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Looking for answers within: an introspective look at professionalism of translators and interpreters

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Natasha Curtis photo“Money for interpreters runs out again, half way through the fiscal year”: “While serving as jail judge, Clinger said he often utilizes the services of inmates or deputies as interpreters.” [1] I wonder if we can have my dog’s veterinarian perform that open heart surgery for my neighbor?

 Why does society at large have such a hard time understanding? Don’t they know that translating and interpreting (T&I) is a profession? What is wrong with this picture? Can we do anything about it?

 In case you are wondering, even though I strongly believe in the great need for client education, this article is not about the general lack of knowledge the public has regarding the T&I profession (and its members) as is evident by the article cited –only one of many similar articles that occupy the pages of mainstream newspapers on a daily basis. Rather, inspired by the old saying “the best form of teaching is modeling,” I’d like to urge us to reflect on the things that we can do to forge our way into the position that the T&I profession should enjoy –and hopefully will– in the public eye. I would like to urge us, as translators and interpreters, to reflect on how we view professionalism and how our view influences those of the outsiders.

 I’d like to briefly discuss some key points about professionalism. The Oxford English Dictionary defines it as “the competence or skill expected of a professional,” and the Merriam Webster expands by saying “the conduct, aims, or qualities that characterize or mark a profession or a professional person”. One of these definitions seems to focus more on the individual, whereas the other seems to refer to professionalism as a corporate characteristic.

 Edgar Schien, a leading educationalist in the USA, recognizes three basic components of professionalism: an underlying basic body of scientific knowledge, the systems to apply this knowledge, and a set of attitudes or values that define how we relate to those for whom we provide service. [2] This same triumvirate of values, knowledge and systems is seen at the heart of almost all professions, including translating and interpreting.

 Undoubtedly, the T&I profession is one characterized by a vast body of scientific knowledge! If we were to consider the multitude of scenarios that a translator or interpreter may come in contact with, we would easily come to the conclusion that no one person can do it all –at least not equally well in all areas. I am glad to see more and more professional translators and interpreters specialize and limit their expertise to only a few areas. I am certain that the quality of our translations and interpreting greatly improves the more deeply we study the subject field we work with. Yes, this is still true even in the midst of the Internet era. We might be able to find anything we look for on the World Wide Web, but unless we are repeatedly exposed to the same body of knowledge, it may not even occur to us what it is that we should look for. If we know more about the areas we work with, we may be able to serve the public from a more educated perspective. This will undoubtedly translate into professionalism.

 Unfortunately, many aspiring translators and interpreters have not yet understood the necessity for specialization. Some try to cover it all superficially, allowing dollar signs to dictate whether they will accept an interpreting or translation assignment, thinking that they will manage and no one will notice. But the truth is that there is no patch big enough to cover up the lack of knowledge. Individually, we need to understand that as human beings we are limited, but if we manage our limitations conscientiously we can do wonderful things, and the public will be better served.

 As I stated previously, professionalism is a conduct, aim or characteristic that applies to the members of a profession as well as the profession as a whole. In speaking of professionalism, the members of the Oregon State Bar declare: “Professionalism includes integrity, courtesy, honesty, and willing compliance with the highest ethical standards.” [3] The pioneers who founded professional associations of translators and interpreters such as ATA, NAJIT, and NCIHC have worked hard (and continue to do so) at describing the standards of practice and professional conduct to which all professional translators and interpreters should adhere. I firmly believe that it is these ethical standards which set us apart from amateurs. There is no professionalism without ethical standards.

 However, some of us call ourselves “professional” without even acknowledging that there are ethical standards that we should adhere to. And some know the standards exist, but personal gain comes before anything else. It never ceases to amaze me that many translators forget about the ATA’s canon number 5, for instance. In it, immediately after mentioning the duty of sharing professional information with colleagues –which will hopefully be reciprocal– we are reminded of the duty to “To refrain from any action likely to discredit the profession, and in particular to abstain from engaging in unfair competition.” [4]

 Way too often, I find that so-called professional translators and interpreters are involved in the client-stealing business. They find out the name of a colleague’s client and the usual fees, and then offer their own services to the same client at a lower rate. They take an assignment initially from a T&I bureau, and while performing their duties on behalf of the bureau, they offer their services independently at a lower rate. And this is just one of the frequently disregarded ethical standards.

 I could continue, but I do not think I need to go any further to illustrate that there are things going on within our profession that discredit it more than the lack of understanding from the public. As long as these kinds of attitudes towards our fellow colleagues and the profession continue, we will not reap the benefits of a high status in the public eye. We need to be professional before the public will believe that we have earned that status. In addition to specialization and continuing education, adherence to ethical and moral standards is at the core of professionalism.

 I’d like to conclude by quoting an individual who, in my opinion, had a healthy understanding of professionalism: “Professional is not a label you give yourself -it's a description you hope others will apply to you. . . If you want to be trusted and respected you have to earn it.” [5]

[1] Neal, Tracy M. “Money for interpreters runs out again half way through the fiscal year.” The Benton County Daily Record, Article posted on Tuesday, January 18, 2005.

[2] Schein, Edgar H. “Professional Education”. New York: McGraw-Hill, 1973.

[3] Oregon State Bar. “Statement of Professionalism.” 27 January 2005 <http://www.osbar.org/rulesregs/professionalism.htm>

[4] Center for Study of Ethics in the Professions. Illinois Institute of Technology. “Codes of Ethics Online. American Translators Association – 14 June 2002.” 24 December 2005 <http://www.iit.edu/>

[5] Maister, David H. “True Professionalism: the courage to care about your people, your clients, and your career.” New York: The Free Press, 1997.

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