Tuesday, January 29, 2013

"You're a native speaker? Then you can translate!"

A profession is not something you improvise: you build up skills and experience by investing time and money, by working hard, and by being committed to continuing professional development. I think this can never be overstated, that’s why the following story had me in one of my best fighting-modes ;-)
A Russian girl who lives in Italy was asked by an Italian travel agency to translate some texts into her native language. She has never translated before and she is clueless about it (her own admission; I don’t know her at all), nonetheless she accepted and then asked some people about how much they think she should charge. I was asked too through some common acquaintances, but my answer was not what they expected. First of all, I couldn’t help pointing out that before even starting a discussion on rates, it should be clear that the travel agency shouldn’t have called a non-professional in the first place (unless they’re ok with a bad self-image). Also, I stated that the girl should have turned down the request because that isn’t her job, or at least she should warn the client that the quality of her work is unlikely to match professional standards. Finally, I added that if the parties choose to agree for the job anyway, she should do it for free.
I simply don’t take work I am not qualified to do, let alone being paid for that. It’s a basic ethical principle for me, and it honestly annoys me when I see it overlooked.
My interlocutors argued that I was blowing things out of proportion. “She’s a native speaker and desperately needs money, why should she turn down that assignment or do it for free?”. Because being a native speaker alone means nothing. Because by accepting she steals work from those who have invested a lot to qualify. Because blurring the line between quality and amateur work spoils the market for us, and our image too. Because it’s simply unfair.
Even worse: “I’m sure those are easy texts”. Yeah, anyone can do it, right?
I know the girl is probably unaware of all of this, but that doesn’t mean we should just let it go instead of clarifying things.
I made an example to support my point: if a specialized magazine asked me for a photo report just because my cell phone has a camera, one would immediately think this magazine is not quality-oriented. If I accepted to do the report, one would think I am doing someone else’s job (and blame the magazine for its poor commitment in choosing its contributors). If I even asked for money, some people would think I don’t deserve it, while others would feel entitled to earn money too by selling poor quality pictures. And a professional photographer would feel robbed of his own job (and skills, and efforts).
The point here is not that we should close the door to people who may build up their career from less than academic paths; you’re always welcome to learn, but until you’re not qualified you shouldn’t step into professional territories.
The most disappointing thing was that I actually talked about it with a professional in another field, and while he agreed when taking his own job as an example, he failed to see the point as far as translation is concerned. Being a native speaker who picks up a foreign language is still widely seen as a stand-alone criterion for translating. This is a serious cultural issue that we have to face.
Any comments? Please share them!

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