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We Are Not Professionals
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We Are Not Professionals

by Richard Thieme, reprinted with permission from the January 1996 JAT* Bulletin
(*Japan Association of Translators)

I have heard many experienced and highly competent translators express their frustration with the lack of freedom they are afforded in their translations, the insult of having their work pored over by individuals who cannot fully understand the source language, and the butchering of their definitively perfect and masterful renderings into the target language. As a translator who works both in house and out house (sometimes figuratively and sometimes literally), I am sensitive to these complaints. I have certainly experienced and expressed more than my share of grousing and grumbling over revisions to my "final" copy. Nevertheless, I find these corrections and my resulting frustrations becoming less and less frequent. Why is this the case? One reason is that I no longer view myself as a professional..

This brings me to the core of this article. Translators are not professionals, at least in the traditional sense of the term. I fully expect to be criticized for this statement, if not murdered at the next JAT meeting (maybe I should undergo plastic surgery and burn off my fingerprints). My point, however, is not as insulting as it may seem. Do translators take their jobs seriously? Yes, at least the ones I know, and certainly the translators who can keep, build and maintain their client base over many years. Are translators conscientious? We are not just conscientious, we are veritable pack rats of information. I know of very few "professionals" who spend the (non-paid) time a good translator spends in poring through manuals, taking notes while watching television, searching for reference texts and building data bases.

Do translators make mistakes? Yes, unfortunately we do. Mistakes are intrinsic to our occupation. We cannot obtain the specialized knowledge of a true "professional" in any given occupation, and we cannot acquire the language capacity of a well educated "native speaker" in our source language. But we should have the language capacity of a well educated native speaker in our native language.In this sense we differ from the real experts or "professionals" in our subject fields. Thus it behooves us to have considerable humility when undertaking the tasks we are assigned.

We also differ from "professionals" in another, more basic sense. Traditionally, the term "professional" was limited to the three learned professions, i.e., law, medicine and theology. These three occupations stand apart from other occupations in several important respects. First they deal predominately with human calamities. People go to doctors when they are sick. No one goes to a lawyer without a problem. Much of a minister's time is taken up with parishioners facing deep personal problems. Because of the importance of these "professions," human society has always provided special privileges for and placed stringent restrictions on their practitioners. Key among these restrictions are the prohibitions against outright pursuit of financial gain and the instruction that a "professional" has a duty to give his "client" what the client needs, rather than what the client wants.

[Editor's comment: Some consider that it is the translator's duty to warn the client if, for example, in an ad a totally different approach must be taken from the source language due to cultural differences. Another example: If there is an error in the text, either obvious or not, such as a mathematical error, the omission of a line of text, etc., the translator should interpret the error to the best of his ability with his knowledge of the source language and culture. The client should be warned about such anomalies.]

If translation is not a profession, then is it a discipline? I do not think this definition fits either. Few of us are academics, and even those of us who are would probably admit that a translator doesn't really do "research," at least in the sense understood in other disciplines. We don't discover new knowledge and we don't reveal new insights that are not already available (at least to those who can read our source language).

Many have referred to translation as being an art rather than a science. Nevertheless, under the modern understanding of art, the audience must at least attempt to understand the artist. This has allowed development of avant-garde art, atonal music and a host of other new art forms which initially met with scorn from the unwashed masses. The translation industry, however, affords no such respect for the translator. If the translator cannot explain the original text for his audience, he is a failure--pure and simple. If translation is not a profession, a discipline or an art, then what is it? The answer, I think, is that translation is a craft. We are craftsmen, the last of the guilds of skilled laborers who once dominated pre-industrialized and early industrial economies. We are similar to weavers, potters, lacquerers, masons, wainwrights and tailors.

For craftsmen, the client has the final say in the product. The case is different for an attorney, for example, who may be disbarred for following a client's wishes against the ethics rules mandated by the local bar association. As craftsmen, therefore, we must verify client desires before the fact, and adjust and tailor our product to meet the final requests that our clients inevitably make. We cannot view the act of translation either as a mass-produced product--"Hey, I met your specs. If your specs are wrong, that's not my department lady"--or as a revelation of knowledge and creation from on high, which only we the initiated can render--"I don't care if your editor says to use 'owing to' instead of 'due to.' He ain't JTF accredited" (i.e., he hasn't passed the bar).

If we clearly understand our role, the human interaction aspects of a translator suddenly become much easier to grasp. We are craftsmen in a specialized craft. We adjust our "specs" to client desires, at least to the limits of safety (a good carpenter will not build a house that falls down the next day, regardless of what his customer wants). And we must follow up after the product is initially presented. A few unsolicited calls to the client after sending a translation can be very instructive and can save hours of nitpicking and lost business on other minor issues.

By behaving as a craftsman, i.e., a skilled servant, we can avoid most, if not all, of the initial problems of the troublesome client, and indeed build a base of stable purchasers which we can serve and which can maintain us for years.

[Editor's comment: Perhaps the term artisan is also appropriate in this context.]

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