The Trials and Tribulations of Being a Translator (a Trilogy): Chapter 2 – The Underappreciated

Woman feels that Translators's job is being under-appreciated

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Top that off with pervasive disregard from their employers and the objectionable tendency of the customer to only give feedback when something goes haywire, and never again shall you ask yourself why that translator friend of yours is so miserable all the time.

Okay, we might have blown things out of proportion a little bit, and this was but a clever ploy to lure you in. Misery loves company, as they say. On a more serious note, however, the profession of a translator definitely deserves to be talked about more often and more seriously.

In our previous blog, we took a look at some of the common misconceptions people have about translators and their trade. In this one, we will take a look at what the translator’s job really entails and what are the challenges translators have to face on a daily basis.

They are not omniscient beings

This idea derives from the misconception that as long as you can speak a foreign language, you will be able to translate from and into that language, no matter what the text is about. As we have already determined in Chapter 1, this is obviously not the case, but let’s take a look at people who are actual trained linguists or translators.

Surely they would be able to effortlessly translate pretty much everything we throw at them, right?

Well, no. A day in the life of a translator would often look something like this: 8:30 am – microwave oven manual, 11:00 am – article on the Japanese fishing industry, 1:45 pm – certification of absence of criminal record, 3:00 pm – SOP of a shipping company. You get the gist.

a translator's job is hard

The nature of translator’s work is extremely diverse and sooner or later every translator will happen upon a project that will simply derail their workflow with its complexity and specificity.

This is the main reason why translation as a profession is becoming more and more specialized, which is exactly the reason why you should always look for a translator who specializes in the field that pertains to your source text if you want good results.

Most freelance translators will specialize in a couple of specific fields (say 2 or 3), which can be very broad (medicine) or extremely specific (air conditioning).

specialized translators

It should also be noted that field specialization is normally not something translators would actually get certified in.

In most cases, their specialization will most likely correspond to a field that they work in on a regular basis and have the most experience in.

Don’t ask them for some kind of proof of their specialization; chances are, they won’t have it, seeing as there is no global authority that would oversee the qualifications of every translator on Earth and vouch for the quality of their work.

They suffer from lack of recognition

At this point, we should probably remind you that we are not talking about literary translators. Let’s be real, they are an extremely marginal subgroup of translators with whom this blog has nothing to do with anyway.

The problems we are showcasing here are just something your everyday ordinary freelance (or in-house) translator will have to put up with. Now back to the good stuff!

You can go that extra mile and overexert yourself as much as you want, but nobody will care if your translation is good, or what’s even worse, how good it really is (you know, you really put a lot of effort into it).

Translation is not an exact science, and there are no absolute solutions or blueprints. As a translator, you are always at the mercy of the customer.

What makes matters worse, however, is the fact that your customers will almost never be linguists, meaning that your work will constantly be assessed by non-experts or even worse, some individual at a random company your LSP works for “who speaks really good English”.

traditional translator at work

The point is that no matter how proud you might be of your flawless product, your translation of exquisite quality probably won’t even get you a thumbs up. Nobody cares about how good your work is, as long as it’s okay. In translation, there is very little reward for being better than average, as most of the time they will both yield very similar results.

This is also one of the reasons why the translation market is so saturated with subpar linguists – because they can get away with it. You can’t really blame them, they are just taking advantage of a confused market that has no idea how to regulate itself.

The problem this creates is a sense of futility that good translators often succumb to when they compare their work to what the above-mentioned semi-charlatans churn out on a daily basis, only to subsequently discover that they are being paid the same.

the trials and tribulations of a translator

What is that I hear? You made one typing error translating a 200-page document?

Better start working on your last will and testament, because you can take my word for it when I say that you’ll be the first person in the firing line.

This is just how ungratifying a translator’s job is 95% of the time.

 The only feedback you ever get is negative feedback, so if you don’t have a thick skin yet, it’s probably high time you grew one.

The perpetual loneliness of a freelance translator

For reasons of financial prudence, most language service providers exclusively employ freelance translators. The underlying logic is simple: you employ them on a pay-as-you-play basis, i.e. you only have to give them money when they have actually done work for you.

The currently prevalent “freelancer meta” also allows companies to employ a large number of freelance translators with all kinds of language combinations and specializations. All well and good, but how do freelancers feel about this?

Truth be told, some are fine with it. It allows them to be very flexible with their own time, and work whenever they want and for whomever they want (in an ideal world).

A lot of them do experience feelings of loneliness and meaninglessness, however. Spending most of your days within the same four walls, blasting the keyboard vigorously and sending emails, is not everyone’s idea of a perfect workplace. As a translator, however, your hand is kind of forced in this regard.

 Unless you are willing to betray your roots and swallow your linguistic pride to become a project manager, chances are you will have to work from home. Get a cactus for your desk, definitely invest in a decent chair and maybe get a small dog that doesn’t need a lot of exercise, because that study/bedroom/flat is now your entire world.

Are human translators better than machine translators?

Even if you have a bucketful of hobbies and friends, you will still have to spend most of your day behind your home desk, your main human interaction taking place in the form of emails you send to LSPs you currently work with. In most cases, you won’t even deal with clients directly, as you will only be communicating with some project management department.

This sense of detachment from other parts of the translation delivery process and the general sense of not being that important in the chain of events can sometimes even lead to arrogance amongst translators.

Is translation a profession that is best-suited for loners, or is it a profession that turns outgoing, fun-loving people into hermits? We will let you know once we find out.

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