Dec 3, 2008

A matter of choice

Unlike the people who speak them, all languages are not created equal, nor are the opportunities associated with them for language professionals the same. I was reminded of this again in a recent online discussion in which a translator expressed her outrage at being assessed a minimum charge by a translator for performing a trivial service. She publicly expressed her outrage at the thought of being charged for something so "unimportant" (but it was important enough to call up and make an urgent request that those two words be formatted bold and the months-old job be re-sent to the client ASAP) and mentioned, among other things, that she looks forward to being "honest" (I read that as "vengeful") the next time this person asks for a reference. She went on to mention how "easy" it is to find good translators and replace this one. Well, honey... I've got news for you. It's easy to find outsourcers with a bad attitude toward the value of a skilled translator's time, and she may just have replaced you and moved up-market.

The persons involved in this dispute work in the English-Spanish language pair. Now I've had the impression for a while that somehow the world turns differently in that pair and that it's more dog-eat-dog compared with the kinder, gentler environment of my language pair German & English. But then on the low end of the market for German I once heard the same sort of statements. Maybe it's just that these zookeepers don't value the monkeys to whom they feed peanuts and that translators who charge what they are worth (if they are worth much) get a lot more respect.

But this little flare-up of online indignation reminded me of a decision I made 34 years ago, which I had largely forgotten, but which has proven to be one of the most accurate professional assessments I ever made. Kids aren't as stupid as we oldsters sometimes want to think they are. The decision was my choice of what foreign language to learn in high school. In Southern California, where I grew up, the general consensus was Spanish being the only "logical" choice, because it is so "useful"? "Useful for what?" I asked. Useful for giving orders to the gardener or asking for directions in certain parts of town? Certainly. Useful if you aspire to some sort of community service job? Probably. Useful if you aspire to work at the cutting edge of research and development? Most likely not. As a kid I simply judged what I saw on the bookshelves of my local technical library. That was the Millikan Library at CalTech, where I spent many of my Saturdays from age 10 onward browsing the bookshelf contents for biology and chemistry, with occasional forays into the floors for other technical disciplines (usually playing hide-and-seek or up to other devilment with other kids involved in the weekend education program for kids at that time). There I saw a huge quantity of scientific books and other publications in German and a number in French and Russian, though comparatively few. I don't remember seeing any in Spanish, and the very nice Mexican student that I shot pool with one afternoon was learning German to support her career ambitions in science. So that pretty much settled my choice. If a medical career had been my ambition, I might have made another choice, but then again perhaps not. Once again, the basic science for the profession would require a command of German to explore many important sources. So I still would have chosen that language, followed later by another language appropriate for whatever community I chose to practice in. If I had moved to Africa on a mission wiith Doctors Without Borders, Spanish wouldn't have done me much good. In Ecuador on the other hand, very much so obviously.

So the next time some kid pipes up in a public forum announcing his or her calling to a career in translation or interpretation and asking what languages are "in demand" and should be studied (that in itself seems a sign of the sickness affecting our market-driven economies), I'll remember my choice long ago and the reasons and suggest that they consider their other interests and the languages that are important to these, and the places they might want to live and work, and base their choices on that more than what is currently "hot". Years ago I was told that my knowledge of Russian was "worthless" and that the country would never have any commercial or scientific status again. Now I see a different situation, even if the competitive environment for Russian translators isn't easy.

My choice of German has turned out to be a very fortunate one for me personally. Germany has a long history of scientific and technical leadership, and it is still one of the leading exporters in the world. Most of that world does not speak German, and despite the willingness of Germans to learn other languages, the "natives" will never develop enough foreign language competence to cover the effective demand in a way that will secure contracts and keep them out of product liability fiascos due to bad documentation. So for someone like me who is actually interested in a lot of what Germany does, makes and exports, being a translator of German is sort of like winning the language lottery. But then at age 13 I knew it would be that way, even though I expected to spend my life in a lab.

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