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The status of the translation profession in the European Union

The status of the translation profession in the European Union

The status of translators is not to be confused with how well anyone translates. It concerns the perception of a translator’s value – what people think a particular translator can do, and how well or badly the translator is assumed to do it.

Seen as such, the question of status is extremely important because, almost by definition, someone who needs a translator cannot judge objectively how well that translator performs. Translations are among the products and services, perhaps along with used cars and legal services, where the buyer does not have direct knowledge of what they are buying – they have to rely on what people say, or on what the translator looks like, or on the translator’s academic qualifications, or their membership of professional associations, or their official certification. That is, status is created by a set of social signals, which come in many shapes and sizes. Without those signals, the users of translations would be involved in an endless process of trial-and-error, as can indeed happen when buying a used car or trusting a lawyer.

These days the question of status is of particular importance because, with a website and business model, virtually anyone can start certifying translators. It is not excessively hard to supply novice translators with the external trappings of a profession: an official stamp, a place in an official-looking list, perhaps letterhead paper or a corporate email address. In this report we give examples of how this is being done and how the process of status creation is entering a new online sphere. As some simple economic modelling will show, in a world where everyone can signal status, there is no longer any relative status to signal.

The bulk of this study then considers the more traditional signals of status. How much weight is put on academic qualifications? To what extent does membership of a professional association count? What happens in the field of sworn or authorised translation? What professional certification systems are in place? Which ones have a clear market value?

Our general finding is that most of the traditional status signals are failing, and that there is a general need for strengthened certification systems. At the same time, each country has a different approach to status, as does each segment of the profession, so there are many nuances to describe, and numerous stories to tell.

© European Union, 2013

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