Rebranding the translation profession

I got a recruiting email this week from a group called “My Translation”, which bills itself as “A Revolution in Translation”. Naturally I was curious, thinking it might be a new type of collaborative platform for professionals, so I checked out their website. This is what is says on the home page:

Translators: a new way to make money from home. Take a test, get online translation projects and start earning money now.

The only people whom this might strike as a “new” and “revolutionary” approach would be non-translators. This is just as well, since they appear to be the target audience of this spiel, which presents translation like just another no-qualifications-required, work-at-home opportunity. Call this number, start earning $$$ right away!

It looks to me like some entrepreneur smelled a money-making opportunity and suckered some sincere people into signing up. I checked out some of the translator profiles and most of them registered in 2013 and have not been active since then, so they probably moved on, hopefully to bigger and better things.

unprofessionalI actually don’t blame “My Translation”. The only reason they can even get away with this is because the translation industry has no mandatory standards for its practitioners in the first place (in the US anyway; it might be different in other countries, in which case I would love to hear from you). Can you imagine a similar site for lawyers? “Complete your profile, get matched with a plaintiff and start litigating today!” So why wouldn’t an entrepreneur set up a site like the one above? Our profession demands nothing of its practitioners, so we can’t blame others for being under the impression that that’s all it takes to be a translator: nothing.

I’m not saying legitimate translators are inferior or unqualified. On the contrary; top translators are highly educated, gifted writers, analysts and researchers. Besides degrees, many also earn certificates and are members of associations with the requisite standards, codes of conduct and continued education requirements. Translation agencies are well aware of the importance of credentials in the business world, which is why they tout their quality assurance processes, ISO 9001 and EN 15038 certifications, and why many of them claim, sometimes unscrupulously, that all their linguists are actually physicians (as I happened to read one day on an agency’s website after I, a non-MD, had been delivering medical translations to them for years). Smart freelancers also leverage their education and whatever quality assurance process they use, even something as simple as collaboration with a colleague, for example.

But the point is that none if this is mandatory, and the general public is barely aware of these various levels of professionalism in a market place crowded with low-rate hobbyists. It would add to the stature of the profession as a whole if a translation degree with a particular specialization was actually required, certainly in fields with a high cost of failure (pharmaceutical, legal, finance, etc.). This would prevent translations like “the mother is okay with it” for “mamma OK (mammary surgery in Dutch — I’m not making this up; it’s an actual example from a medical text I proofread once).  This is not even remotely feasible right now, at least in the US, but with the expansion of online programs it might not be too much of a fantasy much longer. Hospitals and courts already require certification for interpreters; why not for translators? (Although I do have to give a shout-out to the California Board of Registered Nursing, which actually requires translators of foreign transcripts to be ATA-certified.) I’m not trying to make life more complicated, but we are not doing ourselves any favors as a profession by appearing to have no objective standards.

Are there any countries that already require translators to be certified or have a degree?

8 thoughts on “Rebranding the translation profession

  1. Regarding the question at the end, yes. In Romania for example, if you want to be able to translate official documents, certificates, you need to be a sworn translator, which usually requires a degree or exam.

  2. Thanks Alina; I think that’s a good thing, as long as it is indeed based on proof of competence, like in Romania. I don’t like the idea of making life more difficult, but in the long run I think it would benefit our profession, and therefore us, to have more visible standards to separate the professionals from the wannabes.

    • Unfortunately, a degree (or even certification) does not always guarantee competence. I’ve seen this in Romania, where, like I said, one needs a degree. I’ve written about my experience with a so-called ‘certified translator’ whose translation was appalling – from changing my title to Mr to blatant grammar mistakes (

      But I do agree that we need a ‘rebranding’ (very nicely said) of the profession and visible standards, so people stop assuming that anyone who speaks (even if not well) another language can translate.

  3. I agree with all that you said about certification and raising the entry barrier to the profession, Marie. But I also think that raising the entry barrier alone is not enough. The other barrier that should be raised is the buying-barrier, i.e. the importance that translation buyers assign to our service. The two are connected in a way, but also travel in parallel paths.

    If you look into those internet marketplaces you will probably notice that they deal mostly with a certain type of services that can be generally grouped together under the “creative” category (web and graphic design, programming, copywriting, translation). None of those services, although for some there is some kind of certification, have a high entry barrier to the market, and while in great demand, many buyers assign them a low priority/importance and think of them as having the same face-value across the board – failing to understand the long-term costs of poorly rendered service. In a way, those marketplaces work very hard to educate our future clients, but they also devalue our service. I don’t think that there is anything that can really be done about those marketplaces except of educating colleagues. The problem exists mainly because translators are so passive, and sometimes so clueless, that they are wiling to register with just about anyone. Sadly, many translators (and certainly para-translators) perceive themselves and their service very similar to many translation buyers.

    Now there is a new trend, Human Automation Platforms (OneHourTranslation, Gengo, and several others, and a new one seems to pop up every week or so), and translation are rushing there as well. I hardly think that a true professional in any other profession will be inclined to even give those ridiculous outfits the light of day.

    It all comes down to professional self-respect and business culture. Freelancers in general – and translators are not different – are having a very hard time switching their mindset from employees or job seekers to professional practitioners. This is not an easy switch to make, but as long as freelancers will continue, and even insist, on bargaining against themselves there will be plenty other people who will be just as happy to continue to exploit them.

    • Well said Shai, thank you. You add an important point and I couldn’t agree more. That’s where branding and PR comes in, both at the individual and collective level. Like you say, we need to present and prove ourselves as professional practitioners and not undermine ourselves with sub-minimum-wage fees.

  4. Unfortunately it is everywhere and not only in the US. I live in the UAE and work with a translation agency that was established more than 15 years ago and only uses professional translators however we are losing some of our new clients because of so called agencies recruiting cheap amateurs from other Arabic speaking countries… The results are a mess. even some websites are full of typos and all kinds of errors. I do not blame them though, they are here because there is a demand, people should stop using such services otherwise they will keep on popping like mushrooms.

    • Thank you for commenting, Liliane. I hadn’t thought about it from the perspective of agencies, but of course they suffer just as much from these kinds of toxic “mushrooms” as translators do. I regularly run into the kind of websites you mention and wonder if these businesses realize how unprofessional they look in translation. I guess education and effective PR are our best weapons.

  5. To improve standards, what is important is not spending time going through a process (e.g. taking a multi-year university course) but achievement (e.g. obtaining a diploma, passing an entry examination to a professional institute). It does not matter how you reach the standard, as long as you reach it.
    Many translators have come into translation as a second or third career, having studied their source language(s) to a very high standard on an informal basis. I understand where you are coming from, Marie, when you talk about translation degrees, but I do not believe that they are the answer.
    What we need is expertise and professional qualifications, not time spent at university per se.
    Also, rather than complain about the kind of translation buyer who does not care whether the translation is full of mistakes or makes them look a fool, we need to avoid them and focus our efforts on marketing to those who do understand the value of a quality product and are willing to pay for it.

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