What’s in a name

How do people perceive translators? What do they think we do? Most of us are familiar with the “how many languages do you speak? response”. To most people translation and interpreting are the same thing with the result that you might be asked to accompany someone to the doctors to translate.
At least these people have a concept of the job as a human activity. But this notion may become less common with the increasing popularity of machine translation. What is machine translation software called if it is not a translator? Might there come a time when people question whether translator is a real job?
In a previous blog on this site I discussed the nineteenth century occupation of boot and shoe translator. Their job was to revamp old shoes for resale to the poor. In all likelihood some degree of skill would have been involved but these people operated at the lower echelons of society and would have been considered far beneath the high-class boot and shoe maker. I have always wondered whether high-class referred to the shoemaker and his craft, the boot or shoe itself (leather, design, fit etc.) or the clientele. Probably all three.
I don’t mind being mistaken for an interpreter. I have great admiration for interpreters, particularly simultaneous interpreters. I’ve done a bit of consecutive interpreting in my time but there’s no way I could listen and speak at the same time. I am not happy about being confused with a machine. I want to be seen as the high-class boot and shoe maker, working with fine materials and producing beautiful, wearable merchandise, rather than cobbling something together in a rush to be sold at knock-down prices.
So how do we go about differentiating ourselves in the market?
One method is to add an adjective such as qualified, professional or experienced. The trouble is, they are not specific. A qualified teacher or solicitor has had to go through certain designated stages to attain this status, but this is not the case for translators. There are many routes into translation and various “qualifying” exams and accreditation bodies. There is no universal qualified status and our qualifications are fairly opaque to the general consumer.
Professional can be applied to sports people and musicians. It implies the existence of an alternative amateur status. Is there such a thing as an amateur translator? Experience is better expressed as the number of years in the business and knowledge of specialist areas.
I wanted to find a term that would mean something to uninformed buyers, something like the CORGI, now Gas Safe, registration for plumbers. The Chartered Institute of Linguists has a Chartered Linguist Register. Accountants and surveyors can be chartered and now linguists can be too. This is a designation that people can understand. Machines can’t be chartered. No-one can claim to be chartered unless they are on the list. To get on the list certain specified criteria have to be met. I thought this was worth aspiring to and I am now delighted to have been accepted as a chartered linguist.

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One Response to What’s in a name

  1. D24 says:

    Hello, very interesting article. I’m translator (not english) and in my country (Poland) I see a lot of similarities.

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