Translators Disrespected

Actually, it's not
Actually, it’s not

You’re sitting at home (or at work) slaving over a translation when out of the blue you receive a call/email/text message* (delete where appropriate) from a colleague/friend/acquaintance* (delete where appropriate) who you have not heard from for quite some time. The message usually begins in similar fashion regardless of whether it is a phone call, email or text message and whatever the nature of your relationship with the interlocutor – a polite yet brief query as to how you have been these past few weeks/months/years in order to momentarily detract from the main point of the message. Your suspicions are raised immediately – this is not the first such message you have received from ‘friends’ – yet you remain quietly heartened by the fact that this person has decided to contact you after such a long time.

However, you listen/read on and within several seconds your fears are confirmed. Your mind is awash with a range of emotions – anger, frustration and disappointment. Once again, another of your so-called ‘friends’ has demonstrated their complete lack of respect for your profession, not to mention an utter lack of respect for yourself. This ‘friend’ has done the unthinkable – he has asked you for ‘help’ in order to translate a phrase/sentence/text. The plea is usually innocent and nine times out of ten the task is ridiculously simple but what especially irks is the justification this person uses to ask you in the first place. Perfunctory explanations like, “I know it won’t take you a great deal of time…” or syrupy statements like, “For someone like you, this should be really easy…” or to really add insult to injury, “This should take you five minutes at most…”

Who are these people to determine the period of time a translation task should take? And then demand that we perform the task? What is more, the very fact that it would take, for example, only five minutes is surely testament to the fact that we are good at our job. Specialists, as we all know, are usually richly rewarded for their specialist services. Why is it that people who are not translators believe translation should be undertaken for free? Do architects receive calls from friends to ‘do a quick sketch’ of a proposed design of a room? Do copywriters get text messages from colleagues to ‘come up with a short slogan’ for a product? Do accountants receive emails from clients asking them to ‘undertake a brief audit’ of an investment?

Translators, language specialists and editors need to show people unfamiliar with our work that the services we offer are akin to those services provided by other professions. Not only do we have similar time constraints and financial requirements but we also have the need to gain satisfaction from our work. Respect for the work we do is key to achieving this satisfaction. In today’s society, the one tangible way in which measure for our work can be achieved is through remuneration. This is, after all, what we do for a living…

58 thoughts on “Translators Disrespected

  1. Excellent article!
    I will add that bilinguals also underestimate our translation jobs, as they suppose that “translating” involves “knowing both languages” and that they can translate ANYTHING just by speaking/writing both languages. Actually, translating from one language into another involves knowing both languages’ uses & customs, grammar, syntax, lexis, special terminology, features, and more; it is not just putting some words into other words from other languages, but also analyzing why and how you do it.
    You’re totally right… our job is underestimated and should be measured out of its remuneration.

  2. I wouldn’t be so harsh. I have many times (especially in pre-Google period) consulted my friends about accounting, legal or technical matters, in which they were more experienced than me. And, in turn, they (or other friends) sometimes consult me about proper English words, grammar issues etc. It depends on a scope – I have always rejected innocent requests for translation of “just two pages of an user’s manual, i do not need exact translation, only something to understand how the machine works”, explaining to askers that their “simple translations” would require at least two hours of my time and I do not expect of them to work for me two hours for free. Sad true is that often the rejection was not received well as if the people meant that I had no other things to do in my free time than translating.
    Another sad misunderstanding is a presumption that if I work at home, I am always willing and capable to put entire work aside and invite unexpected visit/make long phone calls during common business day.

    1. Vlado, SO true. Rejection is not always taken well. I also wholeheartedly agree about working at home. Just because you don’t go to an office dos not mean your work is any less important.

      1. By the way, I like your phrase “slaving over a translation”, it is very exact. Most people (especially those, who are able to read in foreign language, but never tried to translate a text) didn’t realize that translating doesn’t (only) mean searching through dictionaries and putting correct words to proper places. I has been involved in very interesting discussion on Proz, where four or five translators discussed meaning of specific legal or economic terms for hours, trying to find as close expression of the word in target language as possible. And quite often no exact translation can be found due to cultural shift.

    1. Hey Vlado,

      You might wanna brush up on your “English”. Your comments/replies are full of ridiculous errors. No hard feelings mate, I’m just pointing out the obvious. You’re the one who’s not proficient in English, and yet you’ve got the nerve to talk about bilingual people lacking language skills?!

      Dude, that really is the “Sad true” as you would put it. LMAO! :):)

      1. Calm down, man, writing on a blog is not same as making a translation and translating is not same as delivering text in polished, noble English.
        By the way, I do not cast doubts on language skills of bilingual people, but on their translating skills. Two different fields. You should know it, if you are really “professional translator”.

    2. Just for the record…it’s “translation skills” not “translating skills”. You amuse me, my friend 🙂

      1. Oooh, really? I am shocked that I used such an incorrect and generally non-understandable phrase. But you saved my day, now I am enlighted. Maybe, my friend, you could be so kind and help me also with Roman military architecture, with which I have struggled all the long day.

      2. Why are you so aggressive? We are commenting and writing about an interesting article on our slaving work. I don’t get the utility to be so mean and unfriendly.

  3. Some bilingual people think they are qualified to translate being unaware of the translating skills they need.

      1. What do you think could be done so as to let bilingual people know about their lack of skills and don`t make them feel we think we are superior, but we are just talking about different professions?

  4. Great article.Encountered with this situation many times. Sometimes do it though unhappy about it. More often change the tone of my voice or say I am too busy which is always true. And they get offended in return.

  5. We, translators, entertain the idea that machines will never replace us, yet, after having witnessed Deep Blue beating Kasparov, I already have my doubts.

    1. Angel,
      Indeed. Google Translate has made huge strides with regards to quality and truly believe that within the next few years, MT and and so called ‘online translators’ will really be snapping at our heels.

      1. Maybe it depends on a language combination, but when I last time tested GT (in autumn 2011), it started to produce obviously worser results than they used to be. To say that it was a scrap would be too laudatory. GT can not cope with changed word order, shifts in meaning, cultural shifts et. and I do not believe that bigger pool of data (with GT being based on statistics) will help in it.

  6. I agree that people underestimate the translator as s profession, I have often seen examples of this. (“I lived in England for a year and now I want translate” etc).
    However I don’t agree that for example architects wouldn’t be asked for their special skills unpaid, not to say the least doctors being asked for various medical conditions. I am a psychologist and though it is unethical for me to offer my professional services to friends, I often as a human being, try to help the best way I can and listen to my friends and other people. And it sometimes borders to professional psychology.
    I believe in “paying it forward” the world is so much nicer if we all help each other. That being said everyone should have the right to say no and I will reserve the right to be offended if my neighbour architect wants to charge me minimum fee for asking him if painting the house needs planning permission. Charge your minimum fees for translation of a sentence and think of that minimum fee the next time you ask your fellow human for unpaid advice.

  7. Great Article. I have been a Professional translator for more than 4 decades. We together must see that Professional translation should get its due respect.

  8. Dear Colleagues,

    Thank you for your “transubstantiation” Blog, let me express my solid respect for your smart articles.
    I am a freelance translator too and developed an original concept named “Translator’s Factory”, which consists of three main principles:
    – obtain NO MATCH source text for translation – by cleaning it from: repetitions, non-translatables and fuzzy-repetitions
    – use INTERPRETING for translation by dictating from scrolling text line – similarly to TV announcers.
    This concept is realized as a toolkit free downloadable at TranslatorsFactory.Net site.
    I successfully use it myself and wish to share it with other translators.

    Hope it may be of interest to you and other our colleagues.

    Thank you for your attention.

  9. I have also had a few similar situations. A year ago my friend asked for ‘a brief translation’ of a highly specialized text on geology, 6 hours of searching the net and I’ve got her ‘brief translation’ and although I gained some knowledge on rivers and pebbles the experience taught me also not to accept such nonsense requests in the future…or as you advise to simply determine the value of the work in advance. However, if a colleague asks me for a translation of a short e-mail there is no problem with me.

  10. I agree that we are underestimated but I think it is sometimes our own fault. No one is born a translator, we learn the language for many years and our friends know that we are good at it. Some of us may have tried to give some private lessons for friends for “don’t mention it” or “no problem” or for symbolical payment and this is the first step towards disrespect. Matters get worse when it is a very close friend and he/she literally has one or two sentences to translate from time to time. It would be very hard to pin down a price for it. Nonetheless, it can get frustrating after a while but, in my opinion, sometimes translators are to blame because they want to be nice, won’t say a word and translate the text…and that’s the way this vicious circle goes.

  11. I have also experienced such behaviour and I throw my weight behind this article because I sympathise with a feeling of being ‘used.’ A year ago my friend called me and asked me to help him with some brief translation. I wish that he could mention that it was not one-time translation but a 2 weeks long job that was based on constant telephone conversations and negotiations with potential customers. Don’t get me wrong I do not mind helping others BUT I do mind when someone does not appreciate my time. Even though I lost 2 weeks on ‘helping’ my friend, I could not focus on my M.A. thesis and I didn’t even had time to go to my regular classes, the only gratitude that my friend showed me was the statement that “You know I would do it myself but I know you have nothing else to do so…” not to mention he did not even say THANK YOU. Anyway, now I think that every cloud has a silver lining because that free translation and interpretation that I had to do to my friend taught me that helping others has its boundaries and if it comes to my friend, I guess he showed me how valuable my services as a translator are 

  12. I’m not a professional translator so I’ve never experienced such behavior. Once, however, I had to translate some economic article for my friend and because I’m not interested in economics, I had to do a research first. When I sent her my final translation she said: ‘Why it took you so long?’ instead of ‘Thanks for helping me’. Come on! So thats why I think that what you say is true. What is more, we are often underestimated by our friends, not by strangers. That is also sad.

  13. “Who are these people to determine the period of time a translation task should take? And then demand that we perform the task?”
    My sentiments exactly. We are in no way obliged to provide professional support to people who are unwilling to pay for it. I guess, it all depends on how often – and how nicely – you are asked to translate for free – and what you are offered in return. When your friends make such demands on your time and resources, “moderation” is the key word to your reaction. Also, let me put it straight – it is in their own best interest to try and sense where your boundaries are and when moderation might turn into excess.
    People usually realize it quite clearly that a favour creates an obligation. Yet, some of them, sometimes, believe that the world owes them some kind of debt – and don’t ask me how they arrive at this creative conclusion, but they might just imagine that it is you who should be paying it back. In that case, they disguise abuse as “help”. As soon as you realize that you are expected to share your know-how for a meagre “thanks”, it’s time to refuse paying such tax on friendship. And it’s best to do it openly and assertively, remembering that full responsibility for creating this awkwardness is theirs, not yours.
    That’s theory. Now, practice may get tricky from time to time. Actually, I was forced to exercise it just last night. As it happened, a person who had asked me a couple of times to translate a scientific paper for them (for a fee, naturally), started bombarding me with text messages with all kinds of additional requests. While I was working on the last assignment, and for some time after I finished, I would get a couple of texts a day, usually after 10 p.m., asking me “to consult the translation of that term” or “help them with this short sentence”. What I first assumed to be an exception quickly turned into an unpleasant rule. Wishing to avoid a confrontation – which could end up with a degree of face-loss for the other party – I began to ignore such messages in the vain hope that the problem would disappear. It didn’t. So, yesterday, I sent an email stating plainly that I’m always willing to translate an article for them, but I’m not going to serve as a 24/7 translating help-desk, as it is time-consuming, it interferes with my other work and I find it impossible to price it.
    I got a prompt and expectedly dry reply to that email. They “weren’t aware it was such a huge effort for me to do that”.
    I just laughed. Talk about adding insult to injury… Some people simply won’t change. But when you refuse to be mistreated and disrespected, YOU feel infinitely better.

    1. Edycja, wonderful comment. Thank you. I think you’ve hit the proverbial nail on the head with ‘moderation’ and the need to ‘state plainly’ what the situation is. Although to many, translation may seem natural, it is not. If it WAS a naturally-endowed gift, everybody would be doing it.

      1. Still, isn’t it curious how some people seem to act on a hidden envy, as if they were annoyed with the fact that heaven distributes its gifts unevenly?
        What makes matters worse in Poland is the lack of an official certification system. Unless you are a sworn translator, you rarely have a diploma which would state that you are a translator by profession. Unlike medical doctors, lawyers or architects, most translators are still self-taught. Though the situation partly results from the uniqueness of the combination of skills and abilities required to be a translator, in my opinion it backfires on us, strengthening this common underlying conviction that just anybody could do our job and, consequently, that it’s worthless and might as well be done for free.

      2. Edycja, quite right! I think the official certification system is another kettle of fish and Poland’s farcical ‘tłumacz przysięgły’ certainly doesn’t help the situation. I wonder if doing away with this qualification might improve things (but that really is another topic of discussion).

    2. Favors, favors… either for free, either, what I like even better, for “a small fee, I know you’re a good translator but we’re friends so could you do that for a ‘friend’s fee’?” And then you can’t say “no” straight away, because the other side says “but I’ll pay you”, as this was the ultimate solution to everything, your time and resources included.
      Another thing is, what Edycja mentions in her reply, that the so-called “helps with a short sentence” become regular or even get more refined. For example, recently I’ve been getting e-mails asking for “corrections”. OK, a short sentence to correct is not a big and time-consuming challenge. So the last time I got an email asking for “minor corrections”, I carelessly replied “OK”, because I was typing something on my computer anyway. And then I looked at the text. Well… tell me, how to correct a scientific text, about a page long, entirely translated through Google Translate? And let’s get this clear, obviously, this person didn’t even look at it before sending it to me, she just copied-pasted everything GTranslate provided. How to call this? Arrogance? I felt like I got a slap in my face. But well, I had agreed to “correct” it, so I did, the best I could, because I don’t like breaking promises. However, I’m not going to do that again and if this repeats I’ll follow Edycja example and send and an email kindly refusing such favors.

  14. This article says about today’s sad reality. People do not know how does the translators’ work look like. They are not aware of the work that a translator should do in order to get quite a good translation of an even simple text. I had once a situation when my neighbor asked me to translate something for him. I asked what did he need? His answer was “a book”. “What book?”. “A user’s manual for a car”. I was surprised at that moment but I asked “How many pages are there?”. “About 90”. I said “so, multiply 90 pages by, more or less, 30 zloty for a page, and when you will have that money, come back to me and I will translate it for you”. He was really astonished and , of course, he didn’t mention about that any more. However, he also didn’t ask if I have time, how much money does it cost and how much time does it take or is it difficult or not. I can even say that he was sure that I don’t have any other duties and I am ready to do this here and now. That’s the way how other people perceive translators and their work. Unfortunately.

  15. In my opinion, such situation is partially ‘our’ (translators) own fault. Some so-called translators to start their ‘career’ or simply to raise their self-esteem treat their own services as something easy and ordinary… and it is not like this as most of us know. I have been translating on my own already for a few years and I have never been in such a situation as I know that in business there is no friends and free services.

  16. I love this article. I come across such unfair comments everyday at work. Most of my colleagues believe that translation requires no effort from a translator and that it just boils down to opening a dictionary. The most opinionated persons are those with poor command of English and they think that everybody can translate. My colleague uses just one dictionary when he translates and sometimes he gets ridiculous resutls especially as he deals with technical texts. Once he’d tried to translate an extract from the Australian commercial register and he did such a poor job that he could have had legal consequences as he mistranlslated the legal form of a compeny! Luckily enough, my friends do not ask me to do translations for them.

  17. It’s in fact hard to imagine a notary’s friend popping in to the office for a free of charge, favor notary act. I use a notary example for a purpose even though it may not seem quite relevant at first, but as far as I know in both professions minimum charge in defined by law… Since I’m not translating for living I find it difficult to say what my reaction would be … the key issue I believe is that nobody has rights to understate your profession (whatever you do and regardless of whether you wake up at 5 to go to factory/office or you work from home).
    Depending on the relationship (but as mentioned, it’s rather less important I would just tell such friend that I’d be happy to do it and this is how much I charge for this. Simple as that…
    Just to defend a little those who never experienced professional translator’s work, they simply often don’t mean to understate translator’s work, nine out of ten cases, they are just simply unaware how conscious you have to be to produce a good translation.
    I’d rather consider this article in terms of so called “less important friend” 😉 appearing only to ask any kind of favor, not particularly translation.

  18. Even though I’m not a professional translator and I certainly don’t make a living out of it, some of my friends, members of my family or sometimes my boss ask me to do a translation for them simply because I study English at a university (I’ve had and still do have some translation workshops though). It’s as if I’m supposed to be able to translate anything just because I study the language. The texts I’m asked to translate are usually specialized in the fields of economy or law. We did have classes on translating the latter one; however, they were rather brief. The problem is that those people expect me to translate something for them quickly, professionaly and for free. As I’m not an expert in translation and especially not an expert in the areas of economy and law, it’s really hard for me to meet their expectations. I usually TRY to make some sort of translation and I always feel too embarrassed to ask them to pay me. I always warn them that I’m not an experienced translator and it will definitely take me a lot of time and I can’t promise that the translation will be great. You can imagine them going, “What do you mean you can’t do that? It’s only one page-long and it’s a simple text really…” They don’t understand how uncomfortable it makes me feel. I would really like to help and it’s always nice to practice a bit, but I don’t get how they don’t understand that it takes a lot more than just to ‘know’ a language.

    PS. I just would like to say, “Spot on!” to Edycja.

  19. I’m not a professional translator, I translate only occassionally, but some time ago my friend asked me if I could just “have a look” at the text and tell him what it is about. He needed to have a general idea. He came to me with a manual 100 pages and promissed to take me for a good lunch. It was like a bad joke. So, I sent him to Google translator “for general idea” and “free translation”.
    I told him he had no idea what he asked me for. The result is that we are not friends anymore, but se la vie.
    I don’t feel sorry for that, I did my best trying to explain him that it’s not so simple. He didn’t want to listen. He knew better how much time and work it needed.

  20. I came across your post and I would say that it hugely depends on the translation agency whether the translator is respected or not. For instance, I have been in the translation field for quite a few years and have cooperated with at least 8 agencies. And to my great happiness, translators ARE respected at Allingus Translations, Lingotek, Master TR Professional Translation, One Hour Translation and so on. I think we should check the feedback of other translators before cooperating with an agency, otherwise we may end up having more pain than gain.

  21. When someone writes an paragraph he/she maintains the thought
    of a user in his/her mind that how a user can understand it.

    So that’s why this paragraph is outstdanding. Thanks!

  22. First off I want to say awesome blog! I had a
    quick question in which I’d like to ask if you don’t mind.
    I was curious to find out how you center yourself and clear your mind prior to writing.

    I’ve had trouble clearing my thoughts in getting my thoughts out.
    I truly do take pleasure in writing but it just seems like the
    first 10 to 15 minutes are wasted just trying to figure out how to begin. Any ideas or tips?

    Thank you!

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