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