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And in the beginning…

Hello, welcome, bienvenue, bienvenida and benvinguts to the Vis Verborum blog! We’ll see how this goes because, while I’m active on Facebook and Twitter, I have never been a very prolific blogger. But I would like a space: a space to discuss issues related to translation and other language services, and at greater length than I can on social media, so here it is.

It does sometimes seem that you can’t be a freelance translator these days without having your own translation blog. I often come across (usually younger) colleagues operating off a blog at one of the free-hosting sites and an email address with Gmail… it’s not how I’ve chosen to work, but who am I to cast aspersions? And what does it mean to be a professional translator anyway?

The European standard for the provision of translation services, EN15038, is very succinct in the matter (§2.19): a translator is a person who translates. And indeed, the translation profession does at times seem so wide as to defy any attempt at useful generalisation. What does my job, as a medical translator in a couple of common language pairs, have to do with that of someone who translates novels, or games, or who translates out of Maltese, or Greenlandic? A colleague of mine, working from Spanish to English like me, has maybe eight or nine projects a year, while I have 400–500 – his projects are much larger than mine! Another colleague, working full-time into a central European language, is booked up until mid-2017, whereas I can usually find time next week, if not sooner, depending on the length of the text you want translating. Translating a hospital discharge report requires great attention to accuracy and terminology, while style is a lesser concern – translating a commercial website can be almost the opposite, with style and relevance to the target audience being more important than exact equivalence to the original. And yet these are all translation.
But what about the “professional” in “professional translator”? In its general sense, “professional” means someone who earns money for doing something, as opposed to an amateur who doesn’t. A professional translator translates for money, not for food or sex or intellectual stimulation, and he or she does it often enough to earn sums that the taxman is potentially interested in. Not all professional translators can make – or want to make – translation their only source of income, for a whole variety of reasons, but none of them are doing it for pin money. That means that the professional translator has to persuade an employer or client(s) to pay for his or her services or, at the very least, persuade people to buy the end-product, the translation. The professional translator has to add value to a product, or a process, or a service, or simply to people’s lives – the translator who does not add value through his or her work has no way of justifying his or her fee.
I don’t want to pretend that money is the only reason for doing this job – there are already enough people in the language services industry who openly subscribe to that opinion. It might be a job, but it’s one that can give a great deal of personal satisfaction, as is the case for me and for the majority of my professional colleagues. The key to that satisfaction is not that I’ve managed to make sense of a 150-word Spanish sentence, or deciphered a Lebanese doctor’s handwriting, or known the equivalents for the ranks in the Mossos d’Esquadra, the Catalan regional police force. My satisfaction comes from the value I’ve added: my translation of the 150-word sentence in the contract means the clinical trial can go ahead in that hospital; my translation of the doctor’s handwriting shows what medication the patient was taking when she started to feel unwell; my translation of the police report allows a grieving family to know something of how their loved one died. It is the satisfaction of a job well done.

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