to do what I do best and do it well. But I would never give lessons to others in a world that is totally different to the world I knew 20 or 30 years ago.

  • Yes, the world is changing, and yes, it’s different from the world of 20 or 30 years ago.

    But the ATA media program that that worked so well and that I am advocating as a model ran from 2000 to 2012 (you can’t get much more modern than that!)

    It was also international in scope — we were quoted in media outlets in over 85 countries throughout that period. I remember in New York City in 2009 just on one single day we had interviews with media outlets in Israel, Russia, Australia and Germany.

    So it’s not “all so U.S.” In fact, its origin is European. Chris, who lives in Paris, wrote the original “Translation: Getting it Right” for the ITI in the UK and it was in turn built on her own long-standing column “The Onionskin,” which was firmly focused on responding to language and translation issues in European media outlets.

    So the media idea was imported to the U.S.

    Just to be clear, I’m not telling the sticker advocates they are “wrong,” just “been there, done that” and there’s nothing even remotely “new generation” about stickers and slogans.

    Let’s focus on what works, folks; this isn’t that complicated.

  • Chris, it’s good to “see” you here 🙂 I’m not sure how this is supposed to represent a US vs. European cultural divide; I would tend to expect empty gestures like a bumper sticker from my native country rather than any of those I know on the continent. I’m not at all dismissive of the younger generation of translators, and I do of course recognize the need for them to learn certain basics in their own way rather than have them explained by those older and not necessarily wiser. When I am asked for an opinion by the younger set regarding a marketing idea or an approach to quotations or customer relations, I try to confine my responses to anecdotes of responses I have seen to similar things or psychological observations and let them make their own judgments. Most of them do a better job of it than I did at their age and do now in many cases.

    I wish them all the best and brightest for the future and that they reach their goals with a minimum of wasted effort. So when I was asked for an opinion on this one before its release, my rather spontaneous response was something like “you must be joking”. I don’t think it will hurt anything, but it won’t achieve anything either with clients and prospects.

    I think moving away from the too frequent tendencies tendencies to whine about dead-end job boards, “competition” from Third World linguistic sausage-makers and the lack of “respect”, and sharing more positive examples through stories like those found in Jost’s book, press stories of success through successful translation collaboration, etc. will do more to motivate younger colleagues and prepare them to deliver on their great promise for the future.

  • While debate is good and I encourage it on this blog, this is starting to feel like I’m hosting a dinner party where the conversation has veered a bit off topic and guests are speaking *at* each other rather than *with* other, repeating their respective arguments without listening to those of others. Polite hosts will strive to round off edges, make each guest feel at home and create a space of tolerance in which different views can be entertained and respected.

    Sometimes that’s not possible and the host has to call a time out. Things have reached that point.

    The core topic of this article was the extent to which sub-par work has affected the profession that some prospects in need of language services seek not a translation, but “better” than a translation.

    It has turned into a polarized debate on the right/useful way to bring positive attention to the profession, to the summary exclusion of all others which are explicitly or implicitly characterized as pointless, dumb and a royal waste of time. And frankly, that’s in large measure irrelevant. Despite the exquisite writing, solid argumentation and apparent politeness with which this “pensée unique” is defended, there is a whiff of sententiousness left in its wake that is not constructive and that has no place around this dinner table.

    Fact is, for all the achievements that can be attributed to this “best-in-class” approach, which I support and contribute to, there is still a heck of a lot of work to be done and plenty of space for the young generation to try. They should not be made to feel like idiots by established translators in our age group for putting their hearts into it. We learned, they will too.

    Even if the prospects, now clients, I referred to in this piece had been exposed to top-flight PR on the role and value of professional translation in their business – and they might have been, who knows – their conundrum remained the same. They feared another bad experience, another sub-par deliverable, to the point that they sought not a translation, but “better than” a translation. I had my work cut out for me in these conversations.

    Our profession is the only one I can think of among the roster of professional services of an intellectual nature where inexperienced buyers face a host of (frightening) challenges in choosing their service provider – from no barrier to entry all the way to, for most of them, no ability to assess whether the deliverable is fit-for-purpose if they do not master the target language.

    Even referrals have their limits, as what met the needs of one client may not meet the needs of the next one (and a translator is only as good as his/her last translation as we know). Membership in professional organizations are not guarantees either – for example in France, the only criteria for membership in the SFT is being able to prove one has been working legally and in a professional capacity as a translator for at least a year; that’s the only criteria the SFT, as a union, can legally impose. Diplomas are great, but they don’t prove graduates can write compellingly or have solid sector expertise. When a young professional does not, yet, have decades of experience, a hefty track record and signed examples of their work (and those who choose to work mainly with agencies hardly ever get bylines), it’s tough to carve out a place in the sun.

    My sympathy goes even more to clients, in all shapes and sizes. Whether they have been touched or not by any PR or information campaign, their mileage may vary: their perception of the industry as a whole will be informed by the experience they have had. The one bad apple in the barrel story, made all the more prevalent thanks to the Internet. The credibility gap was a lot smaller in the days of typewriters and CorrectoType – et pour cause!

    That gets straightened out one prospect at a time, one conversation at a time, one project at a time. Building, earning and keeping that trust, when a previous experience has been sub-par, takes a lot more than any campaign.

    Dessert anyone?

  • How about a stiff scotch instead?

    If I’ve been rude around your dinner table, I earnestly apologize.

    I confess that I found myself spending a bit more time than I expected trying to unwind myths or gently correct a few misconceptions about the ATA program, such as it being “oh so U.S.” (surely I’m not the only one who might have thought I was being viewed at the bottom of somebody’s nose on that one) 🙂 and “not appropriate for Europe,” even though the ATA program was born in Europe, to say nothing of the repeated observation that I should seriously consider the possibility that I’m hopelessly out of touch with the younger generation and their radical new high-tech idea of the 21st century involving stickers.

    I could not agree more with your observation of the dilemma that clients face in evaluating translators and the risks they take every day in the market — it was a major focus of media campaigns I’ve worked on for the last 15 years, and more recently have written about extensively on my own blog.

    But to the extent that we need to take seriously the value of real expertise and experience in translation and the degree to which those skills define the parameters of a customer’s likely experience, surely we must value the experience of our own industry experts on translation PR who have spent a long and arduous career slashing through the thickets of what didn’t work, what never worked, what never could work, so as to save the next generation from those same mistakes, while highlighting those various activities and programs and ideas that in fact did work.

    It was certainly not my intention in any way to criticize the new generation for “putting their hearts into it” (which I earnestly believe I did not do).

    I’m just encouraging them to put their hearts into chemistry and physics and not into alchemy and astrology. It doesn’t mean the latter are not fun, or that they should not be allowed to discover this themselves.

    It’s just what those of us who’ve spent our careers on this particular subject have found to actually work.

    • – “How about a stiff scotch instead?”-

      Deal. But only if it’s single malt, neat, OK?

      – “…we must value the experience of our own industry experts on translation PR who have spent a long and arduous career slashing through the thickets of what didn’t work, what never worked, what never could work…”

      Wish we might, and then History would not repeat itself, right?

      People learn by doing. That’s just how the brain works. They learn by trying, stumbling, brushing themselves off and trying again.

      Not to veer off onto a whole other topic, but that’s part of the problem with the French educational system, which then spills over into the innovation-entrepreneurship matrix. Passive rote learning while the intellect is being trained and then no right to failure (or credit from learning from the experience) if you launch a start-up. Changing these hard-wired cultural attributes is something Innovation Minister Fleur Pellerin is striving to address. It’s a steep climb.

      And when you were a kid, and your mother said “Kevin, don’t play with matches, you’ll burn yourself” – or some such – how did you learn best: by listening to your mother’s advice or by living through your own experience?

  • > Our profession is the only one I can think of among the
    > roster of professional services of an intellectual nature
    > where inexperienced buyers face a host of (frightening)
    > challenges in choosing their service provider – from no
    > barrier to entry all the way to, for most of them, no ability
    > to assess whether the deliverable is fit-for-purpose if they
    > do not master the target language.

    I think copywriting in an international context would certainly qualify as another case here. Or graphic design, whe one considers the cultural implications of colors and many other factors. Translation is hardly unique here, just more obvious to us because we are embedded in that world. Nonetheless, the problem as you state it is real enough.

    Mr. Hendzel’s suggestion to put more heart and other emphasis into chemistry, rather than alchemy, is advice I would suggest taking quite literally and would, in the long run, do much to avoid bad impressions in the first place. All the good PR and feel-good efforts in the world will not avoid the daily train wrecks of translators, real and aspiring, taking on the challenge of engineering texts with no real understanding of engineering. Or medicine. Or law. Or take your pick…. Yet I see this happen all the time, even with colleagues whose linguistic competence I respect highly and whom I recommend with enthusiasm in some fields.

    Recently there was a bit of a controversy on Corinne McKay’s blog over recommendations to “learn as you go” in specialties, and while there may very well have been some misunderstanding there, there is also an unfortunate overconfidence by many in taking on subjects where they do not even perceive the extent to which they do not understand, because they cannot see where the code communication of the specialty shares words in common with more ordinary communication.

    This is not by any means a matter of sole blame for translators; these problems are perpetuated by clients who often don’t understand that translation is more than retyping in another language. Or by corporate cultures where the staff translator is expected to do it all. As long as there is a good feedback loop with experts I see little harm in that, but in today’s very different environment the opportunities for such human learning circuits are too few, and we desperately need to find ways of building expertise and giving needed feedback and reinforcement which meet or exceed the old ways.

    I refuse to accept the judgment of otherwise clever colleagues like a certain agency owner and military contractor from the US who informed me two years ago that I must embrace MT because in 20 years there will be no more translators with a solid background in the sciences left. Such nonsense! I think the standards of education in the sciences now are just as good as before, probably better, and one can say the same for law, medicine and other fields. And as before, talented young people with such education will find themselves facing choices which may include translation, and I expect them to no less well on the whole, particularly if ways can be found to make up for the loss of the pseudo-apprentice situations of the past.

    And I think we help everyone more by encouraging thoughts in such directions and in the direction of translation buyer-/consumer-focused PR to prepare for that better world, rather than fun, but ultimately unproductive feel-good measures 🙂

    • — “I think copywriting in an international context would certainly qualify as another case here. Or graphic design, whe one considers the cultural implications of colors and many other factors.”–

      My first impulse was to put these into the same basket as there are parallels. I’m also a cross-cultural copywriter (and instructor of same at Inalco in Paris) — which is why the prospects spoken of here called — and there are usually substantive differences between a typical copywriting gig and a typical translation project (as in French grammar, of course, exceptions confirm the rules!). These differences can range from how they are assigned (having often to come up with a concept pitch first), to client involvement and working as part of a full concept-design team to name a few. Thus my reaching back into the basket to pull them out 🙂

      • What I’ve seen in particular with the use of Dutch copywriters in the Netherlands to do work in English because the native English writers will insist on cultural adaptation for their markets makes me think you would have been safe leaving them in the basket 🙂 I know you do copywriting, so I was surprised not to see the mention.
        For something like an advertising brochure or a presentation for a small company, I don’t think there is typically a concept pitch and all that. The processes I have seen are not so far removed from a better translation project where the intended use is made reasonably clear.

        In these cases, as with good translations, the role of communicating cultural differences is critical. And often not at all easy. How do we encourage colleagues to articulate these differences more effectively? It’s this sort of “political” soft skill that we need a lot more of. And perhaps fewer “professional association” endorsements of events promoting the HAMPsTr agenda. That, ultimately, will do even more PR damage than the situations of unqualified work we see now.

        • I’m not sure I understood your first sentence. … Clients in the Netherlands have native speaking Dutch copywriters produce the English versions? Ouch! Are they translating or writing from scratch?

          It seems that the term “copywriting” is not always used appropriately. Some clients look for it when wanting “better than just a translation”. Boils down to naming/labeling preferences I guess. For me, the dividing line is clear:
          – if the source text exists, then the client is actually asking for (pick your flavor) for publication translation, adaptation or transcreation
          – if there is no source text and one is writing from scratch, then it’s copywriting.

          (The term in French – “concepteur-rédacteur” – is less subject to confusion.)

          You are right, be it in translation or copywriting, it is not easy to articulate cultural differences. If you read French, I wrote an article for the June issue of Traduire, the SFT’s journal, on that topic (you can download it on this blog – 18 June entry).

          • I think I have two or three copies of that particular SFT journal here in the house if that’s the one that has the translated piece from me. The final result is a bit different from the original; I kept hearing from the translator “You can’t say that! The French will completely misunderstand.” That went a long way toward explaining the particularly hostile reactions I’ve had there to my English over the years.

            And yes, Dutch clients do hire Dutch “copywriters” to write original marketing materials in English (as you have defined it here and as I understand the term myself). It’s appalling. But they’re convinced that they do it better, especially for the “international” market. I’ve probably seen more NL natives masquerading as native English speakers than any other nationality too, and they really do seem to believe their own hype. I don’t mind; I don’t make it to the cinema for comedy often enough, so I take my laughs where I find them. But combine that with the common and persistent delusions I’ve seen from German Diplomübersetzer that they can work well into our language with just a bit of “native editing backup” and common preferences in the US sausage factory world for L2s to translate into English, one can easily imagine why we hear clients asking for “more than a translation” 🙂

  • Ah, that’s right Kevin, you did! I can imagine your article would have been tough to translate into French 🙂

    I’ve fortunately never been asked to edit English copy written by Dutch natives. I do recall one of my most nightmarish projects being having to clean up copy in English written by a German author for a publication, with said author remaining inaccessible and never responding to emails trying to ascertain what the heck he was trying to say – and no one else able to shed light either. Ugh.

  • Christine Cross

    I see that, while I was on the road, the debate has raged on! But, to pick up the exchange where I left off, I can well appreciate Kevin H’s arguments and actions with regard to the media. As one who worked for the best part of 8 years in corporate communications, he is preaching to the converted.

    At the same time, getting translation on the front page of the papers, albeit a fantastic exploit, can only ever have limited impact, nothing being staler than yesterday’s news. And the chances of our profession of hitting the headlines every day, every week or even every month are infinitesimal. Sometimes translators even make news for the wrong reasons, the recent case of the sign language interpreter at Mandela’s funeral being an excellent case in point.

    This is why I defend the right of those members of the profession to try what they think is a new idea. After all, remember the communications mantra “one image is worth more than a thousand words”, an old cliché but how true!

    When I made my first comments, I was not out to defend the “sticker” principle per se. My comments were fuelled by a perceived need to stop “looking down our noses” at the younger generation and to let them play with matches and get burned. The well-known saying “I disapprove of what you say, but I will defend to the death your right to say it” (Evelyn Beatrice Hall, in her biography on Voltaire, phrase often wrongly attributed to Voltaire himself) comes spontaneously to mind.

    If I mentioned the US/UK divide, it was only with reference to bumper stickers, since I suspect the authors of the current sticker project haven’t the foggiest idea what a “bumper sticker” is or was. No more, no less. If I were handling their communications, I would have chosen a different slogan and I would have printed it on “T” shirts or sweatshirts to wear when visiting (potential) clients. No, I don’t have a particular slogan in mind.

    But to come back to the initial premise, it seems to me that the credibility gap in the translation business stems largely from our incapacity as a profession to organise ourselves along similar lines to other independent business sectors. I know that Patricia does not entirely agree with me but I have long held the view that, if translation/interpreting had structures similar to those of the medical, legal or even accountancy professions, we should have a higher profile and greater marketing clout. An approved training system, recognised qualifications, the possibilities of sanctions in the event of misdemeanours, an accredited quality label would go a long way to lifting translation to a higher plane. Of course, it would not eliminate the cowboys, especially in today’s global world, but it could do wonders for our image and the perceived quality of our industry and products.

    Training and education would not be just about language knowledge but also about specialities. I’m mindful here of the very full courses offered by the German Interpreting and Translating Schools/Universities and their broad and thorough curricula. And for those who have entered the translation system through other channels that formal education, there could be a system of “equivalence” to recognise their proven experience and skills. Obviously, for such an approach to work, it would be necessary for the principle to be applied in a maximum of countries and for there to be an international dimension. I am therefore aware that, sadly, the ship has probably already sailed.

    As things stand today, we can join as many professional associations as we like but, if the only criterion for membership is that you should not be moonlighting, the credibility gap will remain intact.

    Last but not least, Kevin L. referred to “the” translator of his article. I have no compunction in admitting that “the” translator was myself and in confirming that, even after adaptation, I had to fight to sell the article to the other members of the editorial committee so far was it off their beaten track.

    Nor should I forget to apologise for my poor performance as a dinner guest. Next time I promise I will be better behaved!

    • > My comments were fuelled by a perceived need to stop
      > “looking down our noses” at the younger generation

      I couldn’t agree with that more. It’s a pointless distraction.

      Chris, as far as recognizing “equivalence” is concerned, there are quite a number of examination systems out there. The chambers of commerce and federal states in Germany have fairly rigorous ones. But why should those with other backgrounds like law or physics have to prove their linguistic competence when those with presumed linguistic competence (with a translation or language degree) are not expected to prove their subject competence in physics or law? And mostly can’t. Jus’ sayin’ 🙂 (… as he ducks quickly)

      • Kevin,

        My post was already too long so of necessity I cut a few corners.

        What I was hinting at, when I mentioned the top German interpreting/translation schools was the need for courses that last long enough (from memory those schools offer 3-year courses) to cover a maximum of bases with regard to fields such as law, economics, finance, etc.

        After that, like doctors, students should have to choose a speciality and have to pass tests in those fields as well.

        In an ideal world…..

  • I hear ya’ Kevin…

    The last time Chris and I chewed the fat on the idea of regulating the profession, we were in NYC. A sudden snow storm made the child within want to go out and play in Central Park, but Chris claimed not to have suitable footwear (true, but so?) thus we had a different kind of friendly snowball fight inside :). Then we had a scotch, single malt, of course 🙂

    To do it right, and in a way that is comprehensive, does not put up ill-advised barriers to entry or exercise and does not limit the ability to set our own business plan and conditions, is a nearly impossible task. I shudder to think what the French government might do — the day my rates threaten to get regulated is the day I’d take down my shingle!

    Moreover, who gets to play God? There are limits to objective assessment in our professions – plural, sic, not only because of language combinations and sector expertise but also the huge variety of projects that we work on. Lawyers, doctors, CPAs have objective standards to measure up to, they pass their boards and their bar, there are right and wrong answers and ways to Shepardize a case. Two translations of the same text are never identical (heck, even if it is the same translator who had done them), they can be accurate, faithful, precise and fit-for-purpose and nevertheless quite different. Chris and I work together regularly, but our writing styles are so strikingly different in English (the good ol’ US/UK divide!), though less so in French, it takes a lot of vigilance to adapt to the other’s need of the moment. But it’s fun, at least to me.

    It’s a great objective, and I’m not against it in principle, but I’m at a loss to see how it could possibly work without it creating other problems, obstacles or unforeseen consequences…

  • Christine Cross


    I know I’m a voice crying in the wilderness and I am as aware as you are of the difficulties inherent in setting up the type of system I described.

    You always bang on about regulation of rates. Why would that have to be an automatic part of the deal (think lawyers, think accountants, do not think doctors)? Anyway, if you take the French example, doctors can be “conventionnés” or not (price regulated or not, for those not au fait with the French system).

    I don’t have the magic answer. I’m simply aware that by allowing translation to be totally deregulated, we have ended up in the situation you described at the start of your original post. Maybe we should muse on such things and envisage other alternatives.

    If I were back in my international organisation, this is where some bright spark would start talking about setting up a working party….. The more people who put on their thinking caps on together, the greater the chance of coming up with a workable idea.

    That said, what was that old story about a camel being a horse designed by a committee ????

    Other than that, I second your other comments, my only rider being that in NY I did go out and buy a pair of boots!

    • Chris,

      Regulating translations rates, largely to put an end to the absurdly low end of the spectrum, is something I do hear batted about. I cringe. As to your parallel with the French system of “conventionné/non conventionné”, we’re both aware of some of its effects, such as a creating a two-(or more)tier health care system. But that’s a whole ‘nother topic.
      Yup, you bought new boots in NY, care to go re-measure the heel height? LOL!

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