Giving it away

by Jonathan Downie

Translators and interpreters know all about being passionate. Most of us arrived in this industry because we were passionate about helping people communicate. Many of us also carry a passion for the industry itself. We get into debates over conditions, working practices and clients. In two words: we care.

This “care” can and does translate into action. Translators and interpreters willingly donate their time, skills and money to helping charitable causes the world over. From refugees in the UK to Ebola patients in West Africa, there is hardly a crisis or cause that doesn’t need information to be passed from one language to another.

Until fairly recently, the idea that translators and interpreters can and should lend a hand went unchallenged an unqualified. As long as the goal was non-commercial and the cause seemed legitimate, there was little discussion as to where the work might end up. Pro bono translators and interpreters took it on trust that they were doing their bit.

All that has now changed. In discussions that have raged across blogs and forums, professionals have started asking big, hard and sometimes borderline aggressive questions about pro bono work. Clearing houses for such work, such as Translators Without Borders, now seem to be the subject of suspicion in some quarters. Increasingly, there is a desire to know who exactly benefits from the work, whether paying for the work might be a better option and to what extent local professionals might be losing out because of it.

These are good and useful questions. There are very good arguments for transparency and accountability that apply across all pro bono and charitable work. Yet, it is undeniable that, since we have the resources to ask such questions, our perspectives are skewed. I doubt very much whether a refugee cares too much about the remuneration of the interpreter who works with them. For them, a listening ear, a truthful representation of their views and a chance to understand and be understood trump any economic debates.

There is no doubt that we need to be transparent about how and when and why the efforts and resources of volunteers are used. In a current fundraiser I am involved with, which aims to raise money for anti-people trafficking charity the A21 Campaign by selling multilingual t-shirts, everything about the campaign from the people involved to the precise donation per t-shirt is online. The problem with this, of course, is that the more that is online, the more decisions are open to criticism.

A similar dynamic can be at work among new entrants to translation and interpreting who list all their volunteer work on their CV. While there are very good reasons for doing this, it is not unthinkable that certain clients may take exception to the precise causes chosen. Some electronics manufacturers might take a dim view of work for civil liberties or pro-privacy groups. Other potential clients might feel uneasy at evidence of campaigning for certain causes. While new translators and interpreters have always been advised to keep politics off their CVs, pro bono work can help it resurface.

Perhaps the solution is to be a bit more realistic. Pro bono work will always be important, both for those who donate their time and those whose lives are changed by it. The necessary transparency that goes with it, however, will always open up the opportunity for criticism. But then, as Andrew Morris points out, standing out and being different has always been a better business strategy than following the crowd and making no waves at all. Maybe the emphasis should be on the opportunities that pro bono work can bring and the lives it can change, over the people who might disagree with our decision to do it.

Why we all need double vision

by Jonathan Downie

Why would an interpreter who was beginning to get valuable clients spend his non-working time reading research papers? Why would a translator who was learning to network start applying for conferences on Translation Studies rather than for a nice CAT tool presentation?

Those are good questions. In fact, they are questions I asked myself for a while. You see, for most translators and interpreters, the word “research” makes them think about termbanks and parallel texts rather than participant observation and statistical analysis. Research for them is all about getting the next job right and maybe, if you find the time, keeping an eye on the markets you work in.

There is absolutely nothing wrong with that kind of research. To translate and interpret well, you need to be a good researcher, or more correctly a good “information finder.” You can often get away with thinking no further than your next job.

This begins to explain why I started swapping translation work for interpreting research and writing, alongside my interpreting work. What I found myself wanting, especially on those days between jobs when I had done lots of marketing and still no clients were biting, was a longer range perspective. Surely there had to be something more than simply finding information and applying it to the current job.

Now, truth be told, I am not much of a philosopher. I have never been attracted to questions like “what are we doing when we translate?” or “how can we define equivalence?” On the other hand, I am interested in how we can learn and become more effective, how we can better understand our clients’ needs and how we can improve the status of translators and interpreters. Answering that kind of question leads very quickly to finding ways of giving practical help to translators and interpreters.

Believe it or not, I actually believe that translators and interpreters can help themselves. They already have a better understanding of the questions I posed than most researchers. If your livelihood depends on it, you had better get very good at determining what your clients want! If you want to increase your earning power, you had better get a good understanding of how you could improve.

What’s missing is what researchers call “generalizability.” Learning techniques that work for you might be pretty useless for someone else. Your clients probably communicate in a very different way than mine. What we all need then is a kind of double vision. We need to be able to focus intently on the job we are doing now while still taking an interest in wider issues.

Take the infamous debate over court and police interpreter conditions in the UK. During one government enquiry, one interpreter representative made the claim that members of their association had watched court proceedings under the new contract and had noticed that the quality had dropped massively. A good researcher would instantly want to ask what they meant by “quality” and how they could tell it had dropped. A very good researcher would want to know whether all the interpreters watching the same case found the quality to be the same.

That little piece of evidence could have been much more telling if the person concerned had been able to say something like “we assessed interpreting at 10 courts and found that, on average, interpreters under the new contract omitted 50% more information than those who were working under a different contract.” The added precision is the kind of thing that can be gained when we have the double vision I was talking about.

The truth is, if any long-term improvements are going to happen in any area of translation and interpreting, it will take a combination of hard campaigning and strong data. It will take people who are excellent at the work they are doing now and yet are far sighted enough to think about the bigger questions behind their work. Those bigger questions are why I became a researcher and an interpreter and they are we why all need double vision.