Much time has been spent discussing what profession is most similar to translation. Some would liken translators to physicians, but given the rigid and structured nature of medical training, the historical reverence for doctors, and the nature of their daily practice, this seems inappropriate. Others would compare translators to lawyers, architects, engineers, or dentists, but for reasons which include the required academic background, historical precedent, and role in society, these comparisons also fail.
Therefore a new metaphor is proposed: translators are most similar to computer programmers. Both professions have no formalized body of knowledge and limited theoretical underpinnings, which mostly stem from other areas of knowledge and research. Programming finds some of its underpinnings in mathematics; translation in linguistics. Both professions admit practitioners from all backgrounds, be they graduate-educated or self-taught. Both professions have freelancers and in-house people. Both professions are currently in a state of complete disarray, with practitioners arguing over qualifications, pay, benefits, long – term outlook, industry surveys, regulation, and a host of all too familiar issues.
Truly talented, dedicated programmers find homes with major prestigious companies. They usually have considerable academic training and work experience. Many program for a few years and then become project managers or leaders, software engineers, or systems analysts. Some even start their own software development firms. Sound familiar?
Anyone can claim to be a programmer. Employers look for experience and perhaps formal academic training, want programmers with well developed knowledge in certain area specialization (networking, client/server technology, etc.), aren’t willing to pay what the programmer wants, and regularly decry the lack of good programmers. Conversely, programmers struggle to keep up with an ever-changing marketplace and constantly improving technology, fight for reasonable salaries, benefits, and working conditions, and complain about the lack of job security. Sound familiar?
Moreover, the average person in the street understands little about what programming is and how it’s done. Some view it as an arcane art performed by strange but talented people. Others consider it a science or vocational skill that anyone can master. Still others claim that computer science is not a science, but an engineering discipline without much discipline. Sound familiar?
The government went through its phase of cracking down on independent computer consultants and small consulting firms a few years back. Software firms are now creating packages which let anyone do basic programming, using graphical elements and mouse-clicks to create simple software. Some people claim that in ten or twenty years, computers will program themselves, leaving all but the most highly trained and experienced programmers without jobs. Sound familiar?
This metaphor works, not only because the situation of the translator and programmer is so similar, but because each can learn a great deal from it.
We can learn about the value of respecting and cooperating with our colleagues. Translators should not consider their brethren as competition. If you are truly a competent, qualified, and responsible professional, then you have nothing to worry about. If you aren’t, then another translator is the least of your problems. Cooperation among translators would bring not only a sense or order and coherency to the translation industry, but also a feeling of professionalism.
We can learn about the value of education and experience. Computer programmers, like translators are both born and bred. It takes a certain personality to program or translate, but it also takes a lot of education and training. But, we should be aware that there is no universal system for training programmers, just as there is none for translators.
The greatest lesson to be learned from this metaphor is the value of market forces. A computer programmer who creates unstable, buggy code is quickly eliminated just as a translator who creates inaccurate and sloppy work is (or should be). Just as a software firm which releases poor products is quickly shunned by the consumer, so is a translation agency which provides bad service or incorrect materials. The translator, the agency (or client) and the consumer all have a responsibility to choose the best available. Translators should choose the agencies they work with, staying close with those that give them lots of material and treat them well. Agencies and clients should cherish those translators who perform accurate, high-quality work on time and support them as much as possible. And consumers should praise the agencies or translators who provide good translations, and shun the others.
The translation profession is a very free market. But like any free market, it assumes that the participants take the time and responsibility to choose wisely, make the effort to reward those who do well and shun the others, and make informed, intelligent decisions about those they buy from and sell to. More openness and cooperation among translators, agencies, clients, and consumers would help us realize such a marketplace. And, it would require neither regulation nor standardization.