It’s hard to believe that 2012, which was a landmark year for the Interpreter Diaries blog in many ways, is now over and we’re already well into 2013. Before the month of January gets away on me altogether, I’d like to inaugurate the new blogging year by wrapping up some unfinished business from last fall.
Readers may recall that I wrote a review of the book Found in Translation for the AIIC blog a few months back. My review concluded with a few examples of questions that I felt had been left unanswered in the book. Not long after the review came out, Nataly Kelly, one of the book’s co-authors along with Jost Zetzsche, contacted me with the offer to answer the questions I’d raised. I eagerly took her up on the offer, and I’m happy to be able to share those replies with my readers today.
Many thanks to Nataly for going the extra mile and making sure I had all the information I needed. I’m sure readers will find her comments just as interesting and informative as I did!
One comment I made in my review was that I wish I’d heard more about the working conditions enjoyed by the language professionals featured in the various testimonials. While there’s no way this type of background information could have been supplied for all of the case studies presented, here is what Nataly says about the few jobs that I asked about in particular:
Q. Are 9-1-1 phone interpreters paid for their standby shifts or is it a volunteer service?
A. For the most part, this is paid work in the countries where it is offered, such as Canada and the United States. Typically, telephone interpreters are either salaried or paid by the hour. Generally, they are paid even when they are not interpreting and are just on standby, but if you’re an interpreter for Spanish in the United States, you rarely get a rest, because the phone keeps ringing. In some cases, they are paid by the minute, which I know is a controversial topic in some circles – however, believe it or not, some interpreters make more money this way, because the per-minute rate can work out financially better than the hourly rate, and they can take breaks whenever they wish, as opposed to waiting for a shift to end. However, this work is generally not very well paid.
Also, emergency calls are just one type of calls that telephone interpreters receive. They also may receive calls from hospitals, courts, insurance agencies, crisis lines, catalogs, and all other conceivable situations in which people need to communicate over the phone. Telephone interpreters are usually trained specifically in the techniques of emergency interpreting, which are different from interpreting in other settings. Because this field is so very different from others, I developed model standards of practice for telephone interpreting in emergency settings. Those and many other details about this field are included in my first book, Telephone Interpreting.
Q. Do round-the-clock escort interpreters for elite athletes and circus performers ever get to take a potty break?
A. Yes, they do! To clarify, this work is not round-the-clock, because athletes and performers don’t need interpreters when they are home alone with their families and/or friends. Rather, they enable these individuals to do their jobs – so most of their work takes place when their client is working. However, they do also help them in some cases with other routine things, like shopping for groceries or going to a dental appointment. Usually, these interpreters are paid by the employer – so, the LA Dodgers in the case of the baseball interpreter we profiled in the book (although he now works for the NY Yankees) or Cirque du Soleil in the case of the circus interpreters. However, this type of work has a high degree of variability in terms of the settings covered.
What I found very interesting from our interviews is that the interpreters in these types of work develop very close bonds with the athletes or entertainers for whom they interpret. Impartiality is not necessarily desired in these settings. In fact, one interpreter even told us that he would sometimes refrain from interpreting “trash talk” if he thought it would affect the athlete’s performance or confidence. He would later inform him of it after the game. So, the role of the interpreter is very different for these settings, because they are doing a type of work that is more personalized. Therefore, it deviates significantly from the fields of interpreting that are more standardized, such as conference or community interpreting.
Q. What do professional translators think of the fact that Facebook decided to crowdsource the translation of its interface?
A. There was well-publicized uproar in the professional translation community when Facebook decided to translate its interface with its community members. Namely, people were upset because they saw this as a threat to their way of working. What they didn’t realize at the time is that this model was not designed to push freelancers out of work. In fact, it actually created opportunities for paid translation by professionals.
One of the biggest misconceptions is that companies turn to crowdsourcing to save money. In actual fact, the research shows that companies have to spend a lot of money to develop these kinds of platforms. And, they usually pay for professionals to manage the communities, to proofread and edit the output, and so on. Their main drivers are not saving money, but rather, things like quality and increased turn-around time. People often raise their eyebrows in confusion when I say that quality is a driver of community translation, but when you stop to consider that many translation projects require “end client review” as part of the quality assurance steps, it makes sense. If a company can get direct feedback from hundreds or thousands of their actual customers, why wouldn’t they do that? They are going directly to the source.
My colleagues at Common Sense Advisory and I shared some of the findings of that research in chapters that appear in two books recently published in the translation studies field (From Crawling to Sprinting: Community Translation Goes Mainstream and Project Management for Crowdsourced Translation: How User-Translated Content Projects Work in Real Life). Let it suffice to say that crowdsourced translation has not put a dent in the demand for “regular” translation – not in the slightest. These platforms only lend themselves to specific types of projects. More and more, freelancers are realizing that crowdsourced translation is simply another model that exists alongside more traditional ones.
Q. Did Dr. Seuss’s translator get paid the same for Oh, The Places You’ll Go! (which took her over a year to translate) as for Green Eggs and Ham (which she reportedly dispatched in half an hour)?
A. Actually, the translator of the Dr. Seuss books into Spanish, Aída Marcuse, spent a lot of time trying to come up with the perfect translation for the phrase “Sam I Am,” and it was only after she found the perfect translation that translating the remainder of the book was made so much easier, since the book relies so heavily on that particular key phrase. This just goes to show, the amount of time is not always the best measure of compensation, because for literary translation, it can take many hours (or even days) to find the perfect translation of just a few words. I was in touch with her again this week, and she explained that this was the case for The Lorax and Oh, the Places You’ll Go. For projects like this, what is typical is to charge a fee for the entire translation project – not for the numbers of words or the time it takes to complete it.
I also remarked in my review that I wish I had learned more about her interviewees’ training background. Nataly explains:
Q. Why didn’t you spend time looking at the types of training undergone by the practitioners featured in the stories?
A. Funnily enough, in some earlier drafts, we actually made the mistake of providing too much detail about what kind of training practitioners had. Obviously, since we are practitioners, that kind of detail was of interest to us, so we asked questions about their backgrounds in our interviews. However, since this book was written primarily with non-practitioners in mind, we had to ask ourselves, “Will a non-practitioner find this interesting?” Ultimately, we edited much of that detail out, because it was not really in keeping with the goal of the book, which was to show people how fascinating this field really is.
For example, in the opening story, the goal of that story is to drive home the point that interpreters can and do save lives every day, to show the reader, “Look, this work matters!” If we started rattling off details about the telephone interpreters’ backgrounds and training in 9-1-1 calls, the emotional appeal of that story would have been lost, and it would have turned it into a very different type of book – one I would argue probably would not be as effective at reaching mainstream readers.
Q. Were some of the translators and interpreters you interviewed self-taught on the job?
A. Everyone we interviewed was a paid professional, and most were highly recognized for their work. That said, not everyone had a degree in translation or interpreting, but I would argue that most of the degree programs out there would not be very relevant for some of them. Some of the stories that come to mind are the story of Kenji Nimura, an interpreter for professional baseball players, and Colin Pine, an interpreter for the professional basketball player Yao Ming. These two gentlemen did not go through a specific training program in order to become a “baseball interpreter” or a “basketball interpreter,” because no such training program exists. Instead, the people recruiting for those jobs needed to find people who knew the sport inside out and upside down and had extremely high levels of proficiency in both languages.
It isn’t an easy task to locate interpreters who are subject-matter experts in the game, which is required from day one on the job. I asked myself if athletes would be better served finding a professional interpreter and trying to train them in all the terminology of a given sport, but the knowledge required extends far beyond terminology. We’re talking about people who have spent their entire lives accumulating knowledge in a very specific area of sports. I believe that interpreters in these areas would definitely benefit from learning interpreting techniques that are taught in courses, but I also believe that any interpreter stepping into their shoes would learn a lot too.
Q. Is the book taking a subtle stand on the question of whether translators and interpreters are born or made, whether they are learnable professions or a calling that you either have or you don’t?
A. No, we definitely were not taking any kind of stand on that issue. The only “stand” we take in the book is one that permeates the entire book, to say to the rest of the world, “Translation and interpreting matter!” However, I can say that, in my own view, people working in these fields are both born and made. You can’t succeed in either field through sheer talent alone, although you might have certain life experiences or innate skills that give you an advantage or an edge in some areas.
Likewise, you can’t succeed in this field merely through hard work either. I have seen plenty of very hard-working, dedicated, and well-meaning individuals who failed professional exams. Skills can be improved up to a point with many willing students, but there are some skills that take a very long time to develop. That said, the good thing about the fields of translation and interpreting is that they are so diverse that there are professions for people of many different skill sets and backgrounds. So you’re an opera singer? There’s a need for that type of translator. Oh, you love to play video games? There’s work for you too here. That is also part of what we wanted to show in the book, to help inspire more young people to learn foreign languages.
I’ll wrap up with a question that I didn’t actually ask in my review, but which I am sure many readers will be eager to hear the answer to all the same:
Q. Will there be a sequel to Found in Translation?
A. There are so many stories of how translation surrounds us each day. I receive new story ideas nearly every day, and I have quite a collection already, just in case of a sequel. The book is in its fourth printing already, and that makes me happy for one simple reason. The more people know about this work, the more respect there will be for the people who carry it out. This book is a microphone that serves to make those voices louder. That is why we have been working so hard to get the word out about it, and why I am so grateful to you for helping your readers learn about it too.
To read my original review of Found in Translation, click here. The questions can be found near the end of the article.