Mar 1, 2011

The future, tense

This morning as I gulped my mocha I was greeted by a tweet announcing the demise of the New York Times column On Language, begun more than three decades ago by the late William Safire. The last article of the column ended on a positive note as author Ben Zimmer contemplated the lively linguistic future of his four-year-old son, who will grow up in an environment of beneficent grace with the wonders of Google, iPads and All The Wonderful Things To Come.

Elsewhere in the NYT the prospects of the future looked a bit less bright. Bob Herbert's meditation on the commentary of Justice Powell on the power of organization elaborated clearly one of the great difficulties facing those in the social trenches today. This is a dilemma not unfamiliar to the freelance language service provider, though individual experiences vary widely. There is widespread talk of "the erosion of rates", though where I have examined the statistical data available, this appears to be as much myth as reality if one tries not to think too much about inflation. At least the magnitude of the problem is usually a few orders smaller than the perception of it.

Responses to this have varied and include quite a few from translators who are perhaps to young to realize that L'Internationale was translated long ago and singing its various language instances got workers mostly nowhere. Petitions to a portal like ProZ, which despite its great popularity with Indian and Chinese LSPs is largely irrelevant to purchasing departments in the formerly civilized world are an amusing diversion, but largely a waste of time. While a translator in Stuttgart might get hot and bothered by what King Henry plans to do with Turncoat Translations, she ought to be giving greater thought to matters like the impact of recent changes in the law governing reporting of business activity within the EU, the so-called zusammenfassende Meldung, which she probably failed to comply with in 2010. Or perhaps with the requirements for qualification as a court-sworn translator and the lack of uniformity in these among the German federal states. Translators in every country probably face similar issues.

Translators who look toward the future with trepidation are right to do so, but not because of the blown-hard "threat" of machine translation and the presumed future status as post-editing galley slaves. The real threats have little to do with translation per se but rather with the stepwise dismantling of social safety nets and necessary controls for the protection of people and the environment. As voting citizens they can accomplish more in the long run than as whining "professionals".

Professionals? Ah, there's part of the problem as well. Translation is an unregulated profession, and rightly so. I strongly oppose the notion that the practice of the profession should be restricted to protect rates and the security of those now in possession of the "prize", simply because doing so is ludicrously impractical. Years ago when I sat across a table from a person authorized to search my home and generally make my life difficult while i attempted to sort out a problem with tax arrears. I was sternly informed that I could be forbidden to practice my profession. Ven an achent off ze German state tells you zat, you must be afraid. I laughed. I asked how he planned to tell my clients in the US, Australia, New Zealand, Switzerland, Finland, the Netherlands and a number of other countries not to contact me by e-mail and make payments via any one of the many online international options or to a foreign bank account. He admitted sheepishly that this was not possible, and the conversation returned to reality and realistic options and the problem was soon resolved.

It's really not practical to tell an international corporation that it cannot get its translations from some stoned hippy in Goa if it really wants to, and with a bit of searching on the Internet, your neighbor can have that same hazy Proz-certified Pro translate the CV that he hopes will land him the Dream Job in New York. Except that if he's smart enough to get that job and keep it, he won't.

There are means of organization which can prove effective and paths of professional development which can protect one's rates and perhaps improve them, but very few people choose these options. Too lazy perhaps. Whining is easier, and its costs are not as apparent as the warm glow of self-righteous, if unproductive, indignation. We don't want no peanuts, after all, we want respect, fame and fortune! At a local and national level, many countries have professional organizations offering continuing education, networking opportunities and excellent referrals. My own experience with the German BDÜ in this regard is overwhelmingly positive. "Ah, but that's a closed shop, I don't qualify," you might say, and you might be wrong. Recent changes in the BDÜ's qualification policies open membership to experienced professionals who can document a certain amount of activity and provide a few recommendations, similar to the ITI in the UK. I believe that local and national professional organizations, properly supported and encouraged by their members, are probably the most effective ways of achieving the stated goals of movements like NP to achieve stable, sustainable rates and professional respect. Those active in such movements might do well to set aside the Molotov cocktails for a bit so their hands will be free to fill out an application to the ATA, NAATI, ITI, IoL, BDÜ, AdÜ, etc. and once in, make life Hell for the governing board until they shape up and defend the members interests in a socially appropriate and sensible way.

Organization at a lower level is also effective: formal or ad hoc teams can work together for more effective marketing and project handling. You are free to chose the route taken here, and if you can't think of any that might work, your mind may not be fit for creative activity. Or you may be a hermit, like me. Still, readily available collaboration technologies, project management tools and even online translation management technology provide a host of intriguing, possibly attractive possibilities.

At a personal level there is much that one can do with organization as a business person to present a better image and attract better clients, be these agencies or end customers. Lots of hints in this regard here and elsewhere; some of the books reviewed here are great places to start, but don't ignore other resources like your local chamber of commerce. I got a great outline for a business plan from one of these online years ago, and variations of that plan have served me well over the years.

I think two key words summarize the steps that can be taken to secure one's future: responsibility and action. When one is tense from the heavy-caliber, rapid-fire bad news of daily reports, the future can indeed seem forbidding. But when I read in those reports of a double amputee hurrying in his wheelchair to protest in Tahrir Square to secure his future and that of his country, confident of his power to make a difference, I think some of us in quieter, safer parts of the world can also move on and secure a future less tense.

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