Stuck on Hackneyed Phrases


The n’y a pas de vérité, mais seulement une perception.
Gustave Flaubert

Women chattingRecently, the DGT has issued a report on the status of the translation profession in the European Union. The authors of the report are Anthony Pym, François Grin, Claudio Sfreddo, and Andy LJ Chan.

The first question arising is: what have two Swiss and a Chinese to do with the EU? Grin and Sfreddo are the authors of The Economics of the Multilingual Workplace by Routledge, but Chan? Through a fast search Chan results to have a PhD in translation and intercultural studies at the Universitat Rovira i Virgili University of Tarragona, where Antony Pym holds the chair. Andy LJ Chan also wrote an interesting article for the Translation Journaladdressing the issue of information asymmetry and the theory of signals in labor economics.

Information asymmetry in the translation industry has also been addressed in an all-Italian research.

Due to an unequal access to information, information asymmetry in certain transactions severely alters the conditions for the exchange of goods and services and the signs that one party is using to convey information about itself to another party (e.g. about the ability level) through certain credentials whose informational value comes from the receiver’s perception.

Assuming that translator’s low rates are generally attributed to the perception of the low status of their work, Chan tries to explain the reasons for this perception arguing that the distortions induced by information asymmetry and resulting in ineffective system of signals eventually lead to the application of Gresham’s Law also to labor economics. The effectiveness of signals depends on differentiation and development capacity. The low perception of translators could then be enhanced by raising their professional status. In turn, this enhancement can be achieved through accreditation and certification. However, this would only be a partial solution. Chan himself admits that, in addition to being controversial in utility, the definition of an effective accreditation system is easier said than done, primarily owing to assessment difficulties and the efforts for acceptance (as it was the case, for example, of ISO 9000).

Grin, Sfreddo, and Chan are so called “translation economists”, and one can reasonably assume that their analysis are scientific and reliable in effort, which may not always be true for others, renowned or however pretentious. All, in many ways, do not appear to be less worthy of attention than the genuine thoughts of one who honestly declares he does not pretend to know about what is really going on.

Everything seems to indicate a trend to lower rates and highly qualified and specialized translation professionals. Things seem contradictory, but they are not… That’s the market. The market! And there’s nothing you can do about it. Nothing!

The EU report clearly says that status means the estimated value of skills, rather than the actual capacity. Therefore, a high status corresponds to trustworthiness, reliability, prestige, and higher fees, and to the recognition to a professional exclusiveness right.

In a world generally still highly discriminatory and prejudicial to women, the fact that translation is historically a female profession (women are still 70% or more) certainly discourages the recognition of a high status.

Nevertheless, the solutions outlined by Pym, Grin, Sfreddo, and Chan are questionable. If it is true that professional bodies play only informative and social functions, perhaps the expectations of their members should be examined in depth, and their effectiveness should be assessed as to the first as to the latter. Since these bodies spend most of their efforts to raise money to support themselves and reward their representatives, there is no reason to expect that they can protect those who are supposed to represent. Similarly, one should ask where the immobility of older bodies comes from, from the resigned helplessness of their executives to the belief that they could exploit their positions, albeit declining, possibly for personal visibility.

The EU report does not say anything on this subject, and perhaps it would have been foolish to claim or expect otherwise. Moreover, if membership to a professional body is supposed to be a “signal”, it is evident that some mechanisms have become ineffective.

It is then anachronistic, as well as contrary to the well-known EU positions, to claim the enforcement by law of any accreditation and certification mechanisms, even through professional bodies, because they could be seen as a surreptitious introduction of unwelcome rolls and registers. However, not surprisingly, this advice comes from two citizens of a historically closed country and an academic whose country of adoption produces translators in excess, generally considered inadequate to meet the market’s demand. The EMT model recurs several times in the study, but so far it has not shown to give anything but personal (and perhaps pecuniary) satisfaction to its devisers, and no evidence is given of its effectiveness. More generally, it aims at better translators’ education, without taking any responsibility for it, or for any failures.

Finally, the listing of US, Canadian, and Australian case studies is yet another sign of uncertainty, which goes well with the inaccuracy about the number of translators, and both say a lot about the current status and the perception that the same translators have of it. It would suffice to check out the industry data collected by the tax administrations of EU Member countries: in Italy only, as the last industry report of May 2009 confirms, individuals who declared to work only as translators and/or interpreters were just under 6,000, and the companies were just over 2,000.

Despite the authoritativeness of the authors and their efforts, the EU study seems yet another waste of public money, that can only worsen the perception of translation and the translation industry among laymen.

Even the executive summary should be ignored, and this is even worse since anyone who is authoring a document of this kind should better know that this chapter will be the only one being read.

The poor perception also explains why translation has always received very little attention in economics. In The Impact of English dominance on literature and welfare, Jacques Melitz emphasized the role of translation as a commodity vehicle, that, as such, has value in itself, because it generates a utility. And the commodification of translation could also come from here.

Another cause for the commodification of translation is price, but not in the sense that one would naturally expect. To deliver a service, the commitment increases with the fee and decreases while the demand decreases. Then, once a price is set, the incentive to do a good job depends on the risk of losing the customer, and this risk decreases with increasing demand, according to the theory of efficiency wages.

The questionable conclusions of Pym, Grin, Sfreddo, and Chan appear even more arguable when reading a ProZ thread triggered by a question of a senior member, that was so comprehensive as genuine and direct to seem almost naïve.

TelecommutingBasically, the owner of a translation firm, has every right to question whether it is possible that a qualified professional translator, who claims to work only in translation, fails to exceed the threshold of 30,000 Euro per year in turnover, and, at the same time, how he/she can repeatedly refuse the translation jobs offered.

“Non-answers” are more interesting than answers, and even of questions, as an effort to escape from the core issue or to stick on hackneyed phrases.

After this, one should maybe read an ad that appeared on a job site and on LinkedIn. Better than any other reports, the comments give a good insight on the perception of translation work, even from the point of view of many so-called professionals. Finally, an amusing cartoon, together with the associated comments (equally eloquent for number and content) might conclude this reading experience.

To be really masochist, one could languish in the pessimism of some of the ProZ users who contributed to the above mentioned thread, and consider the tone and manner with which an Italian firm offers its courses in Legal English, reflecting in a fairly accurate way how some professionals esteem translation. It is no coincidence that the status of these professionals is admired and envied by the many ladies who still tear off their clothes for the absence of a register and claim for one, crying like a fire in the sun. These courses are designed for professionals working in an international context in which “the command of general and legal English is a basic tool,” and their success “is based mainly on the choice of lecturers, English and international lawyers of great experience and expertise.” The fact that these courses are also advertised and recommended by translators to translators shows the hypocrisy with which, for example, the issue of translators’ training is treated, and confirms the belief, supported by translators themselves, that the deep knowledge of a subject is far more important than the language skills per se, even if merely sketching such an hypothesis, possibly during a dinner at the end of an international conference, can unleash the wrath of an academic drunkard.

Moreover, the importance of data, tools and knowledge is only recognized in principle, even from the most celebrated analysts, who still lose sleep trying to place project management without solving the enormous confusion around the role, maybe interviewing some more real pros than the thirty given. In addition, project management is a cross discipline and is not expected, then, that a language project manager must meet any specific requirements; indeed, the translation industry counts a very disproportionate number of project managers with respect to other industries, especially the manufacturing industry. This, ultimately, contributes to the low perception of translation and the translation industry: it is a very negative “signal”, and the many would and should in a brief do not make a waiver.

So many people still paint a positive picture of the translation profession, that one wonders why wages are so low, and why so many people are rushing to do this job, despite the endless complaints. One wonders what pushes them. Something is clearly wrong.

A few years ago, Ignacio Garcia painted a rather bleak picture for the future of translation as an independent profession, arguing that the basic education of translators still revolved around translation theory and practice, rather than around subject fields and knowledge spaces. At that time, Renato Beninatto gave an interview in which he candidly said that while he could teach a doctor who speaks two languages how to translate in two months, he could not teach a translator to be a doctor in two months.

C.C. BaxterAlthough Garcia’s prediction wasn’t completely fulfilled, it was not far-fetched. Most professional translators have adopted the MT + TM model, “confining” themselves in the role of post-editors, while many MLVs have been applying the utility model to small projects even before. The hives Garcia was talking about in his article, however, already exist; they also existed twenty-two years ago in the form of industrial buildings on the outskirts of highly industrialized urban areas, housing dozens of young (and no longer young) translators sitting at lined up desks like so many C.C. Baxter.

The various Gouadec, Gambier, Melby, Pym and the like have been striving for years to explain (who knows to whom) that a professional translator combines technical expertise, usually at a master or doctoral level, having received an education in translation theory and practice, with a mastery in translation technology. They do not tell how many such freaks in the world are making a living translating.

They cannot because this profile is not sustainable, and pretend not to know, or, and it’s worse, they just don’t know.

One is then tempted to underwrite the invitation to “cultivate a second source of income,” but one wonders why someone should spend so much time and attention to debate a topic he/she should not be interested in (anymore).

The compensation model could then be changed, adopting one that takes into account the complexity of the job, the time required to perform it, the variety and/or specificity of terminology, the style requirements, the technology requirements, etc., but the potential customer may not understand the metrics and reject the model and the quote. If the traditional word count is still largely used, a legacy of old-time publishing typography, it is also because customers have at least the perception of knowing what to pay. Nevertheless, if they think that the quote is excessive, they will refuse it. Likewise, conceding to the principal’s requests is perceived as a signal of low status, and this is something that normally happens in the translation industry, where the buyer much too often dictates terms and conditions, especially for payment. And we’re back to perceptions again.