esterday I said goodbye to my colleagues from my interpreting traineeship at the Mediterranean Agronomic Institute of Zaragoza. I could write a dozen different posts about the lessons I learned over these three months (both literally and figuratively, since the material I interpreted consisted mostly of Masters lectures). Perhaps the other eleven will come later, but for…
Translators Are The New Hairdressers (Part 2)
In my last post, I tried to convince you that translators and hairdressers essentially do the same job: we look after your image, make you look neat and professional, and we do it in our own ways according to our own experience and expertise. However, I also noted one major difference between the two professions (well okay, there are a few, but aside from the obvious). A hairdresser’s salon is a physical working environment, so customers can make reasoned judgements about the service based on what they see. If, instead of a haircut, what you need is a translation, you might feel unable to make these judgements; but what if I told you that the same clues are there if you know how to look? What if it were just as easy to know what level of service to expect from a translator as from a hairdresser? Well, I believe that the same four factors contribute to the quality of any professional, whether they’re a hairdresser, a translator or an aircraft engineer. By looking at the visible clues that attest to each of these four attributes in a visible profession like hairdressing, we can find equivalent clues in a less visible one, like translation.
Positive attributes in a professional
If you’re contracting a professional service, no matter what that service is, there are four key factors that tend to contribute to the service provider’s ability to do the job well. It helps if they’ve actually been taught how to do it. It helps if they’ve done it before. It helps if they have the appropriate tools. And it really helps if they’re truly committed to what they do.
Not everything can be taught in a classroom, but it can’t exactly hurt. Vocational or academic programmes allow students to learn the theory behind their craft and/or to practise it and receive feedback from more experienced professionals. This can contribute greatly to the quality of their work, and, especially in the absence of professional experience, serves as a useful indicator of the person’s capabilities. Just like a certificate on the wall of a salon, you can expect a translator to let you know in their application or on their website if they’ve studied a degree in translation, obtained a certification from a recognised professional body, or taken any kind of practical training course.
No matter how much training you’ve had, most professionals would agree that the first few months of activity in any field tend to involve a pretty steep learning curve. Thinking of some of the inexplicable translation decisions I made when starting out, I still shake my head in disbelief… But that’s a story for another time. Many professionals use the number of years of experience they have as a major selling point, and rightly so: in the case of translators, you’ll usually find it on our websites, or on our CVs if we’ve contacted you directly; and if you end up in conversation with us it’s probably the first thing we’ll mention! Experience isn’t just a question of quantity: equally important is the type of experience the translator has (specifically, in the subject matter or type of text you need translated); and, even better, any references or testimonials from clients or agencies they’ve worked for in the past.
Let’s say you walk into a “salon” containing a folding chair in front of a cracked mirror and find a “hairdresser” wielding a pair of garden shears. Now, this person may be physically able to cut the hairs on your head, but you can imagine that it’s going to take longer and look shabbier than if you went to a proper place with proper tools. Well, translators use tools as well! All you really need is a computer, an email account and a word processor, but a translator who uses additional software such as Translation Memory programmes, Computer Assisted Translation (CAT) tools, productivity-enhancing applications, quality online or paper dictionaries and other such resources may be able to get the job done faster, more accurately and/or more consistently.
This could be the most important of all. A highly qualified translator with 25 years experience can still produce a mediocre translation if they’re not really bothered about the work; likewise, an unqualified, inexperienced translator who truly loves their job will do whatever it takes to make your target text shine. But how can you tell one from the other?
Let’s go back to our virtual salon: how would you tell if your hairdresser really loves what they do? Well, first of all, they’ll probably have great hair. If they want to be the best they can be, they might use the latest tools and read (or even write) articles in magazines or websites about different techniques. If they’re really into it, they might even have joined a professional organisation to promote standards in the industry.
If you think these clues are harder to spot in a translator’s professional profile, think again. Great hair is to hairdressers as websites are to translators: words are our métier, so well-written online materials are a good sign. If we work with specialised tools and resources, we’re probably committed to the profession: I’m not going to spend hundreds of Euros on a resource if it’s just for a hobby or side job. Our social media profiles can tell you how much time we spend reading and writing about our disciplines (meaning both translation and our specialist areas, such as fashion, food and drink in my case). And again, membership of a professional body such as the ITI in the U.K., or the ATA in the U.S.A. is another hallmark of a serious professional likely to produce serious results.
It all boils down to this…
I’m not saying you need to hire someone with a PhD in translation and 15 years of experience who is a member of the ITI and the ATA and uses all the tools in the business. If their LinkedIn page is full of shining and verifiable recommendations, does it really matter that they’ve only been translating for a year or two?
It’s also a case of weighing up each of these assets against, let’s face it, the corresponding cost. Education costs time and money; it’s an investment on which any professional expects a return. Experience, too, elevates the value of a service: translators with low rates often lack confidence and knowledge about the translation process or the industry in general, neither of which are good news for the client. In addition, the tools and resources I mentioned above are costly: here again, low rates suggest that the translator neither possesses these tools nor plans to invest in them in the future. Which brings us to the final attribute to look for in a professional: if they are truly dedicated to being the best at what they do, they’re going to need to invest in themselves, and that means charging accordingly. Attending conferences, pursuing CPD to remain competitive, subscribing to scholarly publications, joining associations… High rates may not be a guarantee of high quality, but one thing you can be sure of is that, if a translator (or agency) is charging far below the average rates, they have not, are not, and probably do not plan to improve the service they can offer you by investing in any of these enhancements.