Jan 22, 2009

A Darwinist view of the translation business

It's amazing how many utterly clueless people out there think they can go into business as translators. My favorite of the week is the young fellow who apparently has never heard of an invoice number before. I'm a big believer in education and sharing knowledge; since the earliest days of my professional career I have been giving training seminars and creating publications and tools to help others in a wide variety of ways. However, in some cases I really do think that it's best to let natural selection take its course. Natural selection works in many ways, of course. Social organization - for us, networking and building good client relationships, for example - increase the chances of survival. But in cases where the organism is born without a functioning brain or suffers severe, irreparable dysfunctions of other vital organs, perhaps the merciful thing to do is to let it die quietly... or find a more intellectually satisfying activity like mowing lawns.

Research of all kinds is a basic prerequisite for success as a translator I think. Or thought once in any case. I have seen so much bad work from people in the business a long time, much of it not only linguistically bad but also badly researched. So I suppose one can be lazy and incompetent and still make a living as a translator, and I suppose that's a good thing, because there are agencies and other clients out there offering projects paying rates that wouldn't buy peanuts for a monkey, and I think that these two groups can come together in a just and appropriate match.

But I do not think that this is a match and a niche to which many beginners aspire. However, some of us, myself included, coddle these beginners far too much. Even with translation degrees from respectable universities they often have no preparation for business life and lack the most basic understanding of issues relevant to success as a freelance professional. It's not like this knowledge is concealed; there is plenty of information available online, in books, from chambers of commerce and other sources. It is very easy to find on the whole. Yet it seems that masses of "translators" are completely unaware of it.

What should be done about this? Nothing really. Point briefly to an appropriate reference like Corinne McKay's book, or the ones from Alex Eames and Oleg Rudavin and probably a dozen others I don't know. Then leave them to their own devices until it is clear that they are able and willing to learn and not waste others' time through laziness. Knowledge is a wonderful thing that should be shared freely, but only with those able to appreciate and apply it.


  1. Wow, thanks for sharing that forum discussion with us. I'm at a loss. I enjoy talking to the KSU students about the business side of translation, but you are right. There are so few beginners out there who also think like businesspeople. I like to think that Corinne and I are doing our part with our presentations - and of course her book. I have a PPT presentation on my LinkedIn profile called Getting Started in the Industry for those who are interested (http://www.linkedin.com/in/jillrsommer).

  2. Well, I know I'm being a cranky bastard with my post today. This is just one example of many I have seen over the past months. I see the same sort of thing even in the private forums of the BDÜ, a professional association in Germany which only admits "qualified translators and interpreters" with a degree in languages, state exams or the equivalent. "Qualified for what?" I ask. Those with degrees in the field seem to be among the most clueless in many ways. The same old questions regarding invoicing, taxes, etc. come up every week. It's obvious that no effort whatsoever has been made to research answers. They expect to be spoon-fed like babies in a high chair. And to what end? If they are committed to this profession for the long run, they will have to look for answers and learn to look well, at least if they want to be more than linguistic janitors. I believe very, very strongly in supporting and educating the next generation of translators (or any serious person in the profession for that matter). However, I think we need to focus our efforts on those who are able to benefit from them and let Nature take care of the rest.

  3. Although I understand your ideas, I just want to let you know that in the past the French "notes d'honoraires" (issued by a "profession libérale") didn't need a number. Even my accountant sent them without numbers. This changed some years ago (don't know when). I even saw my fellow translators destroy the "notes d'honoraires" which weren't paid - so they didn't exist anymore, and of cours it was much easier to forget all about them!

  4. Until 2004 there were no requirements for invoice numbering in Germany either, though many did it. However, I find it hard to believe that anyone, especially someone in the US, can reach adulthood not knowing what an invoice number is. Invoices I recall having seen there over the past decades had numbers, at least for utilities and many purchases. And how hard is it to do a Google search on "sequential invoice number" or similar terms?


Notice to spammers: your locations are being traced and fed to the recreational target list for my new line of chemical weapon drones :-)