Posted by: patenttranslator | October 21, 2013

The problem with the translating profession

Journalist: “What do you think of Western civilization?”
Gandhi: “I think it would be a good idea.”

The problem with the translating profession is that it is not really a profession, in part thanks to at least a few hundred thousand if not a few million self-deluded “linguists” on this planet who think that they are qualified to translate …. just about anything.

I receive dozens of often hilarious e-mails from these poor people who want to work for me every day. Their e-mails in fact represent the second largest source of spam for me in terms of quantity, after spam messages from Brazil. (Because I translate from French and still remember a lot of Latin, I have in fact learned a great deal of Portuguese during the last few months as I have to quickly scan the headings of the messages offering anything from educational and motivational videos to Mr. Rabbit vibrators to make sure that I don’t delete something important).

Here is another pearl from a “highly experienced translator” that I found in my mailbox today:

The inspired heading of this e-mail said:”I am Good Freelance Translator Specializing In All Types of Translation”.

“I am a highly experienced, versatile and resourceful Senior Translator with a sound scientific background. A very passionate and tenacious language professional, goal-oriented, with an unwavering positive attitude, a strong spirit of team work, and strictly respectful of dead lines.”

It’s good to be respectful of lines of dead, I’ll give him that. But then, shouldn’t he be looking for a job as an undertaker, preferably using his native language? I hear the salaries are pretty good in that line of work, especially if you are the respectful kind of person.

Translating, on the other hand, is mostly about the lines that still have some life in them.


Of course, other professions are also diluted and polluted by people deluded enough to think that they are eminently, imminently and prominently qualified to join a certain profession, usually because they have no idea what the profession is really about.

Teachers, for instance. Because so many people think that anybody can teach, many people who simply do not have this certain je ne sais quoi that all good teachers need to have often apply for and often do get a teaching job, only to cause havoc in classroom instead of educating and expanding young, inquisitive minds.

It takes a special kind of talent to be a good teacher, as well as the right kind of education, a lot of experience and a lot of dedication to the mission.

But if you want to be a teacher, at least there are certain objective criteria that can be objectively evaluated when somebody is applying for a teaching job.

The applicant would need to have a college degree in the relevant field, including courses in something that in Europe they call “pedagogy”.


No such objective criteria exist for people who say that they are “linguists” in the United States of America.

In other parts of the world, the situation is a little bit better. In most European countries and many countries in Latin America, for example, you do need to have a translation degree in the relevant language combination if you want to be officially registered as a translator. And without being registered, you may have trouble finding clients.

But North America is still the Wild West when it comes to qualifications for the translating profession.

If you say that you are a translator, you are a translator. Registration with the City Hall costs 50 dollars a year and nobody will ask for your credentials. As the City Hall has no particular category for the translating occupation, your occupation will be listed on your license, to be renewed every year, under “Special Services”.

Case in point: last month I gave a 30-minute lecture by Skype as an introduction to patent translation during a meeting of translators.

People who heard my talk (plus the other 2 speakers who participated in person) were awarded “continued education points” that count toward maintaining their status as translators who are accredited by the American Translators Association.

False modesty aside, I think that if you have managed to read at least 3 of my blog posts (from beginning to end, no cheating!), I think that you too should be accredited by the ATA.

I also think that if you managed to read at least 3 posts on this blog and on top of that you usually also click on and watch the Youtube videos, you should clearly be eligible for special continued education bonus points for accreditation from the ATA.

(Maybe somebody will tell the ATA about it?)

Such is the status of the translating profession these days, a profession that is not much respected.

The truth is, it is not really a profession, or it is a profession for the asking, if anybody can join its ranks, although it used to be a highly respected profession only a few short centuries ago when people still respected things like education, talent, and hard work.


  1. >> Translating, on the other hand, is mostly about
    >> the lines that still have some life in them.

    Perhaps. At least until the “linguist” administers the final, killing blow.

    I am deeply opposed to the idea of requiring translating degrees in the Wild West or anywhere else. Something approaching sharia law for linguistic and subject incompetence might not be a bad idea, however. After an initial stern warning, amputations of fingers might proceed from the pinky toward the index finger. And for those who use voice recognition technology….


  2. I don’t think it would be a good idea to make the City Hall a watchdog who determines who is an who isn’t a translator. Gandhi would probably agree with me.

    For one thing, they are obviously not qualified for something like that.

    But that anybody can simply call himself “linguist” and be in the translation business in the Wild West is not a good thing either, which prompted my lament in this post.

    Don’t you think that a translator should have college education and some credentials?

    I definitely think so.


  3. Although the ATA CE system is thoroughly mockable, it’s perhaps worth pointing out that those CE points only have value if you have already gained ATA certification — which is not entirely trivial to do.


  4. I think that both components of this system are quite mockable, especially since it took more than 3 decades before the ATA allowed the use of a computer for the test.

    I understand it is permissible to use a keyboard now.

    To me this is like the Catholic church allowing after many centuries the use of national languages instead of Latin.


  5. Well, Steve, ours is not a profession, for sure. Ours is a walk of living that depends on the trust of clients.

    As to the qualification, don’t worry, the clients know whom they hire for their jobs. If they don’t, they burn their fingers. Kind of Sharia law in this walk of living, as Kevin mentioned.

    In this sense, I don’t mind that there are so many “linguists” in the Wild West of North America or somewhere else. The market regulates by itself. Darwin was right about “survival of the fittest” instead of the best. That is why I don’t mind at all that there are some translating colleagues who would sic on each of my typos in my writings. They are not my clients, anyway.

    I believe that anyone who wants to be a translator needs to assume this attitude in order to stay a translator.

    “Don’t you think that a translator should have college education and some credentials?”

    I know some very good translators who don’t have colleage education or any credentials, but they are very knowledgeable. They never need “continued education points” ever. Their clients (and their agents) trust them.


  6. @Wenjer

    Shamans are “knowledgeable”. Doctors have to go medical schools and then go through years of training before they are allowed to operate on people.

    (And they still sometime cut out the wrong foot or testicle or forget scissors inside a sewn up patient).

    Before we so systematically and thoroughly poisoned our world and ourselves with toxic chemicals, shamans could take cure most sicknesses because most of them originated in human spirit, and shamans indeed understand human spirit.

    But in our modern, complicated, poisoned world, you can’t have much knowledge without a lot of education.

    Unless we return to shamanism again, which perhaps would not be such a bad idea.


    • Well, you know that I agree with Gandhi, like you do.


    • BTW, I know some people cannot or just don’t view the videos on Youtube you quote, but I’ve found out that you like the ones I like. For instances, the twice quotes from Before Sunrise in the last two of your posts and the one of Georges Moustaki.

      Somehow, I believe to be sure that you’d like Moustaki’s Ma Liberté better than Ma Solitude. Am I right?


  7. […] Journalist: "What do you think of Western civilization?" Gandhi: "I think it would be a good idea." The problem with the translating profession is that it is not really a profession, in part thanks…  […]


  8. @Wenjer

    I like Ma Solitude better.

    I don’t like the ending of Ma Liberte (surrendering to a beautiful jailer).

    Somehow it ruins the song for me.


    • Steve, I was thinking of a dialog between the cook and the field priest when they were tossing a glass of wine in Mother Courage and Her Children. Sometimes, it is much easier for a good life to surrender to a temptation, such as one more night or forever and ever. 😮


  9. The issue of computer use in ATA certification exam is much more complex than many realize. Smart people have worked for years to make the computerized exam fair and to prevent cheating. Now it is being deployed, and I have high hopes that it will be a successful update for the ATA certification examination.

    Tapani Ronni, grader and Finnish language chair


  10. @Tappani

    Well, of course it is, but so was the issue of whether Latin or national languages should be used during Catholic mass.

    I think that the most complicated part of both issues would be called … inertia.

    Since I have 3 computers in my office, I believe that I would be able to organize a patent translation test there for 3 people.

    I would just need to make a decision whether or not I need to disable Internet access.


  11. Please: “I agree with Ghandi, AS you do.” As in: “Do as I say, not as I do.”


    • Thanks, Ricky!

      So, hold on and do like I do.


  12. […] Specialisation according to Nicole Y. Adams Oldschool is Best #2 – Literary Translations The problem with the translating profession When the client realises I was right after all Transperfect’s redefinition of proofreading […]


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