Posted by: patenttranslator | January 30, 2017

Is Translation Even a Separate Profession?

That I had come full circle shouldn’t have surprised me, for we are born into time only to be born out of it, after living through the cycle of the seasons, under stars that turn because the world turns, born into ignorance and acquiring knowledge that ultimately reveals to us our enduring ignorance: The circle is the essential pattern of our existence.

Dean Kuntz, Saint Odd.

I know a translator who is convinced that translating is not really a separate profession, but many professions within many other professions. He repeats this personal credo so often I think he is mildly obsessed with it, the way I became mildly obsessed with what I perceive as the necessity to ignore and resist the nefarious “translation industry” because it is for the most part an evil industry – an industry that wishes us translators nothing but ill.

In fact, this is an industry that would love nothing more than to get rid of us translators and completely replace us with machines … if that only were possible. Somehow the “translation industry” does not realize that if translators are no longer required because machines can do their work just fine, well, then the “translation industry” would absolutely not be needed either. It would slowly but surely erase itself from existence.

When I read sage advice for translators in magazines for translators or on blogs of translators, I often think to myself, oh well, this person probably means well, but this advice is totally wrong for the way I translate, and incompatible with the way I run my translation business.

This would seem to support the thesis that translation is not really a profession, but a sub-profession belonging to or being a part of many other professions.

Naturally, I feel that my own blog is an exception: the invaluable advice I so generously and altruistically dispense (for free!) out of the goodness of my heart on my own blog is, at least for the most part, universally applicable to all translation fields.

I sometimes disagree with this translator who refuses to recognize translation as a legitimate profession, a friend whom I have never met in person, although we have been talking online occasionally for years, and I also disagree with him about his idea that translation is not really a profession per se, only a profession within another profession.

But what if he is right?

Was St. Jerome, patron saint of translators, whose real name in Latin, the language into which he was translating although it was not his native language, was Eusebius Sophronius Hieronymus, really a translator by profession?

Or was he really a writer, historian and scholar who as it happened could read several languages and therefore at some point figured out how to make a good living translating old documents from several languages for the Pope? As far as I can tell the Pope was his only client, a direct client because the “translation industry” thankfully did not exist sixteen hundred years ago.

This question can be answered in many different ways.

But if translation is not a separate profession or occupation, what is it? It does exists, it has been with us for thousands of years, and thousands of people like myself are using it to this day to make a living. I have been using this non-profession and non-occupation ever since I graduated with a degree in languages in 1980, on three continents and quite successfully to make a living, raise a family and pay the bills with income derived from this non-occupation for more than three decades.

So what the hell is it then, if it is not a profession or an occupation?

Maybe it’s true that translation is not really a stand-alone profession, but only a sub-profession that is a part of many other real, full-fledged professions.

If this is the case, people who translate novels are basically ersatz novelists who could be also called translating novelists, or novelists who lack their own inspiration. People who translate government regulations and edicts are really bureaucrats at heart who could be also called translating bureaucrats … but I am not sure that makes sense either.

Translation is either an independent profession, or if it is not that, then one would have to say that this thing that is not really a profession or an occupation, called translation, is a part of just about any other profession … because … which profession could exist on its own without translation?

Novelists could still write without us translators, but only in one language. They would hate it if instead of being able to conquer the entire world with their writing, they would be limited to only one language and in many cases only one country.

The same goes for filmmakers, actors, and just about every other profession, because just about every profession needs language and languages, including investment bankers on Wall Street whose job it is to enrich themselves by driving into bankruptcy not just one country, but as many countries as possible, our lying politicians who could not communicate with other politicians, whose job is also to lie to people, but in other languages, without translators and interpreters, our arrogant judges who love to lock up people who don’t speak their language, our generals, whose special expertise is in invading foreign countries whose languages they don’t understand … none of them could do their jobs without translators and interpreters.

In fact, since only very few professions would be able to exist without translation, with the possible exception of the oldest profession for which linguistic education is not required, perhaps it could be said that translation is the second oldest profession.

And since it is such a useful profession, it probably does not matter much whether it should be considered a separate profession, or a sub-profession that is a part of just about every other profession.

Of course, the problem is that most people who consider and call themselves professional translators are absolutely not that, but that’s a topic for another post on my silly blog.


  1. very true, you last sentence needs a few words. I agree with you entirely.


  2. It’s a bit of a non-issue. A translator working full-time at the UN or the European Commission obviously is a professional, working within a well-defined professional structure. But the example you give of translating novels is entirely different. Although there are people who translate novels for a living, in the majority of cases there is no money available for a translation and so literary novels are mostly translated by unpaid people doing it for love. So they are not professionals in the simple sense that they are not making a living at it, even though this is perhaps the most demanding kind of translation. The only reason for the apparent confusion is that people use the word ‘professional’ to mean ‘good, serious, high quality’. A glance around at some of the work produced by professional translators should be enough to demonstrate the foolishness of such a use of the word in this case. France, for instance, has a protectionist system for translation (as for many other activities) so that the ideal translator of French into Russian say is not a Russian who speaks French, but a French person who may never have been to Russia but who has a French degree in Russian and (more importantly) the French small business and tax registration that makes it possible for a French company to issue invoices in the correct form. That is mainly what it means to be a professional translator in France. The quality of the translation comes a poor second. And that is why so much translation in France is clearly the work of non-native speakers. Every year when they have to fill in forms that ask for their profession, they will, correctly in their terms, put ‘translator’.


  3. “Although there are people who translate novels for a living, in the majority of cases there is no money available for a translation and so literary novels are mostly translated by unpaid people doing it for love.”

    As a literary translator I have to disagree with that, that’s not a fact. Published literary novels are translated by (poorly) paid professionals, I am not aware of “majority of cases” being free translations, it is the other way round. Some people decide to translate works that have gone into public domain, or self-publish less known works (but they get paid for that in a way or another) and don’t charge for that, or fiction fan groups do some (awful) collective translations but any person who lives out of translating books charges for it. There is also something called copyright.


  4. I hope you don’t mind me trying to set the record straight here. I trust “mildly obsessed” is being used for some form of comic effect because it’s not an accurate description, and nor have I ever known this person to claim that translation is not a “legitimate profession”. With that in mind, you may find that there’s less that distinguishes your views from his.


  5. Thanks for your comment.

    He promised me a guest post in response to my silly post. I don’t think he was offended by the words “mildly obsessed” as you seem to be, Lisa, but he will set the record straight himself, hopefully this weekend.

    I have been trying to get him to write a guest post for years. So I consider my mildly provocative post a success.


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