Why Legal Protection Can’t Save Translation and Interpreting

You don’t have to go far to find out what is worrying those in the translation and interpreting professions. Crowdsourcing, machine translation and large-scale outsourcing could easily make people fearful that the future of translation and interpreting consists of low-paid, low status work, offered by uncaring providers.

But hold on, cry a few voices, we can stop all this madness. All we need is some form of government protection. If there were only a law (or several) that limited who could translate and who could interpret, all of these issues would go away in the blink of an eye.

Alas, in the real world, things aren’t that simple. Leaving behind the whole issue of how to get legislative support for this idea in a single area – never mind an entire economic sector – the problems with relying on legal protection are legion. For a start, given that there is no way of tracking every single document translated or conference interpreted in even a single city, policing such a law would be impossible. Someone would always manage to get their work to slip through the net and in time, things would probably return to the way they are now, with a few possible exceptions in highly visible work, such as court interpreting and international tenders.

There is also the inconvenient truth that certification, which often goes hand in glove with legal protection, is not in itself an indicator of quality. It was, after all, certified auditors who allowed the Enron scandal to go undetected. And there is, as yet, no proof that “certified translators” produce better work than those with equal amounts of experience but no certification.

This, of course, does not mean that certification is worthless. It implies accountability and a professional approach to work, which are assets in themselves. It also implies a readiness to submit your work to outside scrutiny, which again, is worthwhile. When tied to membership of a professional association, such as MITI or MCIL or Chartered Linguist status here in the UK, it also implies a commitment to the good of the profession as a whole. It does not, however, mean that every translation produced by every certified translator will be of an equal standard. Restricting translation to those who are certified would therefore be no good to clients.

Protection, at least as it is commonly described, might even be detrimental to the professions it was meant to safeguard. How are people supposed to get into translation or interpreting if only existing professionals can do the work?

Perhaps we might be better seeking to emulate the practices of those in the medical profession. (Of course, this isn’t my idea, Heriot-Watt PhD student, Robyn Dean, thought of it before I did). The point is that, nowadays, anyone can be their own doctor. The internet offers a variety of different tools and sites, each of which can give medical advice of some sort or another, much like there is a range of ways you can get translation done.  What sets the proper doctors apart from the amateurs is not just training and passing exams but their part in a system which puts accountability and scrutiny at the core of career advancement.

What can and should set the “real” translators apart from the cowboys and amateurs then is not simply a certificate or a title – as good as these things are – but an entire approach to work. Setting up and promoting a system of checks and continued accountability is worth more than legislation. If the system is robust enough, it will justify limiting certain kinds of work to those who are within it. It would be much easier, for instance, to argue that those interpreting in courts should be independently checked and continually monitored by an entire system than that they should have passed a one-off exam. Similarly, it would be easier to argue for clients to use translators and interpreters within this system on the basis of added value rather than simply screaming for restrictions to be placed on the market.

At the end of the day, any system that is set up has to benefit clients and professionals alike. It’s this goal, not simply pushing for higher rates or restrictions on trade, that is worth pursuing.


Author: Jonathan Downie

0 thoughts on “Why Legal Protection Can’t Save Translation and Interpreting

  1. Dear Jonathan,
    I think it is not so much an issue of “legal protection” as of “legal accountability”. The UK does not have a system of sworn interpreters (although such system exists in other English-speaking countries, for instance – South Africa).
    Think of the legal profession. There are any number of legal secretaries or paralegals who could draft up a contract or deed, but only certain people can certify those documents as being true and accurate, and this person *takes responsibility* for that statement and is *accountable* for it.
    This is not equivalent to “legal protection of the profession”. If anything, it’s legal protection for the client or the customer versus bad quality and dodgy suppliers.
    The fact is that the UK does have a successful system as regards document certification (in England and Wales there are General Notaries / Scrivener Notaries and Commissioners of Oaths and in Scotland qualified lawyers automatically become Notaries) but you do not have a body of sworn translators as the role of certification is taken on by private bodies and it is, as you say, “one exam” (although there is also CPD in the case of qualifications awarded by associations). The same applies in the USA (ATA – CT) or Australia (privately-run NAATI).
    But this does not mean, however, that certified translation cannot work or that there cannot be a guarantee.
    In Spain, (where I’m writing from) we have a body of sworn translators and I myself have realised this is little guarantee and have organised a number of free courses in the past to boost training and professional awareness.
    I think an example to look up to is Argentina (which happens to be the country in the world with the largest community of translators) where there is a Society or Professional College of translators (Colegio de Traductores Públicos) and although this structure could be regarded as “corporatism” the fact is that it works very well: there is a lot of affordable training available, a sense of belonging to a community, and most translators in the community know all the rules and what they can and cannot do as certified translators.
    Another issue you could look into is how EU directives have had a role in dynamiting any efforts to create a “system” of translators and how this has ultimately had a negative impact on the profession, driving prices and quality to lower levels than we could have ever fathomed…
    One last question: Will Google Translate ever be able to produce certified translations and be held legally accountable for the results? Maybe sometime in a distant future they’ll produce a “certified translator robot” (but it’s better not to give them any ideas!!).
    Thanks for the interesting post.
    Leon Hunter

    • The difference in the cases you point out is the distinction between approval of the product and approval of the person. It would be entirely possible to adjust the current legal approvals process for document certification but then any impact of this would only be felt in a small number of areas where certification is already a must. It might also be tricky to work this approvals process into improvements in rates and conditions.

      EU regs are another interesting point. It may be a case of interpreting/translation being treated differently to professions that were already protected before the EU came into place. It is indeed really tricky to see how you could legally protect a profession that isn’t already protected under current law. Hence why I suggested that process-change and not protection is the way to go.

      I can’t see google translate getting to certifiable level, for reasons that are pretty clear in other posts.

      Thanks for your comment Leon.


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