This article was originally commissioned by a German translators' blog back in 2009, and then revised for publishing on a Japanese online magazine in 2011. Whilst it deals mainly with translation, an activity I was more engaged in at the time, I find some elements still topical. A few thoughts will display how things have changed - others will do the opposite.
As I age and my temper shortens, I note that the style is perhaps more tentative than I would like it, but here goes that call to arms once again. Just for completeness' sake, and because I'm a sentimental fool...
I'm glad this old piece has now found a home.
Martin Esposito wonders why professional linguists sometimes fail to communicate amongst themselves and at times even with their clients
As I sit in a plane bound for Budapest, I feel the slight exhilaration due to being for a brief day in a condition of absolute repose. For a start, pressurisation always gives that general light-headedness (perhaps enhanced by the excellent bar service) and though usually a tragedy, not being online on this occasion is the perfect complement to the rare predicament where a translator has no work pending, having delivered the previous commission late the night before. It is, as I say, quite the exception, and not always a welcome one, as unpredictable lulls in workflow do not always translate (ha!) into rest, and sometimes degenerate into downright worry.
Yet it is at times like these that I feel we are best equipped to consider our profession and to take stock. Possible reasons for not to doing so during the normal course of business include, of course, too much of the business in question, or simply an attitude inclined to discard the need for a deep analysis - why fix what ain't broke? I believe however that the inevitable condition of constant pendulum swings from linguist/wordsmith to reluctant one-man-company/entrepreneur is mainly to blame for the loss of direction I am feeling and, at least in my case, the lack of preparation for the latter position is mainly responsible for the unease.
In troubled times, it pays to know what's going wrong: should we just accept our fate or reach for new challenges? Most translators will complain about the fact that in this customer-led industry the customer leads so much that the linguist is almost excluded from the production process. This is visible in the setting of deadlines (we're ready for the launch first thing in the morning - all we need to do is get the thing translated); the idea of financial reward (it's only a translation, - it's not like you have to re-write the whole thing!); especially in the discrepancy between source and target language quality (we jotted it down quickly in Italian and there are a few inaccuracies. But can you make sure the English reads well?)...
Yet when the world of work as we know it is undergoing the deepest change since the Industrial Revolution, are people really less in need of good communicators? Or have our clients all rather suddenly become expert users of language? Is this not precisely the time to ensure one final good quality message really gets through so that effective communication takes place, avoiding duplication and therefore wastefulness? Another element worth noting about these times is that never before have workers in any industry been the object of so many welfare guidelines and stringent health and safety measures: ergonomic desks, workstations and telephones, activity and rest alternation, healthy snack options from the canteen, ventilation and lighting standards; to this we can add provisions pertaining to equal opportunity, race, sex and creed flattening parameters, and we get quite a rosy picture. Yet it is certainly true that our era is also the one with the most outsourcing, freelancers in our case, or other kinds of externally appointed staff, and therefore not in any way provided for under the regulations mentioned above.
I have asked enough questions to which I don't not know the answer. All of them though certainly quietly imply that a range of business practices the multiple industries the translation industry is part of need to begin to be questioned, and this can only come from us. A few thoughts: the sale of 'first drafts' for internal use and the excessive use of software as a substitute for knowledge and instinct should both undergo careful scrutiny. What is sometimes blamed most of all though is the lack of a sense of professional kinship among language practitioners. This is simply based, it seems to me, on the fact that we are in competition for the same financial rewards, and our normally naturally complementary skills are rarely exploited for the common good. We are kept splintered by greater entrepreneurs than ourselves, who know their mantra well: communication is key (how many times did you translate this one?), and ensure we disperse after the show, so as not to co-ordinate. The latter good practice is exactly where all big corporate players get their ideas at the highest levels, in an almost incestuous closeness, whilst their outlets fight on the (high) street. It is what keeps businesses alive under an umbrella preserving them from the hailstones of loneliness and the deadly silence of lack of the much-evoked communication.
Alive? Not much these days, you may say, and 'join an association of translators then', another voice might add. Both interesting notions. The second suggestion I may actually follow one day, when I am able to see a selection process stretching beyond mere qualifications and the fees I charge. As to what being alive means...well, read on.
I feel that the shared dimension of our work (the one we choose to talk about with colleagues) focusses on the quantity we get or do not get. Quality is for our own eyes only. So no real progress can be made through pooling and complementing each other's strengths and weaknesses. An example: I have never used translation software, but work in close contact with a colleague who does. We share out the right work for each translating style, or work as a team: he is quick and cost-effective, I supply the final revision without getting bogged down in a document I could never handle efficiently by hand. Another issue: no really unified voice is reaching the big dictionary companies, requesting comprehensive platforms and online/offline streamlined and specialised resources, rather than clumsy CD ROMs or long passwords giving access to the lexis on one machine at a time. But most seriously, clients all too often cannot see our passion through the tiredness and the stress as we say yet another time 'it's actually not a bad piece of writing. If only I had the time to appreciate it'.
What can be done, then? A little honesty would work wonders: yes, my rate may be slightly higher, but look, has my cheaper colleague actually pointed out that the six line headed paper you pay for every time could be pasted on the body of the letter by your clerical staff? Can I remind you that this draft is identical to last season's, and tracking changes might save you time and often more importantly money? It's a start, as are the health tips I get from some of my colleagues with a greater sense of responsibility towards body and soul, which sounds silly, but may actually keep me going for all the years I need before I ever get some form of pension.
Again, I think I can hear a silence... I know I might have puzzled a few, disappointed others. When one's ideas are about to be hacked to pieces, it pays to throw oneself into battle, rather than just one's theories: yes, this is my only job, and both me and my family depend on it. And yes, I have shared these views with students of the profession, more than a thousand, and all asking questions, in Italy, the UK and as far a Taiwan. What's more, over the years the work I do has become less repetitive, more interesting and better regarded, and I am beginning to help younger professionals by passing on the things I choose to do no more, which has the added bonus of not leaving disappointed clients stuck with a refusal and no alternative - another problematic habit. So things are mainly good, at least until now.
Whether I am to be surrounded by a wall of fire or suddenly find myself part of a network of motivated linguists I know must be out there will not depend on me. And for once, not even on clients. I am running on trust here. Silly of me, but it is hard times. And, as the old adage has it (though I'm not entirely certain of the translation), 'If you always do the same thing in the same way, don't be surprised when you get the same results'. Happy the way you are? You probably stopped reading this quite a few lines ago. Want to try something new or just curious?
I may have started asking questions I have no answer to again, though this of course is the good reason for asking. I'm not sure what my readers will choose to do or whether I will ever hear from anyone, but as soon as I'm off this plane and back to (on?) earth I'll be getting online again...
Martin Esposito is a freelance bilingual Italian/English Conference Interpreter and Translator. He currently lives and works in London, but is professionally active and a retains a base in Rome.
He can be reached on