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Methodological issues for the status of translators

The signalling of qualifications can be seen in the following recent developments, cited here as mere examples:

– The Global Translation Institute (http://translationinstitute.org. Accessed November 2011) is managed by Adriana Tassini from an office in Portland, Oregon (although it seems not to be registered with the Portland Revenue Bureau, which does not list it at the address given). It sponsors a Certified Translation Professional (CTP) Designation Program (http://translationcertification.org. Accessed November 2011), managed by Adriana Tassini with a telephone number in Massachusetts. It links to free information on the translation industry and how to become a translator (http://www.becomeatranslator.com. Accessed November 2011), all of which comprises some 40 short online articles by Adriana Tassini. Adriana Tassini describes herself as a “Harvard University Alumni Member with a background in international relations and translation work in São Paulo, Brazil and Boston, Massachusetts (USA)”. She names no completed degrees. Her declared training team comprises 12 people, none of them with any formal training in translation. To become a Certified Translation Professional, you pay US$227 per language pair, study the learning materials (none of which is language-specific) and sit the online exam. It is not clear to what extent the exam tests language skills, but the programme offers certification in 22 language pairs, of which the training faculty are presented as being experts in five.

– The International Association of Professional Translators and Interpreters (http://www.aipti.org. Accessed November 2011) was founded in Buenos Aires in 2009. It accepts members who 1) have a degree or diploma from “a recognized institution”, or 2) have at least four years’ experience as a translator or interpreter. No list of “recognized institutions” is offered. You can become a member for US$60 a year, which entitles you to use the association’s logo and an email address with the association’s domain, and benefit from discounts on industry publications, and inclusion in the association’s online directory. The association lists its “Honorary members” as including Noam Chomsky, who has no professional training in translation but nevertheless retains considerable academic standing.

Such cases indicate how status can be given to translators. It seems that virtually anyone can pay US$227 to gain certification as a Translation Professional. A practising translator with four years’ experience can become a member of the International Association and gain the other trappings of status: a logo, a professional email address, a public listing, and some apparent academic backing. Of course, you may not be able to translate very well, but neither of these organisations appears to be testing that.

Status, as seen in these examples, is not competence, expertise, the ability to render a service, the exercise of visibility or power, or a question of fair recompense. Status is here taken to be the set of social signals that create, first, the presumption of some kind of expertise, and second, the presumed value of that expertise. In an ideal world, we would be able to test the objective expertise of all translators, then rank and reward them accordingly. In the world we live in, however, most employers and users of translations have to rely on the various signals of status. They do so individually, when assessing the value of a particular translator, and also socially, when making assumptions about the relative value of translators as a professional group. (Note that this view of status differs from approaches that identify a group of well-qualified professional translators, then set out to measure their relative salaries, education, visibility and power (as in Dam and Zethsen 2008, 2009a, 2009b, 2011, 2012). In keeping with the more uncertain world where apparent status can be bought from a website, here we ask how translators are identified as such, and how some are signalled as being more trustworthy than others.)

From the perspective of the individual translator, status is something that must be acquired, in addition to actual translation skills. You should be able to translate, but you also need some way of signalling your skills to your clients or employers. In this sense, a degree or a certification becomes a commodity, something that can be bought, something that you need in order to set up shop as a professional translator. It should perhaps not be surprising to find “Certification” listed alongside Computer Aided Translation tools and a Database of Agencies as one of the things a translator might want to purchase online (Figure 1).

Status of TranslationFigure 1. The “L Store” webpage, showing Certification as a commodity (one is not surprised to find that all the links lead back to the “Global Translation Institute” and its certification product) (http://www.linguaeshop.com/. Accessed April 2012)

From the collective perspective, status concerns the various signals that rank a social group or profession with respect to others. This concerns several related kinds of value, beyond questions of objective competence or expertise:

Trustworthiness: Since translating always concerns communication with another culture, and thus with people we do not know so well, the translators themselves are always open to mistrust: since they presumably speak the language of the other side, and they purport to know the culture of the other side, they could always be working in the interests of the other side. This millennial problem is partly handled by claims to fidelity or its technocratic surrogate equivalence: translators will always signal their loyalty to the cause of their client. In particularly closed cultures, trustworthiness is only properly signalled by the translator being born into one social group rather than the other, or even by the translator belonging to a family of hereditary professional translators (as in the case of the Oranda tsuji in Japan). In constitutionally regulated societies, translators may come from external or hybrid positions but might require authorisation by educational or judicial institutions. The translator’s trustworthiness is thus ultimately signalled not by their birth, nor by their claims to neutral expertise, but by their having been accepted by state institutions.

Professional exclusion: If some translators are to be trusted, then there must be others who are somehow less trustworthy. A profession is partly a discourse of concepts and values that signal precisely this exclusion: some translators are to be considered “professional”, and others are not. This exclusion is particularly problematic in the field of translation because, as we have seen, virtually anyone can purchase the signals of a certain professional status. At the same time, there is a growing practice of volunteer translation, where people translate for fun or for “the good of the cause”, without financial reward. The study of status must thus account for cases where some translators are accepted and others are excluded or are regarded as having status of a different kind. The mechanisms of this exclusion include professional examinations, certification systems, and membership of professional associations and societies.

Rates of pay: In some societies, high social status normally correlates with high rates of pay for services rendered. A survey of pay scales must thus be an essential part of any survey of status. In this case, however, we seek to go beyond relative pay scales. This is partly because reliable information is hard to come by (see 5.1 below). But it is also because the financial economy is not always the one that counts most. For example, we know that literary translators are paid at below the minimum wage in most countries in Europe (Fock et al. 2008), yet many very intelligent and gifted people continue to translate literature. In many cases, the reason is that the activity brings them status in neighbouring fields, often as academics, in publishing institutions or as writers of literature. In other cases, literary translation ranks with the volunteer translating by activists, done for the “good of the cause”. The status in such cases is cultural, symbolic and social, rather than strictly financial. But it is socially valuable status nevertheless.

Recognition and prestige: A general signal of status is the appearance of the translation profession in official documents like listings of economic activities, census records, and taxation systems. These constitute signals of recognized identity, not necessarily of prestige and rates of pay. Such recognition is the first step towards prestige, and the relative rankings can make a difference. For example, the category “Secretarial and translation activities” is reported as appearing in the “General Industrial Classification of Economic Activities within the European Communities” (2008), (Katan (2009: 128-129) reports that class 74.85 of the “General Industrial Classification of Economic Activities within the European Communities” (2008) was for “Secretarial and translation activities”, where “translation and interpretation” appeared alongside typing, transcribing, proofreading and photocopying.) whereas the current version lists “Translation and Interpretation” as a category in its own right. (http://circa.europa.eu/irc/dsis/nacecpacon/info/data/en/. Accessed November 2011) This difference is seen as an improvement, not because it brings anyone more money, but because the recognition is more exclusive and official.

Authority: When status is signalled, much depends on who has the authority to send the signal. Translators themselves generally do not have that authority, even when operating collectively in associations and the like. Individual or collective authority may be accrued from experience or longevity (if a translator or association has existed for a long time, they have presumably been able to earn trust on the market) and possibly from size (if there are many translators in an organisation, it might be a strong organisation). Alternatively, it can come from integration into state structures (which in turn offer both longevity and a certain size), as when translators are certified by legal institutions or various government ministries. This authorisation has the benefit of ensuring that trustworthiness is more on one side than the other – the translators are presumed to work in the interests of the instance that is authorising them. Increasingly, though, authorisation comes from educational institutions, which may be private or state. We thus recognise three broad sources of authority: experience (presumed to be survival on the market), state authorisation, and academic qualifications. The study of status must track the ways these three interact. (Note that in conceptualising “status” in this way, we have little need to offer a restrictive definition of “profession”, beyond its general understanding as regularly remunerated activity (making “voluntary” the opposite of “professional”). The various signals of status themselves indicate what a “profession” is held to be in a given place and at a given moment – out task is merely to describe those signals. For example, when we attempt to say how many professional translators and interpreters there are in the world (Appendix B), the actual definitions of “professional” are those used by the statistical services of the United States, Australia, Canada, Germany, Norway and Portugal, whose numbers we draw on. Put more simply, “profession” is the thing we set out to discover, not the thing we assume.)

If we now return to the “Global Translation Institute” and the Argentine “International Association of Professional Translators and Interpreters”, we see that both work as remarkably efficient signallers of status. We have no evidence that the translators benefiting from these signals are in any way incompetent. However, it is not hard to see why the signals might not be wholly convincing. Neither organisation has more than three years of experience, so they have had little time to build up their own trustworthiness or prestige. Neither has any link to state structures, leaving them in an area where self-proclaimed “global” or “international” status might not carry much weight. In the absence of other authorities, both are thus forced to rely on academic qualifications of some kind: one makes a point of being a Harvard alumna (but lists no completed degree) and has a string of Internet publications, and the other accepts members on the basis of a degree or diploma from “a recognized institution” (naming no criteria for recognition) and lists leading academics as honorary members. In short, their main source of authority is a set of vague appeals to educational institutions and to the suggestion of academic status.

Of course, these two start-up signallers are tilting at significant alternative sources of authority. The “Global Translation Institute” is selling something that is also offered (much more expensively) by training programmes in about 300 university-level institutions worldwide, some with more than 50 years of experience, whereas the Argentine international association is proposing an alternative to the Fédération Internationale des Traducteurs, which was founded in 1954 by a French ministerial order, represents more than 100 professional associations (many with state status) and claims to speak for 88,103 translators. (Information supplied by Andrew Evans, FIT Treasurer, 17/11/2011) In fact, in 2010 three of the founding members of the Argentine international organisation were expelled from the Argentine Association of Translators and Interpreters, ostensibly for founding an association with competing aims. (http://www.aipti.org/eng/speaks-out/art3-aati-expels-members-for-founding-iapti.html. The international association replies that one of the main differences between the two associations is that “many colleagues from a variety of different countries do not possess translating or interpreting diplomas. But these are professionals who should indeed be included in any association that wishes)

The traditional granters of status are thus being challenged by new, parallel modes of signalling, and some of the traditional systems are responding to the challenge.

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