About 25 years ago, in 1988 or 89, I passed with flying colors a difficult test administered by Berlitz Languages, a well known translation agency, to aspiring interpreters who wanted to interpret at the hearings of the Immigration Court in San Francisco.
I was back then just starting my career as a translator. I had no idea whether I wanted only to translate, or translate and interpret as well, and neither did I know whether I wanted to specialize in a certain field and what that field would be. I simply sent a dozen résumés to translation agencies in the city and then accepted whatever offer they would throw at me.
It took me a couple of years to realize that based on my education and interests, the best way to use my master’s degree in Japanese and English studies would be to specialize in translation of Japanese patents to English. It would take me a few more years to add to my tools of trade also translation of patents from German, French, Russian and a few other Slavic languages.
Berlitz Languages needed a Czech interpreter for a hearing at the Immigration Court in Financial District and because they had just received my résumé, they called me to test my interpreting abilities. I was sure that I would pass the test because I was pretty cocky back then when it came to my abilities to do just about anything, although I did not really interpret anything before in my life, with the exception of the time when I was interpreting about 8 years ago for about a month for a Japanese film producer and couple of Japanese actors who were shooting a movie in Prague.
Here is what the rigorous test looked like: The man who was answering the telephone in the Berlitz office on Market Street brought me a text on a sheet of paper and a tape recorder and said: “Now, take a look at this paragraph, and when you’re ready, translate it into Czech.” On the sheet of paper was a paragraph full of legal jargon in English having to do with immigration law.
I had no idea how to say something like that in Czech because I have never done anything like that before in my life. But since I had a pretty good idea that the Berlitz coordinator had no idea what the correct translation of these terms would be either, I just said something in Czech that I thought would more or less corresponded to the general subject (to the extent that I was able to understand it).
“OK”, said the man, “thanks”, and he left me standing there because he had to answer the phone again. When he was done with the phone, he told me at what time the immigration hearing would start the next day and he gave me the address of the court.
Although I am certain that nobody ever listened to that tape since nobody ever asked me about it, they probably just recorded over it when another “test” was given to another “Berlitz-certified interpreter”, I did OK at the immigration hearing. The only minor glitch was that unbeknownst to Berlitz personnel and to me, the client spoke Slovak rather than Czech. But both the client and the judge accepted me as a substitution Czech interpreter (since they really had no choice). Did the Berlitz employee who tested me know that Slovak is not the same language as Czech and that there is no language called “Czechoslovakian”? Who knows. He never told me that this was for a Slovak client, not a Czech one.
This was an example of how “strict processes and periodical tests” were administered by translation agencies before they came up with the clever idea to advertise on their websites that all of their translators and interpreters are periodically tested and evaluated as a requirement for maintaining their “ISO-certified status” for “ISO 9001:2008, ISO 13485:2003 and EN15038 certifications.”
Many translation agencies will simply make things out of whole cloth (although they probably keep fake records of all tests and procedures). And why not? Most of the advertising surrounding us everywhere we go is based on half-truths and blatant lies.
I don’t really blame creative managers of translation agencies for coming up with ingenious schemes such as the ISO/EN and other types of certifications. Berlitz came up with a similar idea 30 years ago, and it worked for them very well for a while. It worked well as a clever marketing ploy, because that is all these claims generally are.
This does not mean that it is not possible to create a system for certification of translators and interpreters. In some countries, for example in Europe and in Latin America, only translators and interpreters who have a degree in translation are allowed to work as qualified translators and interpreters. And some courts have created their own system for certification of interpreters, and some of these system presumably work well.
In many other occupations, licensing is strictly enforced.
I checked at the place where I get my haircuts: hair stylists must have a license in all states in this country. If you want to work as a hairdresser, you must have specialized education and hundreds of hours of experience as a trainee first. But since translation is an unregulated business in the United States, you don’t need any of that nonsense here and anybody can just hang out a shingle and call himself a translator upon payment of a modest fee for a generic business license.
It is of course a good thing that the City Hall is not in the business of certifying translators. Nobody at the City Hall in my town, and probably in your town either, wold be qualified to do that.
But it is also a bad thing, because in the absence of a reliable certification system that could be based on specialized education and years of experience, creative marketing types have come up with the idea of “our own strict certification test”, and “ISO 9001:2008, ISO 13485:2003” and “EN15038 certification”, which is just a marketing ploy when it comes to translation as I wrote for example in this post.
Lawyers must pass a difficult bar exam, physicians must pass a rigorous medical licensing test and then they must work for years as “residents”, but the fact is that there are no magical tests or other requirements that would guarantee that a translator or interpreter is fully qualified, at least not in this country.
The only way to determine whether a translator or interpreter is in fact qualified to perform a certain task is to take a close look at the translator’s education, specialty and experience.
But because translation agencies are brokers standing between the translator and the customer, it is very much in their interest to prevent direct contact between the translators and the clients, which is how various strict in-house tests, ISO/EN certifications and other convenient lies came into being in the so-called translation industry.