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Professionalizing Translation

Martin Boyd

St. Jerome, patron saint of translators, apparently never obtained certification

St. Jerome, patron saint of translators, apparently never obtained certification

Practically since the dawn of history, translation has been of vital importance to human society. All manner of interaction between different communities, whether for trade, cultural exchange, for waging war or making peace, has depended hugely upon the work of translators and interpreters. And yet it is only relatively recently that translation has begun to be consolidated as a profession. And even now, the persistence of the popular misconceptions that translation is an activity that can be mastered by any person with a working knowledge of two languages and a good bilingual dictionary, or that machine translation is effectively eliminating the need for human translators, suggests that we still have a long way to go before translation receives the respect it deserves as a profession.


One of the fundamental elements in the professionalization of any field of work is the establishment of professional associations charged with overseeing the conduct of their members and setting general standards that define the skills and training that a practicing professional is expected to possess. In this respect, translation is clearly lagging well behind “traditional” professions like law, medicine and engineering. Nevertheless, there has been some progress. With 11,000 members in more than 90 countries, the American Translators Association (ATA) is one the largest professional associations for translators and interpreters in the world. Founded in 1959, ATA has done much to raise the professional profile of translators in North America, and its Code of Ethics and Professional Practice, certification process and continuing education requirements for certified members provide a framework of professional standards that offer a certain degree of uniformity and guarantee of quality in what has historically been a highly unregulated profession.

Ironically, this professionalization process faces much of its most fervent resistance from within the profession itself. As a quick browse of any translator forum discussion on the topic will reveal, many professional translators consider obtaining and maintaining certification to be an unnecessary expense that does little more than support the bureaucracy of the association. Some complain of the costliness of the certification exam, its low pass ratio or its lack of relevance to the everyday reality of translation work. But perhaps the most common argument I have heard against certification is that clients simply do not care about whether a translator is certified or not, and that thus there is no financial benefit to being a member of a professional association. My own experience has been otherwise, as I have in fact made numerous professional contacts, including repeat clients, by virtue of my status as an ATA-certified translator. On the other hand, I also established a very good client base before becoming certified, and I know many translators who have enjoyed very successful careers in the field without needing to obtain certification. At the end of the day, dedication and professionalism are worth a lot more than certification when it comes to finding and keeping clients.

But the priority given to this consideration seems to me to beg the question of whether financial gain should be the main or only factor in determining whether it is worth participating in a professional association. If we really care about our profession, shouldn’t we be interested in raising its profile with the general public? In my view, translator associations offer the most effective means of combating the popular misconceptions about translation mentioned at the beginning of this article. Only by working together to reach a consensus on certain fundamental standards and expectations that should govern the practice of professional translators can we hope to have translation recognized as a true profession.

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