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Where do all the translators go?

Last Saturday I attended the CIOL Centenary Members’ Day in London. This was my first CIOL Members’ Day, despite having been a member for about 7 years. There were lots of great speakers, but the two talks that attracted me most were Professor David Crystal HonFCIL on ‘Languages: Past, Present and Future’ and Michael Benis FCIL on ‘Translators or Consultant Linguists?’

I’ve heard Michael touch on this idea of ‘consultant linguists’ before (and FWIW I think it’s something we should all be considering), but in this blog post I want to focus on an observation Michael made during his presentation: we have a talent leakage in the UK translation and interpreting industry.

As a profession we seem to lose a higher than average number of talented, hardworking people, at a time when translation needs are sharply increasing. It’s true that fewer people are studying languages at school and university right now, but I’d be surprised if the impact of this was already so apparent.

Why? Does it matter? Do we have an image problem? If so, how do we change it? We want the best talents to seriously consider a long-term career in our industry, don’t we? How can we stop them leaving, assuming we think there’s a good reason to get them to stay?

The first leakages might occur at undergraduate or postgraduate university level, or later on, after a stint as a project manager. Project manager frequently choose not to move into translation itself. What is clear is that they are finding their skills are better rewarded (financially or otherwise) in other/related industries.

One reason could be that there’s a lot of misinformation out there, and it often starts at school. Language students often decide to aim for a career outside the profession because a message filters through that studying language(s) is a ‘useful asset’, rather than something to base a career on. As Helen Campbell FCIL from the EC’s DG for Interpretation said in her talk (‘Training Translators and Interpreters in the Next Ten Years’) last Saturday, the very real shortage of high-calibre English mother tongue translators says otherwise. Even at university level the myth still circulates that there’s no real ‘career’ (or decent income) to be had in translation, so students start to think of a broader career portfolio.

But what about those who do make it as far as the beginnings of a career in translation? We accept that not everyone who starts out in translation and interpreting will want to stay forever and ever, but I think there’s a definite pattern emerging. In this talk, Michael suggested that these professionals feel that their talents and skills are not rewarded in the industry, and that there’s no clear career progression. Or perhaps they think the industry is not forward-looking or modernising enough to accommodate them? So they look to related professions, where they find exactly the same skills they used as translation professionals are much more highly regarded and remunerated.

How can we reverse this? We have 2 major professional associations in the UK, and they do their bit, right? If we take the example of the few client <-> linguist events that do exist, these are rather one-way, usually with a panel of translation companies at the front of a room taking questions from the floor (the budding/established freelance translators). We need to press for more visibility and a more active role for translators, not passiveness and invisibility (hence Michael’s use of ‘consultant linguist’), and this means being better communicators as a professional group and getting ourselves out there. Why don’t more translators and interpreters attend industry trade fairs, for example, to show the outside world what we’re made of?

I dare to suggest that perhaps there’s also too much inward-looking negativity out there in our industry. We often complain about how difficult it is to succeed as a freelance translator, how standards are falling, how so many translation companies pay unacceptable rates, how we’re the little guys against the big corporations. This victim mentality is not helpful, in my opinion, and it’s seriously off-putting to new entrants to the profession. We don’t want to deny that to make a living as a professional translator or interpreter requires a lot of hard work and dedication, but what career worth having doesn’t require a bit of hard graft?

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7 Responses and Counting...

  1. Marian Dougan

    October 01, 2010

    Great post, Philippa, that touches on some very important issues. Lots of important issues, in fact!

    Michael Benis’s “consultant linguist” idea is interesting. I’m attending a marketing event this week and that’s my suggested topic for discussion – how we categorise ourselves (as opposed to our business name). I hope to do a blog post on the subject… when I get time.

    I agree that the victim mentality (and the passivity that goes with it) is very off-putting – not just to new or potential translators but also to clients. Especially direct clients.
    We need to recognise our own value and speak up for ourselves – after all, most of us have a range of skills other professionals would envy. So hard graft – plus some healthy assertiveness.

  2. Lucy Brooks

    October 01, 2010

    Well said Philippa.

  3. Judy Jenner

    October 01, 2010

    I could not agree more, Philipa. We do need to stick together — and we are all, in one way or another, responsible for low rates (by accepting them, because someone always does). I am a huge believer in the power — and lobbying strength — of professional associations, and I’d like to urge everyone to volunteer their time for their local association. We need more people to make change happen (I am the VP of my local association). It’s also unfortunate that so many people see translation as a part-time hobby until something better comes along. This destroys the market for career linguists like me. If there were barriers to entry, this wouldn’t be that much of an issue — and we are back to professional associations and lobbying (certifications, credentials).

    Being positive is another very important point — no one wants to hire a grouchy linguist, nor does it make for a good working environment, even if it’s virtual. I focus on the things that I can control: I do set high (fair, professional) rates, I don’t negotiate based on price, I look for the clients I want to work with, and I volunteer a lot of time to advance our profession. If I could only get 10% of my association’s members to volunteer their time to go into a corporation and tell them about the importance of language services (free presentation format!), I bet our services would be perceived differently, the pay would be higher, and we’d all be happier. Perhaps we should start a worldwide experiment with that…..:)

    Last but not least: I think it’s important to define ourselves more broadly, and consultant linguists is a good term. I’d like to think of ourselves as entrepreneurs or entrepreneurial linguists.

  4. Stephen

    October 01, 2010

    “Even at university level the myth still circulates that there’s no real ‘career’ (or decent income) to be had in translation, so students start to think of a broader career portfolio.”

    There is a lot if truth in this. I studied for my MA translation in 2000-2001 and many of the students had already decided on the course that a career in translation was not for them. Those who wanted to enter the industry (I worked as an in-house translator for 7 years and have been a freelancer for 2 years) soon realised that an in-house position in a translation company is fairly poorly paid. The choice is then this: if you want to continue working for a tranlsation company and benefit from a better salary, you move into a project management type role or if you want to continue translating you go freelance.
    To be honest, I am now 9 years down the line and starting to become slightly disillusioned with translation. I am making a living as a freelance translator and working on a full-time basis, but considering my qualifications, skills and experience, the earnings are, compared with other professions, not that great. I now have a family to support so if things do not improve over the next couple of years I may have to think of doing something else. I realise that it is up to me to do something about this (and I intend to) and we as translators defintely need to raise our profile with the wider business community, but, at the moment can you blame potential translators for thinking that translation is not a well-paid career?

  5. philippa

    October 01, 2010

    Thanks to you all for your replies, which are even more poignant to me now in the run-up to the ITI GM this week.

    We really do need to be more positive and proactive in discussing our profession, even if we don’t always feel like it – nobody else is able to speak up about it as accurately as we can!

    At a networking event this week I realised that I haven’t yet honed my ‘elevator pitch’ for the profession (let alone my business itself). If we all managed to have in our minds a few words to describe it that sounded like something people want to spend money on, then I think we’d be onto something 😉

    @Judy On that topic, I absolutely love your idea of people going into corporations to present on the importance of language services!

    In any case, I completely agree that a victim mentality will get us nowhere. We are not entirely powerless in this situation. I haven’t personally found that I feel short-changed by my career choice. I am vigilant about charging rates I find acceptable as someone who is an experienced translator, and I simply walk away from ones I don’t and look for better clients. After all, as Judy says, this is not a part-time hobby, this is how I pay my half share of our (fairly hefty) mortgage!

  6. Karen Tkaczyk

    October 01, 2010

    Hello,
    Well said. When I first started translating it was clear that the victim mentality was pervasive. It still is, and it leaves a dreadful impression for outsiders.
    Indeed, translation does not always pay as well as other careers might pay, but the rewards are not all monetary in the freelance world. Lifestyle plays a huge part.
    I love the ‘consultant linguist’ idea. I will go to Michael Benis’s sight and see if he has more on it.

  7. Stephen

    October 01, 2010

    My earlier comments probably came across as a bit negative in terms of translation as a career choice. I did not mean them to come across in this way (although I think I was having quite a bad day!) I agree with Karen that a career as a freelance translator may not be the best paid, but has other benefits in terms of life style and autonomy. It was these aspects of the profession (as well as my passion for languages) that led me into following this path.
    However, if you are young and straight out of university you might be looking to work for a company and if you do not have a family or significant other, working as a freelancer might not be so appealing an option.
    I think the problem for new translators entering the profession is that in-house positions are limited and not fantastically paid and to progress within the industry one often needs to switch to a project management role. What’s more, many translators do not even get the chance to take up such a role and go straight into project management. In a sense it is not surprising that there is a leakage of translators as the industry is both quite hard to get into and not the best paid.
    We definitely need to work on our image as translators and promote how important communication and accurate translation is in the marketing of business products and services. I like the idea of a language consultant as this more accurately reflects what we do, which is not just rendering a text into another language, but using our cultural and creative skills to best tailor a text to potential customers, staff, etc. We need to sell these aspects of the job more.

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