Monday, February 22, 2016

What Makes an Expert Translator a Professional Translator?

Previously, on this blog and elsewhere, I have maintained that what distinguishes a Professional Translator from a Non-Professional Expert Translator is that the former is paid for translating (see the definitions obtained by entering essential definitions in the Search box on the right). I still believe that's the defining characteristic. Yet there are many Expert Translators whose productions are of as high a standard as those of the Professionals but who do them pro bono publico or for friends and colleagues, and so on, without charging. And on the other hand there are translators who work as Professionals and charge accordingly but they lack training or experience and are not so good. Caveat emptor!

The upcoming International Conference on Non-Professional Interpreting and Translation makes me think again. Payment, whether by piecework or by salary. may still be the defining characteristic of the Professional, but there are also other important differences. Here are some of them. They aren't necessarily in order of importance.

1. The time constraint (see image). The Professional undertakes to produce a translation not only for a certain price but also by a certain deadline. There may well be a penalty for missing it. The Non-Professional cannot always take his or her time but can expect more flexibility and can hardly be penalised.

2. Speed. The would-be Professional who can't keep up a certain speed won't earn enough to make a living or may be unemployable. The question is often asked, what's the minimum speed or the optimum speed to demand of a translator, but it's too variable to be dealt with here.

3. Training. By the norm of other professions, a Professional Translator should have received training somehow from somebody, and be in possession of a piece of paper to prove it. That is, if you think of translating as a profession like law or medicine; but not if you regard it as something more creative like music. While many employers of translators do these days require a degree or diploma from applicants, a large segment of the translation 'industry' remains unregulated and untrained..

4. Technology. Obviously this applies to the parts of the world that are technologically advanced; but where today are there no computers? Today's Professionals are expected to know how to use word processors and term banks at least, and many job ads now call for mastery of more complex translator-aid software like machine translation systems, translation memories and translation project managers. Sign of the times: I've just received an announcement from University College London for this year's edition of their "very popular" Intensive Summer Course in Translation Technology, which you too can see at

5. Ethics. Professionals are expected to conform to certain standards and principles of conduct. They may be generally accepted but informal, or they may be codified into a Code of Ethics. Among other things, it may enjoin translators to turn away work for which they are not qualified or to refer the client to a better qualified colleague.(I recently received a circular from the professional association to which I belong, asking me to sign the updated version of its Code.) Non-professionals are not bound by them.

6. Versatiity. The non-professional Expert Translator is usually only expert in a particular subject or subject area. Take the case of Einstein's English translator, described on this blog a few posts ago. Would he have been capable of such a good translation in a different area such as biology? Anyway he never did publish any translations outside mathematical physics. But the Professional Translator cannot afford to be so picky and must adapt to market demand. I knew a professional Canadian government translator who was a qualified geologist and could rattle off 6,000 words a day in that area. Then the government decided it didn't need so many geology specialists and he was switched to pension legislation. His output slipped to 1,000 words a day and he hated it. But, as he said ruefully, it was pensions or unemployment.

In another dimension, that of the medium, today's Professional Translator may be called on to translate not only texts but also audiovisual captions and subtitles, dictionary entries, etc., whereas the Non-Professionals can turn down what they don't like. The number of 'professional updating' courses currently on offer for audiovisual translating is striking, whereas 20 years ago there were none.

The case of the geologist-translator illustrates an important component of translating. Translators need not only fluency in languages but also extra-linguistic background knowledge in the area dealt with by their texts. You can't translate well or quickly what you don't understand. Non-Professionals may decide it's not worth their while researching to acquire background knowledge they don't already have. The Professional Translator, on the contrary, must be prepared to do so and the ways of doing it should be part of their training. Fortunately the internet makes it much easier than it used to be.

7. Liability. In practice it's very rare for translators to be sued for errors and omissions. I only remember one case a long time ago concerning a maintenance manual translated by IBM. But it suits the insurance companies to advertise that translators could be sued and to sell professional liability insurance against it. In short, professional liability is a dubious characteristic of professional translators, yet some translation agencies ask for insurance.

Can you think of any other characteristics of the Professional Translator?

Source: someecards,

NPIT3, Winterthur (near Zurich), 5-7 May 2016
International forum for Non-Professional Interpreting and Translation, the latest paradigm in translation studies.


  1. While non-professionals and dissenting professionals may not be technically bound by a membership body's code of conduct/ethics, they may well bind themselves to a personal ethical code. Or not. Likewise, just because a professional interpreter or translator is technically bound by membership does not mean they will follow it. Sorry if this seems obvious but I don't think it's as much of a distinguishing feature as many believe it to be.

    1. You may well be right. Most clients aren't even aware that such commandments exist in codified form.

      There's a more important distinction that I left out of the list because it awaits investigation, and that's whether professional translations tend to be more 'reader oriented' than non-professional ones. It could be because of a perceived need to respect a house style or a prejudice or many other reasons, and the fear of 'turning off' a client. A good topic for a thesis. Quite often I think of a translation I like but I don't use it for one of those reasons.

      Thanks for writing. It was also the occasion for me to discover YOUR blog, which I will follow in future.

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