by Leonard Morin
Translation and interpreting are highly skilled professions. What will it take to ensure that linguists have the education and working conditions they need?
A Platform for Professionalism
There are many ways that we can work together to improve the quality of our work and the conditions we work under. Gatherings of translators and interpreters to dialogue about raising standards are a necessary first step. But of course the effort has to go further. It goes without saying that there are many of us who do extraordinary work as translators and/or interpreters. Yet this also is because our work is so demanding. It couldn’t be any other way. Reliable performance of our duties presupposes extraordinary ability as well as very thorough training and experience.
On occasion, some of my veteran court interpreter colleagues have said to me that our job is easy. Perhaps they have forgotten about their initial years in court; that the learning curve in the beginning is steep and long. That learning the art of translating idioms is a long study. They may have forgotten about their initial stage fright when they began to interpret in the court environment, which is extremely intimidating to newcomers. Or perhaps they’ve forgotten about their first encounters with the byzantine legal terminology of their particular jurisdiction.
It shouldn’t be surprising that it’s a tough task to come up to speed as a translator or interpreter. The skills and knowledge involved are myriad. You must be able to identify and avoid translation pitfalls such as “false friends.” This is something many foreign-language learners never get. But beyond getting it, it is a topic that requires in-depth and ongoing study. Idiomatic translation goes beyond fluency in two languages. It requires fluency in the ideas behind the words in both languages. This entails years of study of language, translation, and the subject matter in question. As translators, but especially as interpreters, we have to have a translation for everything that can be said. I have been reading English for my entire life. Yet I think that every week I encounter words in my English reading that I do not recall having seen before. Add to that a foreign language and specialized terminology and you have a task whose enormity cannot be overstated.
Competence Doesn’t Come Overnight
There are different aspects of translation that require many years of refinement, most notably writing in the target language. There are also many aspects of interpreting, such as note-taking for consecutive or décalage for simultaneous; or, as in my particular work environment, managing your voice level and the acoustics of the courtroom. All these are skills of a very high level that realistically take many years to master. As Dr. Miguel A. Jiménez-Crespo cogently sets forth in his paper, “Expertise studies and the recognition of the professions of translation and interpreting in the USA,” if you are serious about the profession, you will continually practice and study to hone your skills.
When I started interpreting in court, I had to immerse myself in a plethora of vocabulary and terminology. Of course there were court terms, like a criminal as opposed to a civil complaint, disorderly conduct, or an order to show cause. But there is also a larger orbit of terms that can come up in court. For instance, when I started, I wasn’t sure how to translate “irregular heartbeat,” “nail-polish remover,” or “syringe” into Spanish. Of course, you may have excellent all-a-round vocabulary in your working languages. Yet in reality you are dealing with two linguistic worlds. Your experience living in one language culture is not always the mirror image of the other and, thus, the terms in one language do not always neatly correspond to those in the other. Finding all the appropriate equivalents requires ongoing study and research. This effort will probably bring you up to speed more quickly on the court argot than the larger orbit of general terms that can come up on occasion in court.
Investment Is a Sine Qua Non of Professionalism
There are a few translation and interpreting programs, and we could certainly use more. Other high-level professionals, such as lawyers and doctors, require multiple years of prior specialized training. That seems only logical for translators and interpreters. Yet much like one would expect that a physician or attorney would need years of experience after their training to adequately come up to speed, it only makes sense that we expect the same from translators and interpreters and that continuing education is a must. I would argue that translators and interpreters require even more continuing education since the subject matter and environment that translators and interpreters end up dealing with could be virtually anything under the sun.
In other words: the more training the better. And training means resources, financial resources. No doubt, there are translators and interpreters from the richest 1% of the population. For them, of course, tuitions are not an issue. Yet for most of us, some type of subsidy of our education is necessary. It could be in the form of lower tuition subsidized by the government, or scholarships, grants, and loans. If loans are a significant component, as they currently are, higher salaries for translators and interpreters are imperative—notwithstanding the fact that we are entitled to a living wage anyway.
I do not think it is odd to advocate for government subsidy of our industry. If there are more prosperous translators and interpreters, there is more money in the economy. If the government can subsidize banks and oil companies, it can subsidize the T&I industry. The government is already in the business of subsidizing universities and it subsidizes banks to issue student loans. But beyond the money, we are rendering a service—often a public service. We are creating greater prosperity. After all, if the economy’s purpose is not to create prosperity, then what is it?
How Do We Get There?
What I am proposing now is essentially an exchange of information. We can educate our clients, the government, and the general public about our work so that they fully appreciate what it entails. This will likely facilitate conditions that enable us to perform our work better. It will also facilitate our getting better remuneration and training. We should also involve our clients in educating us so that we can serve them better. What better way for financial translators to improve their rendering of service than a workshop put on by their banker clients on financial terms?
Getting back to the example of seasoned court interpreters: your job may be a breeze for you 95% of the time. You usually know what the judge and the attorneys are going to say before they open their mouths. But then there are occasions where a rare procedural issue comes up on the record, and a quick-paced back and forth between the judge and lawyers occurs. If you continually educate yourself further, situations such as this will be more manageable, especially if you have had the benefit of instruction by legal experts who thoroughly explain to you the intricacies of your branch of law.
We can also exchange information with each other as colleagues in fora such as the symposium and through professional organizations such as the New York Circle of Translators, the American Translators Association, the National Association of Judiciary Interpreters and Translators, the Association of Language Interpreters of Greater New York, and the International Medical Interpreters Association. We can open discussions with colleagues about vocabulary and exchange glossaries.
About Leonard Morin
Leonard Morin is a staff Spanish interpreter at Manhattan Criminal Court. He previously practiced as a translator (from 2004) and interpreter (from 2006). Leonard interprets Spanish and Dutch and translates chiefly legal and cartography-related documents from Dutch, Spanish, and German into English. He earned a propedeuse degree in Law in the Netherlands and graduated from Columbia University with a B.A. in Latin American Studies. Leonard has earned translation and interpreting certificates and won academic prizes for his Spanish and German. He is a past president of the New York Circle of Translators.